How to Take Amazing Cityscape Photos – Tips and Tricks Tutorial
When given an expansive view of a lively city, nearly anyone will take out their camera and do their best to capture the vista. Cityscapes are dynamic, beautiful entities and each one is unique. Some have crowds of high rises that touch the sky while others sit much lower to the ground. Many sit by water while others are in the highest mountains. This guide will help you capture the unique character of any city you come across.
What gear do I need?
Tripods are situationally useful in cityscape photography. If I’m capturing a wide angle landscape, I could make good use out of extra image stabilization. If I’m shooting at night or during the Golden or Blue hour a tripod is almost mandatory to make use of longer shutter speeds. But during the middle of the day, I can generally get away with shooting handheld or using a monopod for some stability without loss of motion.
Wide angle lenses are incredibly useful for shooting any sort of landscape. They give me the widest possible field of view. Anything below 35mm is technically a wide angle lens. But the effective field of view relative to a full frame view does depend on the sensor of my camera. Using a 12mm wide angle lens on a Micro 4/3rds sensor (sized 17.00 x 13.00 mm) is equivalent to using a 24mm focal length lens on a full frame sensor (sized 36.00 x 24.00 mm).
And when using wider lenses every bit of focal length matters. The difference between 10mm and 15mm is a much bigger impact visually compared to 195mm to 200mm.
Lenses with wider apertures tend to be more expensive due to the construction involved in creating a lens that can open wide and narrow. If it’s a zoom lens the price increases even further. Fortunately, if we’re interested in cityscapes primarily, quality lenses aren’t nearly as expensive as wide open zoom lenses. A 10-24mm f/4 zoom will cover all of your needs as a cityscape photographer unless you’re looking for a fisheye lens.
Usually, I’ll be shooting with higher aperture values. f/8 or more will give me an excellent amount of depth of field to ensure that everything in my field of view is in sharp focus. Sometimes I might use lower values to give emphasis to a particular subject in my field of view, like a famous sign or building. But being a cityscape, I’ll almost always want the entire view razor sharp.
A remote camera trigger is extremely useful whenever I’m shooting long exposure photography. I can use either a cable release or a remote shutter. Cable releases are attached to the camera via a wire that ranges from a foot to a few feet or meters long. Remote shutters, on the other hand, rely on a unit attached to the hot shoe of the camera to trigger the shutter. IR remotes also exist that are compatible with many cameras without a remote on top. But they’re usually limited to just triggering the shutter and don’t have features like intervalometers.
Smartphone users should also look into the proprietary apps that most major interchangeable lens camera manufacturers have. These apps allow me to pair my camera with my smartphone and use my phone as a remote shutter. It’s a great way to save a bit of money and keep the number of devices carried on my person down to a minimum.
Cityscapes are undoubtedly about lighting as much as it is about buildings. Street lights, car lights, building lights…But also the sky itself. A view of Los Angeles at midday doesn’t have nearly the dramatic impact of the same view at sunset. The golden rays filtering through the Pacific fog adds even more mystery to the view.
If a good light is all about good timing then when should we be trying to capture a stunning cityscape? The Golden and Blue hours of the day are iconic times for a very good reason. The Golden Hour is the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. The light levels are lower than during the day but it gains a wonderful glow to it that gives a certain warmth to images. Several great apps for finding this prime photography time exist, including the Golden Hour app for iOS and Android.
The Blue hour is not actually a full hour, more like 10-20 minutes, depending on your area and local weather conditions. It’s the first few minutes before sunrise and after sunset. Deep blue and purple tones come out and the lighting becomes quite diffused. Diffused lighting is very nice to work with as a photographer because it helps fill in harsh shadows and keep subjects evenly lit. Just like the Golden Hour, there are plenty of good apps to find your local Blue Hour for iOS and Android.
Clouds also add dramatic lighting effects as they shift across the sky. Because we tend to use longer shutter speeds the motion of the clouds can create some very beautiful blur effects that can complement the hard static lights of the city.
Capturing the details
Cityscapes have a tremendous amount of detail and it can be challenging to capture all of that detail in a single image. While most photographers can get away with low to medium resolution sensors the cityscape photographer should be using medium to high-resolution ones. This is true of landscapes in general. We want extra megapixels so fine details like the grain of bricks in a building don’t look soft and low resolution.
