Urban landscape photography is a popular genre among photographers. When I think of landscape photography, it is often wide open vistas, mountains, and sea. But landscape photography can be more.
The Urban landscape is related to cityscape, architecture and street photography. In urban landscapes, we preferably want to avoid too many people in the images. When including people it typically merges into the street photography genre.
To me, urban landscape photography is different from city landscape photography. Photographing urban landscapes is primarily about making images of man-made constructions within the city. It is about isolating the smaller parts the city is built upon, as buildings, bridges, and streets.
It is about portraying the personality of the city. Cityscapes, however, is to me photos showing an overview of the “whole city”, the skyline - the family portrait with all “family members” included.
Shooting urban landscapes can be fun and awarding, but there are a few things you should be aware of to get the most out of it.
Research before you go
To get most out of the place where you plan to photograph urban landscape, you should preferably scout the area.
If you plan to shoot at night, it is better to do the scouting during daytime. By doing proper research, you can avoid surprises.
Some areas are not open to the public and photographing is not allowed. If you are unsure check it and get permission before entering. It has become almost impossible for photographers to set up a tripod in many public places. The security guards will approach you immediately and ask you to pack the tripod away.
The more professional you look, the more likely the security guards will ask you to leave. For a security guard, the rule is the bigger camera, the more likely you are a pro. By using a DSLR with a long lens, you are at a higher risk than if you shoot with a smaller mirrorless camera or your iPhone.
Best time to shoot urban landscapes?
If you plan to photograph in a city the best time is as early as possible in the morning. At this time, the streets are cleaner. There are fewer boards on the streets outside shops. There is less trash and paper on the street.
Another important reason to shoot early is it is fewer people in the streets. With less disturbing elements in the street, you can focus on the main subjects, the buildings.
Early in the morning the air is fresher with less pollution from cars and other traffic. The best time to photograph urban landscape if you want to avoid disturbances is probably early Sunday morning.
The light is an important factor also in urban landscape photography. Early morning is good with the soft golden light.
If you cannot shoot in the morning, late afternoon is the second best time to photograph. Late afternoon you will have similar light conditions as in the morning, but you can expect more haze and air pollution. The sun heating the city during the day amplifies this effect.
If you shoot after sunset in the dark, you must be aware of the high dynamic range in the scenes. If most of the streets are dark, the lights inside buildings will become very bright compared to the shadow areas. You might need to bracket and create an HDR image in such situations.
Urban landscape photography tips - what to shoot?
Shoot details of buildings
Go close and photograph details like doors and windows. Look for colors and reflections
Textures on buildings
Depending on the light shadows and light can create interesting textures and patterns on the buildings
Many older cities are very colorful and totally different from the modern glass and steel constructions. Some cities are well known for their bright colored houses.
Look for contrast
Not the typical light and shadow contrast but the contrast between old and new constructions. Many cities blend old architecture with a new modern style. Try to capture old and new in the same composition.
Include the sky
If you include the sky in your urban landscape photos, it should be a sky with interesting clouds. With nice clouds in the sky, you can angle your camera up and try long exposures. The effect of the clouds moving is interesting. These images are often good for Black and White conversions.
Windows and reflections
Modern buildings are often built using a lot of glass and reflective surfaces. Use your eyes and look carefully around you. Be creative and you will find interesting ways to use reflections. A small change of camera angle can make a big difference, so move a lot and try different vantage points.
After rain, reflections from the wet streets can create interesting photo opportunities.
Graffiti and street art
Include this controversial form of art in your urban landscape photography. Graffiti is often regarded as vandalism, but some of the creations are really good and makes for interesting photos. Try to include graffiti as part of your composition. Make it blend naturally into your scene.
When looking at modern constructions most of them consist of straight lines. Straight lines are unlike what we find in nature when shooting landscapes. Most of the lines in nature are curved.
But no rule without exception, some modern constructions are built with a curve design. You should look for these and if possible combine curved lines with straight lines for contrast and interesting urban landscape compositions.
Photographing car lights at night is the first experience with long exposure photography for many beginners. In urban landscape photography at night, car trails are fun to photograph and well worth trying.
You should if possible find a higher vantage point as the effect is best when seen from above. But no worries you can also shoot car light trails down on the ground.
Light signs and illuminated advertising panels
Different types of light are an important part of the urban scene. These are often colorful and can be great subject when photographing at night.
Document the changes taking place in a city. Follow the development of the city you live in. Find a construction or renovation site and take a shot per day or per week. This type of images can show to be valuable after some years when the “old” city is history.
Think composition - change perspective
Be creative and look for the best perspective. Shooting buildings straight from the front is not very interesting. You should move and take the photo from an angle where you get two sides of the building in the frame. This way you will compose a much more interesting photo.
Urban landscape photography is no different from other landscape photography. You must be able to create order from chaos. A lot is going on in a city so you must be able to isolate your subject by composing your photos in a pleasing way.
How to deal with people in the images?
In urban landscape photography, people are not the focus so try to avoid including them in your shots. The goal with urban landscape photography is to photograph what the people have made and their influence on the city, not the people themselves.
It is of course not easy to avoid people in a city. If you cannot shoot at times with fewer people, there are different workarounds for this problem. One of the fastest methods is by using Photoshop's Script tool as explained in this tutorial.
Inside a city, a wide angle lens is the most useful. You get more of the scene in the frame. The problem with wide angle lenses is distortion. When tilting a wide angle lens upwards, converging verticals will appear. Some like it and other don’t.
I think converging lines is what makes photos of tall buildings interesting. It changes the reality but everyone understands tall modern buildings are standing straight.
However too much converging verticals on older building might be more of a problem. Is the building about to fall over or not? You can do quite a lot in Photoshop to fix converging verticals and distortion.
Don’t forget to try your telephoto lens as well. With this lens, you can capture details of the city interior.