They are dramatic, emotive and powerful but can be quite tricky to get right. I am talking, of course, about cityscape photographs and video clips. Like their rural counterparts cityscapes need forethought, planning, great light and a little luck. In today’s article we are going to give you some tips on achieving the first three and hopefully improving the fourth.
Location, Location and Time of Day.
Even the smallest cities can be vast to a photographer shooting without a plan. Like landscape photography the essential ingredients to a successful cityscape is the right location, the right time and the right light. You will rarely achieve these aims with a holistic approach, so you need to spend some time scouting for your location. When you find it, move around it, looking for the best angles, get higher or lower, look for leading lines or other compositional elements.
If you have the facility geolocate your positions on a smart phone. This will allow you to later work out the path of the sun across your scene using a program like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or similar. In turn this will help you find the ideal time of day to get the best light. Often that time will be either during the Golden Hour, the time just before or after the sun rises or sets or the Blue Hour which is the hour after the sun has set when the sky still has some definition in it.
Right Light Right City
Think about the city you are shooting, an old medieval hilltop city would probably look best in the soft yellow light of the golden hour, a modern dynamic city will look great in the blue hour, when the city’s neon lights create a great color contrast with the deep blue evening sky. Reflections of a sunset in the glass and steel of a modern cityscape can also make compelling images.
Modern cities are all about speed and motion, and to convey this in a photograph you can use long exposure shots to get light trails from cars or boats passing by. For video a static shot or even a time-lapse works well.
Many of the world’s most iconic cities are built around water, New York and the Hudson River, London with the Thames and of course Venice, with it’s labyrinth of canals. Waterfronts can be fantastic elements in a cityscape image, reflecting the city’s edifices and lights as well as giving you a more open view of the city’s skyline. They can also provide leading lines for our image in the form of boats or perhaps a pier jutting into a river and drawing our eye to the city beyond.
This short film of London includes several cityscape clips.
Size and Scale
Of course, one of the most obvious things about cityscapes is the scale of them. This however can be quite difficult to convey in an image. Look for elements in the scene that can add a sense of scale It might be a local ferry boat or a small church nestling amongst giant skyscrapers. Anything that can convey the immensity of the scene will make your shot much more interesting.
Try to avoid the idea that a cityscape needs to be an all encompassing wide view. You can use a telephoto lens to isolate elements in the city, perhaps an iconic London bus crossing a bridge, or a gondola down narrow Venetian canal. If the cityscape in front of you is so vast that even your widest lens will not do it justice then think about a multi image panoramic. For filmmakers, a slow pan across the scene will capture the essential elements.
Choose the Right Gear
Perhaps the most important element in your cityscape kitbag is not the camera or lens but your tripod. If you want to eek out every last detail from your scene, invest in a good quality, sturdy tripod. They will not be cheap but a good quality one should outlast several generations of digital cameras and will give you a great return on your investment in the form of pin sharp images. Videographers will want a good fluid head to allow smooth, silky pans and tilts
Camara wise, all modern DSLRs and mirrorless are well suited to taking good cityscapes but the more important consideration is the lens. You will need a good quality wide angle lens but not all wide angles are equal. The best lens will be one that has very low levels of pincushion or barrel distortion, these errors will manifest themselves as curvatures in what should be the solid straight lines of the buildings you are shooting. This can be corrected to a certain extent in post production but as with all photography, the more that you can get right in the camera the better.
If shooting in low light, particularly for video a fast lens will be a necessity.
Shoot RAW for Photographs
Shoot RAW files if you are comfortable, not only will they give you more dynamic range but because they are not sharpened in camera you will be able to get the perfect sharpness in post production. When shooting your cityscape, although generally you will be looking for a deep depth of field, avoid going past the diffraction limit of your camera, this is appoint where the image starts to become unsharp due to the angle that the light is hitting the pixels. This is generally around f8 on APS-C cameras and f11 on full frame sensors.
By researching you location, pre-planning your shoot and time of shoot and monitoring the weather, you can greatly increase your chances of producing stunning cityscape shots.