New York, London, Paris… think of any famous cities around the world and their iconic cityscapes will immediately come to mind. It’s no wonder that cityscape photography is one of the most popular types of photos to capture.
The good news is that capturing beautiful cityscape pictures isn’t that difficult.
For one, you will often have clear vantage points around a city. You’ll also have a subject that won’t move. Not to mention, plenty of time to experiment with different locations and settings. Follow these 15 tips to improve your cityscape photography.
© Kav Dadfar
1. How to Find the Right Location
The first thing that any cityscape landscape shot needs is the right location. What you need is an unobstructed view of the skyline. Usually, a good place to look for is along waterfronts or on bridges.
Besides the fact that you’ll have a great view, the reflection of the cityscape on water will give you a pleasing result.
Waterfronts are also great spots for capturing night cityscapes because of these reflections.
Another great location is high viewing areas such as towers or skyscrapers. You will often find that most big cities around the world will have viewing platforms. If not then even rooftop bars will have great views of the city.
The limitations of these places are that usually you won’t be allowed to set up a tripod. This means either resting your camera somewhere if shooting in low light. Or having to raise your ISO.
You should research your location carefully before heading out for a shoot. Use Google maps street view to check out the location. You can also use apps such as Photographer’s Ephemeris to check where the light will be during the day.
© Kav Dadfar
2. Check the Forecast to Assess Available Light
Any type of outdoor photography relies heavily on the available light. To capture stunning cityscape photographs you will need the conditions to be right. That doesn’t mean beautiful sunshine. In fact, stormy skies or even things like mist can add an extra dimension to your photos.
But if the forecast is predicting a low lying grey blanket of clouds, you might want to re-plan your shoot for another time. Instead, you could use that time to photograph something else that is right for the conditions.
© Kav Dadfar
3. When Should You Photograph?
It’s no secret that most outdoor photographers try to plan their shots around the golden hour. This is the time of day after sunrise and before sunset where the soft golden light can enhance any scene.
So, besides knowing the weather forecast, you should also know what time sunrise, sunset and the blue hour will be. For example, cityscape sunset shots or cityscape night shots usually have a tendency to provide stunning results.
© Kav Dadfar
4. What Equipment Do You Need?
Another great benefit of cityscape photography is that you don’t need a lot of equipment.
- A wide angle lens if you want to capture cityscapes landscape shots will be a necessity.
- But sometimes you might find that you will want to zoom into a small section of the cityscape. For this you will need a telephoto lens if you are too far away.
- A tripod will ensure that you won’t have to worry about camera shake at slow shutter speeds.
- Filters such as neutral density filters, graduated ND filters or polarising filters can all be very useful in certain situations.
Other than these, the only other thing that you might find useful (although not necessary) is a cable release. Using one will mean you don’t have to touch the camera when taking a photo.
Be sure to take plenty of batteries though as long exposure photography in low light conditions will use up more power than usual.
5. Use Graduated ND Filters
Arguably the biggest challenge in cityscape photography is controlling the light in the scene. This is usually when you are faced with a scene where the sun is in front of you (and sometimes to the side).
In this scenario, you will find that your sky is too bright and your foreground is too dark. If you expose for the sky it will mean your shadows (foreground) will be too dark. If you expose for the foreground then your sky will be too bright.
This is where graduated neutral density filters come very useful. By using these filters you can darken one half of the image while keeping the other half clear. This allows you to expose so that both your highlights (your sky) and your shadows (foreground) are balanced.
6. Arrive Early
Even though you will have ample time when photographing cityscapes, it’s still worth arriving at your location early. This will allow you to scout your location to see if it is the best place to take the shot. It will also allow you to take some test shots to make sure your composition works.
Plan which locations you are going to shoot and in what order. Keep in mind that you have a relatively short window so don’t try and cram too much in.
You’ll be amazed how often you’ll find a better location than the one you originally found.
7. Photograph From a Distance to Avoid Converging Lines
One of the big issues that you’ll face whenever you photograph architecture is converging lines. This is when in your photo it looks like the building is falling backwards. It occurs when you point the camera upwards at a building. You can usually fix this issue in post-processing by tilting the photo until the lines are straight.
But this will mean that you will be cropping into the image. Because when you tilt the photo you will get a blank space in the bottom corners. In some cases, the photo won’t work because you will be cropping in so much that you will cut off important parts of the image.
That’s why, where possible, you should try to photograph cityscapes from further back. This will help converging lines not be as dramatic. It will also give you some room around your image so if you need to tilt the image you won’t crop into the main subject.
