Tips for Cityscape Photography
- Use Every Focal Length
- Bring a Tripod
- Shoot During the Blue Hour
- Use Movement
- Watch your Angles
- Get up High
- Use the City's Design
I spend a lot of time talking about adventure travel and photography on this podcast. In particular, how to get out exploring mountains, rivers, and doing things at night. What we haven't talked about enough on here is photography in the city. And this is such an essential part of travel photography. I love being in the mountains, but I also love exploring cities: the fabulous architecture, the art, the culture, and just the feeling of a place. I love exploring a new city. So today, let's talk about one of my favourite types of city photography, how to capture cityscapes. Cityscapes are essentially landscape photographs of a city. And that means that all the usual landscape rules apply to cityscapes, just with some interesting modifications and tweaks. That means there are some things I won't cover in-depth here. Instead, I'll point you to previous podcast episodes where we talk about these rules and instead focus on the different things that we haven't addressed here just yet.
So, let's start with the quick-hit tips off the bat and where you can find more information.
Quick Hit Tip #1: Get Exploring
You need to get out and explore a new place to find the best angles; this is for every type of 'scapes' photography, including cityscapes. We've talked in-depth about this in past episodes, but the most detailed is in Episode 26 Ways to Find Great Photo Spots.
Quick Hit Tip #2: Use every focal length
Most people just think of going wide to cover cityscapes, but using a telephoto allows you to show details and compress the scene. So use every focal length in your arsenal, not just a wide-angle lens. Learn more about this in Episode 22 How to Take Great Landscape Photos.
Quick Hit Tip #3: Tripods
You will need a tripod for a lot of cityscape photography. Street photography and wandering-around photography you won't, but you will need a tripod to get those magnificent cityscape shots. Learn more about stabilizing your camera in Episode 13 - Fundamentals of Photography: Get Better Photos by Stabilizing your Camera.
Alright, let's get into the more extensive tips now.
Tip #1: Shoot during the Blue Hour
A blue hour shot of Calgary from across the Bow River. Notice how the city lights add extra elements to the image and the sky has a beautiful dark blue colour to it.This was shot about 10 minutes after sunset. If you want a darker image, wait a bit longer.
We've talked about this a bit in other episodes, but I want to address it more fully here. Everyone thinks to shoot cities during the golden hour and the sunrise & sunset, but most people abandon their photographic pursuits when the sun isn't up. This is when you should be focusing on crafting your cityscape shots. The blue hour makes a magnificent time to shoot cities, primarily because you can see the city lights. Most cities turn on their lights just after sunset and turn them off just after sunrise, leaving you with the blue hour to shoot the town when it is all lit up. The sky also typically has a beautiful gradient blue colour in it, which can be much more pleasing than the yellow/purple glow of a city sky at night (we don't get that beautiful dark colour above cities because of our light pollution.) So this leaves you with shooting at the blue hour. Honestly, shooting during the blue hour is how many photographers get their night shots of cities. It's just way more pretty than actual night photography in a city setting. You will need a tripod to get the sharpest photos and likely will need to drag your shutter a bit. But this will depend on your situation.
Tip #2: Movement
Movement down Calgary's Crowchild Trail. Without the lights or with frozen vehicles, this is a bland image. But with the light trails, there is a lot more visual interest. This was taken about 15 minutes after sundown with a 6-stop ND filter and a 20 second shutter.
Speaking of dragging your shutter, let's talk about movement. Leaving your shutter open for 20-30 seconds is a great way to add visual interest to an image. In the outdoors, you typically use this to add motion to rivers and waterfalls. But in cities, you can do so much more! There is so much more movement in a metropolis that dragging your shutter becomes a significant compositional element. You can get the movement of cars, cause long light trails, or show just the hint of movement in people on the sidewalk. Cities have so many moving pieces and parts that you can open your shutter and create amazing things. Try finding a stationary subject and using the movement of cars or pedestrians going by it to frame the subject with their motion blur. Or use the lights on vehicles to create light trails on city streets. Or better yet, equip a bike with lights and create light trails of your own in places where there typically wouldn't be any. Through a park, down a pedestrian bridge, around corners. Anywhere where there is an attractive line that the light could follow. I did this recently with a road in Calgary. The light trails lead your eye towards the end of the road and the tail end of a sunset.
