City photography, also known as urban photography, is a distinct branch of photography. In this guide, you’ll learn the basic principles for taking great photographs in any city, then receive a few dozen tips for improving your photos. It’s a lot to take in at once, but once you’ve mastered these principles, you’ll be ready to take your city photography to the next level.
Defining Urban Photography
There’s no universal definition for city photography. However, most photographers agree that city photography includes photos of people and places that focus on urbanized environments. Pictures don’t need to be set in a big city to qualify as city photography, but they should be at least heavily suburban.
What’s the Difference Between Urban and Street Photography?
Street photography is a people-focused photography style that helps capture spontaneous and exciting moments of people living their lives in an urban environment. In street photography, the person (or persons) in the photo is the main subject, and the city itself is the background or the context for the image.
Urban photography is building-focused. Street photography may include one or more people in the image, and these can often enhance the picture, but the primary focus is the lines, geometry, or general presence of the buildings themselves.
There is some overlap between urban photography and street photography. Neither has a true, formal definition, so there are times when you have to decide whether a picture is one or the other after you take it.
That said, it’s easy to change between street and urban photography just by changing where you point your camera, so you don’t have to focus on one or the other for a given trip. Street photography is generally the easier of the two, so I recommend starting with that to get used to an urban environment, then switching from streets to buildings once you know the area.
Rules To Remember as an Urban Photographer
Before we go any further, here are the golden rules for working as an urban photographer and taking the best shots from the streets of any city.
First of all, remember to be safe. Urban environments are busy, with everything from moving vehicles to, in some areas, muggers and other criminals. If you’re only looking through the lenses of your camera, it’s easy to lose track of your surroundings. Pay attention to the area around you and put your safety first.
Some people don’t like being photographed. If you’re not in a particularly public area, don’t point your camera at any one person for too long without getting their permission first. The more you respect others during an urban photography session, the less trouble you’re likely to face.
Consider studying up on street photography laws and guidelines, too. The general principle is that anything you can see from a public space is fair game with or without the explicit consent of the subjects in the image, but you may find the occasional exception to this, and it’s always better to be safe.
Understanding the reasonable expectation of privacy is also useful for playing nice. Regardless of the legality of your position, though, avoid being obnoxious or interrupting others more than necessary. Generous use of apologies and polite requests can help you avoid most problems.
Comfort is Key
Urban environments can change drastically from place to place. Bringing the right clothes for the time of year is critical for long sessions. This is especially true if you want to take some night shots when the air can cool down rapidly.
Never Stop Exploring
Urban photography isn’t as spontaneous as street photography, but you never know when changing angles or elevation could result in a fantastic shot. Keep moving around and look for new places to take photographs from.
Get the Right Gear
There are a few basic pieces of gear you’ll need for urban photography, regardless of the city you visit. Note that you won’t be able to use most regular photography accessories because you’ll be taking photos of things that are far too large to control like you could in a studio, so high-quality gear is essential.
Multiple Cameras for Different Functions
Nothing is more important for urban photography than your cameras. Many photographers have two or more cameras with different functions. This is especially useful when you want to take a variety of interesting shots.
Know Your Lenses
Lenses, particularly those that are good for different ranges, are nearly as important as the cameras. These can allow you to add special effects to your images, zoom in on specific subjects, or otherwise capture wider and better shots as you look around the streets.
What Makes City Photography Great?
Urban photography offers plenty of chances to take great photographs, but there are some photography tips to keep in mind when you’re trying to create interesting images. Here’s what you should know before you start taking pictures out on the streets.
1. Before You Click: Framing Your Architecture Shot
Architecture photography is the main focus of urban photography and requires paying careful attention to where and how the building (or buildings) appear in your picture. Remember to follow the rule of threes and angle each shot carefully. If needed, use other buildings for elevation rather than limiting yourself to ground-level shots and photographs.
2. The Elements Can Affect Your Cityscape Photo
Cityscapes can make for some incredible shots, though you may need to leave the city first. Keep the weather and smog levels in mind when planning shots like these; you may need to come back later.
