Tim and I love cities. Being from New York, the hustle and bustle of inner city life (while not for everyone) does provide great areas that are so interesting to spend time in – both on a personal level but also photographically.
Some people might be a little depressed by the greyness of concrete, towering skyscrapers and graffiti covered decaying walls (Tim’s favorite!) – but I find them full of photographic potential.
Urban Landscape Photography looks for these photographic possibilities in the cities and and urban areas where we live and work. Urban Landscape photography is often gritty, it’s not always pretty and it can be quite abstract. Very cool, especially for portraiture!
Following are 10 tips to help you improve your urban landscape photography [You can also email and sign up for one of our "Urban Photography Workshop" starting this fall in Kansas City - space is limited to 6 people per outing for maximum benefit. Only 5 openings remain]
1. Take a Variety of Lenses
I find that taking two lenses with me is usually enough for urban photography. I prefer to take one wide angle lens and a zoom with a fair bit of length to it. Longer focal lengths are useful for capturing the details of a decaying buildings or street scene detail elements that add ‘real’ character to a shot. Wide angle lenses are great for capturing the big picture and they tend to give a bigger depth of field which can add interest and a nice feel to your shots.
2. Other Gear to Take
The gear you take on an urban landscape shoot will of course reflect your own style of photography (and budget) but in addition to the above two lenses and DSLR I sometimes take a tripod if I’m going to shoot into the evening, polarising filters, UV filters, sling style camera bag (I use a Shootsac bag which I find gives me the access I need as well as being reasonably inconspicuous, spare batteries (a MUST!) and I generally take my external flash with me (although I don’t use it as much for landscape shots – it’s there more if I find a good portrait opportunity).
One of the things that Tim and I love about cities is the diversity that you can find there – both in terms of the people (it’s where all types come together) as well as visual diversity in the sites you’ll see there. Look for and capture the contrasts between architectural styles, building materials, colors etc and you’ll end up with some very interesting shots. Shoot from elevated and ground levels to add extra dimension to your subject, you may be surprised with one of the most artful shots of your career!
4. Urban Portraiture
A constant challenge for urban landscape photographers is that cities are places where people naturally gather. There’s nothing wrong with people but in urban photographs they do tend to become the focal point of shots whether you want them to be or not. Our thoughts on people in urban photography is that you either work with the fact that there are people in the shots and use them as a focal point or if possible they need to be eliminated from the shot – there’s not really too much middle ground. One way of eliminating people from shots is to shoot on weekends or after work hours. Ultimately when it comes to whether to include people in a shot or not I ask myself the questions ‘are they relevant to the shot?’ and ‘do they add or take away from the composition?’. If they add something – include them. If they distract – get rid of them. Patience is needed in most of these settings, so just prepare yourself.
If you choose to take the approach of eliminating people from your shots they almost always still live in the shots by the things that they leave there. Urban landscapes don’t always include people directly but speak about the way we live (both good and bad). It can be very powerful to look for the evidence of people in a landscape and to feature this in your shots. In doing so you add layers of interest and make your photos more dynamic.
6. Research, Research, Research Your Locations
Urban landscape photography might seem like a pretty spontaneous thing (and at times it can be) but many of the most spectacular shots are a result of very careful planning. [Tim and I may spend hours scouring a specific area looking for angles, nooks, checking lighting, and visualizing "unseen" angles, etc] It’s amazing how a location can change depending upon the time of day (as a result of angles of light especially) so scout out potential locations at different times of the day and consider returning to the same location over time to see what else it might offer. In terms of what time of day is ‘best’ to photograph – it really has a lot to do with the locations, but our preference is late afternoon, early evening (an hour or so before dusk) or on days which are overcast but where it’d not too dark.
7. Look for Themes
While there is real diversity in urban areas there are also many recurring themes of life. For instance recently in New York at the New York Photo Festival, Tim and I saw lots of urban landscapes that explored the places people lived in different Burroughs of the city – it was a series of simple city scenes bridged together bay using neighborhood elements ranging from park benches, to converted warehouses, to old period homes. Seeing them all side by side was quite powerful.
8. Shoot into the Evening
Cities change incredibly as evening comes and the lights go on. What can be a drab or featureless scene can quickly become something with a lot of character and mood. As mentioned in tip 6 above, we enjoy shooting in the twilight zone between day and night as there is still light in the sky but you also get the impact of city lights – result? Very dramatic images! This also requires patience, mentioned in tip 4, you have to want it, which means waiting for it on occasion.
9. Explore Different City Zones
One thing that fascinates me about cities is the differences in the feel and sites that you can witness from area to area. Within a block or two you can move from a business district or commercial zone to a gritty, run down industrial zone or a trendy inner city residential or shopping area. Many urban landscape photographers have a preference for one or more of these types of areas but if you’re just starting out it can be worth experimenting with exploring the possibilities that each of these areas can present you with.
CAUTION: Please, keep in mind that not all areas of cities are always safe – sometimes for this reason it can be wise to shoot with others.
10. Finding the Urban in the Suburban or Rural
Don’t live close to a “urban metro area”? That’s ok, most of what I’ve written about can be explored in the suburbs and even smaller towns as really urban landscapes document and explore the places where people live and gather – bid or small. For example, we shot Raul & Erin’s engagement session in a single back downtown alleyway in small Monett, Missouri, population around 5000. With the use of all these 10 tips, check out how the shots came out here. Believe me, with a little imagination, you can give your photo’s (no matter where you are) an urban, gritty, modern, artful flair!
I’d love to hear your feedback on these tips and if you have something you use that you’d like to share with us. We’d love to hear it. Remember – email and sign up for one of our “Urban Photography Workshop” starting this fall in Kansas City, we’ll show you how to put all these tips into real life application and make it very profitable for your business. [Only 5 openings remain]
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