Capturing the details also means finding spots where there are tons going on all at once. City squares full of flashing neon and rushing pedestrians give a great taste of the hustle and bustle of downtown. Even if my main subject is a taxi car or a busy street the street signs and rushing pedestrians add energy and dramatic tension to the scene.
Other busy locations like night markets or shopping malls can give you a much-needed sense of busyness at the expense of the dramatic view of an entire city.
Car streaks in a cityscape
Few images capture the energy of a city better than car streak photos. They can be done on a street corner with decent traffic or distant mountain overlooking a network of highways. But the results are usually striking.
Car streak photos are one of the easiest types of long exposure photography to do. All that’s required is a tripod and a good view. I need to operate the camera in Manual or Bulb mode to ensure I get a long enough shutter speed.
Exactly how long of a shutter speed I need depends mostly on the number of cars and how far away I am from them. If I’m far away I want to make sure my shutter speed is long enough to get nice long streaks. If the cars are moving fast that helps cut down the exposure time but if its gridlock traffic I may want to use a longer exposure time.
But more cars also mean more streaks more quickly. If traffic is light but constant, I’ll need a longer shutter speed to ensure I get as many streaks as I want. The ISO (light sensitivity) of the camera also depends on the ambient lighting somewhat. But because I’m using such long shutter speeds I should stick to lower ISO values to keep noise levels acceptable.
If it’s especially dark and I’m using both a smaller sensor and a narrower aperture a higher ISO value may be my only choice. Just be prepared to clean up some of the noise using Luminance in Lightroom or a similar program.
A wide angle view
So how can we ensure we capture a scenic view besides using a wide lens? After all, wide angle lenses won’t help much if I’m not in a place to take advantage of that focal length. Research, research, research. I need to check local guides to figure out where the best places are to get a good view of the skyline. Fortunately, when it comes to larger cities they’re almost all been photographed to death. This means information on where to find the best views should be easy to come by.
Scenic overlooks can be found in most major cities off of highways or mountain roads. Well named, these areas often give viewers a taste of the entire city all at once. Scenic overlooks sometimes have hours that may not work with the photography I have in mind. So I need to check ahead and ensure an overlook will be open past 7:30 for my evening skyline shot, for example.
Sometimes the best city shots come through exploring nature. Some of the mountains that surround a city in a basin or coastal plain can give extraordinary angles for easy viewing. Some of the best views of Hong Kong come from the hills surrounding the city, like the one below!
Drone photography is becoming increasingly popular. For those who may have been sleeping the past few years, drones are unmanned remote control aircraft. They can even carry light payloads like cameras and will give you unmatched views of cityscapes from equally unmatched angles. Instead of paying $500 for a one-time helicopter ride through New York you can buy a drone and capture as many incredible views of Manhattan as you want.
Keep in mind that it’s not as simple as buying a drone, attaching a camera, and taking off. There are rules and regulations in place to ensure the safety of yourself, your drone, and the public at large. Take time to familiarize yourself with them at the FAA website.
Leading lines in Composition
Leading lines are a basic composition element that works especially well in cityscape photography. So what are leading lines? They are lines that draw the eye of the viewer across the image to the main subject. And cities are full of such lines. Roads, power lines, streetcar rails, signs, the edges of buildings…All of these can be used in a dynamic fashion once you start seeing in terms of photographic composition.
One of the best uses of them is to create a connection between the foreground and background. A photo of a lake with a mountain in the distance can feel slightly disconnected if the mountain seems to jut out of the lake’s horizon. But photos of roads or railways stretching into the horizon are classic because the road or railway creates a connection between the foreground and background, even if the background stretched into infinity.
Other leading lines you could use are bricks, stacked objects, doorways, windows, canals, and even the rays of the sun peeking through clouds. Sometimes tilting your camera can create intriguing geometric shapes that cause leading lines to become more obvious. Leading lines are one of my best tools for creating emphasis on a particular subject.
Cityscape photography is a very diverse type of photography. It covers not just expansive views of cities but even a bit of street photography. The idea is to capture the beauty of some of the largest man-made structures on earth and give the viewer the sense of being there themselves. Getting used to narrow apertures and low light levels can be challenging but the photographic rewards speak for themselves.
Photo by 12019 / CC0 1.0