Cities are probably the most beautiful, rich and ever changing playgrounds for photographers. City photography is not only about breathtaking skylines and cityscapes though.
People, emotions, details, situations and instants are all aspects of the urban environment that are filled with photographic opportunities.
With that much going on, particularly if you are in a new city, 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.
In this article I will share 15+ tips to help you become a better urban photographer.
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Golden Rules For The Urban Photographer
Every city has its own fair share of criminality. 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.
Be aware of what is going on around you and 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 in favour of a more modest-looking bridge or compact camera.
You won’t compromise much in terms of image quality and you’ll be safer. It’s always a good idea not to go out on your own but bring a friend or two, particularly at night.
The city is not your home studio and the people you see are not there posing for you. Try to be respectful and not imposing or threatening.
Some street photographers, like Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden, like to jump at people’s face with a flash to get candid reactions. Not everybody is comfortable enough to try this approach with strangers in the street. And it’s not legal everywhere either.
Be aware that some places do not allow cameras and that 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, in fact, require a signed property release form.
Urban photographers hit the streets for many hours at a time in all weather conditions. Dress comfortably, stay warm in the winter, dress in layers and have good shoes.
If you are carrying heavy equipment, a backpack is usually more comfortable than a shoulder bag.
Keep Looking And Experimenting
Look up, look in front, now to the left, to the right and give also a good look behind you to scan the city for small details, hidden patterns, interesting people and situations.
Photographing from ground level or from above the crowd can help to create more interesting images.
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 so-called travel zoom lens for DSLR and mirrorless cameras is often all you need, as it 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.
Pocketable compact cameras, such the Sony RX100 sporting a great 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, are extremely portable, capable and can often be used where DSLR cameras are normally forbidden, like at concerts and some events.
Old TLR cameras (typically 6×6 medium format film) are still great cameras to work with, particularly if you like to create and work on projects.
But a TLR camera is also a great prop to show the city in a different way. I love to photograph the city through my Yashica Mat TLR camera, and create more unique images.
Camera phones are best used for the casual shot and for some work in street photography, as they are small and do not attract too much attention.
A travel tripod, such the MeFoto backpacker and the Gorillapod, is also a nice thing to have, particularly if you are after some night shots. Unfortunately, some places have laws against the use of large tripods in the city.
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, while neutral density filters can be used to shoot long exposures in daylight, to capture clouds or remove passersby and traffic from your images.
Circular polariser can help remove glare from the streets and cobblestones in wet weather.
15+ Tips For Great City Photography
17. Architecture Photography
The most obvious kind of photography you can do in the city is architecture photography. Every city has its own famous landmarks such as monuments, buildings, churches and so on.
A wide angle lens is a must for capturing an entire, but the price for it is introducing 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, by intentionally increasing lens and perspective distortions like in the image below.
Famous landmarks are not the only kind of interesting architecture you can find. Look around for shops, train stations, modern corporate buildings and so on.
There are two kinds of cityscapes: the sky line, where you see part of the city from a distance, and bird’s-eye views over the city.
Skylines require to put some distance between you and the city. Famous examples are Manhattan skylines seen from across the Hudson river, or the City from across the Tames 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.
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.
Sometimes, though, it is nice to zoom in a little to isolate some interesting buildings.
This technique is very particular and consists of photographing the same place for many hours at a regular interval. All the images are then combined together to display the passing of the day, from morning to night. Photographer Stephen Wikes is a specialist of this technique.
Day2Night 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 blue hour).
You will still be able to observe how the city transforms with the hours but you will have done so with only about an hour’s shooting.
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 spot available.
Graduated filters can help to balance the exposition across the scene at sunset or during the day. Panorama stitching is a great way to create large cityscapes and works very well with this technique.
14. Fisheye Photography
Fisheye lenses, are often considered toy lenses because of their distortions. In reality, you can use them for serious photography to create interesting images.
A few years ago I did a project called Fisheye & The City and I found that the lens works very well in the city.
Fisheyes are compact and light lenses, have extremely 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 7.5 f/3.5 MFT fish-eye lens I own.
