In preparation for my visit I did a little research into what was allowed in terms of photography, and their rules stated that commercial photography was not allowed without permission, and neither was any "specialist" equipment, such as tripods. I emailed to see what I had to do to get a permit and got a reply ten days later telling me that it wasn't possible. I followed up to confirm whether I could pay for a permit, since it stated online that this was possible, but didn't get a response, so gave up on the idea of taking photos with a tripod. I also left my zoom lens at home, not wanting to risk them being a bit funny about it and not letting me in. Before I set off I also read some reviews of the Sky Garden - this one in the Guardian describing the building as "bloated, inelegant, thuggish" did not help my expectations...
On arrival our tickets and picture IDs were checked, bags put through security machines, and then we headed up in the lift to the 35th floor. We walked out into the large atrium, which has a bar/café in the middle, with chairs, tables and sofas dotted around towards the window to the south. The Shard dominates the skyline across the river to the south-east.
At the top of the stairs we reached another wide viewing area, looking north to Tower 42 (which I will always think of as the NatWest Tower), the Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall Street) and the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe). The Heron Tower is hidden behind the Cheesegrater. On this side it isn't possible to get close to the window, so definitely no chance of putting the camera against the glass and getting reflection-free shots, which was just about doable on the side windows.
The distant towers of Canary Wharf, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge can be seen to the east, although the full view is annoyingly obscured by the structure of the building. It would have been stunning to see the moat filled with red poppies a few months ago from there.
We wandered around again, and I took a few more photos, but the combination of the concave shape of the windows, reflections from the lights, and the shape and position of the building all conspired to make getting any decent shots tricky. In spite of being so high up I felt very disappointed with the views. If the building had been built with its footprint shifted round 45 degrees, then the views would have been massively improved! The three skyscrapers to the north just looked dull from this angle. St. Paul's was swamped by building sites surrounding it, the London Eye was at the south-west corner and pretty much hidden behind the corner structure, and only a small part of the meandering Thames could be seen east or west. Even when the terrace opens in March, there is eye-level-height glass, so no way to get a glass-free photo without holding your SLR up high and dangling it over the edge. The tripod, it turned out, wouldn't have helped much!
Having worked on the highest floors of one of the towers in Canary Wharf I'm used to great views from a skyscraper, but for some reason the views from this one don't really work, not for me, anyway. The design is bulbous and quite frankly a little dull, and I think it's been built in totally the wrong spot.
Oh well, there is one positive thing about the view - at least this building isn't in it!