Introduction to Cityscapes

In my last post I showed you how to make the best out of the Blue Hour and I mentioned how cityscapes. In this post, we are going to step a little further into one of my favourite subjects to shoot, cityscapes. The reason that I love cityscapes so much is the fact that you get to see all the shapes, lines, lights and movement of a manufactured landscape. From below or above, this intrigues me. I think partly because I grew up in a small city in the middle of Canada and I grew old in South Korea, which is quite the contrast.

Look at the World Around You

You don’t have to be in a place like Seoul or Hong Kong to take great cityscapes. It is all about finding the right angle and telling the story. Many new photographers think that they have to get onto a rooftop to make a proper cityscape. While that might help in changing your perspective, it is not the be all and end all of cityscape photography.

The city is your subject. You mission is to find the best way to show it off. What draws your eye? Is it the buildings, the traffic, or the green spaces? Find a way to tell its story and you will make a great shot.

Find the Story

So you are probably wondering how exactly do you “find a story” from a bunch of buildings and street lights. The first thing to do is to step back from it and really think about what you see. After all, photography is all about the art of seeing. What really gets your brain fired up when you look around. In a recent trip to Songdo, South Korea I really had an interesting time telling the story of Songdo. I went out with master photographer John Steele, who by all accounts is one of Korea’s greatest expat photographers.

We wandered around the futuristic city looking for that story. Songdo has been shot so much that many of the rooftops are now closed to the public or sushi restaurants. However, as we looked around, we kept coming back to the “Tri-bowl” area in the central park. For some reason this odd building grabbed our attention. From the viewing platform up on the 20th floor of a highrise building, we really couldn’t capture what was pulling us down there.

So we decided to try a few different locations and then head directly to the bowls themselves. It was a good decision as when we got down to street level, the city came alive. Not to mention, as we got there, all the lights started to come on. It was like the area was slowly waking up. John and I barely said two words to each other as we ran around trying to capture the story.

Timing is of the Essence

I love the blue hour but it may not always be the best time for a city. Sometimes you get a better story first thing in the morning when the warm sunlight hits the city and everyone is slowly rising up to greet the day. Perhaps, it is later on in the day when the sun creates long shadows between the buildings. Again, this is all about finding that story and choosing the best time of day to shoot it.

Not every shot has to be a blue hour or sunrise shot. However, it should match the feel of the city. Some shots maybe best suited for late at night like the neon alleyways that they have here in Korea. Others like this one from Bukcheon Village in Seoul show a different side of the modern city as it is contrasted by the hannock heritage homes in the morning light.

Look through the Lens

Sounds simple right? However, too often I find new photographers sticking to ideas that a certain lens is for certain subjects. Meaning that they often will lean towards a wide angle for cityscapes. While a wide angle may be great if that is what you are trying to show but sometimes even a 70-200mm can be useful when trying to show a certain part of your story. Do not let the lens dictate what you shoot. They are only tools to help bring out the story that you have in your mind.

This is why I often recommend the 24-105 mm lens for this kind of subject. It has a lot of range. It can be wide when you want it and zoom when you need it. It is a great all around lens that will allow you have a bit more creative control when it comes to telling your story. Once you have a better idea of what you want to say, you can switch it up a bit. In Songdo, I really wanted to get the Tri-bowls into the shot and still have the buildings in the background. I then used my ultrawide angle to get the job done. This only happened once I realized the story that I had to tell.

Things to try

Sunbursts are a great way to make a building or cityscape a little more interesting. You are going to need a smaller aperture like f/16 or f/22 to get this effect. Next position the sun against a building or the edge of something so that it is just popping out over the edge. I find shooting on a tripod at f/22 gives great results.

Long exposures with water. Many cities will have some sort of water feature lake, river, stream… fountain … puddle) and this will make a great element to your photograph. Be it reflections or colour, it is up to you as to what you want to focus on. Just think about how the element adds to the frame.

Light trails from cars are another great thing to try. These can be easily done in a similar way to the water and often add a lot to cityscapes as they convey a sense of motion. Simply set your camera to aperture priority and use a smaller aperture to increase the exposure time. Then wait for the cars to pass and they will do the rest!

Patterns are another great element to look for. Patterns can be found everywhere and often cities make the most striking patterns. These are often best seen from far away or high up on a roof. It is up to the scene in front of you but you should look for the patterns each time that you go out. You will be amazed at what you find out.

Your Turn

Headout this week and shoot some cityscapes. Try some of the suggestions above and let me know how you made out. Post your results over on my facebook page in the comment section for this post!

If you are looking for a workflow on how to edit cityscapes check out my latest course. It is just a quickie for $5 Click the button below for more information

[button link=”” type=”big” newwindow=”yes”] $5 Cityscape Workflow for Lightroom[/button]

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