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23 City Photography Secrets for Taking Awesome Photos

Last updated: September 21, 2023 - 18 min read
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Cities are the most dynamic, vibrant, and ever-changing playgrounds for photographers. But city photography is not only about breathtaking skylines and cityscapes.

It is easy to play it safe and limit yourself to the classic tourist snapshots. Or to be overwhelmed and try to shoot everything that moves or stands tall.

Versatile Tripod Option
Joby GorillaPod SLR
Joby GorillaPod SLR
Elevate your city photography game with this versatile, lightweight tripod. Its flexible legs and precise positioning will inspire you to capture unique perspectives and stunning shots.

City Photography: Golden Rules for the Urban Photographer

Below are our top 23 tips for getting the most out of your city photography adventures!

23. Be Safe

Every city has its fair share of crime. Ask the locals and tourist offices for places a tourist should avoid. Keep in mind that what seems like a nice, common street by day can be a risky area by night.

City photographed: A small alley with side view of a brick building in Copenhagen.
A small alley in Copenhagen. 

Be aware of what is going on around you. Try not to attract too much attention by walking around with lots of equipment. If you are not on a professional assignment, you may ditch your expensive pro gear. Take a more modest-looking bridge camera or compact camera instead.

You won’t compromise much image quality, but you’ll be safer. It’s always a good idea not to go out on your own. But it’s worth bringing a friend or two when it gets dark.

22. Be Respectful of Others

The city is not your home studio, and the people you see are not there posing for you. Be respectful and make sure you’re not being imposing or threatening.

Some street photographers like to jump at people’s faces with a flash to get candid reactions. Like Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden. Not everybody is comfortable enough to do this with strangers in the street. And it’s not always legal depending on where you are.

Be aware that some places do not allow cameras. Some buildings (or parts of them, like the light display on the Eiffel Tower) are copyrighted. You can photograph them for your personal use. But cannot sell your images without paying royalties to the copyright owner.
 
Many (micro) stock agencies need a signed property release form.
City photography at night: Frontview of the famous Atomium landmark in Brussels.
The Atomium is a famous landmark in Brussels (Belgium) and it is copyrighted.

21. Stay Comfy

Urban photographers hit the streets for many hours at a time in all weather conditions. Dress comfortably and stay warm in the winter. Make sure to dress in layers and have good shoes.

If you are carrying heavy equipment, a backpack is more comfortable than a shoulder bag.

20. Keep Looking and Experimenting

Look up, look in front, now to the left and to the right. And now look behind you. Scan the city for small details, hidden patterns, interesting people, and situations.

The best thing about city photography is that you cannot plan your pictures. There’s always something new, even if you photograph the same location every day.

a busy urban street scene containing cars, people, shop fronts and buildings
Did you notice the man with the frame?
Photographing from ground level or from above the crowd can help to shoot better street photography.
 a busy urban street scene, raised viewpoint achieved by mounting Panasonic GF-2 mirrorless camera on a monopod
I mounted my old Panasonic GF-2 mirrorless camera on a monopod to lift it well above eye level for a different view of the city street.

19. City Photography Gear

If you are visiting a city for tourism, a good zoom lens is far more important than the kind of camera you are using. A travel zoom lens for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is often all you need. They will allow you to shoot both cityscapes and candid portraits.

Bridge cameras with power zoom, such as Sony RX10 with its 24-200 f/2.8 lens, are great all-around cameras for the city. The fast aperture is also great for indoor use.

Then there are pocketable compact cameras, such as the Sony RX100. It sports a great 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, is portable, and can often be used where DSLR cameras are forbidden. Like at concerts and some events. Small cameras are also less intimidating when you shoot street photography.

Two black and white 6x6 medium format photographs of an urban structure and sky taken with Yashica Mat TLR camera
Smartphone cameras are best used for casual shots. And for some street photography, they’re great because they’re small and don’t attract too much attention.

A travel tripod, such as the MeFoto RoadTrip S and the Gorillapod, is also a nice thing to have. Especially if you are after some night shots. Unfortunately, some cities have laws against the use of large tripods in the urban environment.

If you are unsure but you really want to bring the shot home, set up the tripod. But if you are asked to leave, don’t make a fuss. Sometimes a monopod is more accepted.

Some filters can be handy too. Graduated filters are great for getting those magical sunsets over the city. Neutral density filters can be used to shoot long exposures in daylight. They let you capture clouds or remove pedestrians and traffic from your images.
 

A circular polarizer can remove glare from the streets and cobblestones in wet weather.

18. Frame Your Photos Through Archways

Shoot your image through archways so that it has a nice frame around it. In general, there are archways in older parts of the city. Sometimes you have to wait for the right time to get the perfect shot.