© Kav Dadfar
8. Try Zooming In
It is always tempting to capture a wide-angle shot of cities. But sometimes you’ll find that zooming in a little will actually help the main subject stand out more. The amount you zoom in will depend on the scene and what you are trying to capture.
But don’t be afraid to try some extreme close-ups as well. By using a telephoto lens and zooming into a part of a scene you can create wonderful abstract images.
© Kav Dadfar
9. Use Composition to Enhance Your Cityscape Photos
Sometimes a cityscape photo is simply not framed properly. This can usually come about because the person is rushing and is taking a few photos and moving on. The best way to frame your cityscape photos is to take your time.
Before snapping away spend a few minutes analysing the scene. Picture the end result in your mind. Does it work?
As a starting point frame your shot using the rule of thirds. For example, if there is an iconic building place it on one of the intersections.
If the first few shots don’t look right, change your location, your crop or try a different even angle. Ideally what you should be looking for is a balanced photo.
10. Don’t Forget the Foreground
Your foreground is as vital to the overall composition of the image as your cityscape. Think about it carefully and frame your shot accordingly using points of interest in the foreground. For example, if you are standing on the bank of a river, look for boats that can provide a good element to the image.
A good technique to utilise is to place your camera very low on the ground tilting it up slightly. The closeup of the ground can provide a great foreground and often give you very unique results.
11. What Settings Should You Use?
There is never a standard rule to cover any genre of photography. But in cityscape photography, there are a few settings that you will likely need.
In the vast majority of cases, you will want to keep as much of the image sharp so you would want maximum depth of field. But be aware that at very high f/numbers you may find that it affects the sharpness of the image.
Generally, you should start at around f/8 and work your way up to around f/16. This should mean that your image will be sharp.
You should also always try to keep your ISO as low as possible. The higher your ISO the more noise you’ll see in your image which will mean less sharpness. In low light conditions, this will mean using a tripod as you won’t be able to keep your camera steady enough. If you have to raise your ISO, then do so only as much as you need to.
If you are using a tripod, then your shutter speed shouldn’t be an issue as you can use very slow shutter speeds. As the main subject, (i.e. the buildings don’t move) you don’t have to worry about freezing the action.
If you are shooting handheld, then anything slower than 1/60 sec and you will struggle to avoid camera shake. Personally, I only ever handhold at this speed if absolutely necessary and try to keep my shutter speed at a minimum of 1/100 sec.
12. Shoot Into the Blue Hour
No other type of photography looks better during the blue hour than a cityscape. As the sun sets and the city lights come on, the cityscape comes alive across the crisp blue sky.
The blue hour occurs before sunrise and after sunset each day. The actual time of this period and the duration of it varies depending on your location in the world. The season and the potential weather conditions are also a factor.
Confusingly though, whilst it is called the blue hour, it almost never actually lasts an hour. On average the blue hour last for around 40 minutes but can be as short as a few minutes.
The only way to know for sure is to check all the details before heading out on a shoot. These days there are plenty of apps and websites that can help you get this info.
13. Experiment With Your Settings for Creative Photography
One of the great benefits of photographing in low light conditions such as the blue hour, is that it gives you the opportunity to experiment with your shots. By manipulating your shutter speed or depth of field, you can add a variety of pleasing elements to your photo.
For example, use a slow shutter speed with moving traffic in front of your subject and you’ll pick up light trails. Use a small aperture (i.e. high f/stop number) and you’ll get starburst effects around light sources such as street lamps.
These extra elements will give your photos an extra creative dimension. They will also give your collection of photos more variety.
© Kav Dadfar
14. Don’t Forget to Post Process Your Shots
Whether you are a purist and don’t believe you should post-process photos or someone who does it, there are some things that you cannot forego. You should at the very least ensure that your white balance is correct.
Your photos are straight, free of dust sports and that that you have fixed any converging lines. Beyond these, how much you post-process will depend on your preference and what the image needs.
Boosting vibrancy and saturation, adding more brightness or contrast and cropping will also help the final result. The key to any good post-processing is that it should look natural, so subtlety is key.
15. Keep Trying Until You Get That Great Shot
Most outdoor photographers will tell you that often those great photos they have taken have come about from being persistent. There will be many occasions when you will be frustrated by the outcome of a shoot. For example, it might be that the weather isn’t great or that there are building works that are obstructing your view.
These things happen to every photographer. The key is to keep going back and trying over and over again until you can achieve the shot that you want.
© Kav Dadfar
Cityscapes are usually high on most travel photographer’s priority of a destination. Not only will they look amazing in your portfolio or even hung on a wall, but they also have a tendency to sell well.
With the right attitude, good research and a little bit of luck you will be able to capture amazing cityscape shots as well.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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