3. Plan Out Your Transition Day to Night Images
Showing transitions from day to night can make for some impressively impactful photos. You can compile these from multiple images put together, or even take extended shots. These are a major investment of your time, so plan them out as much as you can.
4. Fixate on Colors
Urban photography can work in black-and-white, but it usually works out even better when you focus on specific colors in the image. The primary colors are especially good at drawing attention away from brown or beige backgrounds, but other colors can also work.
5. Details Enhance the Shot
Buildings have an incredible number of details that urban photography can help bring to life. Paying attention to everything from the textures on the sides of buildings to the lines randomly formed by construction can help you plan out significantly better pictures.
6. Pay Attention to Patterns
Likewise, you can find all sorts of patterns in cities, ranging from the placement of signs to tiles and walkways. You can focus on these with your urban photography, but you can also integrate them into a photo to support another subject.
7. Weather Plays an Important Role
The impact of weather on a city is always compelling in urban photography. Things like sunbeams shining down on something or rain falling and creating waterfalls on the sides of buildings can create great shots.
8. Capturing Your Urban Photo at Different Times of Day
The golden hour is the time just before and during a sunset when natural lighting is at its richest and can help create truly incredible shadows. The blue hour of urban photography is the first hour after sunset when most lighting is steady and even. Night hours come after that and last until dawn, and may help things sparkle due to less interference from other light sources.
These are some of the best times for all types of urban photography, so get used to working late in the day if you want to take better photographs.
9. Mixed Media with Graffiti
Graffiti often exists to make a statement. Urban photography can amplify the message of graffiti, but this works out best when you can tie the graffiti to something else. Many photographers add people since, by itself, graffiti can be boring as the subject of a picture.
Graffiti is easier to find on some streets than others, so consider using image editing to mix photos and add graffiti to places where people don’t normally expect it. Some people think of this as cheating, but as long as the final result is interesting, most people will accept it.
10. Consider Infrared Photos
Infrared photography is tricky, but it’s one of the best things you can do in urban photography if you want to try something new. You may need to make something look infrared in post-processing, so don’t worry too much if you can’t find cameras or lenses that help you with this type of urban photography.
11. Use Long Exposure Hard to Get Shots
Long exposures are tricky for urban photographers because other people could jostle you, though most are kind enough to keep their distance. These work well in some areas where certain things move more than others, such as crowd shots.
However, long exposures are also partially dependent on luck. Even the best urban photographers could throw out more pictures than usual when taking long exposures, so don’t be afraid to simply take as many as you can in different areas, then figure out which ones worked out later.
12. Don’t Forget to Check Out What’s Up
One thing that sets urban photography apart from most other types of pictures is the verticality of the environment. Urban photographers can look up to find many new and unique shots, and if you make a habit of this, you’re much more likely to find potential subjects. However, you can hurt your neck if you stare up for too long, so don’t do that all the time.
13. Change Up the Mundane with Reflections
Reflections are one of the best opportunities for urban photographers. Taking an upside-down view of something can result in a unique, fantastical image. Water is a great medium, but only when it’s still, so you may not be able to use reflections in every area. Like long exposure shots, this is heavily dependent on luck.
14. Shadows and Silhouettes on the Street
Silhouettes come in many forms that urban photographers can make use of. People framed by doorways or archways are a classic, but with the right exposures, you can get silhouettes of buildings as well.
15. Angles are Everything
Imagine that you’re taking part in a photography competition. A standard side-view of a building isn’t very exciting, and it’s probably not going to win any awards, now is it? Working the angle is part of how you win a photographic competition, and because every building has its own angles, there are plenty of opportunities to explore.
16. Scope Out Different Photo Op Locations
Scouting out locations can help you generate ideas for great pictures. Some people do street photography on their first visit to an area and scout it out at the same time, then switch to city photography on the next visit.
Scouting locations can also help you learn more about each building. For example, some building owners may allow you to have access to ledges or roofs (with supervision, of course), while others will deny you any access beyond the lobby. Knowing what you can do in each location can help you plan your pictures better.
