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7 Tips for Stunning Urban Landscape Photography

7 tips for urban landscape photos

Do you want to capture stunning urban landscape photos? While cities often feel chaotic and complex, there are actually a few simple tips you can use to take beautiful images, consistently.

And in this article, I aim to share my best city landscape advice, covering long exposure techniques, urban night photography, urban architecture, and more.

Let’s get started.

What is urban landscape photography?

Urban landscape photography involves capturing photos of cities and towns. Generally speaking, an urban landscape shot has a wide focus – covering more than just, say, a single human subject – and is taken outdoors.

city from high vantage point urban landscape
An urban landscape photograph, taken in the early evening from a rooftop looking back toward the city.

As you can imagine, cities, especially bustling metropolises, are popular urban landscape locations. In fact, if you travel frequently, then you’ve probably taken an urban landscape or two without realizing it! Sometimes, this type of photo is referred to as a cityscape or a city landscape (see the shot above), but it’s also an urban landscape.

Of course, it’s also possible to capture urban landscapes in much more subdued locations. A small city, or even a little town, can make for beautiful results!

Now that you’re familiar with city landscape shooting and what it’s all about, let’s take a look at how to get great images, starting with my first tip:

1. Shoot street photos – but in context

Street photography can fall into two categories:

  1. Street portraits
  2. More environmental street photos

While the former doesn’t really work as an urban landscape, the latter definitely does. And by thinking carefully about contextual street scenes, you can capture some beautiful urban shots.

As you’re out shooting, look for scenes with people, but place them in their environment. The goal is to provide context: where the people are and what is happening. For instance, you might photograph a group of people shopping, surrounded by advertisements and window displays. Or you might photograph a single person sitting alone on a bench at the edge of the city.

street scene people at tables
A street scene showing the landscape and what people are doing in it.

Basically, anywhere that people hang out makes for interesting urban landscape photography. Just make sure you do more than shoot people. The environment matters, too!

2. Photograph from above

Images taken from high vantage points have the power to shock and amaze the viewer – especially where cities are involved.

So I highly recommend you take advantage of that capability, and elevate yourself whenever possible.

But how do you shoot from up above? These days, there are quite a few ways to photograph from high up. Some cities allow drone photography, which is a great way to capture unique, never-before-seen perspectives (though before you start flying a drone in your favorite shooting location, make sure to check for any flight regulations – you don’t want to cause problems or get in trouble).

Alternatively, you can try photographing from observation decks, which often offer great views. They’re not always easy to shoot from – you sometimes have to work through glass or fencing – but if you can make it work for you, the results will be breathtaking.

Finally, you might consider shooting from rooftops. High buildings work, assuming you can get access, but my personal favorite “organic” high-vantage points are parking garages, which often provide gorgeous views and plenty of shooting flexibility.

city from above
A view from above! This was taken from the Eureka Skydeck, an observation deck looking over Melbourne.

3. Have fun with long exposures

Long exposure photos pretty much always look stunning – and they look especially gorgeous when combined with dizzying views of buildings, gleaming glass facades, and other city-side delights.

So the next time you’re out, shoot some long exposures. You can feature single buildings as subjects, you can focus on skylines, or you can even shoot busy streets (that way, you can capture plenty of cool blur as people walk by!). You’ll come away with some magical shots.

While it’s possible to do powerful long exposure photos without special gear, I’d recommend grabbing a high-quality neutral density filter. It’ll block out the light so you can use shutter speeds between 30 seconds and several minutes, which is enough time to create beautiful blurry clouds, remove people and cars from streets, etc.

Pro tip: Try to use an extra-long exposure when photographing water. It’ll give you an ethereal result:

long exposure waterside cityscape
A long exposure of Melbourne taken across the river.

4. Shoot urban landscapes at night (including light trails!)

If you’re looking for unique urban landscape shots, here’s my recommendation:

Shoot the city after dark.

You see, urban environments look gorgeous when the sun goes down. The lights come on, the car headlights gleam, windows light up – in other words, the city looks magical.

Plus, you may not need a neutral density filter when shooting the city at night; depending on how bright or dim it is, you may be able to photograph at shutter speeds of a minute, two minutes, or longer.

You can also get great light trails at night. Look for streets that have some nice buildings in the background, then photograph for several minutes while the cars stream by.

light trails urban landscape photography

5. Photograph interesting architecture

Every city strives to feature interesting buildings. After all, architects like to show off as much as the next person.

So no matter where you are, see if you can find the most beautiful structures in your city to photograph. They’re bound to look incredible.

By the way, if it interests you, try researching why a building was designed for an area, and find out if there’s something special and unique about it. This might provide inspiration for images (plus it can make the photography much more fun!).

Look for buildings that are nestled in with others, yet are the odd ones out. Perhaps there is an old building that is surrounded by new ones. Scenes like that can provide your images with an interesting story.

buildings at sunset
One of the most distinctive buildings in Melbourne, Flinders Street station.

6. Head back during different seasons (and weather)

People often forget how a city or town can look completely different in each season and during different weather conditions.

Of course, if you only go to a place once, you don’t get a lot of choices. But if you live nearby or visit the location often, then you can experience a wide variety of conditions – which can give rise to a wide variety of shots!

Throughout the year, changing seasons will give you numerous opportunities to capture unique scenes. Autumn has the colors, so trees in the streets or parks can add interesting flashes of red and gold. Winter will provide people bundled up against the cold and empty public places. In summer, everyone is in lighter, happier clothing, and the streets and parks are filled with people.

So consider what type of photos you want, then choose the season accordingly!

And think about the weather, too. Rain, hail, sun, snow – each will give your urban landscapes a different look. Photos of cities that are white from the snow can be magical. Rain will create reflective surfaces and make the city look bigger and shinier. You can’t control the weather, but you can take advantage of it!

narrow street in the city
Rain gave this cobblestoned street a shiny appearance.

7. Use leading lines

Cities look beautiful on their own, but your goal as a photographer should be about more than just capturing that beauty; you want to create something artistic, right?

That’s where compositional tricks such as leading lines come in. A leading line simply moves the eye through the image, from one area to another, and is a great way to engage the viewer.

But what can you use as a leading line? Honestly, pretty much anything line-shaped, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • Bridges
  • Streets
  • Street lamps
  • Building edges
  • People
  • Outstretched arms
  • Street signs
  • Train tracks
  • Buses
  • Cars

Really, anything that will lead people around an image will work. And you don’t have to rely on stationary elements; you can always use light trails from cars or even clouds blurring across the sky to direct the viewer around a photo. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

bridge long exposure urban landscape
I used the bridge as a leading line to take you into early-morning Melbourne.

Urban landscape photography: final words

You don’t have to follow all of these tips…

…but memorizing one or two will certainly take your urban landscape photography to the next level.

So head out into the city, look for some beautiful subjects, and have fun!

Now over to you:

Which of these tips do you plan to try out first? Do you have any city landscape tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!

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Leanne Cole
Leanne Cole

graduated from the VCA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Melbourne, Australia. She has since been working as a practicing artist and teaching people how to be Fine Art Photographers. She also teaches long exposure photography and runs workshops around Melbourne. Click here to download her 10 tips for Long Exposure Photography in the City. You can find her on her website.

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