A Detailed Introduction to City and Urban Photography
Tips and Examples
The genre of city and urban photography is so broad that it is tough to narrow it all down into a single guide. Is it the grand architecture and cityscapes, the people, the weird quirky moments, or the quiet scenes. When do you shoot, how do you shoot, what settings do you use?
There is a lot to learn, but it’s all part of the package of being a complete city photographer. It’s important to learn as much as you can before you narrow down to your exact style over time.
To make this guide easier to follow, I’ve organized it into five sections. You can click on the links below to skip to a section, but I suggest taking the time to read it all first as there is a lot of nuanced information here.
- 1 A Detailed Introduction to City and Urban Photography
- 1.1 Technical Tips for City Photography
- 1.3 Composition
- 1.5 Harnessing the Elements
- 1.7 The Content
- 1.9 Street Photography & City Portraits
Technical Tips for City Photography
I’m not going to spend too much time on equipment as it is such a broad subject and there are so many different cameras that will do the trick. The technology of SLR’s has peaked and they are incredible for urban photography, but I highly suggest that you consider a mirrorless camera.
The key to becoming a good city photographer is loving to walk and explore, and the lighter the camera, the more ground you can easily cover. Mirrorless cameras are also peaking these days, the quality of the images are incredible, and they are so light. It’s a joy to walk around the city with one.
You can check out my guide to the best cameras for street photography. The cameras with interchangeable lenses on the list, such as the Fuji X-T line, the Sony A7 line, the Canon RP line or the Nikon Z line will be fantastic for city photography and a pleasure to carry around.
City photography cameras can be larger, but if you are interested in street photography, a nice light camera with a light prime lens will go such a far way.
I think photographers can go a little overboard with thinking they need every lens in the box. I’m pretty simple. I love a good 24-70mm or 24-105mm (full-frame equivalent) zoom lens for nearly all of my cityscape photography.
Some photographers swear by fish-eye or super-telephoto, but I never feel the need to go wider than 24mm and longer than 105mm just compressed an image too much for my taste. There are a few exceptions of course, but I’d rather travel light as I feel that having extra energy gets me other great photos.
For street photography, I carry a 35mm and 50mm (full-frame equivalent) lens. These allow you to get close and in on the action, are generally light and inconspicuous, and are usually very affordable. Get a small bag with a 35mm, 50mm, and a single mid-range zoom and I think you can cover nearly anything you need to in a city. Keep it simple.
Cityscape Camera Settings
While you can become a great photographer by using either the Manual, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority settings, I tend to use the Aperture Priority setting the most and Shutter Priority periodically. Particularly in cities with tall buildings, the light changes constantly, and so it makes Manual annoying to use because you have to constantly change the settings every time you turn around. Instead, let the camera do some of the work for you. Much more often than not, it works out.
You can use the exposure compensation (+/-) setting with Aperture Priority to fix a photo that is too light or dark. Situations with a lot of bright whites, dark shadows, or an even mix of both can trick the camera to exposing a scene differently from what you would want, and so those are typically where you will use the +/-.
For city photography where nothing is moving, the key is to keep your shutter speed setting always at a minimum of 1 / focal length. So if your lens is at 50mm, your shutter speed needs to be 1/50th of a second or faster. This will offset any of your handheld camera shake. Shooting in Aperture Priority necessitates that you look through the viewfinder occasionally to check that your shutter speed is fast enough.
Typically, for urban landscapes, I like to focus 1/3rd of the way into the image unless there is an important foreground element that I want to focus right on to make sure it is sharp. Because more of a scene behind what you focus on will be sharp than in front, 1/3rd is the recommended distance.
City Night Photography Settings
Tripods are excellent for night photography but are fairly useless during the day. There is rarely a reason to use a tripod during the day. However, when on a tripod, make sure to turn your image stabilization off, as the mix of the two can cause unwanted blur.
Night photography is one time where I mostly shoot in Manual mode. When you are shooting slowly and working on a tripod, locking in your exposure with Manual is ideal.
While often you want as much depth of field as possible in cityscapes, it’s important to consider the weather and wind. A very windy day can thrash around a tripod and make 30-second exposures blurry. So instead of shooting say at F16 and ISO 100, I will just raise my ISO to 800, open the aperture to F11 or F8 depending on the wind, and this will make the shutter speed much faster, often from 30 seconds to 5-8 seconds. You can then take a bunch of photos between wind gusts and come away with a very sharp photograph.
