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!

Composition Tip: Fill the Frame

Image of brown trout in Brodin Ghost Net caught and release on a fly in the Weber River, UT

Image of brown trout in Brodin Ghost Net caught and release on a fly in the Weber River, UT

Fill.
The.
Frame.

Too many times our images are left wanting. Sometimes this has to do with including too much, sometimes it has to do with including too little. Sometimes, it has nothing to do not with what we include, but HOW and WHERE we include it.

Fall foliage in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Fall foliage in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

In general, study the edge of your frame when you shoot and make sure there is nothing distracting that’s impeding upon either the subject or message (or both) of your image.

I have a rule I try and hold myself to: Make an image as interesting or engaging as possible with as little as possible.

Schooner in Sausalito Bay with San Francisco Skyline in background.

Schooner in Sausalito Bay with San Francisco Skyline in background.

There are, however, two caveats to this.

1. Know how your image will be used. Do you need to leave more negative space than you typically would for logos, copy or other extraneous additions to the image? You may want to shoot several versions of the “same” image; one for you, and one for potential stock/editorial/commercial usage.

Image of Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. Arenal, Costa Rica.

Image of Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. Arenal, Costa Rica.

2. Know when to break the rules. This is a grey caveat. It relies on your creative intuition. There are times when the scene in front of you will be chaotic. The truly skilled photographer will still be able to tame that chaos into an approachable, meaningful image.