A Detailed Guide to Cityscape Photography: Tips and Tricks
From the tallest buildings and wide expanses to the tiniest details of city life, there is so much possibility for what you can create with cityscape photography. The only limit is your creativity (and your walking shoes).
But all of these possibilities can be a little overwhelming and there’s a lot to learn about cameras, lenses, settings, lighting, composition, and creativity. But it should become second nature with a little work.
You can click on the section links below to skip ahead, however, there is a lot of nuanced information throughout so I suggest giving it all a read.
Jump to section:
- Cameras, Lenses, and Settings for Cityscape Photography
- Working with the Elements
Cameras, Lenses, and Settings for Cityscape Photography
These days, there are so many different types of cameras that can do the trick, from mirrorless to full frame to medium format so it’s tough to recommend a specific brand.
Fuji, Canon, Sony, and Nikon are the main brands that I recommend (I’m a huge Fuji fan myself). And while SLR’s are fantastic and the technology behind them has peaked so you can get a great deal for the quality, I recommend that you consider a mirrorless camera.
Mirrorless cameras are so much lighter and they will make it much more comfortable to walk long distances (especially if you decide to carry a tripod as well) – and the key to being a good cityscape photographer is walking!
It’s just a pleasure to walk around with a mirrorless camera, while SLRs can get cumbersome over time.
Don’t think you need to bring every lens in your collection. I see photographers stuff their camera backpacks sometimes with every possible lens they own and this can get heavy and cumbersome!
Try to keep the feelings of fear of missing out at bay. The extra energy to walk will get you many more photos than you miss out on by leaving a few lenses behind.
I keep it simple and typically stick to my 24-70mm or 24-205mm (full-frame equivalent lenses) for most of my cityscape photography. I’ll bring a 70-200mm occasionally depends on what I want to shoot.
I also rarely feel the need to go wider than 24mm with a few exceptions. I don’t like the distortion of lenses that are too wide and rarely feel the need to get that wide anyway.
And while zoom lenses are typically ideal for cityscape photography, don’t sleep on a good prime lens. I often will go out with just a 35mm or 50mm.
The lightness of these lenses will make the walk a pleasure and allow you to also shoot street photography in addition to your city surroundings. You will miss out on some cityscape photos with the limitations, but you will make up for it by capturing shots that you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise with a bigger zoom lens.
Camera Settings for Cityscape Images
Manual, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority all work exceptionally well for cityscape photos and are the three ideal settings to use.
When I am on a tripod with a lot of time to setup a shot, I typically will use Manual Mode to perfect my settings, however, the rest of the time when walking around or tight on time, I will use Aperture Priority.
In cities with tall buildings, the light changes quickly and constantly, and shooting on Manual will have you changing the settings every time this happens or every time you look in a different direction.
By using Aperture Priority, you let the camera do some of the work for you. If you pay attention to your settings, it’s almost like using Manual because you have an idea of what the camera is going to give you.
Then when you want to fix the exposure, you can just use the exposure compensations (+/-) to dial in the settings. Photos with a mix of dark shadows and bright whites can confuse the camera, so this is when you should pay particular attention to using your compensation.
Paying attention to your shutter speed is important. When shooting in Aperture Priority, I will keep an eye out for what settings it gives me.
The rule is to always have your shutter speed be a minimum of one over your focal length. So if your lens is set at 75mm, the shutter speed should be at least 1/75th of a second or faster.
This is to stop the effect of handheld camera shake – and you can see how you will need a fast shutter speed with long telephoto lenses.
For focusing, I like to set the focus around 1/3rd of the way in the scene (with the exception of it there’s a foreground element that is a focal point and I want it to be sharp. Based on optics, more of a scene behind what you focus on will be sharp than in front of it, so 1/3rd will balance this out as best as possible.
City Night Photography Settings
In my opinion, there is rarely a need for a tripod during the day – they slow you down too much. And for any rare situation when you may need one during the day, camera ISOs are so good these days that you can just raise it without worrying.
However, at night is a different story. Tripods are typically necessary for night cityscape photography, although there are many exceptions.
Half of the time, when I am focusing on capturing grand scenes and taking my time to frame epic cityscape shots, I will bring a tripod. The other half, when I’m exploring the streets for nuanced and intimate scenes, I will leave the tripod behind and shoot at ISO 3200, seeking out strong light sources from shop windows and lampposts. The results from each session will come out remarkably different.
In these situations, you want to place yourself in between your light source and the subject, to make sure the main subject is fully lit. This works great with street photography.
