Capturing stunning cityscape photos might seem hard, but it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few tricks, techniques, and secrets.
In this article, I share my best advice for cityscape photography, including:
- How to keep your images consistently sharp (even in low light)
- How to deal with pedestrians in your cityscape scenes
- How to capture beautiful compositions using foreground elements
- How to get incredible cityscape night photography
- Much, much more!
So if you’re ready to capture cityscape images like a pro, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Shoot during the blue hour
If you want breathtakingly gorgeous cityscape photography, then I recommend you pay careful attention to the light.
Now, you can create stunning cityscape photos at any time of day (or night) – but if you want the absolute best of the best results, I recommend you head out just after sunset.
(You can also go out before sunrise, but many photographers struggle to get up early enough!)
You see, this time is known as the blue hour, and while it’s great for all sorts of photography, it’s especially amazing for sweeping cityscape shots. During the blue hour, the sky grows darker and the city lights turn on. The balance of light – between the sky and the city – often becomes nearly equal, and you’ll witness a stunning combination of tones:
Working during the blue hour is very rewarding, but you’ll need to bring special low-light gear (see my next tip!), and you should also be careful; always tell someone in advance where you plan to be, keep an eye on your surroundings, and carry a phone just in case.
2. Use a tripod and a remote release for sharp cityscape photos
If you want to shoot during the blue hour, at night, or even during the golden hours (i.e., the hour or two just before sunset and just after sunrise), you’ll need to carry two essential pieces of equipment:
- A sturdy tripod, which will keep your setup supported while shooting.
- A remote release, which will let you trigger your camera without pressing the shutter button.
Once the golden hour sets in, the light will start to drop, and you’ll need to lengthen your shutter speed if you want to keep your photos well exposed. Unfortunately, longer shutter speeds lead to camera blur – unless you can keep your camera completely still, which is what the tripod and remote release are designed to do!
Simply mount your camera on the tripod, dial in your preferred shutter speed, then use the remote release – not your finger! – to trigger the shutter. (Pressing the shutter button with your finger will create camera shake, which will blur your images. Resist the urge!)
One more tip: If you don’t want to purchase a remote release, you can always use your camera’s self-timer. If your tripod is sturdy and your setup is light, a two-second timer should do the trick.
3. Bring a wide-angle lens
It’s possible to create stunning cityscape photography with a telephoto lens – you can use it to zoom in and highlight individual buildings and small details – but I’d really recommend you start out with a wide-angle lens. A good wide-angle field of view will let you capture sweeping scenes, and you can even combine foreground and background layers for a three-dimensional effect:
What type of wide-angle lens is best? Beginners should try out a 24mm prime lens, which will cost very little yet still offer a wide field of view (and crisp optics). If you’re willing to spend more and you want extra flexibility, a 16-35mm lens is a good bet; it’ll let you capture various wide perspectives as you zoom from the ultra-wide 16mm to the tighter 35mm.
4. Incorporate leading lines into your compositions
Beginners often point their camera directly at city skylines and fire away – but while there’s nothing wrong with such an approach, it can get repetitive after a while, plus the images tend to look flat.
On the other hand, if you can incorporate a foreground line (or three!) that leads the eye into the image and toward key background elements, your shots will have tons of three-dimensionality. They’ll also be far more interesting, as they’ll take the viewer’s eye on a journey from foreground to background. Check out this next image, which uses a path to lead the eye toward the mysterious light in the background:
I’d also mention that leading lines can help create order in an otherwise chaotic scene. If you’re shooting in an area with lots of pedestrians or cars, for instance, a nice leading line – such as a road – can cut through the confusion and help bring the composition together.
5. Shoot long exposures at intersections
Do you want to capture cityscape photos like this next example?
The good news is that it’s not as hard as you might think, and it doesn’t require any Photoshop wizardry, either!
Simply find a busy intersection in a city, and get up high. You can shoot from an observation deck, a roof, or a parking garage; just make sure you have an unobstructed view of the high-traffic areas.
Bring a tripod, bring your remote release, and capture some long-exposure shots. I’d recommend using a shutter speed of at least five seconds, but you may wish to shoot for longer depending on the speed of the traffic. The goal is to keep the shutter speed long enough to blur the cars into lines of light.
