Travel Photography Subjects: Downtown

Travel Photography Subjects: Downtown

My Favorite Downtown: Seattle

“The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go
Downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown, no finer place for sure,
Downtown, everything’s waiting for you”

-Petula Clark

Yes, I really did start this post with a pop song from the 60’s because it is rings in my head every time I come to this Travel Photography Subject on my checklist.

It also demonstrates one person’s view of what downtown is about. Granted, the composer (Tony Hatch) had a certain city in mind when he wrote it, that being New York City. I’m guessing most of us who have visited NYC might have a different view and that’s the great thing about a city’s downtown area. There usually is a variety of action and characters weaving through the fabric that makes up downtown.

When visiting a downtown of any major city you will likely see some common themes. Crowds, shops, skyscrapers, garbage, commerce and a liveliness that sets the tone for the rest of the city. Or maybe the downtown area is depressed, abandoned, clean or well organized. No two cities will be the same, not even the Twin Cities.

If you’re just passing through, chances are great you will be staying in the tourist area of a downtown, if it has it. Hotels are often crowded together, usually close to a variety of restaurants or other popular attractions. What’s not so obvious for the casual tourist are the other areas of downtown that give it its lifeblood. International districts, financial districts, art districts, city parks, poor areas, rich areas; the list is large when breaking down a city into its elements. While taking in the typical sites, don’t forget to wander a little.

Some good ways to do this are with a taxi, rickshaw, bus or other local transport. Many tour companies can present a wide swath of the city in a small amount of time and impart valuable insight while on the road. A cabbie in a taxi can often do the same. Just agree to a price before getting in for a one hour tour around the less popular areas of town. Explain you want to stop often to take photos and be sure to tell the cabbie if you have any particular interests (art, history, architecture, etc…).

Even if you will only be in town for just a day, on your way to some other exotic region of the country you are visiting, try to spend an hour wandering the city’s downtown area to get a feel for ‘local life’. It may not be as grand as the tourist traps nearby, but it will let you in on a bit of the city’s secrets if you listen and watch.

Do you have a few downtown shots from your travels that you would like to share?  Post them in the comments section below!


Previous articles in the Travel Photography Subjects series include Water, Old People, Young People, Religion, Sports, Socializing, Icons, Rich, Poor, Transportation, Economy, Food, Food Preparation, Weather, Art and Modern Vs. Traditional.  These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out some vital elements to capture when on the road and highlight thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.  Be sure to subscribe to this site to receive the other four subjects as they are posted!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Kitts March 17, 2011 12:53 pm

    OMG that is terrific! I admire your work! Guess I am not as up-to-date as your regular fans! I swear I have fallen in love with this blog... Fabulous writing! You're an amazingly talented person, keep up the individuality :)

  • pinkgirl218 November 29, 2010 09:31 pm

    i was going down Makati Avenue when I saw the Christmas lights that were set up in the other end of the street. This is the part of the so-called Ayala Triangle in Makati City, where the Christmas lights were being set-up by the Ayalas during Christmas season.

    [Makati Avenue at night, Philippines]

    [eimg link='' title='christmas at makati avenue' url='']

  • Edward Wade November 26, 2010 11:02 pm

    Moonrise Over Downtown Houston

  • Evelyn in Oregon November 24, 2010 01:13 pm

    My very first trip to NYC was in April. I was fascinated by the contrast between the very modern and the not-so-modern images.

  • Evelyn in Oregon November 24, 2010 09:06 am

    My very first visit to NYC was this past April. I loved the new and the not-so-new.

    [eimg link='' title='Manhattan Reflection' url='']

    [eimg link='' title='Ubiquitous NYC water towers' url='']

  • Ann November 24, 2010 08:54 am

    Wellington , New Zealand

  • Ann November 24, 2010 08:41 am

    [eimg link='' title='city crop' url='']

    i am very new to this,

    Wellington NZ

  • Ann November 24, 2010 08:38 am

    This is my first posting, i am very new to photography, and its taken me months to get the courage to even try and do a posting, so here goes
    Wellington , New Zealand, wonderful city, full of great thing to take photos of.
    i am having a lot of trouble trying to find the link to photo, hope this works, sorry everyone,

    [eimg link='' title='city crop' url='']

  • Rob November 24, 2010 06:27 am

    Downtown doha
    Downtown St Petersburg
    Downtown Bangkok

  • Senthil Prabhu November 24, 2010 03:54 am

    Marina City on Wacker Street, Chicago. One of the excellent architecture marvels of Chicago.[eimg link='' title='Marina City' url='']

  • Joanne Hihn November 23, 2010 11:31 pm

    I took this photo last year while visiting Chicago's Millennium Park. This sculpture, called "The Bean," is a favorite gathering spot for tourists and locals alike.

