Whether you’re captivated by the towering skyscrapers or the everyday hustle, cityscape photography is immensely rewarding. Unfortunately, taking great cityscape shots can seem intimidating when you’re just starting out, and many beginners give up before they give the genre a chance.
But here’s the good news:
While capturing stunning cityscape shots might seem hard, it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few tricks, techniques, and secrets. And 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 produce some pro-level cityscape images, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
What is cityscape photography?
In essence, cityscape photography is the urban sibling of landscape photography. Instead of capturing rolling hills or serene lakes, you focus on the concrete and steel that shape modern lives. For me, the beauty of cities often lies in their rich textures and layers; it’s a tapestry of light, shapes, and emotions that you, as a photographer, can capture.
Bottom line: cityscape photography allows you to bring urban environments to life through your lens. From the glow of neon lights in Tokyo to the historical charm of London’s cobblestone streets, it’s your chance to show the world what makes a city beautiful – and what a city means to you.
Essential cityscape photography gear
You’re itching to hit the streets, camera in hand, ready to capture the city. I know the feeling, but before you head out the door, let’s talk gear.
You see, in cityscape photography, the equipment you use can significantly impact your results. While it’s not all about the camera and lenses, let’s face it: quality gear can make your life easier and your photos even more stunning. You’ll generally need three key items: a full-frame camera, a wide-angle lens, and a sturdy tripod. A neutral density filter, while optional, can also come in handy. Let’s look at each in turn:
A full-frame camera
These cameras offer large sensors that capture more light and generally provide a broader dynamic range than their cropped sensor counterparts. That’s crucial when you’re dealing with tricky lighting scenarios at dawn or dusk.
Plus, a full-frame camera’s high megapixel count can be important if you’re planning on going big – think wall-sized prints. But remember: more megapixels also mean larger file sizes, so you’ll need ample storage space on your computer, too.
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.
A robust tripod
Ah, the tripod – the unsung hero of sharp photography. In cityscape photography, you’ll often find yourself shooting in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. A narrow aperture is generally a must to keep everything in focus, but this lets in less light. Combine that with the slow shutter speeds required for proper exposure, and you’re in prime territory for camera shake, the leading cause of blurry photos.
That’s where a sturdy tripod comes in. Opt for one that’s lightweight yet solid – carbon fiber models offer the best of both worlds. At the end of the day, a good tripod might cost a chunk of change, but it’ll make a huge difference to your cityscape shots.
A neutral density filter
Last but not least, consider adding a neutral density (ND) filter to your camera bag. While not an absolute necessity, an ND filter can elevate your daytime cityscapes by allowing for longer exposures without overexposing your shots.
These filters come in various strengths; a 10-stop ND filter is a solid starting point for those new to this game. With an ND filter, you can create mesmerizing effects like smoothing out water or capturing cloud movement, adding an artistic flair to your images.
The best cityscape photography settings
To unlock the full potential of your camera and capture those jaw-dropping cityscape images, you need to start with the right settings:
Aperture Priority or Manual mode
Aperture Priority mode is a fantastic place to start, especially if the very mention of Manual mode sends a shiver down your spine. This mode lets you select the aperture and ISO while your camera figures out the optimal shutter speed.
In contrast, Manual mode is for those who aren’t afraid to handle everything themselves. When you set your camera to Manual, you’re in the driver’s seat. Every setting, from shutter speed to aperture, is at your fingertips, which can be a great way to ensure you get the results you’ve envisioned.
A narrow aperture
Aperture settings directly affect the depth of field in your cityscape images. A narrower aperture, such as f/8 or higher, provides a greater depth of field, ensuring objects both near and distant are in focus.
Should your composition involve elements from the foreground to the skyline, you may consider an aperture setting as small as f/16. Proper aperture selection allows you to encapsulate the city’s grandeur comprehensively.
A low ISO
High ISO values can help you use fast shutter speeds in low light, but when you’re doing cityscape photography, chances are you’re armed with a tripod – and this eliminates the need for speed.
Therefore, keep the ISO as low as you can to ensure the highest quality. ISO 100 is my go-to here for pristine, noise-free images.
