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How to Achieve Cool Urban Cityscapes

Image: Cool Urban Landscapes through post-processing

Cool Urban Landscapes through post-processing

Creating an emotional response

How you present your images can really affect one’s emotional response to them. Certain styles of image lend themselves to stylistic changes because they can create a specific emotional response when the viewer sees them. For example, film-based black and white images, when done well, present a sense of timelessness and can make things seem more serious. Similarly, high dynamic range images (HDR), when done well, can add “pop” to landscape photography. One particular style of image that lends itself to stylized treatments through post-processing is urban landscapes. Particularly if you are trying to make an already interesting image look more appealing based upon the lighting already present.

Image: Crushed black and blown highlights on a street scene

Crushed black and blown highlights on a street scene

Gritting and moody

Similar to black and white images, a high-contrast, selectively saturated look works well to create urban landscapes with a gritty and moody feel.

Using filters for effect

Nowadays, smartphone and some consumer cameras, have a great deal of pre-packaged stylistic treatments available that you can apply to photographs to try to evoke an emotional response. Someone, somewhere, has spent a great deal of time creating those filters to make your images feel as though they are from a different time or place.

For example, the classic 1970s snapshot look is full of color shifts and light leaks. They were common at that time because of the use of unstable film stocks and cheap cameras. Digital cameras don’t suffer the same issues that were present at that time. So, to simulate these conditions, adding light leaks and color shifts can make images feel vintage. There are many filters out there – each with their own effects.

Image: Lit up Las Vegas

Lit up Las Vegas

Make your own filters

To put the idea of emotional response to images in context, think about a familiar treatment that you are probably already aware of: black and white images. These photographs are rarely just images with the color drained. Good black and white images are contrast-rich with deep blacks and bright whites. The grey middle ground of many images can lose their impact when drained of color. Many black and white films had specific response curves that created the contrast-rich images. So now, with digitally-captured images that are black and white, they can appear a little sterile and plain. Adding high-contrast effects and grain to simulate film black and white tends to create an emotional response and mood.

To improve as a photographer, most people start, at some point, to try to take a more artistic approach to their images. Many newer photographers may start with simple prepackaged filters and presets, and apply them to their images. Currently, there is no end to the filters available in pretty much any photo sharing application and many cameras. From terms like “cool,” “50s,” “vintage,” and “grunge,” all these filters are stylizing the image for an emotional effect. Instagram was built on filters. People are very used to stylized images.

Image: Old Montreal

Old Montreal

Creating your own style

Becoming a better photographer involves the deliberate use of styles to create your desired effect. You may find there are particular filters you gravitate towards; styles that evoke an emotional response you like.

This is the beginning of finding your own style of image making. As you advance, you might explore manipulating images with Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, Skylum Luminar or some similar program.

When you get to the point where you are working with and creating your own filters, you create your style. You can start by playing with filters or dissect other photographer’s images that you really like to see if you can recreate that style.

Surprisingly, creating set styles in many photo imaging software packages is quite easy. It allows you to recreate your style and apply it repeatedly to multiple images.

Image: Notre Dame in Montreal

Notre Dame in Montreal

Create your filter

Let’s consider the urban, gritty look for urban landscapes.

Here are two treatments of the same image, split for comparison. On the right is the Straight Out Of the Camera (SOOC) jpeg and on the right is the treatment with the blacks crushed, highlights blown, oranges highlighted and an almost selective color approach.

It is easy to create for yourself with whatever tweaks you like to create a style for yourself.

Image: Comparison of straight out of the camera to the final product

Comparison of straight out of the camera to the final product

A word of warning is necessary at this point. When you start stylizing your images with intentionally weird effects, you may generate some negative comments from people who don’t like the look you create. This does not mean you have failed to create something interesting. However, it means you have generated an emotional response to your image by someone who doesn’t care for that look.

Remember that some people find that they can only validate their work by diminishing others. Whereas, most find growth in encouraging others to take risks with their art. A true artist picks their vision and follows it. Sometimes it can be a bumpy road if you are only expecting validation from others.

It is important at some time for you to consider yourself an artist and not just a recorder of images.

All art is about creating an emotional response. Beyond capturing a moment, it is how that moment makes you feel. Emotional responses can be positive or negative.

Image: Atwater Market in Montreal

Atwater Market in Montreal

It turns out this crushed-blacks, blown highlights, contrasty, desaturated, and the almost selective color look isn’t that tough to create for yourself. However, for this particular effect, you may do some damage to your photos by intentionally making some parts too black and other parts too bright.

So let’s look at the images I think work for this type of treatment. Shots typically taken at dusk/night, with artificial illumination present, add interesting artistic character for the urban landscapes shot.

Use a Raw Image Processor or Lightroom

I use Adobe Camera Raw to do most of the edits to these images, but you can use Lightroom or any image processing software to create a similar style. My suggestion is you modify and tweak it to your liking to get the desired effect.  The tools are similar, but just in different places. Also, even though I process these images with a raw converter, you don’t have to use a RAW image (although that is always the best starting point) and can use a JPEG or DNG file.  The treatment will look very similar.

To start, open your image with the raw converter.

Image: Opening up the Raw Processor

Opening up the Raw Processor


With your raw converter, you have access to many parameters that act globally on your image.

Change the sliders as shown on the panel below.

Specifically, you want to make sure you have the desired white balance (it may be fine from what your camera selected, or you may want to resample).  You want to up the Contrast hard, more than you probably have done previously to make those hard edges at the light and dark parts of your image. You then do two things that seem contrary – you are going to pull the details out of the shadows (increase the Shadow slider) and make the Blacks blacker (crushing the blacks).

Finally, boosting the Clarity increases the midtone contrasts, boosting the Vibrance boosts the midtone colors and toning down the Saturation prevents them from looking too candy-colored.

Here’s my panel for example:


Image: Adjustments for the effect

Adjustments for the effect

Once you have made a look that you like the effect of, you can make this a repeatable look by creating a user preset.

Switch to the presets tab and then make a new preset.

You will be prompted to add a preset name. Pick something relevant to your style and save it. Next time you pull up an image (or multiple images) in your raw processor, you can simply highlight them all and apply the presets at once.

Image: How to save the effect

How to save the effect

A lot of these settings may cause parts of your image to clip. The crushed blacks mean that much of the detail in the blacks disappear. The boosted colors lead to clipped highlights. However, in the end, that’s okay because that is the desired effect.

Here’s a Pro-Tip: All those presets you can buy for Lightroom and Photoshop essentially do a version of this. You can create those presets if you have the time and the inclination to do it yourself. By doing it yourself, you create an image style that appeals to you.

Image: Edmonton Skyline

Edmonton Skyline


Art is about evoking an emotion. Sometimes photographers try too hard to make an image that looks too lifelike and loses emotional impact. You can create urban landscape images that are moody and gritty by making them dark with blasted colors and blown highlights. It also opens doors to other types of manipulations used for images warranting other types of emotional reactions.

Image: Old building in the Westmount area of Montreal

Old building in the Westmount area of Montreal


How to Achieve Cool Urban Cityscapes

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Mark C Hughes
Mark C Hughes

is a photographer, writer, educator, and engineer that specializes in both portraits of people and pets but also creates stunning landscape and nature photography. He’s an accredited professional photographer (PPOC) and has won awards, including one from National Geographic. Mark has exhibited works and has testified as an expert witness in a trial as a photographer. He has taught photography for a variety of groups and skill sets.

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