Tips for Photographing the City

Photographing people and nature is a classic, but cities are very photogenic too. No matter whether you’re in your hometown or passing through a metropolis while on vacation, if you have a camera handy, you can refine your skill at capturing hidden and public beauty. Here are a few tips for your next urban photo safari.

Even though one whole photographic category is called “street photography,” that’s more about the humans stalking our concrete jungles. This article isn’t about street photography, but rather about how to photograph cities themselves—that is, the “cityscape” genre.

What to Photograph in Cities

If you’re wondering what there is to photograph in cities, don’t worry—there is a lot. You can photograph anything in the city, from sweeping panoramas to forgotten alleys to tiny details.

One Object, Many Perspectives

You can do more than just one take on a single object. For example, I photographed this striped tower (actually a decorated air conditioning outlet) in the La Defense district of Paris in three different ways:

The tower and the surrounding streets, with an emphasis on the elegant pavement. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/30 s, f/11, ISO 100, focus 10 mm

The tower and the surrounding streets, with an emphasis on the elegant pavement.
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/30 s, f/11, ISO 100, focus 10 mm

A closer take on the tower, showing it stretching up towards the heavens. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 100, focus 22 mm

A closer take on the tower, showing it stretching up towards the heavens.
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 100, focus 22 mm

A full-on close-up with the tower’s surroundings eliminated. This one actually occurred to me at home—it’s a crop of the photo before it. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 100, focus 22 mm

A full-on close-up with the tower’s surroundings eliminated. This one actually occurred to me at home—it’s a crop of the photo before it.
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 100, focus 22 mm

Broad Takes From Up High

Cityscape photos are the most typical city photos. Naturally these are taken from up high, which means finding a high spot to take pictures from… a common goal of mine.

For the widest distance view possible, you need to find a suitable hill:

A panorama of Barcelona from the peak named Montjuic, stitched together from three shots. The seagull was flying nearby, and so before the shot, I waited for it to fit well into the photo’s composition.

A panorama of Barcelona from the peak named Montjuic, stitched together from three shots. The seagull was flying nearby, and so before the shot, I waited for it to fit well into the photo’s composition.

A city from above. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/30 s, f/10, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

A city from above.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/30 s, f/10, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Hilltops aren’t the only place to stand for taking pictures from above; you can also do it from tall buildings like a city hall, a church, a palace, or a castle. I’ve visited many places in my life that were uninteresting in themselves, just because they offered a great view.

A panoramic cityscape stitched from eight photographs.

A panoramic cityscape stitched from eight photographs.

Panoramas Aren’t Everything

High places like these, one that offer broad ,vistas really make you want to do panoramas. But you don’t have to. Sometimes a panorama is just a long, thin noodle of a picture, boring to the eye, that was only taken because you could. And it didn’t mean you should.

In some cases it can be good to go the opposite route and pull out a telephoto lens, like in this photograph taken while looking out from the Montparnasse tower in Paris, where I used a 55 mm on an APS-C sensor—so almost a 90 mm full-frame equivalent.

A view of Paris from the Montparnasse tower. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 55-250/4-5.6 IS, 1/100 s, f/8, ISO 100, focus 55 mm

A view of Paris from the Montparnasse tower.
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 55-250/4-5.6 IS, 1/100 s, f/8, ISO 100, focus 55 mm

Close-ups

Close-ups represent the opposite end of the urban photography spectrum. Close-ups don’t have to be as “unreadable” as the context-free stripes filling the whole frame in our opening examples. Any other places that interest you work just as well.