You can also look for interesting shadows that the sunshine generates through the arches.

Architecture photography: frames
Photo by Dora Jokkel

17. Focus on Architecture Photography

The most obvious kind of photography you can do in the city is architecture photography. Every city has famous landmarks such as monuments, buildings, churches, and more.

Architectural photography: Photograph of Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels taken with a wide angle lens
Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels (Belgium). Also known as Koekelberg Basilica. Note the wide-angle lens distortions and how it affects the lamp post in the foreground.

A wide-angle lens is a must for capturing an entire building. But you will get some distortions in the image. If you can, try to put some distance between you and your target to reduce perspective distortions.

A careful composition can help to make the building more imposing. I did this by increasing lens and perspective distortions in the image below.

The Skuespilhuset (Copenhagen, Denmark) at sunset. Urban photography
The Skuespilhuset (Copenhagen, Denmark) at sunset.

Famous landmarks are not the only kind of interesting architecture you can find. Look around for shops, train stations, modern corporate buildings, and anything else that looks interesting.

Focus on the typical architectural style of the city you are in. New York and Rome have very different buildings. But they are both iconic, and most people would recognize them in city photography.

Front view looking down the steps of the entrance of the Luxembourg Metro Station in Brussels. urban photography
The entrance of the Luxembourg Metro Station in Brussels is quite interesting.

16. Shoot Cityscapes

There are two kinds of cityscapes—the skyline, where you see part of the city from a distance. And bird’s-eye views over the city.

Skylines require putting some distance between you and the city. A famous example is New York City’s skyline seen from across the Hudson River. Or the City from across the Thames in London.

Bird’s-eye views are taken from rooftops and high vantage points. Some monuments, hotels, and buildings also give access to a panoramic terrace.

Keep in mind that not every city has a nice skyline. It is always worth climbing up to a higher spot and getting a new perspective on the city.

Birds eye view of Copenhagen skyline at sunset
Copenhagen at sunset from my hotel room on the top floor.

I’m lucky enough to live in a tall building on top of a hill in Brussels. And I like to sneak on the roof to take breathtaking images of the south part of Brussels.

Brussels cityscape and skyline taken from the roof of a tall building at sunset. Urban photography
The view from the roof of my building at sunset.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to zoom in a little to isolate some interesting buildings.

Brussels cityscape and skyline taken at sunset. Urban photography
Note the different style mix and the huge graffiti taking up a full facade at the center of the frame.

15. Take Day to Night Shots

This technique is very specific. It consists of photographing the same place for many hours at a regular intervals. All the images are then combined together to display the passing of the day, from morning to night. Photographer Stephen Wikes is a specialist in this technique.

Combined images of Mons des Arts, Brussels (Belgium) with people passing by, taken from morning to night
Mons des Arts, Brussels (Belgium).

Day-to-night works best on large cityscapes, where you can create a smooth transition. A less time-consuming alternative is what I call Golden2Blue (from the golden to the blue hour).

You can still observe how the city transforms with the passing hours. But you’ll be done in a little over an hour, not an entire day.
 
You need a tripod, and you will occupy that spot for quite some time. Be respectful of others and don’t block a passage or the only view available.
 
Graduated filters can help balance the exposure across the scene at sunset or during the day. Panorama stitching is a great way to create large cityscapes. And it works very well with this technique.

 

A panorama stitch from the Atomium (Brussels, Belgium)
A panorama stitch from the Atomium (Brussels, Belgium)

14. Shoot Fisheye Photography in Cities

Fisheye lenses are often considered toy lenses because of their distortions. But you can use them for serious photography to create interesting city images.

A few years ago, I did a project called Fisheye & The City. I found that the lens works very well in the urban environment.
 
night city photograph of a fountain at Mons des Arts (Brussels, Belgium).
Mons des Arts by night (Brussels, Belgium).

Fisheyes are compact and light lenses. They have very wide fields of view, are quite fast, and have very large depths of field. Focus is not something to worry about. Even with manual lenses such as the Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 MFT fish-eye lens I own.

We have written about fisheye photography in detail before. To summarize, it is all about understanding lens distortions and working with those to create more dynamic images.

Fisheye photograph of the entire Atomium at night. Urban photography
The fisheye allowed me to capture the entire Atomium (102mt tall) from just across the street. The distortions and the light trails create a powerful, dynamic, and uncommon view of this famous landmark.
Dramatic distorted view of the main entrance of Brussels Central Station at night taken with fisheye lens. Architectural photography
The combined effect of lens distortion and architecture creates some powerful leading lines to the main entrance of Brussels Central Station.

