Cities and architecture, besides landscapes, have always been my favorite subjects to photograph. Plus, they provide the perfect balance on the go. If the conditions aren’t ideal for landscape photography, I can usually find something to shoot in a city. And in this article, I share techniques that I apply to achieve great results.
Below I start with the general principles before moving on to the more technical realm of cityscape photography. And to provide a more hands-on experience, I’ve also recorded a video in Venice where I show examples for the different tips.
Discover the city
A good scout bridges the gap between planning my trips and the actual photo shoots. Google Earth and Google Street View could allow me to cover a lot of virtual ground before arriving in a city. But I continue to locate all the places on my list before photographing them.
Even if I’ve seen pictures of a place online before, I explore it and try to find new angles. There is nothing wrong with photographing a popular sight similar to what others have done before. But often there are better angles nearby. It only takes a little curiosity and time to find them.
So use the time of day when the light is not the best for photography and visit the different photo spots. If you have the chance, walk there. This way, you might come across additional topics that weren’t on your list yet. For me, it’s typical to walk between 10 and 20 kilometers a day when I visit a new city.
And if something interesting happens, be open and ready to turn such a reconnaissance tour into a real photo shoot. You might even come across subjects that perform unexpectedly in daylight, so take advantage of that.
The photo above of the old Lisbon tram is an example where thorough scouting has paid off. I didn’t take it on one of the typical photo spots. When I visited Lisbon, I spent hours walking around the city looking for unique angles like this, which I then photographed in the early morning.
get up early
There’s a saying: the early bird catches the worm. For me, it’s a reminder to get up early and use those morning hours for my photography. I might not catch a worm, but maybe capture a photo of a subject that at other times of the day is overrun with people. Take the Fisherman’s Bastion, which I photographed in Budapest, for example. This place is crowded all day until late in the evening. The only chance I had of getting a shot without anyone in the frame was to be there at sunrise.
Apart from fewer people and less traffic, you also have, like in the evening, much better light to work with than during the day. Even on a clear day, the light is soft as it shines through the spaces between the buildings. There are also many possibilities to include a sun star in the frame. Warm colors provide a nice color contrast to shaded areas with a bluish tint.
Use blue hour
In the intro to this article, I wrote that cities often provide me with subjects to shoot when the conditions aren’t ideal for landscape photography. While the blue hour can also save a landscape photoshoot by giving a gray sky a blue color cast, many landscapes still appear flat due to the lack of directional light.
With urban landscapes, it’s different. When the city lights come on during the blue hour, it’s photography time. Scenes that might seem boring during the day suddenly come to life when the balance between warm artificial city lights and ambient light is struck.
To get the most out of a blue hour photo shoot, start early. If you want to shoot during the evening blue hour, start your photo session by shooting at sunset and then continue until the blue hour. In the morning, be there when the sky is still dark. Take your time settling in and be ready when the sky changes to different shades of blue.
And take many photos and select the one with the best colors and light later. Or do a temporal blend as shown by Elia Locardi in Photographing the World 1.
What you should avoid is taking cityscape shots when it’s too dark. Once the sky turns dark, the artificial city lights will become too dominant. Your photos will lose dimension and color casts caused by incandescent lights will kill any natural colors in buildings.
Bring the lens long
It’s not just for cities like Prague, pictured above, that it’s a good idea to bring a long goal. Zooming in can simplify a scene by excluding objects and buildings that don’t add to the photo. The perspective compression caused by using long focal lengths can help bring out certain aspects of a city. In the photo of Prague is the huge number of towers and spiers. Prague is also called the city of a hundred spiers, and that’s what I wanted to show in this photo.
Experiment with long exposures
If you are shooting during blue hour, exposure times will naturally become longer. You can use it both creatively or to clean up the photo. A creative use would be to capture the blurry movement of cars as light trails. For the photo above, which I took in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, I positioned myself at a busy intersection and experimented with exposure times between one and eight seconds to capture the wonderful flow of traffic.
By using even longer exposure times of up to one minute, I was able to clear Prague’s busy Charles Bridge in another photo shoot a few years earlier. What remains of the hundreds of people in frame are soft shadows that look like ghosts moving through the doorway in the background.
And if you invest in an extreme neutral density filter like Kase’s ND1000, you’ll be able to create this kind of daytime shot. If you also have moving clouds in the sky, that’s even better because you can blur them to create a more dynamic image.
Find the guidelines
When I shoot architecture and cities, I usually have a lot of lines to work with. To create a dynamic composition that draws the viewer into the photo, I can position my camera so that these lines appear as diagonals.
I did it in the London photo above. Instead of positioning my camera parallel to the railing in the foreground, I tilted it to the right so that the railing zigzagged across the image. It creates tension because it draws the viewer first to the right, then to the left.
With the help of these leading lines, you can not only guide the viewer through the photo, but you can also create a stronger sense of depth if you find lines converging in the distance. So, thinking back to the first tip about scouting, I encourage you to include finding strong guidelines in your exploration.
Keep the verticals straight
In architectural photography, avoid perspective distortion. When I visited Hong Kong four years ago, I rented a shift lens from Canon Hong Kong for two days to capture the picture above without distortion. And I think that’s what sets it apart from a lot of other images in this scene.
But even if you don’t have a TS lens, you can usually avoid keystone distortion. First, try to level your camera as much as possible. If one of the buildings extends out of the frame, make it wider. If you’re already wide and can’t get away from buildings, you have to live with some distortion, but only until you bring your photos into your photo editing software where you have to fix those distortions. In my article on real estate photography, I show you how.
There are exceptions, and I want to show one below. If I’m shooting upwards, the situation is different because perspective distortion is my creative choice. In the Quarry Bay photo, this creates strong guidelines.
If you have any other cityscape photography tips, feel free to share them in the comments.