A (generally) slow shutter speed
Shutter speed serves as the linchpin in balancing your exposure triangle. It’s essential to monitor your camera’s exposure meter for guidance in selecting the appropriate shutter speed. You’ll often end up using slower shutter speeds – below 1/80s or so – to keep your files looking detailed. (Note, however, that the use of a sturdy tripod is critical when working with slow shutter speeds; otherwise, you’ll end up with lots of motion blur!)
For dynamic compositions involving moving objects, such as vehicles or pedestrians, a long shutter speed can introduce a captivating blur, adding a layer of complexity to your image. This effect is easiest to pull off during the blue hour when the light is low.
Lighting in cityscape photography
In cityscape photography, lighting is your best friend and your worst enemy. It can elevate your shot from mediocre to magazine-worthy or plunge it into the depths of dullness. Let’s get you equipped to make the most of it.
Photograph the city during the golden hours
First, consider the golden hours, which occurs in the (roughly) hour after sunrise and hour before sunset. Ever noticed how everything seems to glow during these times? That’s because the sun is low in the sky, spreading its light at an angle that creates both depth and drama. When golden light hits skyscrapers and streets, the city transforms. Glass towers look amazing, and mundane streets suddenly look like they’re paved with, well, gold.
To get the most out of the golden hour, it’s essential to look at how the light is hitting your subjects. The textures of buildings, the hues of the reflective surfaces, and the shadows change depending on the light’s direction.
But remember, the sun waits for no one! The golden hours don’t last long, so you’ll need to be prepared to work fast and make the most of the good lighting.
Photograph the city during blue hour
Next, let’s talk about the blue hour, the period just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sky takes on an ethereal blue hue.
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.
Additionally, these lighting conditions are ideal for capturing long-exposure effects. Ever seen those cityscape photos where the clouds seem to smear across the sky, or the car lights draw vibrant lines across the roads? That’s partially due to the blue hour and its magic.
Plus, with the softer light, you don’t have to wrestle with harsh shadows or overblown highlights. Instead, you get serene tones that contrast with the city’s frenetic energy.
Photograph the city at midday
Next, there’s the high-noon light, often avoided like the plague in landscape photography – but don’t be so quick to dismiss it. Yes, it’s harsh and creates strong shadows, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need to emphasize the angular geometry of a modern city.
You see, when the sun is at its zenith, the light pours down vertically, etching out the details of buildings and streets in a way that’s straightforward but striking. This is the time to embrace high-contrast compositions, where the play of light and shadow can be used to your advantage.
But what if it’s cloudy? Far from being a disaster, an overcast sky can be a boon. Clouds act like a giant diffuser, spreading light evenly and softening the scene. If you’ve got a cityscape that’s naturally moody or industrial, a cloudy sky can amplify that aesthetic tenfold. You get to experiment with a different kind of drama, one that’s quieter but just as impactful.
Bottom line: whether you’re catching the golden hour’s warm embrace or exploiting the high-noon contrast, knowing how to work with light will elevate your cityscapes to new heights.
Tips to improve your cityscape photography
Looking to elevate your cityscape shots even further? Below, I share plenty of practical tips to help you out!
1. 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.
2. Seek out reflections
Reflections are 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 don’t shy away from getting low. Crouching down near a puddle can result in a surprisingly disorienting image – one that shows the world in a new, unexpected light.
3. Don’t be afraid of manual focus
I get it: autofocus seems simple, dependable, and safe. But what happens when AF starts to falter in low-light conditions? This is where manual focus steps in to give you the control that you need.
Switching to manual focus offers a level of precision that’s often crucial when the lighting isn’t ideal. So if you find your autofocus system hunting for the right spot to focus on, it’s time to take matters into your own hands. Just switch your lens to manual and use your camera’s LCD screen to check the focus as you zoom in on your subject. Then slowly rotate the focus ring back and forth until your subject is razor-sharp. This zooming-in method avoids the pitfalls of autofocus inaccuracies and ensures that you nail the focus every single time.
4. 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.)
5. 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.
6. 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. The 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.