    [eimg link='' title='People Watching At the "Bean"' url='']

  • Stila November 23, 2010 10:44 pm

    Love the subject!
    It's really hard to tell where the "downtown" area is in Tokyo, since this amazing city doesn't have a proper centre. Rob posted a wonderful pic of Ginza, so I'll go for Shinjuku:
    [eimg link='' title='Shinjuku' url='']

  • Maik-T. Šebenik November 23, 2010 06:01 pm

    Photographing cities - in daylight and at night - is always my favourite on my vacation trips.

    Here are some of my examples:

    First off, my hometown: Bielefeld (Germany), shot from an office building atop the "Jahnplatz" - the main square of the city:

    The main square in Maribor (Slovenia) - European capital of culture 2012. On the picture are the plague memorial statue, the town hall and beatiful old buildings:

    The famous "three bridges" in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. This is the absolute center of the city:

    But even in one city the buildings in downtown can be very different - for example, modern skyscrapers in Honolulu:
    And on the other side on old type of "skyscraper", the Honolulu hale:

    Old, small towns can also have a nice dwntown. Here is Fira, the capital of the island of Santorini (Greece) at night:
    And Oia, an even smaller town on the same island:

  • michael November 23, 2010 04:28 pm

    Shanghai from the Oriental Pearl Tower. I accidentally overexposed the picture and decided to have some fun in photoshop and lightroom.

    [url=][eimg link='' title='Shanghai Skyline' url=''][/url]
    [url=]Shanghai Skyline[/url] by [url=]michael*choi[/url], on Flickr

  • jason hughes November 23, 2010 04:14 pm

    fall denver [eimg url='' title='denver.jpg']

  • Scott November 23, 2010 03:09 pm

    Agree, downtown away from any "attractions" can make other apsects of a City much more noticeable.

  • Mya November 23, 2010 02:18 pm

    Downtown chicago -

    constructive criticism welcome :)

  • Dan Hahn November 23, 2010 12:39 pm

    [eimg link='' title='Bridge and Pigeons' url='']

    The Brooklyn Bridge and, if NYC were the 51st State, the state bird.

  • Peter Nyren November 23, 2010 11:50 am

    [eimg link='' title='08 28 10_2268' url='']
    Times Square, NYC

  • Peter Nyren November 23, 2010 11:48 am

    Times Square, NYC

  • Todd Metcalfe November 23, 2010 11:16 am

    Thanks for the article, it's always good to be a tourist in your own city too. I wander around Toronto with a camera in hand almost everyday. And everyday I come back with different images. The best part about street photography is the unexpected, and exploring areas that I never knew about before..

  • Rob Hooft November 23, 2010 07:48 am

    Tokyo's Ginza on a Carless sunday afternoon.

    [eimg url='' title='427969590_xDMQP-S.jpg']

  • bobek November 23, 2010 07:30 am

    NYC in the night:

  • Lynne Mass November 23, 2010 07:28 am

    Here are a couple of NY theater district photos - same scene, different Photoshop technique (let me know your preference):

    [eimg url='' title='?action=view&current=NY-pencil.jpg']


    [eimg url='' title='?action=view&current=NY-neonglow.jpg']

  • bobek November 23, 2010 07:27 am

    It is funny how downtown can look absolutely different between Europe and US. For example this image was taken in the very close to the center of Prague.

    [eimg url='' title='YapbThumbnailer.php?post_id=251&w=620&q=70']

    So to keep the topic - my view of NYC in night

  • JesseAdams November 23, 2010 07:23 am

    A shot of a busy evening on Oxford Street in London.

  • Steve Berenter November 23, 2010 07:13 am

    Shooting cityscapes is one of my favorite photographic subjects. I hope to someday visit all major American cities and take some shots. There are so many wonderful things to see.

    This shot of Detroit was taken across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario. It was shot with a Rebel XTi using a Sigma 28-70mm lens.

  • Cruella November 23, 2010 06:41 am

    I took this photo in downtown Tampa this weekend. Would love feedback as I am an amateur.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck November 23, 2010 06:24 am


    Excellent article - there are so many opportunities with Cities, it boggles the mind. I like to shoot at night and especially across the water to get a nice skyline. This image was shot across San Diego Bay from Coronado. This was a ~20second exposure allowing the bay to smooth out and the city lights to be painted on the water. 10-20mm Sigma allowed interesting foreground leading the eye into the picture.

    Regards, Erik

  • Paul Howard November 23, 2010 06:08 am

    Downtown Red Deer, Alberta Canada at night.. [eimg url='' title='p980841055-3.jpg']

  • Matthew November 23, 2010 06:06 am

    I got this shot in downtown Boston in September while doing the tourist thing.

  • Paul Howard November 23, 2010 06:02 am

    Downtown Red Deer, Alberta Canada at night.[eimg url='' title='e3a76725f']