Geometric shapes formed by entrances and exits. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/80 s, f/6.3, ISO 25, focus 100 mm

Geometric shapes formed by entrances and exits.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/80 s, f/6.3, ISO 25, focus 100 mm

A building’s facade with sharp shadows from the setting sun. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/100 s, f/4.5, ISO 160, focus 110 mm

A building’s facade with sharp shadows from the setting sun.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/100 s, f/4.5, ISO 160, focus 110 mm

Meanwhile under a cloudy sky shadows disappear, giving you the freedom to uncover the colors around you and put them in context:

Geometric shapes formed by entrances and exits. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100/2.8 Macro IS, 1/200 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focus 100 mm

Geometric shapes formed by entrances and exits.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100/2.8 Macro IS, 1/200 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focus 100 mm

The Usual Rules of Composition

All of the usual composition advice applies for photographing cities, but some parts of it are more frequently usable than others.

Take special note of repeating elements, which appear in cities much more frequently than in nature.

A street full of identically-shaped, differently-colored houses. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/2000 s, f/2.8, ISO 160, focus 2000 mm

A street full of identically-shaped, differently-colored houses.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/2000 s, f/2.8, ISO 160, focus 2000 mm

It’s also useful to take advantage of the contrast between nearby and faraway objects (sometimes called framing). Take a look at how much depth the picture below gained from this technique:

A city panorama with a nearby roof. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/1000 s, f/4.5, ISO 400, focus 10 mm

A city panorama with a nearby roof.
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/1000 s, f/4.5, ISO 400, focus 10 mm

If there are sculptures close by, then you can frame using them as well:

Barcelona with a statue close by. Canon 350D, Sigma 18-50/2.8, 1/60 s, f/13, ISO 200, focus 43 mm

Barcelona with a statue close by.
Canon 350D, Sigma 18-50/2.8, 1/60 s, f/13, ISO 200, focus 43 mm

The Tower Bridge in London, with a statue in the foreground. Canon PowerShot S2 IS, 1/1000 s, f/6.3, focus approx. 36 mm

The Tower Bridge in London, with a statue in the foreground.
Canon PowerShot S2 IS, 1/1000 s, f/6.3, focus approx. 36 mm

Day and Night

Cities are photogenic at night too, and if that’s your style, then the winter period is ideal for you, because you don’t have to wait long for darkness.

Night pictures definitely have their charm. Here again if you have a chance to stand up high, the result will be striking. The disadvantage of night photos is that if you want them to be high-quality, you’ll need to carry a tripod.

In this photo, note both the night and the framing, which places the background cityscape into context:

The nighttime city, framed by the outline of a lookout tower’s doorway. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 10 s, f/10, ISO 400, focus 16 mm

The nighttime city, framed by the outline of a lookout tower’s doorway.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 10 s, f/10, ISO 400, focus 16 mm

But the city looks good at night even when you’re not photographing it from above. It’s also impressive from sidewalk level—especially when you find subjects suitable for utilizing, once again, the rule of repetition.

The nighttime city from a low viewing angle. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70/2.8, 30 s, f/13, ISO 100, focus 28 mm

The nighttime city from a low viewing angle.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70/2.8, 30 s, f/13, ISO 100, focus 28 mm

For more tips on photographing the city at night, see our article on night photography, which also mainly covers city photography.

Melding the City and Nature

If you’re more of a nature photography fan, then here’s a way to connect these two topics. At the edges of the city, you can often find isolated buildings that complement their surroundings. Because of that, photos from these spots feel like both city and nature photos rolled into one.

I’ll close by including a favorite photo of mine: a lighthouse on the edge of Santander, just a lunchtime walk away from this city’s huge residential district.

The Cabo Mayor lighthouse, by the city of Santander. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/80 s, f/7.1, ISO 100, focus 28 mm

The Cabo Mayor lighthouse, by the city of Santander.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/80 s, f/7.1, ISO 100, focus 28 mm

Last updated 4. January 2016

0 0
Thank you! Please share this article too, so that it can also help other people.

Author: Vit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

Read All Articles.

Comments

  • Vladislav Javorský

    Thanks, good hints and very nice photos

  • caderik

    These city shots are inspirational

    • Zoner

      Happy to read that!