Want to capture the city in a new light? Explore our essential tips for stunning cityscape photography.
Capturing stunning cityscape photos might seem hard, but it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few tricks, techniques, and secrets.
In this article, I share my best advice for cityscape photography, including:
- How to keep your images consistently sharp (even in low light)
- How to deal with pedestrians in your cityscape scenes
- How to capture beautiful compositions using foreground elements
- How to get incredible cityscape night photography
- Much, much more!
So if you’re ready to capture cityscape images like a pro, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Shoot during the blue hour
If you want breathtakingly gorgeous cityscape photography, then I recommend you pay careful attention to the light.
Now, you can create stunning cityscape photos at any time of day (or night) – but if you want the absolute best of the best results, I recommend you head out just after sunset.
(You can also go out before sunrise, but many photographers struggle to get up early enough!)
You see, this time is known as the blue hour, and while it’s great for all sorts of photography, it’s especially amazing for sweeping cityscape shots. During the blue hour, the sky grows darker and the city lights turn on. The balance of light – between the sky and the city – often becomes nearly equal, and you’ll witness a stunning combination of tones:
Working during the blue hour is very rewarding, but you’ll need to bring special low-light gear (see my next tip!), and you should also be careful; always tell someone in advance where you plan to be, keep an eye on your surroundings, and carry a phone just in case.
2. Use a tripod and a remote release for sharp cityscape photos
If you want to shoot during the blue hour, at night, or even during the golden hours (i.e., the hour or two just before sunset and just after sunrise), you’ll need to carry two essential pieces of equipment:
- A sturdy tripod, which will keep your setup supported while shooting.
- A remote release, which will let you trigger your camera without pressing the shutter button.
Once the golden hour sets in, the light will start to drop, and you’ll need to lengthen your shutter speed if you want to keep your photos well exposed. Unfortunately, longer shutter speeds lead to camera blur – unless you can keep your camera completely still, which is what the tripod and remote release are designed to do!
Simply mount your camera on the tripod, dial in your preferred shutter speed, then use the remote release – not your finger! – to trigger the shutter. (Pressing the shutter button with your finger will create camera shake, which will blur your images. Resist the urge!)
One more tip: If you don’t want to purchase a remote release, you can always use your camera’s self-timer. If your tripod is sturdy and your setup is light, a two-second timer should do the trick.
3. Bring a wide-angle lens
It’s possible to create stunning cityscape photography with a telephoto lens – you can use it to zoom in and highlight individual buildings and small details – but I’d really recommend you start out with a wide-angle lens. A good wide-angle field of view will let you capture sweeping scenes, and you can even combine foreground and background layers for a three-dimensional effect:
What type of wide-angle lens is best? Beginners should try out a 24mm prime lens, which will cost very little yet still offer a wide field of view (and crisp optics). If you’re willing to spend more and you want extra flexibility, a 16-35mm lens is a good bet; it’ll let you capture various wide perspectives as you zoom from the ultra-wide 16mm to the tighter 35mm.
4. Incorporate leading lines into your compositions
Beginners often point their camera directly at city skylines and fire away – but while there’s nothing wrong with such an approach, it can get repetitive after a while, plus the images tend to look flat.
On the other hand, if you can incorporate a foreground line (or three!) that leads the eye into the image and toward key background elements, your shots will have tons of three-dimensionality. They’ll also be far more interesting, as they’ll take the viewer’s eye on a journey from foreground to background. Check out this next image, which uses a path to lead the eye toward the mysterious light in the background:
I’d also mention that leading lines can help create order in an otherwise chaotic scene. If you’re shooting in an area with lots of pedestrians or cars, for instance, a nice leading line – such as a road – can cut through the confusion and help bring the composition together.
5. Seek out reflections
Start with reflections. They’re everywhere in a city; you just have to know where to look! Buildings, water, and cars – they all offer ample opportunities for capturing compelling reflections, which can add intrigue and depth to your photos.
Note that reflections can be large and highly visible, such as the golden hues of a sunset mirrored in a row of sleek, glass buildings. Or they can be more subtle, like the fleeting image of a passerby’s face reflected in the glossy hood of a car. Play with this as you capture your cityscape photos and see what you can create!
Also, tweak your angle and adjust your focal length. Play around until you get that perfect reflection, the one that transforms a mundane scene into something magical. And remember, don’t shy away from getting low. Crouching down near a puddle can result in a surprisingly disorienting image, one that casts back the world in a new, unexpected light.
6. Shoot long exposures at intersections
Do you want to capture cityscape photos like this next example?
The good news is that it’s not as hard as you might think, and it doesn’t require any Photoshop wizardry, either!
Simply find a busy intersection in a city, and get up high. You can shoot from an observation deck, a roof, or a parking garage; just make sure you have an unobstructed view of the high-traffic areas.
Bring a tripod, bring your remote release, and capture some long-exposure shots. I’d recommend using a shutter speed of at least five seconds, but you may wish to shoot for longer depending on the speed of the traffic. The goal is to keep the shutter speed long enough to blur the cars into lines of light.
