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Design & Style

Guide to City Photography: 8 Tips for Urban Photographers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 27, 2020 • 4 min read

Urban photography is one of the most exhilarating forms of photography, but the constant activity of urban environments can be somewhat overwhelming. With the proper tips and enough practice, though, you'll learn how to capture the essence of any city.

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What Is Urban Photography?

Urban photography is a broad term describing photography that showcases all aspects of an urban environment, combining elements of many other types of photography, including portrait, fine-art, landscape, and architecture photography as well as photojournalism. Urban photography is easily confused with street photography, but the genres are distinct. Street photographers specifically take candid photos of only people. Urban photography, on the other hand, may or may not be candid and is not limited to photographing people.

8 Tips for Shooting Urban Photography

No matter the size of the city you're shooting, these urban photography tips should help you capture the best photos possible.

  1. Choose a camera that fits your needs. There are pros and cons when it comes to using a mirrorless camera or DSLR camera for urban photography. A mirrorless compact camera is small and lightweight, which means it takes less of a physical toll on your body when you’re walking around shooting for long periods of time. The pros of shooting with a DSLR camera are that you'll have a greater lens selection, longer battery life, and an optical viewfinder that works better in low-light conditions. Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras produce comparable quality photographs, so weigh the importance of each camera type's benefits and decide which will allow you to be the best urban photographer you can be.
  2. Use color to your advantage. Make the most of vibrant bursts of color throughout your urban environment. Whether it's a pedestrian's colorful jacket in a sea of neutral colors, or a patch of bright green grass growing from a cobblestone walkway, seek out color and photograph it with intention. Alternatively, if you think showcasing colors might distract from the story you're trying to tell in your photo, consider shooting in monochrome to remove colorful distractions.
  3. Use natural light to guide your shot selection. A bright overcast day is ideal for urban portrait shots, as the light is soft and spreads evenly over your subjects. On the other hand, a sunny day creates harsh lighting conditions that are unsatisfactory for portrait shots but can work wonders for urban candid and architectural photography. Sunny days produce contrast, bright highlights, and dark shadows that let you showcase urban geometry in creative ways. When shooting night photography, one of the best ways to capture the spirit of a city is to use natural city light sources like street lamps or neon signs to illuminate your main subject. For beginner urban photographers, your camera's auto-white balance setting is an easy way to produce great photos in the majority of a city's dynamic lighting conditions.
  4. Use slow shutter speeds to capture motion. Knowing the right camera settings to effectively capture the hustle and bustle of a city environment is crucial to success in urban photography. In order to add motion blur to your photographs—to capture a bike messenger speeding around a street corner, for example—you'll want to use a long exposure. To do this, set your camera to shutter priority mode and choose a slow shutter speed. The slower your shutter speed, the more motion blur will appear.
  5. Know the right lens for the right situations. Use a wide-angle lens (16mm to 28mm) for shooting urban landscapes; wide-angle lenses let you capture more of the surrounding sights in your frame with minimal distortion, making them perfect for photographing large cityscapes. A standard 35mm or 50mm lens is ideal for candid shots since these focal lengths provide the generally same field of view as the naked eye (35mm for cropped frame cameras and 50mm for full-frame cameras). While zoom lenses are bulkier than prime lenses (fixed focal length lenses) and not always as sharp, a standard kit 18mm to 55mm zoom lens is a great choice for beginner urban photographers due to its versatility in almost all circumstances. Telephoto lenses, which are useful for distant subjects, are not ideal for urban photography since they're large, heavy, and extremely conspicuous.
  6. Shoot during golden hour. The magic hour immediately before sunset or after dawn is the perfect time to photograph a cityscape. During this time of day, the unique warm lightning can transform city sights with bursts of color and shadow. Golden hour is an especially popular time to capture the skyscrapers that tower over a city landscape.
  7. Change your vantage point. Elevating your point of view above eye level can offer a new perspective on a scene. For a higher vantage point, seek out hills, balconies, parking garages, tourist observation decks, and tall building rooftops. You'll be surprised how city streets and architecture form brand new shapes when you perceive them from above. A low vantage point can be a great way to play with scale and showcase overlooked urban features.
  8. Be friendly and charismatic. When you're not shooting candid shots, striking up a pleasant conversation and politely asking permission to take a street portrait goes a long way. A subject who feels uncomfortable when they see a stranger taking their photo might open up when first greeted with a warm smile and a brief introduction. If the person seems like they don't want to participate, avoid pushing them further and instead thank them and walk away. If you see a captivating home, chatting with the owner may even provide you with additional insight into the structure's features, helping you take a better photograph.
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