We have written in detail about fisheye photography before, and, to summarise, it is all about understanding lens distortions and working with those to create more dynamic images.
Finally, the increased distortions makes the leaning building effect less disturbing when photographing a building from close range.
13. Focus on Colours
Colours are everywhere. Try to look for matching colours in your scene.
12. Focus on Details
Buildings are nice and easy to spot, but look around for those interesting details that are everywhere to be found.
11. Focus on Patterns
Patterns are another interesting subject in urban photography. In harsh day light, it’s better to focus on patterns rather than cityscapes and take advantage of the strong contrasts due to the hard light.
Windows can reflect the sky and in the cloudless and sunny early afternoon I managed to get both a pattern and matching colours in this image.
10. Focus on the Weather
Weather can have a huge impact on your urban photography. Brussels is not known for its thunderstorms, but I was lucky enough to catch a bolt of lightning striking somewhere across the street.
Bad weather at sunset creates spectacular skies that will make your cityscapes stand out.
And what about a double rainbow over the city?
9. 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.
At night the city transforms thanks to all the different lights: yellows from the older parts of the city and bluish from the modern areas.
Sometimes you will find some light displays that light up monuments, buildings and squares.
And the night is the realm of light trail from the traffic. Just photograph at night down a road to get the classic car trails, or, you can be more creative and use a fish-eye to capture an entire round about and its carousel of light trails.
There is no city without graffiti. Most of them are quite pointless and not interesting, but some are very nice and artistic.
The best ones, though, are often quite small and unexpected, so keep an eye out while you wander the streets.
7. Infrared Photography
Infrared photography can be used to add a wow factor to create fresh images of touristic spots. Also, it is interesting to see how different construction materials look like when seen with infrared light.
To start, all you need is an infrared filter such as the Hoya r72 and a sunny day. With unmodified cameras, doing infrared photography is effectively doing long exposure photograph and you will need a tripod.
Parks are great locations for infrared photography, as the most surprising effects are on tree leaves and grass.
If you are curious about this technique, read our detailed article about getting started with infrared photography.
6. Long Exposures
Long exposures are great in the city because all passers-by and moving traffic will be barely visible 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, standing against a dynamic sky with fast moving clouds that will introduce movement to your image.
You can also combine a standard exposure with one taken with an ND filter. In the image below, to get the movement from the slow turning ferry wheel, I combined an exposure for the city and the sky with a long exposure taken with a 10-stops ND filter.
The reason to combine the exposure was that the clouds were nicer in the short exposure.
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.
People are a big part of the city. They are everywhere and are interesting subjects, but remember: they are not buildings nor are they there to pose for us, so be respectful.
Avoid photographing children or jumping in people’s face even if you are after candid portraits. Don’t photograph them just because they look weird or to ridicule them, but, instead, try to build a story or convey a message.
It is easy to photograph people in touristic places as they are used to seeing other people photographing around and tend to ignore you. Also smaller cameras can help you go unnoticed.
Photographing people can be intimidating and if you are shy, try practising with street artists (leave them a tip afterwards) or photograph people that are in busses, trams, cars or trains.
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 auto-focus can make things easier.
Finally, you can get more creative and photograph people in silhouette or out of focus.
Cities are full of reflective surfaces: puddles, fountains, windows, glass, steel. Reflections are everywhere.
It is not rare to have multiple reflections interacting together, thus creating interesting patterns. This is often the case with modern buildings and skyscrapers with plenty of windows.
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.
Sometimes the interplay between light and shadows is what makes an image interesting.
1. Work the Angle
Don’t photograph only at eye level: this is the prime cause of boring images, particularly in touristic spots. Low angles can make for an unusual composition.
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 colourful houses, the channel and the restaurants.
By tilting the camera I was able to get a more dynamic and interesting composition.
Whether you are photographing in your city or if you are visiting a new one, keep experimenting.
There are plenty of things you can try that I haven’t mention here, and if you are not feeling confident enough, just take one classic shot of your subject before moving on with 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 and intentional camera movements, and more.
And, above all, be safe and have fun.
Want to understand urban photography better? Check our new post about urban exploration terms next!