Street Photography Camera Settings
Camera Settings for street photography are fairly different from cityscape settings. You need to have a fast shutter speed to freeze motion in people (unless you want motion blur). I try to keep my shutter speed at 1/250th or faster during the day and 1/125th and faster at night. I still shoot in Aperture Priority, but I make sure to check my shutter speed setting fairly frequently.
I also like to have a decent depth of field and try to stay at F8 as often as I can. With so much happening so quickly, I don’t want to ruin the focus, and so shooting around F8 allows me to save many more photographs than shooting with F2.8 (although when it gets dark you often have no choice but to shoot at F2.8).
Raise Your ISO for Street Photography
So if you’re shooting at F8, trying to get the shutter speed faster than 1/250th of a second, and the light is not super bright, what has to give? The ISO. Street photographers use much higher ISOs than urban landscape photographers.
If I’m in direct sun for a long time, I will shoot at ISO 400, but particularly in cities, there is always a sunny side of the street and a shady side. This makes it necessary to expose your camera to make sure that shots are sharp on the shady side. If you do that, the sunny side will be sharp as well.
This is why I mostly use ISO 800 on a sunny day, 1600 on an overcast day, 3200 at dusk and into the evening, and 6400 at night. For some older cameras, you will not want to go higher than 3200 or 1600 but most newer cameras will be fine for street photography at 6400.
Experimenting with long exposures and movement can create some wonderful and creative effects. You can create great effects with cars and water of course, but my favorite technique is to use long exposures with people and crowds. Go somewhere with a big crowd and a tripod and take a lot of photographs. You will need some element of luck with the crowds to create the best exposure, so give yourself the best shot to get lucky.
Because of the long exposures needed for this, you will need to do it in darker areas such as train stations or at dusk or evening in the city. You can do this during the day, but you will need a neutral density filter to darken the amount of light coming into the camera.
Good composition is vital to create strong urban photographs. The best city photographs mix incredible content and incredible composition and light. The big difference between cityscape and street photography composition is just the time that you have to compose. With compositions for cityscapes, you can take your time, while for street photography you have to act so quickly that it becomes almost instinctual over time. The endpoints are the same, but street takes much longer to get good at.
Lead the Eyes Through the Scene
You’ve probably heard of the rule of thirds and centering. I’m not going to waste time on them here, but the key to any of these compositional rules is leading a viewer’s eyes through your image.
A rule of thirds image will create an equal play between the main subject and the background, causing the eyes to go back and forth between the two. When you decide you want the viewer to focus on one thing and one thing only, that’s when centering comes in. Great compositions will have well placed objects that will lead the eyes throughout the frame, unless you don’t want that. It’s as simple as that.
The edges of your frame are vital as well. A viewer’s eyes naturally want to move off of the image. It’s instinctual. So placing or cutting off elements on the edges and corners of your frame will stop their eyes and push them back into the center. They won’t know why, but this will make the image feel much more balanced to them as they continue to look throughout your frame with nowhere to escape.
The Instagram age has everyone photographing in such a graphic way, with straight lines and perfect perspectives. This is sometimes useful but often boring. Embrace angles. Get low, shoot from high up, tilt your camera. Angles add energy and dynamism to a frame and will make your photograph stand out.
Get Closer and Fill the Frame with a Wide-Angle View
A wide-angle view will make foreground elements much larger in relation to the background and this is something that can be great to try. It allows you to show a lot of the background while also having your main subject as prominent as possible. A telephoto view will compress these elements so much that the subject you want to standout will often end up blending in.
So get closer. Your photos will feel more intimate.
Create a Relationship Between People and the Background
Not all cityscapes will benefit from people (some people add too many people to their cityscapes), but many will. Find a great background and wait for the perfect person. And not just any person will do. The better the background, the more interesting the person has to be to complete the image. Otherwise, just let the incredible background do all the work.
When I see a beautiful background, I always try to stop myself and look around. Is there another element that I can include to make the image more interesting. Can I add a person, shoot through tree branches, or add another building. There are so many perspectives that you can capture that you should stop yourself to look around. It’s amazing how much you can improve an image just by looking around for a minute.
Harnessing the Elements
Ultimately, we’re constrained by the natural elements that the city gives us, so we want to use those to the best of our ability. We want to seek out the best light, the best elements, the best times of day, and capture the best weather to make our photographs stand out as much as possible.
Not much more can be said than working with light is vital to your photography. Many people talk about the golden hour just before and during sunset where there are incredible colors and shadows, the blue hour after sunset where the lighting is cool and even, and night photography where everything sparkles. Those are commonly thought of as the best lighting times for photography, and that’s not an incorrect statement. By photography a city at these times, you will have the most opportunities to come back with gorgeous photographs.