The increased distortions make the leaning building effect less disturbing. It’s handy when photographing a building from up close.

powerful distorted image of two tall buildings framing a plaza area of tables and chairs at night, urban photography taken with fisheye lens
Tall buildings from a low angle give the idea of waves about to break on the shore. Again, for a powerful image where perspective distortions are not disturbing.

13. Focus on Colors

Colors are everywhere. Try to look for matching colors in your scene. Some cities such as Rome, Venice, or Nice have amazing pastel colors everywhere.

urban photography

12. Focus on Details

Buildings are nice and easy to spot. But look around for those interesting details that are everywhere to be found. This can be anything from an ivy-coated building to funny street art.

When I stroll around a city, I always look at empty courtyards or abandoned streets. You never know what hidden gem you may find in there.

urban photography: street art
Florence has lots of similar funny street signs

11. Focus on Patterns

Patterns are another exciting subject in city photography. In harsh daylight, it’s better to focus on patterns rather than cityscapes. Take advantage of the strong contrasts due to the hard light.

black and white urban photograph of a tall multi windowed building

Windows can reflect the sky. In the cloudless and sunny afternoon, I managed to get both a pattern and matching colors in this image.

photo of a multi windowed building on a clear day with the blue skies reflected in the windows

10. Focus on the Weather

Weather can have a huge impact on your city photography. Brussels is not known for its thunderstorms. But I was lucky enough to catch a bolt of lightning striking somewhere across the street.

a bolt of lighting striking behind a dark and gloomy Brussels cityscape

Bad weather at sunset creates spectacular skies. It will make your cityscapes stand out.

2 photos showing dramatic weather and colored clouds over an urban cityscape

And what about a double rainbow over the city?

beautiful pink double rainbow against a bright blue sky over an urban rooftop cityscape

9. Take Photos at Golden, Blue, and Night Hours

To photograph the city with plenty of details during these times of the day, you need a tripod. But the results are well worth dragging your tripod around.

dramatic colorful skyline of Brussels from the belvedere of Place Poelaert (Justice Palace).
Golden hour over Brussels from the belvedere of Place Poelaert (Justice Palace).

At night, the city transforms thanks to all the different lights. You get yellows from the older parts of the city and blues from the more modern areas.

brussels cityscape taken from a rooftop at night
Brussels at night from the roof of my building.

Sometimes you will find some light displays at monuments, buildings, and squares.

view of the outside of Mons des Arts with bright colored lights on the garden and buildings
Mons des Arts by night, with the changing lights making the small park very picturesque.

And the night is the realm of the light trail from the traffic. Photograph a road at night to get the classic brake light trails. Or you can be more creative and use a fish eye to capture an entire roundabout and its carousel of light trails.

two urban photography shots of light trails from traffic at night

8. Look for Interesting Graffiti in the City

There is no city without graffiti. Many of them are uninteresting, but some are very nice and artistic.

three photographs of urban graffiti

The best ones, though, are often quite small and unexpected, so keep an eye out while you wander the streets. Many cities welcome street art now.

Vienna has a canal where graffiti is legal, and the artists repaint the walls every now and then. Brussels has a comic strip walk with walls depicting comic book characters. Florence has street signs decorated with funny figures.

And not to mention Banksy! The famous British street artist who left his signature work in cities all around the world.

Look for street art and interesting graffiti in every city you visit. Who knows, your hometown might have a few interesting pieces that you didn’t know about.

close up photo of colorful grafitti on a wall. urban photography

7. Use Infrared Photography in Cities

You can use infrared photography to add a wow factor to your city pictures. You may create fresh images of tourist spots. Also, it’s interesting to see how materials look in infrared light.

Photographing buildings: Infrared black and white photo of the facade of the Justice Palace in Brussels
Infrared photography of the famous Justice Palace in Brussels. Because of the long exposure, passing cars were not a problem for this image.

To start, all you need is an infrared filter such as the Hoya R72 and a sunny day. With unmodified cameras, infrared photography means doing a long exposure photograph. So you will need a tripod.

Parks are great locations for infrared photography. The most surprising effects are on tree leaves and grass.

 black and white infrared photo of the Parc du Cinquantenaire (Brussels, Belgium) under a dramatic cloudy sky , with grass and trees in the foreground
Parc du Cinquantenaire (Brussels, Belgium).

If you are curious about this technique, read our detailed article about how to shoot infrared photography.

6. Shoot Long Exposures in Your City

Long exposures are great in the city because pedestrians and moving traffic will be invisible in your image. You can do long exposure in daylight by using strong neutral density (ND) filters and a tripod.

The classic image is a black-and-white building with interesting architecture. It is standing against a dynamic sky with fast-moving clouds that will introduce movement to your image.

City photography: long exposure black and white photo of The Congress Center in Mons (Belgium), standing against a dynamic sky with fast moving clouds
The Congress Center in Mons (Belgium).

