Street photographer Emmanuel Cole

© Alexei Awan.

A unique perspective

It takes almost forty minutes before I started asking any of the questions I’d written for self-taught urban photographer Emmanuel Cole.

He’s so laid-back, so chilled and instantly likeable. He’s got a charm that seems so unforced. We talk for almost three hours about the shifting city of London, street photography and the pros and cons of Instagram.

Through his own eyes

We’re quickly on to the appeal of London, a city that millions of people take photos of every year and surely must be void of originality by now.

Cole disagrees. “It’s so unusual; the people, the buildings – everything is just constantly moving. The struggle of the city excites me.”

One look at Emmanuel’s Instagram feed and it’s obvious why he stands out – there are no tourist shots of Big Ben or the London Eye. Instead, this is London as he sees it; a motley crew of urban characters that most of us would cross the street to avoid.

I ask him about this, how he approaches the unapproachable, and surprisingly he credits his time working as a door-to-door fundraiser.

“It helped me become more welcoming…it’s a little intimidating, but you want to be liked. But when you knock on doors, you assume that people will say no, so you’re ready for that. But it gives you confidence. What’s the worst that can happen?”

So when it comes to capturing that perfect shot, it becomes more than rejection: “It becomes a fear of missing out. You usually only get one chance to take that photo. I’ve had times when I’ve regretted it all day because I saw somebody that morning that I wanted to take a photo of and didn’t.”

“Honesty goes a long way as well. I just go up to people and ask them if I can take a photo of them. Nearly always, the first question is, “What for?” and I just tell them that I find them interesting – which is true. This immediately helps them to relax.”

Capturing interesting portraits is notoriously difficult and so stepping out of your comfort zone is important. “I look for behaviour,” Emmanuel explains. “Things that jump out. Small things, mostly. Maybe it’s the way somebody holds themselves, or the way somebody walks; or somebody who dresses well.”

© Emmanuel Cole. Taken using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III - EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/320s at f/2.8, ISO 800.

Early Roots

It’s almost unbelievable when you look at his impressive portfolio to think that Emmanuel only started taking photos five years ago, just before the platform that would propel him to semi-stardom – Instagram – boomed.

Emmanuel was given a camera phone in 2011 and just started taking photos. He mimicked a few others but soon found his own style, taking stunning portraiture of some of London’s most eccentric and interesting characters and landscapes. He migrated to the Canon EOS 6D a year later and hasn’t looked back. Now, he’s rarely seen without his camera strapped around his neck.

“To me, the EOS 6D is the perfect camera. I’ve had it almost since the beginning and it’s never let me down.”

Despite being prominent on Instagram – traditionally a field reserved for camera phones – Emmanuel tells me he only ever takes photos with his Canon now. “You have a lot more control with your DSLR. Not just in how you take photos, but also the output – much easier to work with RAW files than it is to work with lower quality JPEGs – which is what you get from your phone.”

In an Instagram

London’s gentrification it seems moves as fast as the photography world, and it’s hard not to see the similarities. For a photographer with over 140K Instagram followers, I ask Emmanuel about what he thinks of the platform that’s propelled him into the spotlight.

“Instagram is a powerful marketing tool,” he begins. “It gives another reason for my photography – knowing people like my photos and that people are actually looking at my stuff. It’s empowering.”

“But because it’s a lot more instant, it’s much easier to get side-tracked by what other people are doing and forget about why you’re doing it.”

“It’s much harder to have your own look nowadays, when you’re saturated with so many images on a daily basis, but when I see someone with their own unique style, they really stand out.”

He worries that maybe photography isn’t respected as much anymore. “People get into it for the wrong reason. They copy photos that get a lot of likes because they want to get famous – not because they just like taking photos.”

Warm Up

When I ask him how many photos he takes a day, I’m expecting him to say between 30 or 40, but he surprises me when he says, “Only around 5-10.” He says less is definitely more and you start to know what’s going to be a good photo or not. “But that assumes I have a warm up.”

Warm up? “Yeah,” he says earnestly, “you need to warm up.” Like an athlete? “Exactly like that. You can’t just go out cold and take the best shot of the day!” He laughs, “You’ve got to get into a rhythm, so it feels natural when the time comes to perform.”

© Emmanuel Cole. Taken using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III - EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/1000s at f/5.0, ISO 100.

Transformers, Guides and Sketchy Situations.

Outside of London, Emmanuel spent a fair amount of time shooting in Hong Kong. “It was amazing. And absolutely helped to shape my photography. There were so many odd situations, but so much opportunity to take some unique photos.”

His best piece of advice? Always travel with a local. “I met this guy in Hong Kong who recognised me from Instagram and we met up and he made things so much easier. He was able to get me out of a few tricky situations and take me to these really interesting spots.”

He shows me a photo of an eerie, dystopian looking apartment building that they used in a Transformers movie. “I showed it to the kid and he took me straight there. I went there during the day, but knew it would look better at night, so went back and took it – it’s probably my most recognisable shot.”

© Emmanuel Cole. Taken using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III - EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens; the exposure was 30.0s at f/9.0, ISO 200.

What’s next?

I ask him what’s his plan and he’s surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing, taking it all in his stride. He off-handily says that people keep wanting him to do an exhibition, but he’s not that fussed. “Maybe a book or two, later.” He’s got a few projects in the pipeline, he admits.

Again, I’m amazed at how grounded he seems. Anyone else with over 140K Instagram followers would be shouting from the rooftops, signing book deals and desperate to grab every bit of fame they could. He says that when he stops, he’ll be happy if he’s left some definable mark on documenting London.

I wondered what he’d be if he weren’t a photographer, he says “Basketballer”. I’m not surprised, given his height, but he says it’s the combative nature that he took most from the sport. “I’m a very competitive person. I’ve always wanted to do the best I could and keep pushing myself more and more. But I want to become less obsessive. It can take over your life if you let it. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s all about balance.”

We’ve been sitting together for a couple of hours now, and I feel I’ve probed every aspect of his life, not that he looks tired or annoyed. Quite the contrary, he’s still full of energy, happy to answer questions about anything and everything. What are you doing after this? I ask and he says just catching up with a friend, but, again, he’s in no rush.

He shrugs, smiles, and I order us a couple more beers.

Emmanuel’s Kit Bag


Canon EOS 6D

Canon EOS 5D Mark III


EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM

EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

Interview credit: Written by Martin Fleming