Shoot Better Cityscapes

Cityscape of New York City Skyline at dusk

Cityscape of New York City Skyline at dusk

With the recent explosion of photo-sharing sites on the web, it seems that landscape photography is at an all-time high. I’m consistently blown away by the caliber of imagery I see being captured the world over on a daily basis. Along with this ever-present promotion of far-flung, corner-of-the-world places comes the desire to travel to the ends of the earth to capture the most dramatic image of places few knew existed.

Did you know that over half of the world population lives in urban areas, however? This means that over 3.5 billion of us live in or near cities. Which means it’s time to polish up on those cityscape skills of yours! I enjoy shooting these concrete jungles, and with a little practice, you might find they begin to occupy a gaping hole in your travel portfolio. Read on for a few tips on how to shoot better cityscape images!

1. Shoot at Dawn and/or Dusk
This is the no-brainer, super straight-forward, can’t go wrong tip. Dawn and dusk (just before sunrise and just after sunset) are the periods of day and night when the ambient (existing) light balances with the artificial light from buildings, street lamps, cars, etc. The sky turns a deep, rich blue or indigo, the city lights pop and…VOILA! Instant cityscape! Take note that you will need a sturdy tripod and be practiced up on your long exposure shooting. Many of these images are in the range of 5 – 20 seconds, so you must take special care not to bump the camera, thus rendering the image soft.

Cityscape image of Vancouver, BC

Cityscape image of Vancouver, BC

2. Provide Some Context 
Rather than just shoot frame-filling city, why not include a bit of context in the image. Take this example of Vancouver. With its beautiful walking trails winding through coastal bays, Vancouver is a thriving urban area intertwined with spectacular natural surroundings. Consider different ways to frame and present the city that you’re shooting—these types of images can be especially attractive to magazines and other editorial outlets.

Cityscape image of Seattle with storm clouds at sunset as shot from Alki Beach

Cityscape image of Seattle with storm clouds at sunset as shot from Alki Beach

3. Search Out Dramatic Weather 
While I could put this tip in nearly every one of my blog posts regarding so many different types of shooting, I feel it is especially true with cityscapes. Many times, we find ourselves shooting cityscapes from iconic locations. These locations are popular for a reason, as often times they offer the best views and vantage points. This means it is not entirely uncommon to come away with an image that is quite similar to so many others out there. The one separating factor when shooting from these iconic locations that we can utilize to our advantage is dramatic weather. This image, taken from Alki Beach near Seattle, WA is nothing revolutionary in and of itself. However, I was fortunate to be rewarded with a stormy sunset, which separates it from many of the other images shot from this location.

Cityscape image of San Francisco's Painted Ladies at dusk

Cityscape image of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies at dusk

4. Compress the Scene for Heightened Visual Interest 
Many city overlooks feature impressive foreground and background subject matter. This serves as the perfect opportunity to pull out a telephoto lens and compress the scene. By compressing the scene, we are effectively pulling the background in very tight to our foreground, thus adding depth and dimensionality to our images which gives the viewer a much more three dimensional experience when viewing the image.

Travel image of downtown Partenkirchen, Germany at dusk

Travel image of downtown Partenkirchen, Germany at dusk

5. Use a Tilt-shift Lens for Creative Control 
The tilt-shift look has become increasingly popular of late. Just bring up your Instagram feed and see how many images come up with that snow globe, dream-like feel. It’s likely that most of those images have been given the effect after capture, but if you happen to have a tilt-shift lens in your arsenal, you can capture this type of image upon clicking the shutter button. Without getting overly technical, tilt-shift lenses let you keep a “slice” of the image in focus, thus drawing the viewer’s attention to a particular part of the frame that is different, and (at times) far more effective than just shooting at shallow apertures. Given you use it modestly, this effect can be super fun, and serves as a great alternative to shooting a traditional cityscape image.

Fine art travel image of East Jerusalem, Israel in black and white

Fine art travel image of East Jerusalem, Israel in black and white

6. See in Black and White
As is apparent in this post, it seems most of the cityscape images we see are in color. However, many cities present themselves exceptionally well in monochrome. This hazy late evening image of East Jerusalem is one such example. Next time you come home from shooting cityscapes, try processing a select few in black & white. This might help you to “see” BW cityscapes in the future.

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7. Try Something New
As I say with most every tutorial I write, try shedding the above “rules” of shooting better cityscapes and let your heart and creative vision guide you. Try a new angle, a new time of day or night or a different lens. Look for new and intriguing ways to capture your city. Save up some money and book a helicopter for a completely different view of what’s below. Find something that excites you, and then run with it. Good luck!

The Better You Know, The More You’ll Go

Sunset over Salt Lake City, UT

How well do you know your surroundings? Your local stomping grounds, so to speak. Do you know what weather is most likely to produce good atmospheric conditions for scenic photography? Do you have locations picked out for just such a morning or evening? If the answer isn’t “yes” to all of the above, consider doing a little bit of homework as you drive to/from work, when you’re out on a hike, or even just walking the dog.

Just after helping my wife put the kids to bed last night, I looked outside to see…not much. However, there was a faint atmospheric glow, and I just had that feeling that something inspiring may come to pass. I had seen it before, and most importantly, I knew there was an approaching cold front. Pre-frontal days here in Salt Lake City seem to produce impressive sunsets more often than not.

So I grabbed my Clikelite Escape (already packed mind you!) and headed to a location on the foothills that I had scouted several weeks earlier. I was wearing flip flops. Worth pointing out, as the easier it is, the more likely we are to go get after it. This location was a mere 50 yards from a certain dead end road. Drive. Park. Hike for 30 seconds. Set up tripod. Click shutter. Enjoy nature’s light show. Pack up. Head home.

Pretty cut and dry. Lesson? The better acquainted you are with both your local shooting locations and the local weather nuances, the more likely you are to make a go of capturing some memorable imagery. Keep a mental list. Even better–write stuff down. Carry a little book and keep a list of places that would be good to shoot at sunset, sunrise, in storm light, in spring, in fall, in winter, etc. You’ll not regret it!