Photographing Brussels, Belgium at Night

“Each surface bears the fanciful wanderings of the artist’s mind.”

Photo by Shawn M. Kent

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The square attempted I move on; I follow a stream of tourists down narrow streets to the western part of the old city. A small clump of tourists clamours to get a shot of the Manneken Pis. World-renown, this diminutive bronze figure of a boy unabashedly relieves himself into a basin as tourists snap away. It is bemusing, and I wonder if I lack the erudite appreciation of art scholars to see the deeper meaning. I hope that maybe it is just a statue of a boy having a piss.

Later, I discover the modern counterbalance of the Jeanneke-Pis, a similarly conceived bronze girl squatting on a stone, herself without shame as she pees. This response is a counterpoint through art, and I find myself enthralled. This more modern sculpture is an allegory for the way art compounds upon itself here. Mildly competitive, it is an ever-expanding vocabulary that is both commentary and cheeky humour.

It is early morning when our flight touches down on the tarmac in Brussels. I am somewhat giddy with excitement. True, this is a work trip, but as always I have packed my camera bag and am ready to shoot. I’ve done my research, I have a checklist of places to photograph, and the moment I am free of network building business boredom, I will be out on the streets. Belgium is the historical centre of Europe, and for a westerner with a passion for photographing fantastic places, I might as well have flown directly to heaven.

Medieval Architecture of Brussels, Belgium - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Medieval Architecture of Brussels, Belgium - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Architecture of Brussels, Belgium

There is something about ancient European cities that fascinates the photographer. The massive stone structures are analogous to cakes decorated by a pastry chef who has gone mad. It is a window to a time before the limits of glass and concrete exoskeletons. When each surface bore the fanciful wanderings of the artist’s mind, using sculpture to convey a meaning that surpassed the limits of language. As a photographer, I am drawn to these visual allegories, compelled to capture and interpret them. It becomes my way of sharing my experiences, and, if I am lucky, building art upon art.

There is a casual ambivalence to history in Brussels; graffiti tags stand out prominently on ancient stone. Buildings rot uncared for and no longer sacred because they are but one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of old stone structures. Only a few will be preserved, based on their significance and historic pedigree. The rest remain protected by the permanence of stone construction. Everywhere people mill about, casually cavorting in historic public squares, resting themselves on masterpieces while remaining loudly ambivalent to the art that surrounds them. It is at first disheartening, and then it becomes lovely. History is not sanctified here because it is not static; it is a story still being written.

Royal Palace of Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Royal Palace of Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

I spend several days going from sunup to sundown at meetings and making mental notes of places to return to with my camera. Throughout the week, I begin to enjoy the rich beer culture of Belgium and must be careful to moderate my inhibitions. As a younger man, I made the mistake of envisioning Europe as the ideal setting for my version of the Hangover movie. I am older now, I tell myself, and wiser. No longer will I return to Canada filled with regret that I did not take the time to photograph. As I drink, I muse ambivalent about the parallel between the sweet bitterness of Belgian brew and the false promises I make to myself. I won’t shoot tonight; tonight I will drink. But tomorrow, I tell myself, tomorrow I will get out and shoot.

Finally, the last day arrives. I am Jack’s gallbladder of regret and tonight I will not fall to the siren song of the cafés and bars that litter the city. Tonight I will drink water, and I will shoot. As we wrap our daily work, I head back to the hotel and give my apologies to my colleagues. I will be going at it alone tonight. My date will be my Canon 5D SR, and I tell them not to wait up. I will shoot tonight, and I will shoot all night.

Historic Clock Light Trails - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Historic Clock Light Trails - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Photographing Old Town Brussels

I head down to the lobby, hiking shoes on, my cargo pants loaded with lens cleaning tissues and batteries. I am ready. I see my colleagues gathered and discussing their dinner options. My stomach grumbles in protest. “But the light,” I tell myself, “I need to beat the light and hopefully capture a sunset.” My colleagues know me well, and with only a slightly regretful smile, I soon find myself in a café again. I am enjoying dinner and yet another Orval, my camera bag glaring guiltily at me from the corner of the bench.

But, I moderate my consumption this time, and with only a slight buzzing in my ears, I eventually head out to the street. It is night now, I have missed the golden hour, but our libation destination is located deep in the heart of the old city. It is not long before I find myself at the Brussels Stock Exchange building. It is an ornate building, flanked by lion guardian statues. The lions do not deter the gathering of youth who smoke, drink and even repose upon the stone sentinels. I prep my camera and wrestle with my gorilla pod to place it on a steel barricade and begin to shoot. Blue and yellow light interplay on the stone facade and motion blurs the activity of the revellers in my frame. It is beautiful, and I quickly forget the call of Belgian ale.

Stock Exchange in Brussels, Belgium at Night - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Stock Exchange in Brussels, Belgium at Night - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

The Grand-Place

After a few minutes and fully satisfied, I head to the one place I truly know must be captured — The Grand Place. As places go, it is aptly named, and ringing this public square are gold-topped medieval buildings. Each competes with its neighbour for opulence and majesty. Outmatching them all, however, is the Hôtel de Ville de Bruxelles.