Remember when using a tripod, it is important to turn image stabilization off, as it can introduce blur when the camera is fully still.
And night photography is the main time where I shoot in Manual. Because of the difficult nature of exposing right and the time you have to setup a shot, I find Manual Mode to work the best.
Typically (but not always of course), you will want as much depth of field as you can get in your cityscape photos to get sharpness throughout the frame. However, you need to consider the wind.
A windy day can bump around your tripod and make longer exposures blurry. While it’s good in these cases to shoot in between gusts, usually you need to change your settings to lower your shutter speed. 30-second exposures on a windy day are much tougher to make work than say an 8-second exposure.
The key is just to raise your ISO and shoot at a faster shutter speed. Then take a lot of photos in between gusts to make sure one of them is sharp.
Long exposures can allow you to create some very creative cityscape photographs. You can do this with cars and water, but I particularly love to use it with crowds of people.
Find a good location (often where you can get high up), take a tripod, set your focus, and take a lot of photos.
Watch the movement of the crowd as people get into the right position. Usually, you will have to take a lot of photos until you get that right photograph where everyone is in the correct position.
I typically prefer a shutter speed of anywhere from 3-6 seconds for crowds. Because of this, it’s much easier to do these photographs at dusk, night, or in darker indoor places like train stations. You can do this easily during the day, but you need a strong neutral density filter to darken the lens since so much light will be entering the camera with the long shutter speeds.
And make sure to time your crowd photography with the rush hours to get the greatest effect.
Just like any good landscape, composition is one of the most important elements to consider in your cityscapes. When you can mix an interesting location with a fantastic composition and great light, that is when the magic happens.
Make sure to take your time – that is your advantage with cityscape photography because the buildings and scenes aren’t moving. Get to a location early before the light is idea so you have time to set up your shot, and then move around to explore the best angles.
Move a Viewer’s Eyes Through a Scene
Of course, there are the main compositional rules such as centering and the rule of thirds. I’m assuming you know these already but the key to them is how they can lead someone’s eyes throughout your photo.
When using the rule of thirds, this allows you to move the main subject off-center and to create a more effective play between the main subject and the background, allowing the eyes to move fluidly between both.
Successful compositions will have you place objects throughout the frame to lead the viewer’s eyes from one part of the image to the next, unless you don’t want that of course.
If you want the viewer’s eyes to fixate on one main element, this is when centering can work better.
Considering the edges of your frame is wildly important as well because a viewer’s eyes will eventually start to wander off of the edges. This is why placing elements in the corners of your photo is important. It will push the eyes back into the scene. This will allow the photo to feel naturally more balanced to the viewer and they will get lost more in the details of the photograph, but they won’t know why that is.
Finally, we need to talk briefly about Instagram, which has caused so many people to photograph in a very graphic way. Perfect perspectives and straight lines are in and often overused. While they’re necessary for a lot of photographs, this can become boring when used too much.
Try off-kilter shots and weird angles. Add some energy to your photos this way. Look up, down, get low, and get quirky with your compositions when you can to break from this norm.
Try a Wide-Angle View
Using a wide-angle lens will allow you to have larger foreground elements and smaller background elements, which can allow you to fit much more into a frame.
And because of distortion, I personally consider wide-angle to be 24-35mm and typically don’t go wider than 24mm.
This will give you the ability to show all of the background while still having your main foreground subject large in the frame. By contrast, using too much of a telephoto view can compress the elements and make your main subject blend into the scene more than you want.
So get close to your main subject with a wide-angle and your photo will feel more intimate.
Embrace People in Cityscapes
This article is not going to delve into true street photography, but some cityscape photographs can benefit from having people as an element in the frame.
The best way to do this is to find a great background and just wait for the right person to come through.
However, I see this messed up all the time. A photographer will find an incredible background and then just wait for any person to walk through to finish the scene. In these cases, the background alone was the better shot.
The more interesting the background, the more interesting the person has to be to complete the photograph. The person has to stand up to the background and add to things, rather than just becoming a random element.
Look to Combine Multiple Elements
One attribute of a good cityscape photographer is their ability to see multiple things and to move around to fit those elements together.
When I find a great location, I try to take my time, locate as many interesting elements as I can, and move around to see if I can fit them together.
I think about where the edges should be, can I combine multiple buildings or objects, does the shot need a person? How will the elements all lead into each other in a successful way?
It’s astounding how just a slight change to the composition can completely transform a photograph.
Working with the Elements
One of the main difficulties in cityscape photography is that we’re stuck with whatever the elements give us, so we have to work around them as best as possible.
