The Secret to Amazing City Photography
For a photographer, cities offer a playground of beautiful, ever-changing environments that challenge & inspire. But to capture amazing city photography takes practice & patience.
It is easy to play it safe and limit yourself to the classic tourist snapshots or to be overwhelmed and try to shoot everything that moves or stands tall. In this post I thought I'd share my top tips to help you to take breathtaking city photography.
Tips For Capturing Amazing City Photography
Be Respectful of Others
The city is not your home studio and the people you see are not there to be your models. Be respectful and don't impose on them.
Some street photographers like to jump out at people’s faces with a flash to get candid reactions. Like Magnum city photographer Bruce Gilden. Not everybody is comfortable enough to do this with strangers in the street. And it’s not legal everywhere either...
Be aware that some places do not allow cameras. Some buildings (or parts of them, like the light display on the Eiffel Tower) are copyrighted. You can photograph them for your personal use but you cannot sell your images without paying royalties to the copyright owner.
City photographers hit the streets for many hours at a time in all weather conditions. Dress comfortably, stay warm in the winter. Make sure to dress in layers and have comfortable shoes.
If you are carrying heavy equipment, a backpack is much more comfortable than a shoulder bag.
Keep Looking and Experimenting
Look up, look in front, now to the left, to the right and also give a good look behind you. Scan the city for small details, hidden patterns, interesting people and situations - the spots that people often miss.
The best thing about city photography is that you cannot plan your pictures. There is always something new, even if you try to photograph the same location every day.
Frame Your Photos Through Archways
Take your shots through archways so that it has a nice frame around it. In general, there are usually archways in the older parts of the city. Sometimes you have to wait for the right moment to capture the perfect shot of the action passing by. You can also look for interesting shadows that the sunshine generates through the arches.
Focus on Architecture Photography
The most obvious kind of photography you can do in the city is architecture photography. Every city has famous landmarks such as monuments, buildings, churches and so on.
A wide-angle lens is a must for capturing an entire building. But you will get some distortions in the image. If you can, try to put some distance between you and your target to reduce perspective distortions. A careful composition can help to make the building more imposing.
Famous landmarks are not the only kind of interesting architecture photography you can find. Look around for shops, train stations, modern corporate buildings and so on. Focus on the typical architectural style of the city you are in. New York, London & Rome have very unique building styles. But they are all iconic and everyone would recognize them in city photography.
There are two kinds of cityscapes: the skyline, where you see part of the city from a distance. And bird’s-eye views over the city. Skylines require to put some distance between you and the city. A famous example is New York’s Manhattan skyline seen from across the Hudson River. Or the City of London from across the Thames.
Bird’s-eye views are taken from rooftops and high vantage points. Some monuments, hotels and buildings also give access to a panoramic terrace. Keep in mind that not every city has a nice skyline. It is always worthwhile to climb up to a higher spot and get a new perspective about the city.
Take Day to Night Shots
This technique is very particular. It consists of photographing the same place for many hours at a regular interval. All the images are then combined to display the passing of the day into night. Day-to-night works best on large cityscapes, where you can create a smooth transition.
You can still observe how the city transforms with the hours. But you will have done so with only about an hour’s shooting. You need a tripod, and you will occupy that spot for quite some time. Be respectful of others and don’t block a passage or the only view spot available.
Graduated filters can help to balance the exposition across the scene at sunset or during the day. Panorama stitching is a great way to create large cityscapes. And works very well with this technique.
Focus on Colours
Colours are everywhere. Try to look for matching colours in your scene. Some cities such as Rome, Venice or Nice have amazing pastel colours everywhere. Where I am in London, the weather in general may be grey... but architecturally we are blessed pops of colour wherever we turn.
Focus on Details
Buildings are nice and easy to spot. But look around for those interesting details that are everywhere but easily missed. This can be anything new from an ivy coated building to amazing street art. When I stroll around London, I'm always looking into empty courtyards or abandoned streets searching for hidden gems.
Look for Interesting Graffiti in the City
There is no city without graffiti. Most of them are quite pointless and not interesting, but when they're done well they can be spectacular or amusing. The best ones, though, are often quite small and unexpected, so keep an eye out while you wander the streets. Many cities are now very liberal about street art. Look for street art and interesting graffiti in every city you visit. Who knows, you may discover the new Banksy!
Shoot Long Exposures in Your City Photography
Long exposures create amazing city photography because all passers-by and moving traffic will be invisible in your image. You can do long exposure in daylight by using strong neutral density, filters and a tripod. The classic example is a black and white building with interesting architecture, standing against a dynamic sky with fast-moving clouds that will introduce movement to your image.
Include People in Your City Photography
People make the city. They are everywhere and they are the most interesting subjects. But remember: they are not buildings, nor are they there to pose for us, so be respectful as I said before.
Avoid photographing children or jumping in people’s face even if you are after candid portraits. Don’t photograph them just because they look weird or to ridicule them. Instead, try to build a story or convey a message. It is easy to photograph people in touristic places as they are used to seeing other people photographing around and tend to ignore you. Also, smaller cameras can help you go unnoticed when you shoot street photography.
Whether you are photographing in your home city or you are visiting a new one, keep experimenting. Try to find new compositions even at touristy spots. There are plenty of things you can try that I haven’t mentioned here. If you are not feeling confident enough, just take one classic shot of your subject before moving on with more creative ideas. So grab your camera and have fun creating some amazing city photography!