Cities and architecture have, besides landscapes, always been my favorite subjects to photograph. Moreover, they provide the perfect balance during my travels. If the conditions are not ideal for landscape photography, I can usually find something to photograph in a city. And in this article, I share techniques I apply to come away with great results.
Below, I start with general principles before I move over into the more technical realm of cityscape photography. And to provide a more hands-on experience, I also recorded a video in Venice where I show examples for the different tips.
Explore the City
Proper scouting bridges the gap between the planning of my travels and the actual photoshoots. Google Earth and Google Street View might let me cover much virtual ground before I arrive in a city. But I still scout all the locations on my list before I photograph them.
Even if I’ve already seen photos of a place online, I explore it and try to find new angles. There’s nothing wrong with photographing a popular view similar to how others have done before. But often, there are better angles nearby. It only requires some curiosity and time to find those.
So, use the time during the 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 stumble upon additional subjects that weren’t on your list yet. For me, it’s typical to walk between 10 and 20 kilometers per day when I visit a new city.
And if something interesting happens, be open and ready to turn such a scouting tour into an actual photoshoot. You might even come across subjects that work unexpectedly well in harsh daylight, so take advantage of it.
The photo above of the old tram in Lisbon is an example where extensive scouting paid off. I didn’t take it from one of the typical photo spots. When I visited Lisbon, I spent hours walking around the city searching for unique angles like this one, which I later photographed in the early morning hours.
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 day is swarmed by people. Take Fisherman’s Bastion, which I photographed in Budapest, for example. This place gets crowded throughout the day until late in the evening. The only chance I had to get a photo without anybody in the frame was to be there around sunrise.
Aside from fewer people and less traffic, you also have — similar to the evening — much better light to work with than during the daytime. Even on a clear day, the light is soft as it shines through gaps between buildings. There are also plenty of opportunities to include a sunstar in the frame. The warm colors provide a nice color contrast to shaded areas with a blueish tint.
Use the Blue Hour
In the intro of this article, I wrote that cities often provide me with subjects to photograph when the conditions are not ideal for landscape photography. While the blue hour can also save a landscape photoshoot by giving a grey sky a blue color cast, many landscapes still look flat because of the lack of directional light.
With cityscapes, it’s different. When the city lights turn on during blue hour, it’s primetime for photography. Scenes that might look boring during the day suddenly come to life as the equilibrium between the warm artificial lights of the city and the ambient light is reached.
To get the most out of a blue hour photoshoot, start early. If you want to photograph during the blue hour in the evening, start your photoshoot by photographing around sunset and then continue into the blue hour. In the morning, be on location when the sky is still black. Take your time to set up, and be ready when the sky transitions through the different shades of blue.
And take many photos and select the one with the best colors and light later. Or do a time blend as Elia Locardi shows in Photographing the World 1.
What you should avoid is taking cityscape photos when it’s too dark. Once the sky turns black, the artificial lights of the city will become too dominant. Your photos will lose dimension, and color casts caused by incandescent lights kill any natural colors in the buildings.
Bring the Long Lens
Not only for cities like Prague, depicted above, is it a good idea to bring a long lens. Zooming in can simplify a scene by excluding objects and buildings that don’t add to the photo. The compression of perspective caused by using long focal lengths can help to emphasize certain aspects of a city. In the photo of Prague, it’s the immense number of towers and spires. Prague is also called the city of a hundred spires, and that’s what I wanted to show in this photo.
Experiment With Long Exposures
If you photograph during blue hour, exposure times will naturally become longer. You can use this both creatively or to clean up the photo. A creative use would be to capture the blurred movement of cars as light streaks. For the photo above, which I took in Old Quarter in Hanoi, I positioned myself at a busy crossroad and experimented with exposure times between one and eight seconds to capture the marvelous flow of traffic.
By using even longer exposure times of up to a minute, I was able to clean up the busy Charles Bridge in Prague during another photoshoot a few years earlier. What’s left of the hundreds of people in the frame are soft shadows that look like ghosts moving through the gate in the background.
And if you invest in an extreme neutral density filter like the ND1000 from Kase, you can create this type of photo during the daytime. If you also have moving clouds in the sky, that’s even better because you can blur those to create a more dynamic picture.
Find Leading Lines
When I photograph architecture and cities, I usually have many lines to work with. To create a dynamic composition that draws the viewer into the photo, I can position my camera in such a way that those lines appear as diagonals.
I did this in the London photo above. Instead of positioning my camera parallel to the balustrade in the foreground, I angled it to the right to have the balustrade zigzag into the picture. It creates tension because it first draws the viewer to the right and later to the left.
With the help of such 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, looking back at the first tip about scouting, I would encourage you to include the search for strong leading lines in your exploration.
Keep Verticals Straight
In architecture photography, avoid perspective distortion. When I visited Hong Kong four years ago, I rented a tilt-shift lens from Canon Hongkong for two days to capture the photo above without distortion. And I think this is what sets it apart from many of the other pictures of this scene.
But even if you don’t have a TS lens available, you can usually avoid keystoning. First, try to level your camera as much as possible. If one of the buildings extends out of the frame, go wider. If you are already at the widest and moving farther away from the buildings is not an option, you must live with some distortion, but only until you bring your photos into your photo-editing software where you should correct those distortions. In my real estate photography article I show you how.
There are exceptions, and I want to show one below. If I photograph upwards, the situation is different because the perspective distortion is my creative choice. In the photo from Quarry Bay, it creates strong leading lines.
If you have further tips about cityscape photography, feel free to share them in the comments.