Take advantage of this, but don’t sleep on the other times of day. I love mid-day photography. It will constrain you in certain ways, and you will sometimes see gorgeous views that just don’t look good in the middle of the day, but it will open up many new opportunities for photographs that you will miss out on by just photographing in the early morning and evening.
The shadows become so much more of a part of the image. You can capture contrasty photographs, hazy photographs, unique looks that you can’t create at any other time of day. I suggest treating the middle of the day as you would the golden hour, and seek out areas where the lighting just adds a fantastic mood.
Photograph in ‘Bad’ Weather
There is no more spectacular time to photograph a city than in the snow, rain, or a storm. Be careful of course, but go out when no one else is. And besides the photographs, just being out in this weather in incredible locations is a special feeling.
I’ve used all types of camera coverings, but still revert to using the pharmacy plastic bag as my favorite rain and snow cover. I will pop a hole in the middle, place my lens with lens hood through, and use gaffers tape to hold it tight. three small towels in a bag to keep my lens and camera dry, and I‘m good to go.
Photograph at Night
Similarly to bad weather, cities just look better at night and there is not much I enjoy more. Of course, you need to be safe and careful and plan where you are going or take a friend or two depending on where you are.
For cityscape photography, a tripod is highly recommended and usually necessary, but you can get away with high ISOs on new cameras handheld. You will just come back with grainier images.
For street photography, I recommend going handheld and shooting at ISO 3200 or 6400. With an aperture of F2 and a shutter around 1/125th or 1/80th, you can photograph freely and quickly as you would with street photography at any other time of day. The added noise in the image will still look beautiful and is often celebrated in street photography. With a tripod, you will just be too slow to capture those fast-moving moments.
The key for street photography at night is to seek out the light. Find light sources such as lampposts or shop windows. You will want to position yourself between the light source and the subject. See where the light source is aiming and make sure your camera can capture that. Find those great locations with great lighting and wait for subjects to enter your scene.
Color Versus Black and White
Photographing a city in color or black and white is so subjective to the photographer that it’s impossible to say one is better. But there are significant differences to talk about.
Color can enhance cityscapes during some of the best lighting times to shoot such as the golden hour and blue hour. It can feel more modern, playful, and complex. But it is much more difficult than black and white to work with. A bright orange backpack can ruin an otherwise perfect color image.
Typically I shoot with auto-white balance because it is so accurate and works very well with the constantly changing lighting conditions in a city.
Black and white can make a photograph feel more classic. Highlights and shadows are much more pronounced and faces stand out much more without competition from color. Lines and designs can be enhanced as well. Contrasting a very modern scene with a classic black and white look can be very effective as well. A scene that is ruined by an orange backpack can be saved by turning it into black and white.
This is all personal taste but these are things to consider when figuring out what you prefer.
Making a photograph beautiful is one half of the battle. The other half is creating interesting images.
Access and Research
Learning about your subjects can enhance what you photograph in a city. As a certified tour guide in New York, the knowledge from reading about areas that I like to explore opens up a new world of detail and content. It’s important to learn about what you are photographing for this reason.
Reading, research, and hiring guides, can all help to give you a more nuanced view of where to go and what to photograph. Ultimately what to photograph should be up to you, but some guidance at first can be vital.
Similarly, search for access as much as possible. See a view that you want to capture, but can’t find an open vantage point, ask a building super if he will help you get the shot. Talk to a business owner. Trade a print for access. People will be willing to help, but you just need to ask.
Make Everyday Objects Beautiful
Particularly with New York, but with cities in general, the grand views are what often come to mind. But cities are complex environments and there is so much to photograph beyond the grand. Simple scenes, storefronts, walls, little details all can make for a special photograph. Look down instead of up and find some hints that uniquely talk about the city. I find this type of photography to be amongst the most interesting that there is.
Think Outside the Box
Create weird photographs. Look for things that others aren’t noticing. Photograph in the opposite direction of everyone else. Get lost and go somewhere that isn’t grand. Find regular neighborhoods and figure out how to create interesting photographs. Just get weird with it. A lot of people might not understand these photographs, but many will, and when you capture a spectacular one, it will stand out amongst the crowd.
Despite what you may see from typical urban photography, cities are imperfect places. They are too fast, there’s too much anxiety, they’re sweaty, they’re cold, the light isn’t perfect, a building is in the way, you name it. Similarly, photographs don’t need to be perfect.