17. Auto-Exposure Works Well in Busy Settings
I often say that photographers should fully understand every aspect of exposure, and that’s true, but cities can change so rapidly that it’s often better to use the auto-exposure settings on your camera. This is especially true if your eyes haven’t adjusted to sudden changes, like going from well-lit areas to a tunnel.
New camera models are especially good at automatic exposures, so try starting with that, then manually adjusting as needed to create better shots.
18. Keep Your Shutter Speed High
One thing people often forget is that cities are fast. They may not seem like it at first, especially when you’re focusing on the buildings, but most parts of any given city have things moving through them as quickly as possible.
Having your camera at a high shutter speed, which means at least 1/125, will help you avoid blur effects caused by these moving objects. You may need to go as high as 1/4000 in some environments, so be sure to invest in a good camera capable of that unless you plan to focus exclusively on architecture.
19. Adjust Your Aperture to “Just Right”
The best aperture for this photography is usually f/5.6, which is essentially smack in the middle on most cameras. This lets in some light, but not too much, and captures a moderate amount of detail with an average depth of field. This type of photography has a bigger depth of field than most portraits, but less than landscapes, so being in the middle is just right.
20. Rely and Trust the Auto White Balance Feature
Adjusting the white balance in this type of photography is a nightmare when you do it manually. You can have different qualities of light coming in from different areas, plus all sorts of reflections, and so perfect editing becomes a chore. Automatic white balancing will save you an enormous amount of time, so trust me on this one and use it.
21. Keep Your Autofocus On
This type of photography is particularly challenging because there are so many different moving things, and it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Continuous autofocus isn’t perfect, but it’s better than most other settings at creating pictures where everything is sharp and clear.
This is not necessary for all types of pictures. For example, you may want to have a blurry and moving crowd while a building remains in focus, so use good judgment when deciding whether or not to turn continuous autofocus on for your photography.
22. Making Edits Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Photographer
For the reasons described above, it’s hard to get a perfect shot when you’re doing this type of photography. This isn’t about your skill with a camera, but an unfortunate truth of your subject matter. Fortunately, image editing can address most of the problems of this type of photography, so don’t be afraid to make use of it as needed.
23. Work on Finding Balance with Regulating Exposure
Regulating the exposure is essential for doing well with this photography, particularly in night shots, where the bright signs of a city can confuse your camera a little. You can regulate this by telling your camera to focus on a specific, mid-toned area for balance.
You can find such areas in almost any part of a city, but the only way to master this is through experience.
24. Consider White Balance Suggestions
Just like exposure, white balancing is challenging in this photography. This is why I advised you to use the automatic setting earlier. The reason to keep paying attention to this is that your camera won’t always pick the right setting, especially during night shots. Pay attention to its suggestions, but adjust them as needed to improve your city shots.
25. Create Interesting Images with Contrast
Contrasts can create some particularly exciting city pictures, and they become even more interesting after editing. For example, a single colorful sign in an otherwise black-and-white image can be quite striking.
Contrast comes in many forms for this type of photography. Color is usually the most obvious, but you can also look for new and old buildings, tall and short things, or even near and far buildings in the city. There are plenty of options, so keep an open mind.
26. Crop and Edit as Needed
Cropping is a useful tool for editing photos of a city, especially if you wind up with some distracting elements in your shot. However, it’s also tricky because if you’re following the rule of threes, cropping could take your main subject out of an intersection. Too much cropping can make a picture worse, so evaluate this on a case-by-case basis.
27. Familiarize Yourself with the Best Light
A flash unit can help, but in most cases, you won’t have as many lighting options in the city as you could in almost any other environment. As such, it helps to get as much lighting as you can. This means taking pictures of specific areas at the right time to get lots of natural light.
Cities can be odd with light, especially when it reflects off of skyscrapers or other metal structures, so pay attention to these types of things when you first visit the area. Once you understand the lighting of a city like New York, it’ll get much easier to work with.
