The classic cityscape photo is an iconic feature of the photography industry, whether it’s the city lights shining under a night sky, a captured moment of the bustle of city life or the powerful image of some of your location’s most impressive architecture. However, sensational as these shots can be to look at, attempts at taking your own often err towards the frustrating rather than the fantastic. A common complaint amongst photography enthusiasts is that their pictures capture the look of the city but none of the feel of it, that unlike the images that inspired them, their attempts lack that aura of city life frozen in a heartbeat.
It’s a problem I’ve run into more than once and one I’ve finally found a solution to – a solution that comes in in four steps:
3. camera settings
Get these four right and you’ve got yourself the perfect city photo!
Decide what image you want to capture. This may sound ludicrously simple but, be honest, how many of your holiday snaps are considered beforehand and how many are pretty views you want a photo of? We’ve all been guilty of this and yes, sometimes, you can just wander past a great subject and get an incredible shot, but don’t bank on it! The best advice I can give for choosing your subject is simply to explore, find the spots that have a view you don’t want to miss. Are you looking for a panorama of the skyline or a close-up of one of the architectural gems? Do you want an image showing the activity and vibrancy of the city or a stationary shot to demonstrate the incredible location? Answer these questions and then look for the spot in the city that has exactly what you need, decide what time of day will give the best effect for lighting (conventionally that’s dawn or dusk for panoramas, early evening if you’re looking to catch the city lights or a reasonably busy daylight hour for activity shots), then head on out and get your photo!
This step is small, but important. Make sure you bring the right gear, you might be going with aim of getting a panorama with a wide angle lens, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot a fascinatingly designed building too so be sure to have a variety of lenses with you! My suggestions are:
- wide angle for panoramas (anywhere between 12-35mm should be fine)
- a telephoto lens for close-ups of any interesting features
- a fisheye lens (if you’ve got one) for that circular-super-wide shot.
A good quality tripod is a must for cityscapes. Remember, you’re not photographing a moving target so you can afford to take your time to get a completely stable camera. Last, but certainly not least, spare batteries! Do not miss the perfect shot because your camera died!
The key thing to keep in mind here is that your subject isn’t going anywhere. You have time for a long exposure and a low aperture. Set your camera up on its tripod and take your time, cityscapes are all about patience. This said; there’s a myriad of potential subjects in a city so your settings won’t always stay the same, a wider aperture can be used for a more artistic shot for example. Try a few samples, don’t be afraid to play around with your settings a bit (just remember what they started on!). Don’t forget, it’s your camera and your photo so experiment, see what settings capture the image you want and then go get it!
Key to the technique for city photography is positioning. Where will you position yourself in relation to your subject? If you’re photographing a building, for example, standing at the foot of it, looking up through a wide angle lens can give you an artistic shot with stretched perspective. Conversely, you can have a longer focal length from further away and narrow the perspective for a more traditional architectural picture. Always keep in mind the image you want to capture then find the best spot to provide that view.
As well as position, you need to think about scale. It’s easy to forget when you’re surrounded by towering sky scrapers that on a picture, lots of enormous subjects together just look normal sized without something else in there to emphasis their true size. A classic image to go after is one of a boat on a river in the foreground with the soaring skyline in the back, if you can find something like this then you not only give scale to your photo, you combine the levels of your photo as the fore and background complement each other perfectly. Once again, you have to explore and experiment to find these iconic shots. My solution has hopefully given you some idea of what to look for but to get those perfect city images you have to go out and find them first!
For great photographic opportunities, see The Mighty Fine Company’s selection of city breaks.