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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.

grid view photo collage of 16 examples of different urban photography styles

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.

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In this article I will share 15+ tips to help you become a better urban photographer.

Golden Rules For The Urban Photographer

Be Safe

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.

A small alley with side view of a brick building in Copenhagen. Urban photography

A small alley in Copenhagen. It looks nice by day, but I have no idea if it is the safest place at 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.

Play Nice

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.

Frontview of the famous Atomium landmark in Brussels at night. Urban photography

The Atomium is a famous landmark in Brussels (Belgium) and it is copyrighted.

Stay Comfy

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.

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 create more interesting images.

 a busy urban street scene, raised viewpoint achieved by mounting Panasonic GF-2 mirrorless camera on a monopod

In this shot 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.

The Gear

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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.

Two black and white 6x6 medium format photographs of an urban structure and sky taken with Yashica Mat TLR camera

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.

 Looking up at a modern building through an old Yashica Mat LM TLR camera.

Looking up at a modern building through my old Yashica Mat LM TLR camera.

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

1. 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.

Photograph of Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels taken with a wide angle lens . Architectural photography

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, 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.

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 so on.

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.

2. Cityscapes

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.

Birds eye view of Copenhagen skyline at sunset

Copenhagen at sunset from my hotel room on the last 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 centre of the frame.

3. Day2Night

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.

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

Mons des Arts, Brussels (Belgium).

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.

A panorama stitch from the Atomium (Brussels, Belgium)

A panorama stitch from the Atomium (Brussels, Belgium)

4. 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.

night photograph of a fountain at Mons des Arts (Brussels, Belgium).

Mons des Arts by night (Brussels, Belgium).

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.

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.

Finally, the increased distortions makes the leaning building effect less disturbing when photographing a building from close range.

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.

5. Focus on Colours

Colours are everywhere. Try to look for matching colours in your scene.

front view of facade of a residential house with blue door frame and window shutters and a blue and white motorbike parked infront

6. Focus on Details

Buildings are nice and easy to spot, but look around for those interesting details that are everywhere to be found.

close up of a doorbell mounted on wood

A very particular door bell.

7. 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.

black and white urban photograph of a tall multi windowed building

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.

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

8. 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.

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

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

2 photos showing dramatic weather and coloured 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. 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 colourful 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: yellows from the older parts of the city and bluish from the 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 that light up monuments, buildings and squares.

view of the outside of Mons des Arts with bright coloured 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 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.

two urban photography shots of light trails from traffic at night

10. Graffiti

There is no city without graffiti. Most of them are quite pointless and not interesting, 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.

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

11. 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.

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, 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.

 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 getting started with  infrared photography.

12. 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.

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

The Congress Centre in Mons (Belgium).

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.

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 Wheel in Brussels.

13. 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.

14. People

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.

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 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.

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 auto-focus 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 on the wheel chair. By shooting from the hip I was able to get a candid shot.

Finally, 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 colours are playing a key role.

15. Reflections

Cities are full of reflective surfaces: puddles, fountains, windows, glass, steel. Reflections are everywhere.

three photograph collage showing reflected surfaces and patterns in windows and water

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.

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.

16. 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 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.

17. 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.

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 colourful 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 colourful houses, the channel and the restaurants at the Nyhavn canal in Copenhagen

Conclusion

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.

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.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Andrea Minoia

Andrea Minoia is an enthusiast photographer based in Brussels, Belgium. He is mainly active in portraiture and table top photography, but he does enjoy to get busy with astrophotography and infrared photography. You can follow his work on his regularly updated photo stream on 500px and follow him on google+.You can also get in touch with him via his personal website .

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