Cityscape Photography Tips for Beginners
Roughly 80% of people in the United States live in metropolitan areas. This means that cityscape photography is one of the most accessible genres of photography. The shapes and intricate details seen in city skylines are attractive to humans because our brains recognize and think in terms of patterns. However, creating an impactful cityscape photograph can be challenging. Here are eleven tips to help you get started with cityscape photography or improve your existing skills.
1) Keep Your Lines Straight
Allowing architectural lines to become skewed is one of the most common mistakes made by cityscape photographers. Bad lines come in two forms: tilted horizon and keystoning. A tilted horizon is caused by poor horizontal camera leveling and is easily fixed in post production with little image quality degradation. Keystoning is the result of looking up or down at your subject, particularly with a wide-angle lens. Keystoning can be fixed in post-production, but the quality of your image can be substantially degraded. The best solutions are to use a tilt-shift lens or to find a vantage point that allows you to keep your camera level to the subject.
NIKON D810 @ 28mm, ISO 64, 1/60, f/5.6
2) Use a Wide-Angle Lens
When people think about cityscapes, they often think about wide-angle lenses. A wide-angle lens enables the photographer to fit more subject matter into the frame and, as a side effect, to create a sense of depth in the scene. In urban environments structures are large and space is small. Sometimes, the only way to get the shot is to use a wide-angle lens. Beyond the simple use case, short lenses have the added advantage of the near-far effect. An image with a single subject can be boring. Putting one subject in the foreground and another in the background is an effective technique to make your cityscape images more interesting.
NIKON D810 @ 14mm, ISO 64, 1/160, f/8.0
3) Use a Telephoto Lens
Telephoto lenses are one of the most effective tools for creating stunning cityscape images. While wide-angle lenses add depth, telephoto lenses remove it. Using a long lens is a good way to compress subjects into a cohesive image. This picture of the Golden Gate Bridge overlaying San Francisco is an example of subject compression using a very long lens. Additionally, telephoto lenses enable the photographer to capture a scene from a long distance. This ability is useful for capturing skylines from scenic parks and hills.
NIKON D810 @ 420mm, ISO 64, 1/100, f/8.0
4) Shoot During Blue Hour
Blue hour is the time between sunset and complete darkness, lasting around 45 minutes. During this time the light changes rapidly from daylight to darkness, and is perfect for capturing twinkling city lights. During the day building lights are too dim compared to the sun to be seen. During the night the only thing visible are artificial lights. Blue hour provides a compromise that allows the photographer to capture the glow of artificial lights while retaining enough natural light to see the cityscape.
NIKON D810 @ 14mm, ISO 64, 20/1, f/8.0
5) Use Leading Lines
The concept of leading lines is not specific to cityscape photography, but it is a powerful tool that should be addressed. The human eye tends not to fixate on a single subject for too long; it jumps around the image looking for new information. However, when lines point back to the subject the eye will follow. Keeping your audience’s attention on the subject creates a stronger image. Car lights are a popular type of leading line.
NIKON D750 @ 70mm, ISO 100, 20/1, f/9.0
6) Eliminate Distractions
Cities are often dense and chaotic, making it difficult to get a clear shot of your subject. In many ways, learning how to effectively eliminate distractions from your images is the mark of an experienced photographer. Here are some tips to help:
1. Find a bridge, staircase, or other elevated location
2. Use a telephoto lens to isolate your subject
3. Take a long exposure to blur moving objects
4. Crop out unnecessary details
5. Watch out for bothersome cloud formations
NIKON D810 @ 28mm, ISO 64, 1/60, f/5.6
7) Keep Your Back to the Sun
When dealing with geometric shapes, like buildings, it is crucial to take the direction of the sun into consideration. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Its angle will change throughout the day and throughout the year. Shooting into the sun will result in buildings appearing dark and featureless. Avoid this at all costs.
NIKON D750 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/100, f/8.0
8) Get High
Most people are used to viewing their world from street level. Getting a new, higher perspective on things is exciting. Some famous skyscrapers have observation decks that tourists can pay to visit. If you take this route, I recommend planning your shoot to minimize crowds and maximize good lightning. Another option is to find hills and other natural overlooks near the city.
NIKON D810 @ 18mm, ISO 64, 1/100, f/8.0
9) Seek Out Bodies of Water
Water is the lifeblood of human civilization, and many cities are built around bodies of water. Here are some of the advantages of incorporating water into your cityscapes:
1. Feeling of motion, dynamic mood
3. Long exposure effects
4. Reduced foreground distractions
NIKON D810 @ 20mm, ISO 64, 30/1, f/10.0
10) Plan Your Shoots
Photographers tend to be perfectionists, and the perfect shot rarely happens by accident. Let us assume that you have a subject in mind. How do you create the best possible image to represent that subject? You could go out every day and take pictures until you get one that you like or you could plan the right location, time, camera gear, and weather to get your desired image. Unless you have unlimited patience, planning is your best option.
11) Use a Polarizer
One of the easiest ways to substantially improve the image quality of your daytime cityscapes is to use a circular polarizing filter. Putting a polarizing filter on your lens is like wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses over your eyes; the polarized glass blocks random light waves from passing through, creating a clearer image. This is especially helpful when shooting over long distances or in humid/hazy locations.
NIKON D810 @ 250mm, ISO 64, 1/50, f/8.0
Cityscapes present a unique set of challenges for the urban photographer. In this post I have shared the techniques I use to create successful images. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it covers the majority of situations cityscape photographers will face with easily implemented solutions. If you have additional tips or questions, please comment below.