City Photography

Cities and towns make fantastic subjects for photography but they also present a unique set of problems to the travel photographer. Some of these are technical, others more organizational in nature.

Here are a few tips to guarantee fantastic city photography, taken straight from our award winning Travel Photography by Steve Davey.






Planning


Many cities are sprawling and their scale can be daunting. You might struggle to find your way around and have to travel miles to photograph everything that you want to see. The first thing that you should do is to plan just what you are intending to photograph. Don’t be so ambitious that you end up running around the whole time; not only will this result in poor pictures but you won’t be able to enjoy and appreciate the city. Check out guidebooks, photo library websites and even postcard racks when you arrive. Work out the locations where you want to photograph and which viewpoints look best at certain times of day. If you are not familiar with a city, try to get hold of a city map in advance, ideally one with the main buildings marked in relief. This can really help you to plan you time. If you remember that the sun rises in the east, it is pretty simple to work out which buildings are best photographed in the morning or evening light.


Also be aware of distances: a city like Venice is pretty compact but Budapest, for example, is unexpectedly large, and even a few blocks can be a long walk. Try to group sites together and photograph them at the same time. Aim for the most important things first, in case the weather subsequently takes a turn for the worst.


When you are booking a hotel, try to find one that is close to the main areas that you want to photograph. Being able to pop back to your room to pickup a different lens or have a siesta can make a world of difference to your photography. Commuting in to the centre from a long way out can be tiring and makes early starts that much more difficult. If you are photographing in a very sprawling city then consider moving hotels to get a base in a different part of the city when you have finished shooting your local area.



Viewpoints




One of the most important things is to find a good viewpoint from which you can look over all or part of the city. This doesn’t just give you a good establishing shot, it also allows you to take advantage of sunrise or sunset light.


Some cities such as Paris, Prague and Rio de Janeiro have natural vantage points. For others you might have to climb a building, monument or a hotel. Many high-rise hotels have bars and restaurants on the top floor with tremendous views, which means that you don’t have to be a guest to take pictures. Some are even al fresco, allowing you a completely unimpeded view. Also, remember that you can shoot from your own hotel room at all times of day. See if you can reserve a room with a view when you are booking and always ask again when you arrive. You might have to shoot through glass, if the windows don‘t open, so ask to see your room before you check in to see how clean or tinted the glass is. 


Sometimes the only viewpoint that you will find is a monument, like a church or tower, which may have limited opening hours. Check the earliest and latest times so that you can be there for the morning or evening light. Be prepared to revisit this viewpoint a number of times, as the light changes at different times of day.


Bear in mind that the most obvious viewpoint might not be the best: if you are on the tallest monument in the city, then you won’t be able to include it in your picture! There is nowhere that illustrates this better than Paris: the Eiffel Tower has the best views in Paris but other locations will allow you to include the tower itself in your picture. Other viewpoints might not have such expansive views but are worth using if they allow you to look down onto a square or a waterfront area.


Light and weather conditions

Good light is vital when you are photographing a city. On dull days and in poor weather a city can look grey and  uninteresting. Sometimes you will have to wait until the sun is higher in the sky to take pictures. At other times the sun might not actually reach street-level, especially if there are high buildingsblocking out the light. If the weather is really bad or in the middle of the day when the light is poor, use your time to photograph interiors. Many museums, churches and other monuments allow photography, although you may be restricted in your use of a tripod or a flash in these locations. You should also take pictures in bars and restaurants, as food and nightlife are often key to a city‘s character. When the weather is really poor, night shots are often still possible: reflections on wet pavements can be particularly atmospheric.


Sunrises and sunsets can cast particularly evocative light on cities. Dawn is especially atmospheric, as there are usually far fewer people around. Bear in mind that there may only be a few angles that are possible at these times of day. Highrise buildings will obstruct the light, so look out for open spaces, such as parks or riverfronts: sunrises near water often have a wonderful misty quality.



Street life




Don’t just look for the big picture when photographing a city. Although the famous monuments and sweeping views are important, smaller, more intimate scenes often say as much about a place. Photograph buildings that are not devoted to tourism but are used by the people who actually live in a city and look out for iconic details that sum up the place, such as a red telephone box in London or a gondola in Venice. 


Although it is important to make a plan, make sure that you also allow yourself to wander around aimlessly. Choose an interesting district and spend some time exploring. Look for small, interesting details and street life to give your pictures a more human dimension. A guidebook will tell you where to find the older, more picturesque parts of town, where small shops and businesses, local squares, neighbourhood churches or temples and even people’s houses show a more authentic face of the city. Also keep a look out for characteristic modes of transport, local customs and pastimes.


A city is about more than just buildings, so your pictures will be quite dull if that is all they show. As well as interesting locations, take photos of the people who live and work there. Do your research and try to find out about any local characters who are integral to the life of the city. This might be the dhabba wallahs who deliver food to office workers in Mumbai or the people who practise tai chi at sunrise on the waterfront in Hong Kong. 


The more famous parts of a city will usually be swamped with tourists but away from these areas you can photograph people going about their daily business. Try not to be too intrusive and always ask for permission before taking a portrait. People might expect to get snapped walking across the Piazza San Marco but not when they’re sitting outside their own house.


Identify any markets or souks where you can just walk around and be rewarded with countless details and portraits. Not only will you get shots of locals both selling and buying but you can also photograph traditional local goods and colourful produce. Try to shoot items that are typical of the city. In Venice this could be carnival masks and ice cream; in other places it might be spices, dates and carpets. Most markets start early; for the best photographs, try to get there at the beginning of the day before the tour groups arrive. 





Distortions

If you tilt your camera upwards to fit in a tall building, often you will get an effect caused converging parallels, where the building appears to narrow near the top. This effect is more pronounced with a wide-angle lens and occurs because the top of the building is further away from the camera and, therefore, smaller.


There are a number of techniques that you can employ to handle distortions of buildings, without resorting to expensive shift lenses. The first is just to embrace and exaggerate them. Move in closer, use a wider lens and tilt the camera more to create a more pronounced convergence. Alternatively, you can avoid the problem completely by not shooting the full face of the building, and using a telephoto lens to crop a portion of it. To cancel out the convergence but still get a photograph of the whole of the building, you will need to use a wide lens but not tilt the camera at all. This will mean that you get a large amount of foreground but little or no distortion. The unwanted foreground can be cropped out in post-production or you could position yourself so that it is interesting and becomes a part of the picture.


This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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