You can also combine a standard exposure with one taken with an ND filter. In the image below, I wanted to get the movement from the slow-turning Ferris wheel. I combined exposure for the city and the sky with a long exposure taken with a 10-stop ND filter.

The reason to combine the exposure was that the clouds were nicer in the short exposure.

bright yellow sky and clouds behind tall buildings, rooftops and the yellow glow from the movement of a Ferris wheel.The result of a long exposure taken with a 10-stops ND filter.
A turning Ferris wheel in Brussels.

5. Look Up

As I said, you should always look out for interesting subjects and angles. But don’t forget to look straight up at building facades for interesting shapes and patterns.

three photo collage showing interesting angles to shoot the facade of buildings. architectural photography
Look straight up at buildings and facades for interesting shapes and patterns.

4. Include People in Your City Photography

People are a big part of the city. They are everywhere and are interesting subjects. But remember, they aren’t there to pose for us, so be respectful.

Avoid photographing children or jumping in people’s faces even if you are after candid portraits. Don’t photograph them just because they look weird or to ridicule them. Instead, try to build a story or convey a message.

It is easy to photograph people in tourist places as they are used to seeing other people photographing and tend to ignore you. Also, smaller cameras can help you go unnoticed when you shoot street photography.

Black and white urban photograph of two people with dogs meeting on a street in Strassbourg
Strangers converge together in the main square in Strasbourg (France).

Photographing people can be intimidating. If you are shy, try practicing with street artists. (Leave them a tip afterward!) Or photograph people that are on buses, trams, cars, or trains.

View of a tram window with a young lady looking straight at the camera. Urban photography
Split Frame. This young lady spotted me and looked straight at the camera, while the tram provided a nice frame for the picture (Strasbourg, France).

You can also shoot from the hip. This means that the camera is at your hip and you aim and shoot blindly to go unnoticed. This requires a bit of practice, but autofocus can make things easier.

A shot from the hip tilted photograph of a homeless man in a wheelchair holding an empty cup in an urban street scene
I was drawn in this photo by the empty cup of the man in the wheelchair. By shooting from the hip I was able to get a candid shot.

You can get more creative and photograph people in silhouette or out of focus.

blurry urban street view of people and buildings
A blurry street view where shapes, shadows, and colors are playing a key role.

3. Look For Reflections in the City

Cities are full of reflective surfaces—puddles, fountains, windows, glass, and steel. Reflections are everywhere. You just need to find them.

City photography ideas: three photograph collage showing reflected surfaces and patterns in windows and water

It is not rare to have multiple reflections interacting together, creating interesting patterns. This is often the case with modern buildings and skyscrapers with plenty of windows.

I love shooting after a rainy day and trying to find puddles with interesting reflections. Water surfaces such as small ponds can also get you exciting shots.

The multiple reflections playing together create a checked pattern on this building's facade.
The multiple reflections playing together create a checked pattern on this building’s facade.

2. Capture the City’s Silhouettes

I like to capture the city’s silhouette against the bright sky. This way, I can focus more on the shape of the skyline, rather than on the building details.

silhouettes of city buildings against the bright sky, in the background of shadowy street and river in Copenhagen
Cityscape during a late afternoon walk in Copenhagen.

Sometimes the interplay between light and shadows is what makes an image interesting.

Dramatic shadowy front view photograph of the Arc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. urban photography
The Arc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. The light filtering from behind the monuments adds interest to the photo.

1. Work the Angle

Don’t photograph only at eye level! This is a major cause of boring images, particularly in tourist spots. Low angles can make for an unusual composition.

low angle view of a man walking away from the camera in the streets of Strassbourg. Urban photography
Strassbourg is not a game: this photographer means business.

The low angle in the image above, the tilt, and the line in the pavement add interest to an otherwise common image.

Below is the most iconic place in Copenhagen—the Nyhavn canal. This is the tourist spot of that city, because of the colorful houses, the channel, and the restaurants.

By tilting the camera, I was able to get a more dynamic and interesting composition.

tilted composition photo of the colorful houses, the channel and the restaurants at the Nyhavn canal in Copenhagen

Conclusion

Whether you are photographing in your city or you are visiting a new one, keep experimenting. Try to find new compositions even at touristy spots.

There are plenty of things you can try that I haven’t mentioned here. If you are n’t feeling confident, just take one classic shot of your subject. Then you’re free to move on to more creative ideas.

Keep an eye on shadows and patterns! Look straight down at the street from a high point of view rather than into the distance. Experiment with panning, intentional camera movements, and more.

A blurry layered image of a tall apartment building achieved through intentional camera movement and image stacking
Practicing with intentional camera movement and image stacking.

And, above all, be safe and have fun.