7. Photograph the city from above
Elevating your perspective can literally transform your cityscape photography. In my experience, getting up high offers a unique vantage point that most people never get to see. It takes the city you walk through every day and unveils it in a whole new light. So how you can use this strategy for jaw-dropping results?
Firstly, many cities offer observation decks specifically designed for panoramic city views. These decks often have enough space for photographers to shoot, but here’s the catch: they don’t generally allow tripods. So before you head to the top of that towering skyscraper, make a quick call to check if tripods are allowed. (Don’t make assumptions; it’s better to ask and plan accordingly!)
Parking garages can also serve as fantastic makeshift observation decks. You can drive up, park your car, and walk to a good vantage point. But always remember to check whether you’re permitted to photograph there. Laws and regulations differ from city to city, so an afternoon call to the parking garage owners can save you a lot of trouble.
Finally, you can capture high-angle shots with a drone – and if you’ve got access to a high-quality camera drone and your city’s laws allow drone flights, the sky’s the limit! Drones offer unprecedented angles and perspectives, letting you capture shots that are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Of course, if you pursue cityscape drone photography, be responsible. Always adhere to regulations, don’t invade anyone’s privacy, and fly safely.
8. 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 can 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.
9. Change things up with a telephoto lens
Wide-angle lenses are often the go-to for cityscape photography, but hear me out: a telephoto lens has its unique charm. When you’re looking for an alternative to the grand sweeping vistas, a telephoto lens can be a game-changer.
A 70-200mm zoom lens is especially versatile. With it, you can zoom into specific elements of the city that you find captivating – think intricate architecture, patterned windows, or even far-off bridges. In other words, you can isolate subjects and make them the focus of your photograph.
Plus, a telephoto lens is particularly adept at showcasing the geometry of cities. The straight lines of the roads, the curves of the buildings, and the grid-like patterns formed by intersecting streets can be made into abstract compositions that celebrate the city’s form.
Another great advantage of telephoto glass is the ability to compress distances. With a telephoto lens, elements that are far apart can appear closer together, creating a cool effect that wide-angle lenses simply can’t offer.
So while wide-angle lenses give you the sweeping drama, telephoto lenses showcase the details. Each has its place in cityscape photography. It’s all about choosing the right tool for the story you want to tell. And if you’ve been shying away from telephoto lenses, it’s time to give them a fair shake. You might be surprised at how they can enrich your cityscape photography portfolio.
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 human-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.
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 feature nearby bodies of water, be it rivers, lakes, or bays, and these can be a powerful addition to the drama of your shots.
Water can serve as a beautiful foreground that draws your viewer’s eyes into the image, and you can use it in all sorts of ways. For instance, 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 simplest advice? Seek out compositions that include water and city structures. And return to the same location under varying conditions if you can. 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 with the first rays of sun glinting off the water.
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 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.
18. Stay safe
Safety isn’t something to gloss over when you’re out capturing the pulse of the city through your lens. You’re carrying equipment that’s not only valuable in a monetary sense but is also crucial for your craft. Here’s how to mitigate risks and protect your gear and yourself.
Firstly, pay close attention to your surroundings. Urban environments are dynamic, and things can change quickly. A location that feels safe during the day may not be so nice when the night falls. Always trust your instincts. If something feels off, it probably is. Your shots aren’t worth compromising your safety.
Now, let’s talk about keeping your gear safe. The temptation to take your eyes off your bag is real, especially when you’re focused on capturing the perfect frame. Don’t give in. Make it a habit to use bags that you can sling across your body and ensure they remain in your field of vision at all times.
Also, don’t flaunt your gear unnecessarily. Be discreet when changing lenses or memory cards. The less attention you draw to your equipment, the better.
If you want to shoot cities at night, I’d really recommend you team up. Not only does this add an extra layer of safety, but it’s also a great way to share tips and tricks, enhancing the overall experience. And if you do prefer to go out alone, informing someone about your whereabouts is never a bad idea.
Lastly, consider insuring your gear. Photography equipment is a significant investment, and in the unfortunate event of theft or damage, insurance will be your financial safety net. Look into specialized photography insurance policies that cover a range of situations!
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!
Table of contents
- 10 Tips for Better Cityscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES