In the 1930s, Margaret Bourke-White famously climbed onto the gargoyles of New York’s Chrysler Building, looking out over her city from 800 feet above the street. Later, Andreas Feininger photographed the Empire State Building from Great Notch Mountain, and Walker Evans immortalized the now-iconic view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge.
As cities evolve and grow, photographers find new ways to capture them, seeking unexpected perspectives and daring to soar to new heights. We interviewed four such artists about their gravity-defying work: Sean Lawrence and Mitul Shah in Toronto, Alex Holland in London, and Beno Saradzic in Dubai. In this guide, they share their best tips for emerging cityscape photographers.
“The city has a thousand faces. It changes with the weather, seasons, special events, holidays, and more. Old buildings are knocked down and replaced by others. A skyline is an ever-shifting shape.”
1. Start locally
“As a resident photographer, you will always have the advantage over a visiting photographer, so my advice is to shoot local,” Beno urges. “The city has a thousand faces. It changes with the weather, seasons, special events, holidays, and more. Old buildings are knocked down and replaced by others. A skyline is an ever-shifting shape.”
As a local, you’re the most qualified to shoot your hometown, and you’ll have the whole year to do it. If you’re visiting someplace else, reach out to local photographers! “They know all the best secret spots in town and the coolest vantage points,” Beno says.
2. Seek high(er) ground
Beno also recommends looking for higher vantage points to capture the full breadth of the city. “Altitude is everything,” he continues. “I can’t emphasize this enough. Having a few meters of clearance above the rooftops of the city opens the horizon and shows the true scale and form of the city. You get to see more structures, windows, and neon signs, which look particularly engaging at night. There’s a reason why the most expensive apartments are always on the higher floors.
“If you can fly a drone, that’s one option, but drones aren’t usually allowed in cities without a special permit. Another option is to head to the top of a nearby hill. Maybe your city has a castle with a watchtower or church bell tower. If you live in a modern city, there’s always a skyscraper rooftop, a tower under construction, a panoramic terrace, or the balcony of a tall building. Just make sure that you’re safe, your camera or tripod is secured, and you have any required permits if you’re accessing a spot not meant for visitors.”
“Altitude is everything. I can’t emphasize this enough. Having a few meters of clearance above the rooftops of the city opens the horizon and shows the true scale and form of the city.”
3. Walk everywhere
Another way to get to know a city–and discover those tucked-away vantage points–is by hitting the pavement. “One of my favourite things to do is just walk around the city and get completely lost,” Mitul says. “You don’t even need to check your map–just keep an eye out for how the city changes, observe how noisy or quiet neighbourhoods get, and keep moving. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon a view.”
“One of my favourite things to do is just walk around the city and get completely lost. You don’t even need to check your map–just keep an eye out for how the city changes, observe how noisy or quiet neighbourhoods get, and keep moving. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon a view.”
4. Skip the mid-day sun
“Timing is everything, and being at the right place at the right time is critical,” Sean tells us. “I recommend avoiding mid-day, as harsh light can be hard to capture well, depending on what you’re trying to portray.” Instead, schedule your shoot closer to sunrise or sunset, or shoot into the night. The favourite time among the artists we interviewed? The blue hour, which brings us to our next tip…
5. Be prepared
“My favourite time to photograph is during the blue hour, just before the sunrise and just after the sunset, when the skies are a deep blue,” Alex says. “But be aware: it is shorter near the equator, so you have to be better prepared if you plan to capture that moment. There is no room for error at the blue hour, and the perfect lighting might be a five-minute window.”
Make sure you’re set up long before that time arrives. There are two “blue hours” each day, and Alex explains that both have their selling points. “Although it is quieter early in the mornings, which makes it easier to set up a tripod, cities are generally better lit at night, and the best cityscapes will be after sunset, when you have the deep natural colours of the sky and the emerging colours of the city,” he tells us.