(Pro tip: Make sure that your scene features some curves. Traffic moving in a straight line can look okay if you include interesting structures in the composition, but if you’re focusing on the roadways from above, I highly recommend you include some bends and corners.)
7. Look for fountains
I love fountains in cityscape photography. They look great when incorporated into long-exposure shots – the water will turn into a beautiful blur – and they’re also just stunning points of interest to add to your compositions.
Happily, most cities are full of fountains. If you’re not sure where to find a fountain or two at your next cityscape destination, pull up Google Maps and do a quick search.
Then, when you’re out shooting, look for ways to include the fountains in your compositions. For instance, you can use the water to frame buildings, like this:
Or you can use fountains as interesting foreground subjects to add three-dimensionality to your images.
8. Shoot the city skyline
Yes, the city against the sky – photographed from a great distance – is a classic shot. Yet it’s one that never loses its charm. The unique silhouette of a city, etched against the clouds or a pale blue sky, can make for the kind of photo that you want to hang on your wall.
But how do you get the best results? Look for a vantage point that lets you capture the skyline from a distance. A spot across the water works great, especially if you’re photographing in a city with larger waterways. But keep in mind that the city skyline is a popular subject. Your challenge is to capture it in a way that’s unique, one that showcases your individual style.
Why not experiment with an ultra-long exposure? Or wait for a foggy day when the city becomes an ethereal dream? Don’t forget the magic of beautiful light, either. Shooting at sunrise or sunset can bathe the city in warm hues and create an unforgettable image.
9. Use patterns to improve your cityscape compositions
If you’re after more subtle cityscape photography, you don’t need to capture stunning vistas of skyscrapers at night; instead, take a walk during the day, observe simple city scenes, and look for patterns.
You see, patterns have the ability to bring a sense of visual rhythm and harmony to an image. And when you incorporate them into the overall scene – here, a wide-angle lens is a big help! – you can create a calming, even meditative image.
Look at how the two patterns, made of the trees and the pedestrians, elevates this shot:
And by the way: Most scenes feature patterns of some kind, even if they’re not immediately apparent. So if you’re drawn to a scene but you can’t find a pattern, stop, take a deep breath, and look around. I’m guessing you’ll be able to find some repeating graphic elements, such as shapes, lines, or even colors.
When you do, include them in your composition, and let them add interest to – or even unite – the overall scene.
10. Use symmetry for bold cityscape images
Ever felt that tingling sense of satisfaction when you see something perfectly balanced? Symmetry can bring that feeling into your cityscape photography.
It’s easy to shy away from symmetry, to think it clashes with other so-called “rules” of composition, like the rule of thirds. But when wielded with intention, symmetry can add intensity and visual appeal to your shots.
Take buildings, for example. These concrete structures are often innately symmetrical. Imagine standing dead-center, looking straight up at a skyscraper. There’s a stark, beautiful symmetry there, and a shot captured from that perspective can look breathtaking.
Don’t avoid symmetry, embrace it. Make it your own. Challenge the conventions and remember that rules in photography are more like guidelines, made to be bent and sometimes broken.
11. Try frame-within-a-frame compositional techniques
The city environment is brimming with opportunities to experiment with composition, and one method that’s always interesting to play around with is the frame-within-a-frame technique.
The idea is straightforward enough: You choose a primary subject and then frame it using another scene element, typically in the foreground. Archways, door frames, even gaps between buildings – these can all act as your “frame.”
Now, there are a few things to keep in mind here. First, picking the right aperture – and hence controlling the depth of field in your image – is essential. This is because you want your foreground frame and your main subject to both be in sharp focus.
Finding the right frame can be challenging when you’re starting out. You might look around and feel there’s nothing that will work. But remember, the frame doesn’t have to completely surround your subject. Even something that partially frames your subject can add depth and draw the viewer’s eye.
You could also think about the nature of your frame. Is it something rigid and man-made, like a window or a bridge? Or is it something more natural and fluid, like tree branches or reflections? This contrast between the frame and the main subject can make your photo even more intriguing.
Sometimes, a well-placed frame can dramatically alter the narrative of your photo. A busy street, when viewed through a quiet café window, takes on a different tone. It can emphasize the dichotomy of public and private spaces, the calm amidst the chaos – plus it can just be very eye-catching!
12. Use long shutter speeds to blur pedestrians
Many beginner cityscape photographers struggle to deal with pedestrians. After all, if you like the surrounding scene, you may view pedestrians as a distraction.
And it’s true: Pedestrians can be a distraction when rendered in sharp detail.
But if you lengthen your shutter speed to 1/5s and beyond, pedestrians will blur. They’ll begin to lose detail, and they’ll appear as an interesting ghostly presence:
Note that you can always experiment with different shutter speeds here, and your results will vary depending on the speed of the pedestrians.