There are so many ways to use movement in the city. Think of how to incorporate it into your shots.
Tip #3: Watch your Angles
The Louvre in Paris. I made sure to back away from the main glass pyramid to ensure the lines (which are the primary piece of importance) weren't distorted with my 22mm lens. Taken during the blue hour, on a tripod, with about a 10-second exposure.
One of the big things to watch out for in cityscape photography is the angles on buildings. Wide-angle lenses can cause quite a bit of distortion that isn't always visible (or is even desirable) in landscape photography. Due to the straight edges and all the lines everywhere in cities, those distortions become much more obvious and typically don't look very good. So pay attention to how the buildings and other lines in your images are looking. Are they distorting a lot? That likely won't look very good. There are a few ways to avoid this. Step back and get further away from the building; this will cause less vertical distortion. Get up to a higher vantage point and shoot the building more head-on, rather than with your camera tilted upwards. Add foreground elements that will draw your viewer's attention and take the focus off the distortions in the building. Shoot from even further away, but use a telephoto to get closer to the building. Or, and this is the expensive option, use a specially designed architecture lens known as a tilt-shift lens.
All these options will help reduce the distortions that come with shooting with wide-angle lenses, primarily close to straight lines.
Tip #4: Get up High
Looking down on the famous park at the base of the Eiffel Tower. This gives you a great perspective on how the park is built and designed. The yellow glow is coming off the tower. Taken after dark with a 2 second exposure.
I know, I mention this a lot. It is one of my favourite photographic tips. But I'm including it here rather than the quick tips because it has to be done differently in cities. When you are in nature, getting up higher can be pretty obvious. Look, there's a cliff; let's go up there. But in a city, that can be a bit harder. Sure, there are many options to get up higher, but how do you get up there legally and safely. I do not and will never condone illegally entering construction sites to climb towers, breaking into buildings to get a different perspective or anything of that sort. Please don't do this.
Instead, search out the building you think will have the view you want and find out if they have any public floors higher up (like an observation floor). Suppose the whole building is public, great. Just head on up and see if you can see what you wanted. If not, and if they don't have a general floor, then this is where it can get tricky. Try contacting the building owners, manager, or company in the building to see if they will let you up there to take the photo. Some will, some won't. But if you want the shot, you need to ask. And don't give up at the first no if you think the photo is worth it. Keep poking around.
Now, don't forget that most buildings will have tempered glass or curved glass that can reduce the effectiveness of your photography. Be prepared to compensate for this. I find placing my camera close to the window and using a lens hood to seal off the camera on the glass reduces or eliminates reflections. Circular polarizers are also a massive help in this situation.
Some of the most fantastic cityscape photos happen from right within the cityscape, where you can look down and see the patterns of the city, the way the city has been designed and show it from a perspective that people don't usually get to see. These shots are particularly powerful at night because of the glow of the city and the light trails from cars.
Tip #5: Use the City's Design
Looking down one of the many straight roads that lead to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Notice how you are guided towards the modern arc in downtown Paris with this straight road.
Cities have a lot more straight lines, leading edges, and compositional elements that happen less frequently in nature. Very rarely will you have a perfectly straight path somewhere in the woods, but cities have them all over the place. Use this to your advantage. I love using Calgary's grid system to help guide the viewer through my images. Leading lines are frequent in cities, as are opportunities for framing with art pieces, buildings, archways, and so many other architectural elements. A couple of my personal favourites to watch out for are staircases that lead you into something interesting (like another building, a monument, a pond) and patterns on buildings. Things like repeating windows. I particularly love these shots when every window is perfect except for one and that one has a bike or flowers or something in it. So, use the city's design to your advantage. Spend time exploring, and wandering and looking at how the city's built.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.