Do you want to do a top-notch urban photoshoot, but you’re not sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place.
As an experienced city portrait photographer, I’ve spent years refining my techniques – and in this article, I aim to share everything you need to know for stunning urban portraits, including:
- How to prepare for an urban photoshoot
- How to pick the right settings for consistently beautiful images
- How to generate plenty of urban photoshoot ideas
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to take your urban portrait photography to the next level, then let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Begin with a vision for your urban portraits
If you want to capture the best-possible urban portraits, then you shouldn’t head out with your camera and start hammering that shutter button.
Instead, begin with the end in mind. Think about the type of shots you want to take on your next photoshoot. You might even create a mood board of urban photography portraits using a free tool such as Pinterest. (The images you use could be from your own portfolio, or they could be inspirational images from other photographers. Keep these photos in mind as you plan your shoot, and use them as a standard to aim for.)
2. Do some location scouting
Before you plan your urban photoshoot, get an idea of the urban landscapes in your area. (You can do this by taking a walk in the city or by driving around on Google Maps.)
And as you scout, ask yourself: What kind of image opportunities do I see? How might the buildings and street scenes act as points of interest or as compelling backdrops?
Every town and city has its unique charms, from heritage buildings to seaside piers to abandoned shopping centers. Find what’s interesting about your area and use it.
3. Find the right subject
If you’re just starting out with portrait photography and you need a model, I recommend asking family or friends. That way, the pressure will be off, and you’ll have someone familiar on whom you can test out ideas. Make sure you ask someone who is not too shy or self conscious, though; every urban photoshoot will involve posing for photographs in a public location, so some confidence is essential.
Once you’re ready to test your urban portrait skills with a model, organize a TFP (time-for-print) shoot. These have been around since the pre-digital days, when photographers, models, and make-up artists would collaborate and give their time for free in exchange for physical prints of images taken during the shoot. These days, images from TFP shoots are usually digital files shared over the internet.
Finding people to work with should be relatively easy. Most cities have photographer and model groups on Facebook. Type in the name of your area with the words “model” or “photographer” and see what comes up. If you don’t find anything, you can also ask in local photography groups if anyone knows of a TFP-style group you could join.
4. Ask for expressions of interest
Once you’ve joined a local Facebook group, have a scan of the posts and see if it’s the kind of community you wish to work with. If you feel comfortable, it’s time to create a post.
Introduce yourself, explain that you’d like to conduct an urban portrait photography photoshoot, and link to examples of your work and your Instagram.
In your post, offer as many details as possible. Include the approximate location, proposed days and times, and the types of shots you’re looking to get. You can also link to or share images from your mood board to set an expectation of the kind of shots you’ll take. (If you share images from the mood board that are not yours, make sure you credit the photographer.)
Finally, ask people to comment on the post or send you a private message expressing their interest. And ask them to link to their Instagram or portfolio, too.
5. Arrange all the key details for the shoot
After you’ve chosen a model, organize the shoot. Agree on the day, time, and location. Prepare to negotiate the day, but insist on a specific time. Always choose a time that will work great for photography.
(If you’re not sure how to pick a perfect time, I’d recommend starting about an hour before dusk; this will provide opportunities for natural light and after-dark images.)
If the model is under 18, check that their parent or guardian is coming along and that they will be able to sign a model release form.
Ask your model what they’re planning to wear for the shoot. Quite often, they will ask for your advice or provide you with options. Explain that it would be ideal to have two or three different looks. Some models will prefer to wear completely different outfits for the first and second half of the shoot, while others will prefer to bring along fun accessories like glasses, sunglasses, hats, and jackets.
If you’re arranging a shoot a week or two in advance, don’t forget to stay in touch with your model. Confirm the date and time with them a day or two before the shoot.
6. Have a plan
Think back to your location scouting, and draw up a list of 8 to 10 places where you’d like to shoot. (They should be within walking distance of one another.)
Outline a map, plan your route, and consider the shots you’d like to take in each location. I typically only shoot at 6 to 8 locations, but I like having a couple of extras up my sleeve in case some don’t work out.
Of course, don’t be afraid to throw your plan out the window if a better opportunity presents itself!
7. Select your gear
It’s tempting to take as much kit as you can carry on an urban portrait photoshoot – however, the more gear you take, the more uncomfortable you’ll feel. So while you should definitely carry enough gear to give yourself flexibility, don’t overdo it.
I take two portrait camera bodies, each with a prime lens, and I’ll often add a third lens to my bag. My lenses are usually around 24mm – for environmental city portraits – 50mm – for standard portraits – and 85mm – for tighter portraits and headshots. Although I love zoom lenses for family portrait shoots, I only take fast prime lenses on urban portrait shoots.
A piece of advice: Double-check all your camera settings and accessories when you pack your gear. Make sure that:
- You’ve selected the right image quality settings (I recommend JPEG+RAW or just RAW).