(Pro tip: Make sure that your scene features some curves. Traffic moving in a straight line can look okay if you include interesting structures in the composition, but if you’re focusing on the roadways from above, I highly recommend you include some bends and corners.)
6. Look for fountains
I love fountains in cityscape photography. They look great when incorporated into long-exposure shots – the water will turn into a beautiful blur – and they’re also just stunning points of interest to add to your compositions.
Happily, most cities are full of fountains. If you’re not sure where to find a fountain or two at your next cityscape destination, pull up Google Maps and do a quick search.
Then, when you’re out shooting, look for ways to include the fountains in your compositions. For instance, you can use the water to frame buildings, like this:
Or you can use fountains as interesting foreground subjects to add three-dimensionality to your images.
7. Use patterns to improve your cityscape compositions
If you’re after more subtle cityscape photography, you don’t need to capture stunning vistas of skyscrapers at night; instead, take a walk during the day, observe simple city scenes, and look for patterns.
You see, patterns have the ability to bring a sense of visual rhythm and harmony to an image. And when you incorporate them into the overall scene – here, a wide-angle lens is a big help! – you can create a calming, even meditative image.
Look at how the two patterns, made of the trees and the pedestrians, elevates this shot:
And by the way: Most scenes feature patterns of some kind, even if they’re not immediately apparent. So if you’re drawn to a scene but you can’t find a pattern, stop, take a deep breath, and look around. I’m guessing you’ll be able to find some repeating graphic elements, such as shapes, lines, or even colors.
When you do, include them in your composition, and let them add interest to – or even unite – the overall scene.
8. Use long shutter speeds to blur pedestrians
Many beginner cityscape photographers struggle to deal with pedestrians. After all, if you like the surrounding scene, you may view pedestrians as a distraction.
And it’s true: Pedestrians can be a distraction when rendered in sharp detail.
But if you lengthen your shutter speed to 1/5s and beyond, pedestrians will blur. They’ll begin to lose detail, and they’ll appear as an interesting ghostly presence:
Note that you can always experiment with different shutter speeds here, and your results will vary depending on the speed of the pedestrians.
Pro tip: If you want to blur pedestrians but you’re shooting in bright light, I’d recommend mounting a neutral density filter in front of your lens, which will block light from the sensor and prevent overexposure.
9. If you can’t use a tripod, then improvise
While tripods are allowed in most places, certain areas – such as city parks, business plazas, and city observation decks – may have a “no tripod” rule. (Alternatively, they may require you to pay to bring in a tripod; it’s up to you to decide whether this is worth the money.)
Before heading to a new location, I recommend you call ahead to find out whether tripods are allowed. And if they aren’t, don’t give up; just be prepared to do your best with what you have.
For instance, you might bring a hard-shelled backpack, or look for tables, pillars, benches, and anything else on location that is flat and safe.
Then position your camera stably and safely, and use a remote release or self-timer to trigger the shutter. While you won’t have the same level of compositional flexibility offered by an actual tripod, you can still get great results, even at night:
10. Don’t be afraid to shoot in bad weather
Many photographers stay indoors during bad weather, but stormy skies, rain, and snow can offer plenty of cityscape photography opportunities.
For instance, a foreboding sky might act as a moody backdrop to a skyscraper, while snow will create plenty of atmosphere as it falls around city buildings.
Personally, I like photographing during and after rain, as the moisture causes the city streets and buildings to glow (especially at blue hour):
But if you want to capture beautiful cityscape photos in rough weather, you must take steps to keep your equipment (and you!) safe. Use a waterproof cover to protect your camera and lens, and never change lenses out in the open. Also, be sure to wear a coat of your own, and if things get really bad – for instance, you see lightning – then head inside. No shot is worth jeopardizing your safety!
Cityscape photography tips: final words
Hopefully, you now feel ready to capture some beautiful cityscape pictures.
Just remember the tips I’ve shared, and you’ll end up with stunning images!
This article is based on my ebook, Landscapes, Cityscapes & Photography Tricks. For more city photography training, be sure to check it out!