28. Try Your Hand at Day to Night
I mentioned this earlier, but the day-to-night technique tends to be particularly interesting in this type of photography when you merge images creatively. This is different from street photography, where things work best with a single capture.
That said, unless you start late in the day, it can be tiring to wait with your camera in the exact same spot for hours on end. Given that, try getting creative and creating larger pictures showing a building at different angles. Your images don’t have to be from the same spot if you’re good at editing.
29. Change Your Perspective with Fisheye
The fisheye technique works extremely well in the city (as well as for street photography) because turning straight lines into curves can produce some bizarre-but-compelling images. You don’t need an expensive lens for using the fisheye in city and street photography, either. It has such a wide field of view that focusing it is usually quite easy, regardless of the subject.
30. Protect Your Camera with a Polarizer
This is more of a general photography tip than anything relevant to urban and street photography, but a polarizer helps protect your camera from light that could damage it. This is especially useful in urban environments where sudden reflections make it hard to protect your camera manually.
Polarizers do slightly degrade the quality of a final image, but the tradeoff is worth it. No type of street photography is worth damaging your camera for that slight extra bit of quality.
31. Photograph People with a Story
Adding people to shots is especially common in street photography, where they’re the primary focus, but people also work well in this type of photography. That said, this works best when you try to tell a story with those people. For example, you may want a close-up of someone cleaning next to a sign, or a broad view of a crowd where a few people are standing still.
This is extremely difficult unless you have one or more people along to act as models. If you don’t, you may need to get creative or be patient. Remember that you can also add people later using editing, so you don’t necessarily have to capture them in the original photo if you know where you want to put them.
32. Increase Your ISO for Faster Shutter Speed
Normally, we want the ISO to be as low as possible because it can cause problems in editing. However, street photography and some elements of city and urban photography benefit from a high ISO because it allows you to use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture, both of which are extremely useful in the always-moving environments of cities.
33. Take Eye-Catching Shots
Another great trick for city and street photography is guiding the viewer’s eyes through a scene. In these images, there should be something to catch the eye as a start, then some lines or progression that draw the viewer through it. This is often more interesting than a single picture the viewer takes in as a whole.
34. A Wide-Angle View Captures the Whole Picture
Getting closer is easy in street photography, but you may need to use a zoom lens for some types of urban photography. Wide angle views are usually better because they show more of a building and its situation than a single, narrow snapshot.
Buildings are big, so in most cases, they should take up the majority of space in the image. How much depends on the building itself, but as a good rule of thumb, I like to include the building in at least half of the picture.
35. Create a Connection Between the Subjects
This is similar to some of the earlier photography tips, but having an actual relationship between people and a building is key to city and street photography. Images are distinctly more interesting when you’re telling a story, and the interaction of humans with inanimate structures tells a better story than merely taking a shot of a building.
Street photography makes this easier than urban photography, so consider practicing with street photography to learn more about integrating people into scenes.
36. Mix and Match Your Elements
In this context, “elements” means anything that could be of interest in a photograph. That includes people, color, geometry, weather, and anything else that significantly affects the final picture.
For example, your day-and-night shots could include rain during the day, but a clear and star-filled night sky.
37. Control Light if You Can
Light is everything in photographs, but in most cases, you can’t control it for urban or street photography. However, if you really need to, you can talk to building owners about setting up spotlights or otherwise adjusting the lighting in an area. Most are willing to at least consider this.
Also, be sure to check if there are any local regulations on setting up lighting. New York may not have the same rules as, say, Seattle, and knowing what you can do is a great way to avert potential problems.
38. Brave the Weather for a Winning Shot
Bad weather can create some of the most compelling city and street photography. Don’t hesitate to use it to your advantage whenever it shows up, especially because it could be days or weeks before you have another chance.
39. Snap a Few Shots After Dark
Night is always interesting, especially in big cities like New York that never quite go to sleep. This can show a different side of people and buildings, and with steadier light, you may have an easier time capturing shots without having to fiddle with the settings to get the exposure right.
40. Add Some Black and White Images While You Edit
This is one of the most important considerations for taking photographs in places like New York. Adding black-and-white is easiest to do in image editing, and with the right mix, it makes it easier to make viewers focus on specific parts of your image.
41. Do Your Research Before You Venture Out
You only have access to public areas unless you make the time for special arrangements. The sooner you make the time to research access opportunities, the better. This may require several trips, so plan accordingly.
Urban areas may have special regulations for what you can access, too. For example, you can use drones to get elevated shots, but specific areas may discourage or even ban this unless you get written permission. I can’t overstate how important it is to remember that every urban area is different, so the earlier you research your destination, the better.
42. Find the Beauty in Everyday Things
Focusing on making common objects more attractive is a great way to improve your photography. This can include plants, walkways, signs, or anything else you choose to focus on. Color and lighting are especially useful for photos that help beautify regular objects, so consider editing the images later on.
In particular, tweaking the color saturation can help an everyday object stand out and look more attractive, especially if you dull the background a little at the same time.
43. Be Open To Anything
You can find potential images almost anywhere you look in a city. The trick to thinking outside of the box is keeping an open mind and taking photographs even when you aren’t sure if something will work. You can always discard the photo later, but if you don’t look for potential images, you won’t find them.
44. The Best Shots Aren’t Always Perfect
Many photographers try to capture the perfect shot, but the truth is that you can find beauty in imperfection as well. Damaged, weathered, or merely old subjects can be even more compelling than something new and shiny, especially if you shoot with the right conditions.
Consider shooting imperfect things with a different lens and at different times. This can help you piece together a more-compelling final image.
45. City Portraits
City portraits are challenging to shoot because you can’t change the weather or broad-area lighting. Not without incredible expense for one photograph, anyway. That said, shooting a great city portrait will help show the design and personality of a city to its fullest, and that makes for great images.
46. Keep it Candid When You Can
Candid photography is essentially the process of shooting images without the subject’s permission. This is only appropriate in public areas where people have no expectation of privacy, but being candid can create more natural-looking shoots than having models pose for everything.
47. Focus on Human Behavior
Expressions and gestures are an essential aspect of great urban photography. Simple poses are easy enough to get, but these two elements are what truly show humanity in an urban environment. In general, that’s far more compelling than focusing entirely on the urban structure for a photograph.
As an example, consider the difference between someone painting graffiti with a neutral expression and someone doing it with a fun expression. One of these images is inherently more exciting and interesting than the other one, and no amount of skill in urban photography can truly compensate for capturing human behavior.
48. Taking Street Photos Without People
Urban and street photography without people is possible but harder. The key thing to keep in mind is that every urban photograph should have a story of some kind, and it’s harder to have a story if you don’t have many people.
Remember that you can always adjust the image in post-processing later, so as long as you have the idea for a story, you can make it work.
49. Working with Movement
Movement is particularly useful for urban photography because it shows life, action, and general activity in an urban environment. City photography often uses blurry movements from long exposure times, such as that created by crowds or moving vehicles, rather than still frames of something obviously in motion.
50. Viewing Your Cityscape in Black and White
Black and white pictures are a great way to create interesting pictures of streets and architecture. Removing the color from an image can create new lines or angles, or even help show interesting textures and patterns. As mentioned earlier, you can also make just part of an image black and white to create an interesting contrast with colors.
51. Thinking Outside the Box
Creativity is essential to taking great photographs. Regardless of how good your camera and lenses are, creativity is what creates compelling photographs and brings ideas to life. Don’t hesitate to research ideas for your photographs ahead of time, either.
Remember, every bit of architecture is unique. Every street offers new opportunities, and the more you keep this in mind, the better your urban and street photography will be.
52. Edit Your Photos with Free Presets
I’ve given a lot of tips by this point, but as my final piece of advice, use free presets for photo editing. The truth is that many presets are great at adjusting photos of urban areas, and the easier it is to edit your photos, the more time you can spend on the creative