Chances are, if you live in a city and love to take photos, you’ve already tried your hand at urban photography. Taking urban photos will help you hone your skills as a photographer while capturing the essence of an urban environment. If improving your city photography is one of your goals, follow these tips for your next urban photoshoot.
What counts as city photography?
Urban photography is a wide genre of photography with only a few parameters. In essence, city photography needs to take place in an urban environment with emphasis on the elements of a city. A macro shot of an insect or a flower can be taken in a city, but it’s not urban photography unless the city itself is embraced within the image. The same can be said of portraits, nature photos, and selfies. In short, to create compelling urban photography, the elements of the city must play a strong role in your photo.
Urban vs. street photography: What’s the difference?
Street photography is defined as candid shots of people interacting with their environment in a way that tells a story or makes an artistic statement. While many street photos are considered urban photos, street photography can be shot in rural environments as well. By contrast, urban photography utilizes city spaces, and the images don’t always need to include people.
How to take more interesting urban photos
Ready to take more compelling urban photos that highlight where you live or destinations you visit? Here are some creative tips for urban photography.
1. Capture movement in your urban photos
One of the most important elements that distinguishes urban areas from rural areas is the sense of fast-paced movement and action that cities embrace. Traffic and crowds are common in cities, and you rarely find a quiet locale without some sort of movement. Photographing an urban landscape in its entirety will require capturing that sense of constant movement.
2. Consider abstract compositions
Another important element of an urban landscape is the way shapes, textures, patterns, and lines interact with each other to form interesting compositions that you won’t find anywhere else. While using a wide-angle lens might give you a big-picture view of your city, zooming in a bit allows your lens to capture abstract, intimate images. Consider the way buildings interact with each other or the way that electric lines create shapes over the roadways. Urban settings are, by their very nature, abstract. But it’s up to you to find the composition that will tell the story of that abstraction.
3. Look for scenes that give context to the city’s essence
When you look deep into a city, you begin to understand the essence of its neighborhoods, people, and landscapes. You can use your photography skills to paint a picture that captures the heart of your city — the factors that make it different from all the other urban areas on earth. Iconic scenes may be a good starting point, but the more you explore a city, the more you will discover scenes that can’t be found anywhere else.
4. Change your camera angle
To see your city from new and different angles, you have to be willing to get down low and look toward the sky. Or climb flights of stairs and look toward the ground. New perspectives and camera angles make it easy to shoot familiar scenes in unfamiliar ways.
5. Shoot at night and in bad weather
The average photographer, like the average person, loves to explore city life in fair weather when the sun is shining, but rain photography is actually a genre that works really well in urban environments. Just as getting off the beaten path opens up opportunities for fresh images, so does exploring outside of the normal times and conditions. Plan ahead and think about how you can capture the urban landscape on a windy day or in a rainstorm. Head out at twilight or even midnight to capture the city while it sleeps.
Urban portrait photography tips and ideas
An urban portrait aims to capture the essence of the person being photographed and the urban surroundings. Here are some tips for your next portrait shoot in the city.
1. Scout out locations ahead of time
Most portrait photographers have a handful of favorite locations that they use again and again for portrait shoots. If you haven’t started keeping a list of choice locations, it’s time to get started. A great backdrop for your urban photoshoot will have elements that define the city, won’t be too crowded, and will provide good lighting. Here are some interesting backdrops to consider:
- Murals and graffiti walls
- Iconic or interesting architectural elements
- Natural spaces within the urban environment
- Fire escapes and staircases
- Subway stations or train stations
- Interesting fences and walls
2. Consider how city buildings cast shadows
Tall buildings that are close together create unusual shadows that will affect your photos, for better or for worse. When thinking about your photoshoot, consider the time of day and how buildings or other urban elements will cast shadows on your scene. Shooting in the late afternoon may make it easier to shoot within a long shadow of a building for some of your images. Then chase the golden-hour light for the rest. Of course, you can also use those shadows to give your composition more life and substance.
3. Identify urban hazards before you begin
This is more of a safety tip than a photography tip, but be sure to scope out the immediate area for hazards before you begin shooting and always be aware of your surroundings. Test structures, walls, stairs, and ladders before climbing them, and never shoot in the middle of traffic or large crowds.
4. Take walking photos from a distance
While most portrait shots fill the frame with the subject, urban portraits often introduce elements of the environment to add interest to the scene. One of the most iconic urban images is that of a single person taking long strides through the landscape while capturing the street scene in the background. These shots often work well early in the morning when commuters are still in bed.
5. Use Portrait mode when shooting in a crowd
If you find yourself in a position to shoot a portrait in a crowd of people, do it. All you need is a telephoto lens and Portrait mode. Your iPhone’s built-in telephoto lens will work great if you have one, but if not, you can invest in an external lens. Stand outside of the crowd so as not to get caught up in it while your model saunters through. Ask them to walk with the flow of foot traffic as you lock focus in Portrait mode and shoot multiple images. When done well, his technique will blur the crowd of people while focusing on your subject.
How to shoot urban exploration photography
Ever heard of the terms “urbanex” or “urbex”? These terms refer to a narrow field of photography that aims to capture abandoned buildings, derelict environs, and other locations that the average person tends to avoid. Urbanex photography is adventurous, potentially dangerous, and not always legal. Still want to give it a try? Here are some tips to get the shot using your iPhone.
1. Shoot urban exploration photos with a friend
As we’ve already mentioned, urbanex or urbex photography can be dangerous or illegal — or both — so it’s best to work in pairs or groups for safety. This is an adventurous pastime that is more fun with friends, and if you explore with someone who shares your passion for photography, you’ll be more likely to push your limits of creativity.
2. Bring a portable light for urbex photography
When it comes to urban exploration, you never know what you’re going to find, but there’s a good chance that some of your photo opportunities will be in low-light conditions. Night mode on iPhone will certainly help if you have it, but you should also be prepared with an external light source. This can be a headlamp or small photography lights mounted on tripods.
3. Use a tripod
Another way to minimize noise and blur with low-light photography is to use a portable tripod for your urbex photos. The Joby Gorillapod fits easily in a backpack and can be positioned to hold your phone steady in all kinds of unusual positions, making it perfect for capturing new perspectives in your urbex compositions.
4. Shoot urbex with a wide-angle lens
Finally, when shooting urban exploration photos, go with wide-angle compositions that capture the heart of the scene you’re photographing. Wide-angle photos will tell the story of your find by showing how the building or area interacts with the surrounding environment as it slowly decomposes and returns to the earth.
Ready to take your photography skills to the city? Urban photography is an exciting genre, and because the city is so dynamic, you can be sure that you’ll never get the same image twice.