Find beauty in the imperfections. Capture weird angles, unsharp photographs, skewed horizons, bad lighting, and ‘boring’ photographs. Figure out how to make things interesting that are thought of as typically imperfect. You can create a fascinating and realistic body of work this way.
Street Photography & City Portraits
We’re going to end this urban photography article by talking about street photography. People are just as important and interesting as the architecture in any city, if not more so. The people make up the heart of any city, and to be a complete city photographer, it’s important to learn how to capture them.
Street photography is the art of capturing not just the people of a city, but the soul of a city and the stories of a city.
For a detailed primer to learn street photography, you can view this article, What is Street Photography? An Introductory Guide. But here are some of the most important tips.
If you are new to street photography and looking to get comfortable, street portraits are a great way to start. Stopping a person on the street that you find interesting for an impromptu photo session will quickly help you get over your nerves and show you that you’re not doing anything wrong. Some people will say no of course, but you will be surprised by how asking someone to take their photo can make their day.
Find a great background in a well-trafficked area and wait for a person that catches your attention to walk by. And don’t always pick the flashiest person – find people that have a special quality to them, but this special quality can be anything. It doesn’t just have to be how they dress.
If someone agrees to do a quick session with you, make sure to take the time to get some good photos. It’s common for people to get nervous, take a few photos, and that’s it, but you owe it to the person to take a good picture. Make sure the background works, make sure the person is standing right, and don’t let them give you a cheesy, forced smile. If a person looks uncomfortable, then pose them or tell them to try to stand in a position that’s comfortable for them and to not think too much about the camera in front of them.
The best part about doing this is that you get to send them great photos. Take the person’s information down and send them a few of the best photos. This will make their day.
While portraits are a great way to get your nerves in check, traditional street photography is all about being candid. We want natural moments and expressions. We don’t want to take people out of their element. This makes things much more difficult, but with a little practice, it becomes much easier.
The key is to do a little acting. I usually shoot very quickly so that people won’t notice, but I often try to look like I’m looking at the background behind a subject. That way they think they’re just in your way. Sometimes you might even point your camera up at a building behind a person to pretend you’re photographing it, then point the camera at the person, take the photo, and point the camera back up at the building. This way, it just looks like you were looking around with your camera.
Street photography is about walking and exploring, but it’s important to occasionally pick spots and wait around. If you pick a spot with good foot traffic, you can allow people to enter your personal space instead of you entering their space. This makes it much easier to get close shots without people noticing that you were photographing them. Find a good street corner, lean against a lamppost, and just wait for something interesting to happen. This is often how some of the best street photos are captured.
If you get caught, just own up to it. Be honest, tell the person you were just capturing interesting people around the city and you thought they looked great. A little flattery can go a long way. If they seem uncomfortable, kindly offer to delete the photograph.
Capturing Expressions and Gestures
Some of the best street photography moments will occur out of nowhere and you will know it when you see it. You need to be quick with a camera as spontaneity is key. This can be tough to mix with city landscape photography, which is much more methodical. In street photography, if you sense a moment might be happening, you need to go with your gut and react as quickly as possible to capture the photo. More often than not it will turn out not great, but when everything comes together, the photograph will be spectacular.
But those moments only come when they come. What do you do for the rest of the time? Look for expressions and gestures of course. Street photography is about sharing feelings and emotions, and capturing emotions in people is an important way of doing that.
Try to see who is wearing their emotions on their sleeves, so to speak. Who can you tell is deep in thought based on looking at them. Really look at people’s eyes. You never know who is going to give you that expression that can carry an entire picture.
Similarly, gestures are just as important. Look at how people carry their bodies, their arms, their hands, their legs. This can give us a lot of information and create a spectacular photograph.
Street Photography Without People
Isn’t street photography without people just cityscape photography? No, not at all. The two have lots of similarities but are actually extremely different. A cityscape photograph is typically about being beautiful. That is usually the goal. A street photograph without people is the same as a street photograph of a person. You are trying to show something in the photograph that is beneath the surface. Of course, you want the photo to be beautiful, but there is much more going on besides that.
Search for moments and backgrounds in the city that say more than meets the eye.
I know this article is a lot to take in at once, but the next step is just to walk out the door. The best city photographers love to walk and love to explore. No matter what you read or learn, the true key is to spend a lot of time walking and looking for that next spectacular moment. The more you walk the more the photography gods will reward you.
As a photographer and certified tour guide, I can take you around to some of the most beautiful and interesting locations to photograph New York.
Read more about my private photo tours and street photography workshops.