Cityscapes are some of the most challenging photos to take. The problems are many: low contrast, boring colors, difficult to see any detail whatsoever and so on. However, if you learn how to overcome these obstacles, cityscapes can be some of the most rewarding and useful photos you will ever take.
In this post, I will share with you my personal collection of tips and techniques for photographing cityscapes. These tips will not only help you produce better cityscapes but also make your other cityscape photography much easier and more fun.
Camera Settings For Cityscape Images
Cityscapes are great subjects for beginners because they offer such a variety of challenges. You will be dealing with low-angle light, long exposure times, perspective, foreground interest, and lots and lots of detail. All of this adds up to a learning experience that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
One way to make cityscapes more appealing is to use a slow shutter speed to blur the action. This will also help soften the harshness of the light.
Next, you should consider when shooting cityscapes is to use a wide aperture. This will allow you to isolate your subject from the background and make it stand out.
+ Use A Wide-Angle Lens
Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago, United States – NIKON D750- Focal Length 26mm – Aperture ƒ/9 – Shutter Speed 1/6s – ISO 100
Cityscapes often look boring and uninteresting because we only see the buildings and not the rich details that make up the city. A wide-angle lens (18mm or less) lets you see all of this rich, detailed scenery and gives your cityscape photos much more life. Experiment with different focal lengths until you find one that works for you.
+ Use A Telephoto Lens
Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, San Francisco, CA, USA – NIKON D3400- Focal Length 150mm – Aperture ƒ/5 – Shutter Speed 2s – ISO 400
A telephoto lens lets you isolate an area and make it stand out from the rest of the scene. This is a great technique for cityscapes where everything blends together into a grey, indistinguishable mass. By using a long focal length lens (200mm or more) you can place a building or a part of the scene far enough away that it will stand out. It will be like taking a magnifying glass to your subject. It will draw the viewer’s eye to it and make the entire scene come alive.
Use Your Camera’s Self-timer And A Tripod For Crisp Results
Cityscapes can be tough to get sharp because of the way the buildings seem to blend into each other. Using a self-timer and a tripod will help you get crisp results every time.
When I do cityscapes, I almost always use a self-timer because it frees up my hands to do something else if I need to. And a tripod is an absolute must for any serious cityscape photographer.
You see, a tripod allows you to use a slower shutter speed which lets in more light. This means you can use a smaller aperture, gives you a greater depth of field. This lets you isolate individual buildings from the blur of the background.
Make Use Of Space Wisely
Paris, France – NIKON D750- Focal Length 24mm – Aperture ƒ/2.8 – Shutter Speed 1/4000s – ISO 250
Cityscapes are among the most beautiful subjects to photograph, yet they can be tricky. They require a certain amount of “getting used to” because often there is so much going on in the foreground, you need to stop focusing on the subject and start looking for ways to make the image more interesting.
A great way to do this is to use the space around the subject to lead the viewer’s eye into the image. You can do this by having a foreground element that has strong graphic interest such as a line of traffic, or a lamppost, a telephone pole, or a branch.
Panoramic Shooting From Above
Hong Kong – Hasselblad L1D-20c- Focal Length 100mm – Aperture ƒ/16 – Shutter Speed 1/350s – ISO 100 (stitch16 images together)
If you want to add an extra “wow” factor to your cityscapes, you should experiment with panoramic shots.
You can get really creative with this technique and produce some stunning results. Start with a tripod and a long lens (at least 200mm) and find a tall building or a hill that gives you a good vantage point. Next, set your camera to its widest setting and shoot a bunch of individual images.
Then stitch (in post-production) these images together into one large panorama. The result will be a sweeping vista of your cityscape that gives you a bird’s eye view of the area.
Take Advantage Of The Simple Things
New York, United States – Fujifilm XT2- Focal Length 23mm – Aperture ƒ/8 – Shutter Speed 1/320s – ISO 800
The simplest of all techniques is to use what is already there to add impact to your image. A great example is to photograph a building with a rainbow around it. Why? Because it will make the colors in the building pop. Another example is to photograph a building with the morning sun glinting off its windows. Yet another is to photograph a building with the late afternoon sun slanting across its face.
Look for ways to make your subject matter more interesting, photograph them as they would normally be seen by the passerby, and you will find your photos will be much more appealing to the viewer.
There are endless examples of “compelling” images created by taking the obvious and making it look not-so-obvious.
Shoot Long Exposures To Illustrate The Fast Paced Life Of The City
Wai Tan, Shanghai, China – SIGMA DP1 Merrill- Focal Length 19mm – Aperture ƒ/16 – Shutter Speed 25s – ISO 100
Cityscapes change faster than anywhere else on earth. What was once an interesting composition may be completely boring to the observer in just a few seconds. It spits out a constant flow of interesting things to photograph.
