It’s customary to take photos of sights and landscapes while we’re on holiday. But have you ever considered being a tourist in your own city? The bustling everyday life of urban spaces is full of individual and unique moments as the city breathes in front of your camera lens. How often do you actually stop and revel in your own hometown? It’s easy to start taking things for granted when they surround us every day. However, just because you’ve been walking the same streets for years, that doesn’t mean they can’t be captured from a fresh and different perspective. And – most importantly – from your own point of view. Here are some tips to guide you on your urban landscape photography adventures.
1. Get familiar with the city
Take time to scout the location you’re shooting at, find interesting angles, lighting, anticipate what might change in these places as the day goes by. Photograph tranquil early mornings, busy rush hours with dozens of commuters, and the evenings when light-hearted revellers fill the streets. Look for different settings as well; the high street and the run-down inner city will give you completely different opportunities. Surely, the main sights have already been captured countless times, but who knows what little stories you might find in the suburbs. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track and explore the more derelict areas. However, don’t forget that the city might also be dangerous, so bring someone with you and make sure you’re not trespassing.
2. Isolate your subject
It’s easy to start taking random shots and sometimes that’s even encouraged for practice and a wider choice of photos to work with later. If you’re patient, though, you’re more likely to capture an exceptional moment than you would when snapping pictures every few seconds. Try to focus on something interesting, especially if it doesn’t immediately catch your eye. Wait for the ideal person to enter your shot, consider what would contribute to the photo, what connection you’re establishing, etc. This will give your photo personality, or even add some commentary if you’re aiming for more than aesthetic pleasure. If you’re having trouble eliminating visual distractions, try underexposing to create shadow on the unnecessary elements.
3. Capture movement
Streets crowded with people rushing back and forth provides opportunities for great dynamic photos. Try shooting from an elevated point to capture more passers-by, aim at busy areas near traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. Use slow shutter speed to capture the movement of commuters. On the other hand, if you prefer to focus on emptier streets, choose to shoot at dawn. Perhaps it’s worth to skip that lie-in for a few great photos of the awakening city?
4. Pay attention to detail
While urban panoramas are beautiful, it’s the simplicity of objects such as shop windows, cans, lamps, or advertisements which can really add some atmosphere to your photos. For instance, go to the local market and take some close-ups of the produce on the stands (as long as you ask the shopkeepers!). This will give you some colourful and original photos to show that there’s more to the city than its impressive buildings. You can also create a mini-series of similar pictures to really put things into context.
5. Create depth between foregrounds and backgrounds
This is especially true if you’re capturing a single object in the foreground and using a city vista for your background. Don’t focus solely on the stunning architecture in the distance. Instead, try to guide the viewer’s eye from one object to another. Find a reference point in the foreground, such as a lamp post, to give your photo a sense of dimension and depth. It’s often easy to replicate what many others have done in their landscape photos, but try to avoid cliches and treat the object as if you’ve never seen it photographed before.
6. Leave room to crop
When framing the photo in the viewfinder, leave some room around your intended shot in case you want to reframe the image later. In this way, you can remove clutter, make your photo more aesthetic or change its focal point. Crop the photo to draw attention to a different object, and let the rule of thirds help you here.
7. Light is the key
One of the top tips in photography is to work during the so-called golden hours, i.e., the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. The light is very favourable then and you can capture more shadows and detail. The sky also looks much better when the light is diffused in the early mornings. If the sun is already up in the sky, try to keep it behind you and let it shine down on the city you’re capturing. The blue hours of twilight, when the sky is deep blue, gives a different but equally beautiful effect to your photos. Here you can also experiment with long exposure to capture trails of light from cars to achieve a dynamic effect. Note that bright neon signs and lighted buildings will also change the quality of light around you. Make this work to your advantage.
8. Seek contrasts
Contrast in lighting and size can also bring out the dimensions in a photo, e.g., the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower looming over Paris at sunset. Large cities are often very diverse in their architectural styles, colours and textures, so try to find these contrasts in urban spaces and capture them. Look for interesting relations between old architecture and modern elements or buildings that complement and juxtapose each other. If you’re a fan of urban decay photos, search for places where nature and industry merge.
9. Replace your kit lens
If you can afford more than one, get both a wide-angle and a zoom lens. Even though this might be expensive, you’ll immediately notice a significant improvement in your photos. On the other hand, many photos nowadays are captured on mobile phones and there are some great Instagram galleries to prove this. So don’t feel discouraged if you have a limited budget!
10. Use water reflections to your advantage
This adds texture and guides the viewer’s eye to the main object, e.g., when a row of buildings or a fragment of the city is mirrored in a canal or a lake. If the water is very still, mirror reflections can really create a striking effect. Even a small puddle after rain can act as a small mirror for something else on the street.
11. Use a tripod
Although you can always straighten the horizon using Photoshop, it’s best to save time and use a tripod when you’re shooting. If you want to keep the photos sharp and detailed, a tripod will help you minimize the blur caused by camera shake. When aiming for long exposures, you’ll be able to capture the movement of the actual lights or objects, not your hand. Grab a timer and a remote too, and you’re fully equipped for cityscape photography.
12. Vary your perspectives
Consider photographing from different angles, not only from eye level. Take close-ups on the pavement, look up at skyscraper tops, or point your camera down from higher ground. Every larger city has some observation towers or other tall buildings open to the public, so use these vantage points to capture magnificent cityscapes. Use a polarizing filter to avoid light reflections from glass or metal objects.
13. Capture both in colour and B&W
Although some images create a more dramatic effect as black-and-white photos, don’t desaturate those which are unique and appealing because of their colours. However, choose monochrome if you’re trying to portray alienation and loneliness, or when seeking to create a spooky atmosphere.
14. Illustrate urban progress
Show how the city is growing and progressing by taking some pictures of construction sites or derelict buildings being renovated. Whether it’s cranes in the skyline or a builder eating a sandwich on his lunchbreak, use such shots to illustrate that the city is still undergoing change. The latter also creates an emotional impact and highlights the ordinary people working to improve your beloved city.
15. Express yourself and tell a story
This is the universal tip for any kind of photography. While some may see the city as dirty and alienating, you can find beauty in unlikely places and capture it on your camera.
That’s all the urban photography tips we have for you today, but make sure you follow us for more tips to come. Now, how about telling the story of your city with your stunning photos?
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