- You’ve selected the right ISO settings (I use Auto ISO).
- You have spare SD cards and spare batteries in your bag.
- You have model-release forms and a pen.
8. Get to know your model
Make sure you show up early to each and every shoot; you won’t make a good impression if your model is stuck waiting for you to arrive.
And once you’re present, get to know your model (and if they have one, the chaperone). Everyone can be a bit nervous at the start of a shoot, so have a good chat before you even think about pulling out a camera.
9. Shoot deliberately and aim for variety
When doing high-level urban portraiture, the goal isn’t quantity, it’s quality. I aim to get a dozen images I’m really happy with, and I recommend you do , too – even if it means shooting differently than you normally would.
In other words, if you’re used to shooting fast, slow down. Take your time directing the model and getting the composition right before taking each shot.
Make sure you get a variety of shots: close-ups, full-length compositions, the model looking toward the camera, the model looking away. And remember to get some different looks by asking the model to don various accessories, such as sunglasses, hats, and jackets.
10. Be prepared to direct the model
Directing talent is a skill you will need to learn, especially when working with younger up-and-coming models. Fortunately, it’s not difficult, especially with the right resources.
My recommendation? Grab dPS’s 67 Portrait Poses packet, download it on your phone, and use it as a reference during your shoot. Alternatively, save a several dozen urban portrait photos on your phone, then show them to your model as you shoot.
11. Keep an eye on your ISO and shutter speed
Unfortunately, there’s no single best ISO and shutter speed for urban portraits, as the light is often changing over the course of the session.
But as the day moves into night, be sure to frequently check your ISO and shutter speed. It’s essential to keep your shutter speeds above 1/80s or so, and if that means you need to boost your ISO, then do it. It’s better to create a noisy image than a blurry one!
(You can also widen your aperture, but you’ll probably want to keep it pretty wide, anyway, for beautiful background bokeh.)
12. Limit any negative self-talk
Some photographers have a tendency to criticize themselves while shooting, and that’s a big no-no.
First of all, you definitely shouldn’t say anything negative out loud, as that will make your subject feel demoralized and will lead to terrible results.
But you also shouldn’t think negative thoughts. If you have an idea for an image that doesn’t work out, move on and forget about it. Don’t dwell on the shots you couldn’t make work; instead, focus on the ones that go well!
13. Carry your own lighting
For the first half of any urban photoshoot, I rely on natural or ambient light. But then, as darkness envelopes the urban landscape, I turn to my own lighting options, and I recommend you do the same.
First, I generally take a speedlight, which I can use on camera or trigger remotely. The light from speedlights can be harsh, so if you do go this route, you should bring a light modifier such as a mini softbox.
Second, I take small LED video lights, which are highly controllable, plus they’re continuous (so it’s easy to determine the result before hitting the shutter button). I love using these lights, though I do suggest you bring a modifier to get a softer, more flattering effect.
14. Stay safe
On a city shoot, safety should be your number-one priority. I’m not just talking about crime (though that is a concern) – you should also be aware of cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and so on.
Identify any hazards before the shoot and brief your model in advance. When you’re out shooting, be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get a bad vibe from an area, it’s best to move on.
Also, never leave a bag on the ground unattended. A few moments is all a thief needs to make off with thousands of dollars of equipment.
15. Be legal
Always, always, always make sure your shoots are legal. Look into public liability insurance and have model releases signed before the shoot begins.
Before heading out, research if you need any permits to shoot in your city. You should also research specific locations, as some parks and plazas may have strict photography policies.
And when you’re shooting, be careful about straying onto private property; you don’t want to have your shoot derailed by security or police.
16. Limit the photoshoot time
While you might be tempted to photograph for hours on end (until you get that perfect, million-dollar image!), remember that your model will get tired, plus their time is valuable.
So keep the shoot between 60 and 90 minutes. Yes, it’ll go by quickly – but it’s better to keep the session short and end on a high than have it run long and leave everyone frustrated and exhausted. For younger models, keep shoots under 60 minutes.
17. Edit your images
It’s always best to get your images right in camera. That said, a little bit of portrait editing is pretty much always necessary, such as:
- Exposure adjustments
- Contrast adjustments
- White balancing
- Color grading
You may want to clean up the image, too. Urban surroundings can get pretty dirty, and it’s often a good idea to remove distracting elements from around your model.
For instance, in the example below, there were a lot of cigarette butts on the ground:
But I decided to remove them in Photoshop to create a cleaner result:
The difference is subtle, but in my opinion, the little details do matter.
Urban photoshoot tips: final words
Urban portrait photography is a lot of fun and can stretch your creativity as a photographer.
And if you do your research and follow my advice, you’ll get great results!
So find a model, head out, and have fun!
Now over to you:
Where do you plan to do your next urban photoshoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!