Pro tip: If you want to blur pedestrians but you’re shooting in bright light, I’d recommend mounting a neutral density filter in front of your lens, which will block light from the sensor and prevent overexposure.
13. Capture the intimate details
Now let’s shift gears a bit. Cityscape photography isn’t just about capturing wide, sweeping shots. Just as landscape photographers occasionally focus on tiny details within a larger vista, you can do the same in the city.
Turn your lens to details that strike you as moving or powerful. Get up close and capture them. A weathered door. A vibrant graffiti. A pigeon perched on a windowsill. They all have a story to tell.
Textures can be incredibly striking, too. The sleek glass of skyscrapers. The rough brickwork of older buildings. The faded flyers plastered on utility poles. The crushed soda can on the sidewalk. These details, though often overlooked, can provide an intimate view of city life.
Remember, it’s not just about what the items are, but how they contribute to your composition. The play of light and shadow. The interesting shapes and forms. The textures and colors. The contrasts and harmonies. Arrange all these elements as if you’re creating an abstract shot out of shapes; that way, you can create a compelling composition that also speaks to the nature of the city.
14. If you can’t use a tripod, then improvise
While tripods are allowed in most places, certain areas – such as city parks, business plazas, and city observation decks – may have a “no tripod” rule. (Alternatively, they may require you to pay to bring in a tripod; it’s up to you to decide whether this is worth the money.)
Before heading to a new location, I recommend you call ahead to find out whether tripods are allowed. And if they aren’t, don’t give up; just be prepared to do your best with what you have.
For instance, you might bring a hard-shelled backpack, or look for tables, pillars, benches, and anything else on location that is flat and safe.
Then position your camera stably and safely, and use a remote release or self-timer to trigger the shutter. While you won’t have the same level of compositional flexibility offered by an actual tripod, you can still get great results, even at night:
15. Don’t be afraid to shoot in bad weather
Many photographers stay indoors during bad weather, but stormy skies, rain, and snow can offer plenty of cityscape photography opportunities.
For instance, a foreboding sky might act as a moody backdrop to a skyscraper, while snow will create plenty of atmosphere as it falls around city buildings.
Personally, I like photographing during and after rain, as the moisture causes the city streets and buildings to glow (especially at blue hour):
But if you want to capture beautiful cityscape photos in rough weather, you must take steps to keep your equipment (and you!) safe. Use a waterproof cover to protect your camera and lens, and never change lenses out in the open. Also, be sure to wear a coat of your own, and if things get really bad – for instance, you see lightning – then head inside. No shot is worth jeopardizing your safety!
16. Combine water and buildings
Here’s a secret I’ve discovered over the years of cityscape photography: Cities often have water bodies, be it rivers, lakes, or bays, and these can be a powerful addition to the drama of your shots. These bodies of water can serve as a beautiful foreground that draws your viewer’s eyes into the image.
It’s like adding an extra layer of depth and interest to your photo. Think about the possibilities! You can show water reflecting city lights, the contrast of a relatively still surface against bustling city life, or even capture long-exposure water images to create a misty, dream-like aesthetic.
My advice? Seek compositions that include water and city structures. Return to the same location under varying conditions.
A sunny day will give you crisp, well-lit shots. On an overcast day, you might catch the city in a more introspective mood. Early mornings can reveal a city waking up, the first rays of sun glinting off the water.
Mix it up. Experiment. You’ll be amazed at how the same spot can yield such diverse results.
17. Use HDR as needed
Cityscape photography often involves capturing contrasting elements, such as dark buildings against brighter skies or radiant electric lights adorning buildings at night. These scenarios can be tough to successfully expose as it’s challenging to maintain detail in both the highlights and the shadows within a single frame.
Enter HDR, or high dynamic range imaging. It’s a technique that can be a big help when faced with such challenges, and while it can be a bit advanced, the results are often worth it.
HDR involves capturing multiple shots at different exposures: One for the bright sky, one for the darker buildings, and so on. Later, you can blend together these shots to create a final image that retains detail across the entire dynamic range of the scene.
Yes, HDR might seem intimidating at first. It requires patience and a bit of technical know-how. But trust me, with a little practice and a reliable tripod to keep your frames consistent, HDR will elevate your cityscape photography to new heights.
Cityscape photography tips: final words
You’ve just taken a deep dive into the world of cityscape photography, unraveled its mysteries, and gained invaluable insights. In this journey, you’ve learned to view the city realm with a fresh, artistic perspective.
Perfecting cityscape photography may seem like a towering task, akin to scaling the tallest skyscrapers. But remember, every professional once stood where you are now! With the tips and techniques outlined in this article, you’re well-equipped to reach those heights and capture those breathtaking images you’ve always dreamed of.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your camera, hit the streets, and let your creativity loose. With every click, you’ll see progress. Remember, every city has a story waiting to be told, and now you have the skills to tell it beautifully. Happy shooting!
Now over to you:
Which of these cityscape photo tips is your favorite? Do you have any I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!