The Hôtel de Ville is long and topped with an impossibly high central spire upon which a small golden man can be seen. After a bit of research, I learn that this is a gilded 5-metre statue of the archangel Michael, slaying a dragon. It is hard to discern all that from down where I am, but I take Google’s word for it.

Throughout the square tourists struggle to capture the majesty of the building on their smartphones. I am bemused as they find their selfie sticks far too short for the task. The Town Hall of Brussels is magnificent, and I also soon see myself contorted on the ground. I lie down at the furthest corners of the square, trying to fit it all in the frame. My widest lens fixed, I know that I will need space to correct the keystoning that will occur. There is no room to spare, and I shoot-enraptured in the puzzle of composition and technical detail.

The Grande-Place at Night - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
The Grande-Place at Night - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Manneken Pis

The square attempted I move on; I follow a stream of tourists down narrow streets to the western part of the old city. A small clump of tourists clamours to get a shot of the Manneken Pis. World-renown, this diminutive bronze figure of a boy unabashedly relieves himself into a basin as tourists snap away. It is bemusing, and I wonder if I lack the erudite appreciation of art scholars to see the deeper meaning. I hope that maybe it is just a statue of a boy having a piss.

Later, I discover the modern counterbalance of the Jeanneke-Pis, a similarly conceived bronze girl squatting on a stone, herself without shame as she pees. This response is a counterpoint through art, and I find myself enthralled. This more modern sculpture is an allegory for the way art compounds upon itself here. Mildly competitive, it is an ever-expanding vocabulary that is both commentary and cheeky humour. Despite this, the light is terrible at Jeanneke-Pis, so I do not shoot it and move on.

Manneken Pis in Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Manneken Pis in Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Getting the Shot

I meander about and shoot photographs of the art and architecture. Like the locals, it is not long before I too am inoculated against the wonder of history. I pass hundreds of storied structures that are just not quite right for my camera. I am painfully aware that there are just too many stunning sculptures and buildings. For a good hour, I struggle to capture the Musical Instruments Museum. It is a dark gothic corner building emblazoned with the words “Old England” in black lettering. It stands black and menacing against a night sky. I curse myself for forgetting my remote trigger. The sky is black, the building is black, and the bright lights of passing cars and street lamps will not cooperate. I capture something, but I know it has eluded me. It will be the shot that gets away, and my reason to return to this city one day.

Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

I then find myself shooting on a deserted corner. Capturing Belgium’s national church, St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral is a joy. Busy city streets entangle the cathedral and a small city square. Shooting them becomes a fanciful exercise in exposure duration, and I find myself almost dancing with glee as I review the results on my camera’s screen. This photo will become my favourite of the trip and make the long hours in the dead of night well worth it.

St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, Brussels - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Packing It In

As I head home, having shot my fill of Brussels Old Town, I hear the sounds of birds waking to meet the morning sun. I am tired, physically, my legs and feet have paid a toll. As well, the lack of sleep has begun to catch up with me. I head begrudgingly back to my hotel, knowing there were many more locations to photograph on my list. I will return, I tell myself. I will come back and shoot more.

As I walk I capture a last few feeble shots of the Royal Palace along the way to the hotel. Bleary-eyed, I gather my luggage and meet my companions in the hotel lobby. We check out and then make our way to the airport to check-in. It is not long before my camera bag receives its routine swabbing for explosives at security and we head to our gate. Finally, after an eternity, I am in my seat. Mere moments after the airplanes wheels leave the vestigial bonds of the earth I am asleep, and I am content.

Places to Shoot in Belgium

Mont des Arts Gardens - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Mont des Arts Gardens - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Here is the list of photography locations I made to shoot in Brussells. I didn’t manage to get to them all but they are all worth a visit:

  • Grand-Place
  • Parc du Cinquantenaire
  • Manneken Pis & Jeanneke Pis
  • Musical Instruments Museum
  • National Cathedral
  • Royal Palace and Park
  • Atomium
  • Mont des Arts

Photography Tips

Most of Brussells can be found in Old Town and is entirely accessible on foot. Give yourself at least a week to thoroughly saturate the city, and see the fantastic locations it has to offer. Prices can be a bit high, but typical for Europe. Also, plan to drink excellent European coffee until it is appropriate to drink delicious Belgian beer.

Wear comfortable clothing and be sure to pack water. The only way to avoid crowds of tourists is to shoot at night, so in these cases bring a tripod as the city is not always well illuminated. Brussels has a high crime rate, so it is best not to venture alone in the late evenings. Most of the places that are safe in the day are also safe in the evening but know that there are districts where you will get robbed, both day and night.

There are several hotels in the area, so find one near the Old Town as a base of operations. Be sure as well to partake in the rich history and culture of brewing and cuisine in Belgium. As beautiful as it is, it must be experienced to appreciate fully, and it will help inform your photography. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Final Points

  • Bring wide-angle lenses. The buildings are huge and Europe is not known for its wide streets in medieval cities. You will find yourself perpetually with your back to a wall, trying to capture the cities beauty.
  • Variable ND filters may aid in removing people from photographs by using long exposures.
  • A remote trigger will prove invaluable if you do long exposures. I forgot mine and cursed myself for not remembering.
  • A lightweight tripod is essential, a gorilla pod isn’t bad, but I would recommend something a little more robust.
Place Royale - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Place Royale - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

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