Photographing Urban Landscapes

Some people might be a little depressed by the grayness of concrete, towering skyscrapers and graffiti covered walls – but you'll find them full of photographic potential. Urban Landscape Photography looks for these photographic possibilities in the cities and urban areas where we live and work. Urban Landscape photography is a little slippery to define as it sits between a numbers of other genres. Here are few related photographic genres:

  • Cityscape Photography – urban landscapes go beyond the capturing of the big picture cityscape that is usually quote polished and clean.
  • Architectural Photography – urban landscapes are less interested in the building and it’s architectural style and more interested in what happens in and around it.
  • Candid Street Photography – urban photography focused more upon the city itself (and it’s life) than the people who live in it.
  • Urban Landscape photography is often gritty, it’s not always pretty and it can be quite abstract.

Following are 11 tips to help you improve your urban landscape photography:

1. Take a Variety of Lenses
Taking two lenses with you is usually enough for urban photography. 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 building and street scenes (be aware that they also tend to flatten pictures) but 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, take a monopod (or tripod if you're going to shoot into the evening), polarizing filters, UV filters (when you're not using the polarizer), sling style camera bag, spare batteries and generally take your external flash with you.

3. Look for Contrasts
One of the things that you'll 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, colours etc and you’ll end up with some very interesting shots.

4. Regarding People
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. The thought of 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 yourself 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.

5. Evidence of People
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 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 careful planning. 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.

7. Look for Themes
While there is real diversity in urban areas there are also many recurring themes of life. For instance: an exhibition of urban landscapes that explored the places people lived in a city – a series of people’s home ranging from park benches, to converted warehouses, to old period homes. 

8. Look for Mirrors
Many buildings these days are built with highly reflective surfaces. These can both present themselves as an opportunity and a challenge. Some stunning effects can be achieved by shooting the reflections in such buildings – to find the perfect way to do this often means you need to try lots of angles to find the best reflection. If you want to eliminate the glare or unwanted reflections from mirrors or shiny windows it is worth investing in and using a polarizing filter.

9. 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. Try 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.

10. Explore Different City Zones
One thing 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. Keep in mind that not all areas of cities are always safe – sometimes for this reason it can be wise to shoot with others.

11. Finding the Urban in the Suburban or Rural
Explore in the suburbs of your cities and even smaller towns as really urban landscapes document and explore the places where people live and gather – big or small.

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