They are dramatic, emotive and powerful but can be quite tricky to get right. I am talking about cityscape photographs. Like their rural counterparts, cityscapes need 1) forethought, 2) planning, 3) great light and 4) a little luck. In today’s article, I am going to give you some tips on achieving the first three, and hopefully improving the fourth.
Location, location, time of day
Even the smallest city can be vast to a photographer shooting without a plan. As with landscape photography, the essential ingredients to a successful cityscape are the right location, the right time, and the right light. You will rarely achieve these aims with a hope-for-the-best approach, so you need to spend some time scouting your location.
When you find the right spot, move around it, looking for the best angles. Get higher or lower; look for leading lines or other compositional elements. If you have the capability, geolocate your positions on a smart phone. This will allow you to later work out the path of the sun across your scene using a program like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or similar. This will help you find the ideal time of day to get the best light. Often that time will be either during the golden hour, the time just before or after the sun rises or sets or the blue hour which is the hour after the sun has set when the sky still has some definition in it.
A cityscape during the golden hour by Jason Row Photography…
…and during the Blue Hour by Jason Row Photography
Think about the city you are shooting. An old medieval hilltop city would probably look best in the soft yellow light of the golden hour. A modern, dynamic city will look great in the blue hour, when the city’s neon lights create a great color contrast with the deep blue evening sky. Reflections of a sunset in the glass and steel of a modern cityscape can also make for compelling images.
Dynamic and compositional elements
Modern cities are all about speed and motion. To convey this, you can use long exposure shots to get light trails from cars or boats passing by. Many of the world’s most iconic cities are built around water – New York and the Hudson River, London with the Thames, and of course Venice, with its labyrinth of canals. Waterfronts can be fantastic elements in a cityscape image, reflecting the city’s edifices and lights as well as giving you a more open view of the city’s skyline. They can also provide leading lines for our images in the form of boats or perhaps a pier jutting into a river and drawing our eye to the city beyond.
The Lightshow on the Hong Kong waterfront by Jason Row Photography
Size and scale
One of the most obvious things about cityscapes is the scale of them. This sense of scale can be quite difficult to convey in an image. Look for elements in the scene that can add a sense of scale – a local ferry boat, a small church nestling amongst giant skyscrapers – anything that can convey the immensity of the scene will make your shot much more interesting.
Try to avoid the idea that a cityscape needs to be an all-encompassing wide view. You can use a telephoto lens to isolate elements in the city; perhaps an iconic London bus crossing a bridge, or a gondola down a narrow Venetian canal. If the cityscape in front of you is so vast that even your widest lens will not do it justice, then think about a multi-image panoramic stitch. Your panoramic shot does not have to be a single set in the horizontal plane. You can shoot several levels of the city, and stitch them together as a gigapan image. If you are planning to stitch an image together, use a standard or moderate telephoto lens to create the images. This will reduce distortion and make the stitching more consistent.
The boat adds a sense of scale to this Cape Town cityscape by Jason Row Photography
Choose the right gear
Perhaps the most important element in your cityscape kitbag is not the camera or lens, but your tripod. If you want to eke out every last detail from your scene, invest in a good quality, sturdy tripod. They are not cheap, but a good quality one should outlast several generations of digital cameras and will give you a great return on your investment in the form of pin sharp images.
As for the camera – all modern DSLRs are well-suited to taking good cityscapes, but the more important consideration is the lens. You will need a good-quality wide angle lens for the sharpest photos. Not all wide angles are equal. The best lens will be one that has very low levels of pincushion or barrel distortion. These errors will manifest themselves as curvatures in what should be the solid straight lines of the buildings you are shooting. This can be corrected to a certain extent in post production; but as with all photography, the more that you can get right in the camera the better.
Shoot RAW files if you are comfortable with post production work. Not only will they give you more dynamic range, but because they are not sharpened in camera you will be able to get the perfect sharpness in post production. When shooting your cityscape, you will generally be looking for a deep depth of field. However, to get the sharpest images, avoid going past the diffraction limit of your camera. This is a point where the image starts to become unsharp due to the angle that the light is hitting the pixels. This is generally around f/8 on APS-C cameras, and f/11 on full frame sensors.
A tripod-mounted HDR cityscape by Jason Row Photography
By researching your location, pre-planning your time of shoot, monitoring the weather, and bringing the right gear, you can greatly increase your chances of producing stunning cityscape shots.