To get the most from your cityscapes, it’s important to become aware of what’s going on around you, and to use long exposures to freeze that activity.
A long exposure will allow you to record the constant movement of people and cars, the changing light as the sun moves across the sky, and all the other interesting details that make up the fast paced life of the city.
Use Leading Lines
San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, United States – Sony ILCE-6300- Focal Length 60mm – Aperture ƒ/18 – Shutter Speed 30s – ISO 100
Cityscapes are great subjects for leading lines. A good way to think about it is to imagine a movie camera following a car as it goes down a road. As the car moves, the camera will also move slightly to follow the subject. That slight movement of the camera creates a very natural and effective leading line.
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.
Anything that breaks up the boring sameness of the scene and draws attention to itself will help.
Misty Empire State Building – Fujifilm X-T1- Focal Length 16mm – Aperture ƒ/5.6 – Shutter Speed 1/680s – ISO 200
Minimalist cityscape photography is all about isolating the subject, removing everything else and letting the building or area speak for itself. It can be a very powerful way of telling a story and getting your viewer to engage with what you are saying. The best buildings to photograph are those that are in good condition, have a lot of character and are relatively unaltered. Look for interesting shapes, shadows, textures and details
Shoot At The Right Time
Brooklyn Bridge, New York, United States – Sony ILCE-7RM2- Focal Length 24mm – Aperture ƒ/4 – Shutter Speed 1/2000s – ISO 100
The rule of thumb is to shoot during the 10-to-30 minutes directly after sunrise or before sunset. This gives you the warmest light of the day (or night) which is great for making your photos pop. Plus, you’ll avoid all the harsh shadows caused by the sun or the contrasty darkness caused by the sun going down.
If you are a true beginner, stick to shooting times when there is little or no human activity. This will give you the chance to experiment with different settings and learn what works best for you without any distractions. As you gain experience, you can start to explore different times of day and even seasons, but don’t get carried away with this too early.
Also, pay attention to clouds. Generally, they will cast a soft, even light that is perfect for cityscapes. However, sometimes they will block out the sun completely, casting long, dark shadows that can add drama to your pictures
Illustrate The Contrast Of Natural And Man-Made Structures
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, United States – Fujifilm X-T2- Focal Length 14mm – Aperture ƒ/2.8 – Shutter Speed 1/350s – ISO 200
In most cities, the contrast between the natural environment and the environment created by humans is very high. This is especially true in large cities where the contrast is almost always very high.
In fact, in many cities the contrast is so high, it is difficult to find a place to shoot where the subject is purely man-made. However, this is a situation that often creates great images. In such cases, your job is to find a way to make the contrast in your image even higher. One way to do this is to include some element that illustrates the contrast.
For example, if you are photographing a building, include a nearby tree or other plant that is not growing in the concrete. If you are photographing a busy street, include a quiet alleyway nearby where only a few people are walking. If you are photographing a church, include a business next door that is open on Sundays. If you are photographing a sports arena, include a park or other area of natural beauty nearby.
You get the idea. The point is, if you can find a way to illustrate the contrast, your image will be that much stronger.
Creative Shooting Angle
Hong Kong – Sony ILCE-7M2 Focal Length 14mm – Aperture ƒ/4 – Shutter Speed 1/15s – ISO 500
Cityscapes can be very boring. They tend to consist of tall buildings, all looking the same from a distance. To make your cityscapes more interesting, try shooting them from an unusual angle.
Perhaps shoot them from the top of a building, or the side of a building, or the bottom. Perhaps you could get creative and use something other than a building to frame your shot, such as a telephone pole, a tree, or even a flag flying in the wind.
Manage Your Colors
Canary Wharf, London, United Kingdom – Canon EOS 7D – Focal Length 35mm – Aperture ƒ/13 – Shutter Speed 1/125s – ISO 100
Cityscapes are often very bland, greyish affairs. It is often the colors of the buildings that make them come alive. However, there is a fine line between making your cityscape colorful and making it look garish. It’s easy to go overboard and end up with something that looks like a “Willy Wonka” chocolate factory. But just a few vibrant colors – correctly placed and used – can add a lot to your images.
The first step is to determine what the predominant colors of your scene are. Then, once you know those colors, use them in your images selectively. If you have a yellow building, don’t make all your buildings look grey; make the yellow one pop. If you have red roofs, don’t shoot everything else in your image being “grey-red”; make the roofs pop. Use what stands out. Don’t fight the light – work with it.
Cityscape is an artistic way to photograph buildings and other structures located in a city. This type of photography is becoming very popular because it gives us a different view of the city and we can see more details about it.
We hope that you have learned a lot from this post and now you can create some amazing cityscapes with your own camera.