How to Capture Cityscapes

The iconic rotary in Ulsan. I wanted to centre the image around the rotary and great the light trails to show how busy this place really is.

Cityscapes are one of those amazing styles that, if done right, can really capture the size and scale of a city. Done poorly, it “just looks like a bunch of buildings” as a friend once told me when I first started photographing cities.

So how exactly do you capture a city? Just like any other form of photography, you have to have some idea of what you want to show. How can you show it? What makes this view so interesting?

1. Find A Good Vantage Point or Location

This may sound easy but it is actually one of the hardest things about cityscape photography in my opinion. Good locations are hard to come by. Popular places are usually overrun with tourists and other photographers. In some cases, I have even heard that photographers have paid off security guards to stop other photographers from going up to the same rooftop!

In Tokyo, I wanted to show how big the city was but also the enormous skyscrapers .

However, once you find a proper location, it will tell you what you need to carry with you. So a little location scouting is probably a good idea. If you have to zoom in to get past some trees then your ultrawide angle lens may not be needed.

What I look for in a good location is a spot that doesn’t have a lot of “stuff” in the foreground. Meaning that if there are trees and branches poking up into the frame then I try and look somewhere else.

I also look for a spot that has a good foreground to background balance. If there are a lot of distracting elements in the foreground or the city is too far away and the foreground is bland then I may try and find another spot.

2. Time of Day

Typically when I am shooting cityscapes, I am looking to shoot around golden hour to blue hour. The reason being is that on a basic level I am looking at the colour and the detail of not only the city itself but the sky as well.

I took advantage of the leading lines heading towards the horizon and the sunset.

Shooting too early usually gives you an okay shot but again if there is no story or rather nothing of interest beyond just buildings and sky, then there is little to hold the viewer’s interest. So that means if you wait until there is a decent sunset or until shortly after, golden hour, you will be able to do a lot more.

I use photopills to get the accurate information on when these times will be. Their AR feature also will show you exactly where the sun will set as well. This feature will also help you get your composition. By knowing where the sun will set in relation to your cityscape, you can move around a bit to place the sun in a better position or angle.

3. Find Your Story

Going back to the “just a bunch of buildings” comment, it stung at the time but it was true. What separates a good image from a snapshot is the story and how it is delivered.

Have you ever seen a movie that had a great cast, amazing special effects, a top notch director but it still fell flat? Typically, it is a problem with the story and how the director conveyed it to the audience.

Here I wanted to get the reflections and the bridge in the distance. Also I wanted to get this at blue hour so that it would add to the colour of the overall image.

Your photos are no different. How do you take a bunch of buildings and turn them into something really scroll stopping? It starts with your vision. What are you looking to achieve from this shot?

From there you can craft your image to show your vision. I am not talking about photoshop here but rather composition, light, and settings. Do you want to show the light trails of traffic by taking a longer exposure? Do you want to freeze the crowds of people to show how busy it gets?

This is what you have to have in mind before you even set out, ideally. However, if you are already set up at a location then you can take a few minutes to find that story.

4. The Gear

Whenever I take cityscapes, I absolutely have to have a tripod. Even if I just have my phone. Normally, I have one of those clips for a selfie stick or something that can support my phone. I have even used the clip with my L-bracket to get a decent shot. However, a decent camera is irreplaceable… at least for the time being.

I know the L-Bracket is a little off but I need it like that when I was using my cable release and my 5D mk iii

The reason is that you will need to support your camera in someway. You don’t have to go all out but do NOT cheap out either. Meaning, look at brands in the $150 to $250 range and you will be good.

Depending on your vision, you can go wide or zoom in. So your lens choice will have a great impact on the overall outcome of your shot (of course!). However, this is not permission to bring along a sherpa and every piece of gear that you own.

Think about your story and a couple of variances. I use my 24-105mm lens a lot for this. I also have my 16-28mm ultra wide lens for those occasions where I want to capture how big the city is. Use your tools (camera+lens) to tell yours story. Do not just stick it on and hope that it will take something nice.

5. Editing

Editing is essential and I really hate seeing the “straight out of camera” kind of nonsense. Unless there is a beautiful sunset where the colours are insane and you really want to show people how great the natural sunset was, then you can get away with this. Otherwise, edit to create your vision or story.

I use a combination of Lightroom and Luminar. I use lightroom mainly for the basic edits. That would be sharpening, horizon adjustments, cloning out unwanted objects, etc.

Luminar is where the magic happens. With either flex or Luminar 4, you really can transform a bland image into something amazing. Typically, I am looking to further enhance the story that I am telling for the cityscape.

The bottom line here is that there is not a lot that goes into the actual creation of a cityscape image but it all rests on how well you create your story and communicate that in your frame. Having an idea of what you want to say will dictate where you go, the time of day, and the angle at which you shoot.

If you keep these five steps in mind the next time you go out, you will see an improvement in no time. It is just a matter of communicating your story more than it is about about recording an image of what you see.

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