City landscape photography to me is about photographing the city from a distance.Urban landscape photography that I have written about in this article is about photographing what is inside the city. City landscape photography is often skylines photographed at night.
If you don’t live in a big city with the typical skyline you can still photograph city landscapes, so no worries. In this article, I will give you some ideas on how to photograph city landscapes and what challenges you have to deal with.
What you will learn:
- What gear to use
- Creative ideas for shooting city landscapes
- Important camera settings
- Best times to photograph city landscapes
Which gear do you need?
Fortunately, you don’t need that much gear to photograph city landscapes. Most of the cityscapes we see are shot at nighttime. Photographing in low light is one of the most challenging conditions you can photograph in, not for you necessarily, but for your camera.
In these conditions you can tell the difference between an expensive camera and a Point and Shoot or Smartphone camera. The smaller camera sensor in the latter will introduce more noise to the images.
But this is a small thing for most of us so don’t let this stop you from shooting city landscapes at night. Unless you plan to make big prints, you will not notice the noise.
In addition to the camera, I strongly recommend you to use a sturdy tripod. In my opinion, you should always use a tripod when photographing landscapes. Because city landscape photography is best at nighttime, the tripod is a must.
It depends on how far away from the city skyline you are. Most likely you will need a focal length from 50mm (normal) and up to a small telephoto lens. Extreme wide angle lenses are probably not the lens you will use when photographing cityscapes.
For long exposures, it is an advantage using a remote or cable release. You don’t want the camera to move. If you don’t have one, you can use the camera self-timer. With the self-timer, you will be limited to a maximum of 30 seconds exposures.
You don’t really need filters for city landscape photography, but if you want to get creative, a ND filter can be handy. At night you rarely need any filters. But if you want to shoot long exposures during day time it might be a necessary thing to use.
City landscape photography ideas
- Try to get up to a high point for a great view of the city. If it is not possible to climb to a higher viewpoint, go very low instead. If the city is by the sea or water, include the reflections from the water in your photo.
- If there are boats moving on the water, try long exposure and get the movements of the boats.
- Even if there is nothing moving on the water, try long exposure anyhow and blur the water. The silky effect of water is always interesting.
- Many cities are located by the sea or a river. If this is the case, there are most likely bridges you can include for an interesting composition.
- Another option to create blur is to photograph car trails. If possible climb a bit up so you can photograph the streets and cars from above. A shutter speed of 10-20 seconds should be fine in most situations
- Set the aperture to the highest possible on your lens, f22 or something near. When closing down the lens, you will see the typical star effects around light sources.
You might have heard you should avoid stopping your lenses all the way down because you lose image quality. Maybe you do, but the heck, why not create some cool effects in the camera.
Everything must not be perfect
Photography is about being creative and that is a valid point in city landscape photography as well. So why not try some creative effects.
If you have a zoom lens, try to zoom the lens during exposure. You need to set the camera to a shutter speed of 1/2s or longer to get the effect. It is best to use a tripod, but hand-held can also work. Expect to try a few shots before you get it right. This is a trial and error exercise.
Remember now you are creative so it is no longer about getting a pin sharp image. You get different effects when zooming in compared to zooming out. Try both and see what you like.
Long exposure during daytime
If you can not photograph city landscapes during the golden hour or at night, do it during daytime. Did you know you can do long exposure at daytime? You can, with a filter in front of your lens. An ND filter will do the trick.
The Neutral Density (ND) filter blocks light from hitting the camera sensor. During daylight, there is too much light to allow for longer shutter speeds of several seconds without this filter.
The effects you get at daytime are similar to what you can do at night. You can blur water and cars. Instead of the light streaks from the car lights at night, the cars themselves will create the streaks during daytime.
If your normal exposure without filter is let's say f8 at 1/125s, the shutter speed will be 8 seconds with a 10-stop ND filter. That's long enough for some blurry effects.
Remember, if you stop the lens down one f-stop more, to f11, you have to double the shutter speed to 16 seconds. That can make a difference.
Shoot a panoramic photo of the skyline
Panorama photos are impressive when made the right way. If you are in a place where it is possible to view the city from far distance, it is perfect for a panorama shot. A wide angle will not do, so you will have to use a longer focal length.
Remember to position your camera in a vertical orientation for panoramas. Take as many exposures you need to cover the whole scene and stitch them when you are back home.
Camera settings for city landscape photography at night
In dim light, the camera autofocus is not effective. Even expensive cameras will struggle to focus when the light is low. So take control and set the focusing to manual. Use a single focus point and focus on any of the bright city lights.
Another challenge when photographing cityscapes at night is high contrast. The window light from the buildings is very bright compared to the darker areas of the city. The high contrast might confuse the camera exposure reading leaving you with a too dark of to bright exposure.
A good start is to set your camera to Aperture priority mode (A or Av) and make a test shoot. Have a look at the histogram on the LCD screen.
If the curve creeps up on both the left and right side of the histogram the dynamic range of the scene is extremely wide. In this situation, the contrast between light and dark is so wide it is not possible to make a proper exposure in one single shot.
You will need to bracket your exposures and blend them in Photoshop or HDR software. In most situations when shooting skylines at night, two images will be enough. You make one exposure for the highlights and one for the shadows.
For best control set the metering to manual and adjust aperture and shutter till you get the wanted exposure.
In Manual mode, you have control of the Shutter speed as well in case you want to blur water in front of or clouds above the skyline. I photograph all my photos at night with my camera in Manual Modes.
Be sure to set your ISO to the lowest possible. The lower ISO, the less noise.
Be sure to turn off the Flash on you camera. It is funny to see how many who tries to photograph a distant scene with the Flash turned on. You should always remember the flash only have a reach of a few meters and will be of no help in city landscape photography.
Shoot in RAW because you want the keep as much info as possible on the image sensor.
When to shoot the classical skylines
You can do city landscape photography any time of day. However, there is a reason many of the photos we see are shot in low light. A skyline is pretty at night when the lights inside the buildings are on.
If you photograph older cities or architecture, the golden morning or evening light is best. Brick buildings will often look better in warm golden light. We all have different taste so you should try different light conditions.
When you photograph modern architecture with a lot of glass and reflective surfaces, you should try to shoot during the blue hour. The cold blue light works well on steel and glass constructions
Seven minutes between the two images above makes a big difference. The sun was setting and in the last image the warm golden light was hitting the buildings inside of Vernazza, Italy
A final word, don’t forget about composition when photographing city landscapes. Composition, as always, will make the difference between a good and mediocre photo.
Make sure your horizon line is straight. As with other landscape photography, try to compose so you have a foreground, middle ground and a background. Only the skyline in the distance can be boring.