“However, whilst the best light is generally at night, most cities are by rivers, and the quietest time on the river is in the morning, allowing for near-perfect reflections. Either way, the best light in the sky will be in the direction of where the sun has set or risen.”
6. Stabilise your camera
“For long exposures, the most important tool is a decent tripod,” Alex explains. “It took me years to discover the importance of a steady tripod. We spend a lot of money on cameras and lenses, but then we place them on a tripod worth a fraction of the cost. A decent tripod is worth it, and it will last a lifetime. When I changed to an Arca Swiss Tripod Head and Gitzo legs, the reduced vibration in my long exposures was very noticeable.” Use a remote shutter release too.
Stabilisation is especially important when shooting from a bridge. “Some of the best views in a city are from bridges; however, they are not the steadiest locations for long exposures,” Alex continues. “Runners or heavy vehicles passing nearby will cause vibrations. To minimise these vibrations, set up your tripod on the part of the bridge above the foundations–it will vibrate far less, especially when buses rumble over the bridge.”
7. Experiment with lenses
Wide-angles are ideal for visualising skylines, but you can get those lovely details with longer lenses, so try a few options to see what works for you. Your location will also determine what angle of view you’ll need, so factor that decision into your planning. “For emerging artists, I recommend experimenting with different lenses,” Sean says. “It’s good to have a reference point, but trying new and different things is how we stand out and create our own unique styles.”
8. Close down your aperture
Speaking of lenses, Sean also suggests going for a wider depth of field so everything’s in proper focus. “Sometimes, I see people shooting cityscapes with a shallow depth of field, but when you do that, you miss the details in the photos,” he says. At the same time, beware of stopping down too much; at very narrow apertures, you will lose some sharpness, so keep it within your lens’s “sweet spot.”
9. Slow that shutter speed
To compensate for low light–and a relatively narrow aperture–you’ll need a long exposure. “Long exposures are also useful for cities because there are so many moving parts–people, cars, boats on rivers–and you can avoid capturing these if you use a long exposure (i.e. anything longer than 30 seconds),” Alex says.
“My preference is several minutes so you can capture the movement of the clouds. It is worth arriving early to a location so you can experiment with the length of the exposure and calculate how fast the clouds are moving.” Also, bring an ND filter; these will allow you to slow your shutter speed without closing your aperture so much that you lose sharpness.
10. Cut down on light pollution
“Artificial lights can produce a nasty yellow, reddish glow which ‘pollutes’ the rest of the colours in the image,” Beno adds. “To control this, I use a NISI Natural Night filter. It removes the unwanted colour cast and it helps to render the image with natural colours. It’s a cool product, and it really works as advertised.”
11. Try exposure bracketing (at night)
Dynamic range can become an issue when shooting in the city at night, but Beno proposes a solution: bracket your exposures. “Bright sources of light such as neon signs and projector lights will overwhelm your camera’s sensor,” he explains. “You will want to have one or two underexposed pictures which you will use during the editing process to recover your highlights. For that, you will use a manual exposure blending technique or HDR processing. Both methods do the job of controlling the exposure, but they each produce a vastly different-looking image.”
12. Stick around
“When I am out taking photographs and there are other photographers at the same location, I’m always surprised to see them leave early,” Alex admits. “Sometimes, they miss the best light of the blue hour. It is always worth staying out a little longer and increasing the exposure time; you might be amazed by the results.”
13. Be original
Originality is what sets you apart. “It’s easy to fall into a trap of taking a postcard-type photo, and no doubt they are beautiful,” Mitul tells us. “However, it’s always great to push yourself and see what other things you can use in the environment to improve the photo. This could be a reflection in a puddle, someone sitting on a bench, or even a large tree. These details can take your photo to the next level.”
“It’s always great to push yourself and see what other things you can use in the environment to improve the photo. This could be a reflection in a puddle, someone sitting on a bench, or even a large tree. These details can take your photo to the next level.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.