Photographing Cityscapes



Photographing cityscapes is like shooting landscapes… only more so. I say this because cityscapes consist of hundreds of buildings that qualify as skyscrapers. New York City, which for the record has more buildings than any other city on the planet, has more than 5,500 high-rise buildings as of August, 2008, 50 of which are over 656’ tall.

Gorgeous Light

Now, if you plan on photographing NYC from the opposite sides of the East River or Hudson River, you can work at almost any time, though from a creative standpoint the hour or so before and after sunrise and sunset are still the best times in terms of gorgeous light. But if you plan on shooting from the heart of the beast, i.e., amidst the towering structures, the success of your efforts will be greatly determined by the time of day and even the time of year. 

The cavernous nature of endless rows of towering buildings common to many cosmopolitan epicenters presents its own problems. Even though the composition of your picture might be drop-dead gorgeous, if you miss the few minutes a day that the sun illuminates the scene you’re photographing, you might very well be skunked by flat shadows. Except for, perhaps, lighting up a modest bit of foreground, your camera’s flash is of little avail when shooting in urban environs.

Because you cannot rotate buildings in order to optimize the angle of light striking the building(s) you want to capture, the first thing to do when stalking cityscapes is to orient yourself to the east / west axis of the town. Once you have a handle on this handy factor, you can now ballpark the best time to photograph whatever scene has captured your imagination.

A good example would be viewing the Empire State building from the corner of 34th Street and 9th Avenue, home of B&H Photo. The wide corridor of shops, buildings, and an unending line of cars, buses, and taxis winding their way across 34th Street makes for a classic New York City landscape. Everywhere you look you’ll find locals and tourists alike, framing the scene in their viewfinders, day and night. The best pictures however, can only be captured later in the day when the sun, setting in the west, casts a warm glow on the building and its surroundings, or at dusk when the lights emanating from the combined crisscross of traffic and window light complements the waning colors of the sky at dusk. Pictures taken in the morning when the sun is on the far side of the island tend to be backlit, washed out, with the star of the show—the Empire State Building—merely a shadowy hulk.

Using Filters

If you plan on shooting in the midst of urban canyons, the best time of day is also, coincidentally, the worst time—midday. At mid-day, especially during the summer months when the sun reaches its highest apogee in the sky, the light tends to be harsh and contrasty. But it’s also the only time the sun stands a chance of penetrating block after block of concrete and steel.

To counter the harshness, you should consider using a Polarizing filter, and preferably a warm Polarizer, or at the very least, an 81A or 81B warming filter.

A Range of Optics

In terms of optics, cityscapes offer opportunities to use a wide range, from fisheye to extreme telephoto. When cruising the streets of the city you should always be looking up, down and all around, because you never know where the next image may be.

If photographing buildings is something about which you’re passionate, you might want to also consider investing in one or more tilt-shift, or perspective control (PC) lenses, which allow you to correct the keystone distortion in which buildings are seemingly tilting backwards, which is common to architectural photographs.

Tilt-shift lenses are available from Canon (17mm, 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm), Nikon (24mm, 45mm, and 85mm), and Schneider (28mm, 50mm, and 90mm for Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Sony lens mounts).  Lensbaby also offers the Composer Pro for use with lenses from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, as well as 4/3 and Micro 4/3 lenses.

Reflections in mirrored buildings, windows, cars and any other number of polished surfaces are another avenue worth exploring when trekking through city streets. Mirrored images and funhouse-like distortions reflected in curved polished surfaces can be wonderful alternatives to the more straight-laced approach to picture taking to which we all succumb.

As mentioned above, the lighting conditions prevalent at dawn and dusk offer imaging possibilities that are far more flexible in terms of positioning, compared to daytime hours; the hour or so before sunrise and after sunset offer wonderful imaging possibilities. Because the light levels and contrast ratios between the ambient light and the artificial light emanating from office windows closely match one another, the imaging possibilities are far more plentiful, and the color palette is as pleasing as you’re likely to find for cityscapes, or for that matter, any form of landscape photography.

Shooting from the air, be it from windows, rooftops or if your budget allows, from helicopters or small aircraft, is another approach that invariably leads to interesting perspectives and dramatic angles of subjects most folks only get to ponder from ground level. If you do have an opportunity to shoot from the air, make sure you engage your cameras (or lens’s) image stabilization system, bump your ISO up as high as you can without introducing uncomfortable levels of noise and artifacts and shoot at wider apertures and faster shutter speeds in order to maintain maximum sharpness.

One final option that should be explored for capturing cityscapes is night-time photography. Unlike daytime cityscapes, which are illuminated by the light of the sun, these are illuminated by the light emanating from the glow of the buildings, illuminated signs and streetlights in your photographs.

Tripod or Image Stabilization?

While a sturdy tripod all but guarantees sharp night-time photographs, most modern DSLRs, compact digital cameras and advanced point-and-shoot cameras offer multi-mode image stabilization systems, sky-high ISO settings and HDR-based exposure modes that make night-time photography as easy as shooting at high noon. Depending on the camera you’re using, you should  pump the ISO sensitivity to a level you are comfortable with in terms of noise and ambient artifacts and make sure your camera's (or lens’s) image stabilization system is turned on. If your camera has a mode similar to Sony’s Hand-Held Twilight mode, which captures five to six bracketed exposures in quick succession and combines the sharpest, best exposed elements of each into a single optimized image file, now’s the time to turn it on. Similar exposure modes can be found in select cameras from Nikon and Fujifilm.

All Photographs © 2011 by Allan Weitz. May not be used without written permission.