This can make it much tougher when traveling because you only have a limited amount of time to be in a location. When you live somewhere you can wait for days with the perfect light or weather.
But the important thing is to time everything as best we can to capture our photos at the best times of day for the best light and in the most interesting weather.
The most repeated statement about photography is that it is painting with light, and ultimately that is very true. Without good light, there is a much tougher chance of your photograph being successful.
For good reason, people harp on the golden hour just before sunset and after sunrise where the warm colors pop, the blue hour just after when everything becomes cool and even, and night photography where cities come alive with light. These are typically known as the best lighting times for photography, and embracing them will transform your cityscapes.
But don’t pigeonhole yourself into thinking this is the only lighting you should shoot in. The variety of light throughout the day can be unique and fascinating to shoot in. I love shooting in harsh mid-day light. It constrains you in many ways and is not as easy to work with, but when you get a good photograph in this lighting it can be spectacular and unique.
In mid-day, you can create photographs with tons of contrast, hazy photographs, and weird lighting that just isn’t possible at other times.
Although it is difficult, there is nothing more invigorating than photographing in the elements. Just make sure to protect your camera.
Going out when everyone else is home. Take advantage of the wonderful opportunities in the rain, snow, or in a storm – all elements which can make a city sparkle, shine, disappear into the haze, and just flat out look special.
For extreme weather, I’ve tried every camera covering in the book, but these days I just use a good umbrella and a plastic bag with a hole in the middle to stick my lens though. I then use some gaffers tape to hold it together. And I always bring multiple hand towels and lens cloths to keep the lens and camera dry.
Color and Black and White
There is no right way to capture a cityscape when it comes to black and white versus color – it’s so subjective to the photographer and the scene.
During the most-ideal lighting times such as the blue or golden hour, color can really standout and sometimes it is a shame to remove it. It can make the photos feel more true to the scene, fun, modern, and enhance the inherent complexities of the scene.
But color is more difficult to work with. Elements of the color can often distract so much as to ruin the photograph and black and white will work much better in those cases.
I also normally use auto-white balance since it usually works very accurately under lighting situations that change constantly.
If you are looking for a more classic feel to your cityscape images, black and white is often the way to go. Shadows and highlights, lines, designs, and faces will usually stand out more in black and white.
But also keep in mind that modern scenes can take on a very cool effect when contrasted with the classic black and white feel. There really are no rules, just experimentation and personal preference.
Cityscapes are about much more than just making a beautiful city photo. That’s half the battle, but finding interesting and unique moments are just as important.
Learning and Exploring
Educating yourself about your subjects can add a new layer to what you are photographing and give you a lot of insight. As a certified tour guide in New York, the knowledge from learning about the history of the city and its architecture has allowed me to do much more with my photography. And it’s fun!
Researching, reading, watching videos, and hiring guides can help you to understand much more about where to go and what you are photographing. Wandering and getting lost is also just as important but having some early knowledge can lay the groundwork for a successful photography day or trip.
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.
Look at the Details
When you think about cityscapes, grand views are what come to mind. However, cityscapes are also about the details.
There is so much to capture on the street level that you can create grand cityscape-type photographs of all types of things other than huge buildings and vistas. Think about storefronts, quirky details, graffiti, old walls, street corners. The opportunities are endless.
When you capture a great photo of this type of content, it will often stand above the grandest of cityscapes.
Create unique and strange photographs. Look for interesting angles. Just start walking with no direction in mind and seek out all types of areas.
Try to capture what everyone else might look past.
Take these photographs for yourself and don’t worry what the norm is or what others might like the best. These photographs are for you, and I promise when you capture that special and unique photograph of the city, others will be wowed by it.
A defining characteristic of cityscape photography is often the idea of perfection. Everything needs to be in the perfect place and the lighting needs to be perfect. All the horizon lines in the photo need to be straight.
Often those rules are correct, but break them when you can. Imperfection is something that makes a photo feel real and in the moment.
Cities themselves also aren’t perfect and they shouldn’t always be portrayed that way. Look for dirty streets, fast feeling photographs, anxiety, ugly lighting. Try to make these things beautiful!
Imperfections will often ruin a photograph, but similarly, they will often make it that much better.
There was a lot to cover in this article, but there’s one tip that eclipses them all, and that is to just walk and to love the walk.
Get out the door. The best cityscape photographers love exploration and real success from photography comes from investing the time to go and seek out those incredible moment.
So get a good pair of walking shoes, travel light, and get excited to walk!
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. And I’ll tell you some history as well!
Read more about my private photo tours and street photography workshops.