Five Strategies for Photographing Cities

Five Strategies for Photographing Cities

Travel photography is mostly associated with exploration of wild, untouched spaces, but in my experience, most commissioned travel photography takes place in cities. This article provides five tips for getting started in urban photography.

When I first got into photography, my aim was to share the beautiful wilderness on my doorstep. Civilization was a town with one general grocery store and a gas station. When I received my first travel photography commission, it presented a bit of a twist. The agency asked me to create images similar to the images in my portfolio, but this time, within the city limits with the purpose of promoting the city. I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the process. The downside of not being able to experience nature on my own was countered by the productivity I was able to achieve due to the concentration of attractions concentrated in a city.

This caused me to make a shift in my travel photography trips. Instead of simply flying into a location and heading straight to the wilderness, I decided to split my time between an interesting city followed by wilderness. This strategy paid off for my career. In 8 years of professional travel photography covering 55 countries, only two commissions were of wilderness.

For a photographer, a city is the perfect playground. Whether you’re into portraiture, landscapes, architecture or street photography, a city has something on offer for you. These days, urban photography is a niche on its own, but for anyone thinking of building a travel photography portfolio with urban images, here are some ideas for getting started.  

1. Take a Tour

When I visit a large city, I’ll often start off with a bus tour. Doing a bus tour helps to orientate myself around the city and also helps me feel like a tourist — staring in wonder at all of the sites, snapping away with little concern about the quality of the pictures. This frame of mind is conducive to creating compelling images.

Les Invalides

Les Invalides is an iconic building in Paris that was introduced to me through the bus tour. The elevation from the bus roof also helped give a unique view.

I sit on the bus without getting out for the entire route and take note of what I’d like to see again at my own leisure. Once I’ve done the bus route, I use the bus as free transport to get around the city.

One advantage of doing a tour is hearing the stories of the different sites. For example, in Shoreditch, London, the area is full of old Victorian brick warehouses. The warehouses have all being converted into trendy shops and offices which is quite apparent on street level. Recently, I did a tour where my guide pointed out that due to the strength of the Victorian brick structures, they have been able to build large extensions on top of the original structure. Once it was pointed out to me, it completely transformed my experience of the area. There is a second city, a contemporary, modern city, built on top of the original city.  

2. Plan for Light

When I’m exploring a city, if I see something I like, I’ll photograph it, but that is just the starting point. I’ll take note of the position of the sun and any external artificial lighting and will return when conditions are better for photography. Apps like Sun Seeker, The Photographer's Ephemeris, and Accuweather are excellent tools for planning for the best possible time to photograph a subject in the city.

Most times, in the city, the best time for photography is morning or evening twilight. During twilight, many of the iconic buildings are lit with lighting designed to show off the building. Twilight also requires a slow shutter-speed. This helps solve the problem of crowds and traffic in front of the sites by abstracting them.

3. Plan for Vantage Points

When planning to photograph a city, I like to use two different vantage points; bridges and viewpoints.

Photographing from next to a bridge bridge allows me to use the bridge as a lead in line to my subject. Photographing from a bridge means being located over a river. This means that there is empty space in front of whatever I’m aiming to photograph. Empty space is crucial for clean, architectural images.

Viewpoints provide the classic view of a city, but they are often difficult to get access to. For example, the South African high commission in London has fantastic views over Trafalgar Square, but to get rooftop access requires a written application followed by a meeting with management.

Because of the difficulty in getting access to city viewpoints, I search for them prior to visiting. Before I visited Paris for the first time, I searched for "Paris viewpoints". It took a bit of digging, but I found a recommendation for Montparnasse. In my opinion, the views over Paris from the tower are unrivaled and being relatively unknown, un-crowded too.

Tour Montparnasse

The view from Tour Montparnasse, one of the best vantage points in the city.

4.    Look for the Unusual

Going through our pictures from cities we've visited, it is the unusual or quirky images that tell the most about the city. While looking out for the unusual, I also look for unusual views of familiar subjects. I’m constantly amazed at how many award-winning images are of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every time I see a different take on it, I’m sure that there are no more possible views of it, only to be proven incorrect the following week.

I like to challenge myself to photograph a well-known attraction in a way that is not obvious. These images are always more interesting than the typical postcard view. Being original in areas that are well known is not easy however. I use the following techniques to help see more creatively:

  • Look for reflections of the attraction: windows, reflective metal and water are normally found in abundance around attractions. Showing glimpses of the attraction in an unexpected environment helps create a more interesting picture.
  • Use the attraction as an anchor for a wider scene.
  • Show the detail: the detail in an attraction is often ignored and can be just as interesting as the main attraction.
  • Implied scenes: the scenes around an attraction will often imply the presence of the attraction, for example, artists creations of the attraction. Using these clues, it is possible to photograph an attraction without showing it.
  • Introspection: What is it about an attraction that you find particularly? If you find it interesting, so will your viewers.

Eiffel Tower

Usually, I like a clean view of my subject with little distractions, however, with the Eiffel Tower familiar to everyone, I enjoy that it is partially cut off and there is a street scene unfolding in front of it.

5.    Capture Personality

Every city that I’ve visited has its own unique personality. Ultimately, it is the residents of the city that give the city its personality.

City of Love

In the City of Love, couples were an obvious choice, but the pug on a leash added more to the story of Paris.

To show off this personality, there are a number of different options:

  • Street scenes showing day to day life
  • Images showing how people express themselves through art and culture.
  • Sports activities that can make a city unique, for example, all the activities on Rio de Janeiro beaches.
  • Unique food and places to eat.

Focussing on the human element not only helps convey the personality of a city, it also enables photography throughout the day. For example, I’ve found that the best time to photograph food is at lunch time, sitting inside near a window and using the window light to back light the food.

Enjoying Cities    

Although I got into photography to be in wilderness, all the opportunities I had to turn photography into a career came from cities. Initially, I thought I would hate cities, but I found the opposite to be true. Exploring a new city has become one of my favorite travel experiences. My love for architectural photography came from exploring cities and it is now my main photographic focus. So, to conclude this article, I highly recommend exploring cities with an open mind. Not only is it a crucial component of commercial travel photography, you might also find it becomes your favorite subject.  

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7 Comments

David T's picture

I always underestimated the city busses. Took them in Russia for the first time, they come in real handy. Bit expensive if traveling in a group tho.

Another way to find viewpoints are hotels or office building. In Japan I just look for tall buildings and tested how high the elevator/stars would take me. Usually there's a sky deck or sky bar somewhere.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Great comment. I recently started booking hotels strategically for the view. I should have thought to add that tip. Luckily you did!

Heard taking photo of Eifel tower at night violated copyright!!?

Jonathan Reid's picture

You heard correctly. It’s the light show that is copyright (not pictures here) and also, it only applies to commercial use.

Andres Cifuentes's picture

Cool article with some great tips, enjoyed the photos as well! What lenses do you favor for this type of photography?

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thank you. I favour architecture, so I carry around a 17 and 24tse. I also use a 24-105 as a general walk around lens.

Keith Meinhold's picture

#5 Capture Personality, fully agree. I have spent lots of time while traveling waiting for people to step out of the frame. What I have learned from sharing my photography (vacation photo album) with friends and family - it is precisely the photos with everyday people going about their business (in the presence of a landmark or whatever I am photographing) that the viewers spend the most time on. Thank you for sharing your insightful tips.