City and Urban Photography: 5 Tips for Beginners

photographing urban streets in the city.

Urban photography is a broad topic that is only bounded by location. You have to be in a city to do urban photography. An urban photographer is as diverse as street photography and architecture photography. But just because you take a photo in the city does not mean it’s urban photography or that you are an urban photographer.

Urban photography is about the city. Cityscapes, street photography, and architectural details are all photographs that can be included under the banner of urban photography.

Many photographers think of the classic city photography taken in places like New York, London, or Los Angeles. But if you want to become an urban photographer, you don’t have to be in any of these locations. You just need to be in any city. Old or new. You can take photos in any urban environment.

What Makes Good Urban Photography?

Good urban photography is what you make of it. Because urban photography is such a wide topic that covers so many different subjects, there are no hard and fast rules to determine what is and what is not good urban photography.

Looking at the photographs of accomplished urban photographers, you will notice some patterns and similarities in their photographs.

Contrast is often a feature of good urban photography. Think of photographs you have seen taken in large cities where there is contrast. It can be between light and dark. Or tall and short. 

Maybe even contrast between what is manmade and what is naturally occurring in the city landscape. When you are out doing some urban photography, think about how to include contrast in your images and how it will make them more interesting.

urban landscape.

One contrast I notice between the styles of many urban photographers is that of minimalist composition and ones that contain a lot of details. It might be an urban street photography style. Sometimes it is more architecture. But there is definitely a style gap between the images different urban photographers make.

Good lighting is important not only for urban photography but also for any type of photography. Often, the better the lighting, the better the photograph. Don’t take lighting for granted. You need to plan to go out with your camera when the light for urban photography is best. 

Think about the type of images you want to make and how the lighting is going to have an effect on how your images will look. Do you want hard light/ Or will your photos look better with soft light? Sometimes taking urban street photos at night will make a more striking image of a particular location.

night urban photography with reflections.

Black and White Urban Photography

One of the best urban photography tips is to think in black and white. When you love urban photography, black and white images can add much more interest to the photographs you take. 

In an urban environment, black and white photos tend to help you draw attention to your main subject. In the city, there are often lots of bold colors that add nothing to the photographs you compose. Taking away this color can help you make more interesting city landscape images. 

Urban street photography including people, often works really well in black and white. These photos can capture more of the character of a subject and the location. 

Related article: How to Take Street Photos in Black and White.

Lighting is key to grayscale photography. Both soft light with a little shadow and hard light with dark shadows can make for great black and white photos taken in an urban environment. You can make the most of it whether you are using a wide-angle lens or a zoom lens to create an interesting composition.

With black and white photography, your focus often leans towards making images with your camera that have more interesting shapes. Shadows and backgrounds influence the composition in different ways. 

One more tip is to think about the contrast levels and what it means to have a full frame. City photography, as much as any, when in monochrome, is best with a full frame and good contrast.

As far as camera settings go, you’ll want to be in control of your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. Managing these camera settings well helps you bring out the best when you are doing city photography.

The more you can think in monochrome, the stronger your images will be. Look at how to improve your composition with leading lines and other techniques.

urban photography in the rain.

How Weather Can Affect Urban Photography

Heading out for some urban street photography, it pays to check what the weather is going to be like for the day. If you like to take urban landscape photography with strong contrast, there’s not much point in going out on overcast days. You’ll want bright, full sun to make the most of the contrast for your art.

In cities with a lot of tall buildings, the time of day will also have a strong influence on how free you are to frame a scene the way you want. At certain times of the day, like during the golden hour, in the location you choose, you may or may not see any sun at all. The buildings may block most of the direct light from the streets. At other times of the day, your urban street photography scene may appear quite differently.

Take into consideration the background your scene has when the light is bright, and you want to create light, good-feeling images of city buildings. In poor weather, you will be limited because of the clouds and the lack of contrast in the scene.

Sometimes you will want to focus on photographing urban landscape photography with lots of reflections off wet surfaces. It can be a lot of fun to work with different lenses and focal lengths to see how you can best manage reflections after a good golden hour rain shower in the city. For this type of city urban landscape photography, you’ll want to make sure you have the right equipment and the most interesting location. 

Setting your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO carefully will help you make the most interesting exposure and free you up to be the most creative. 

big city streets urban photo.

Controlling Your Camera Settings for the Best Exposure of City Photography

If you are not in control of your exposure when photographing cities in the rain, the reflections of your subject will not be so interesting. Even when the weather is good, you want to always be in control of your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO so that your cameras will give you the best exposure. 

Take the time to focus on what is most important. Cityscapes and urban landscape photography are not so excellent when the exposure is controlled by the camera. 

The camera cannot make good art unless you manage the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and create more interesting exposures than the camera will do on any auto exposure mode.

Urban landscape photography is as much about using your camera well and managing the exposure settings as any type of photography. You will capture a more interesting image when you create a good exposure. No matter what your subject or the background is like. Sometimes getting the right exposure is a matter of finding the right angle to take your photograph from. In cities, the light can reflect off buildings, especially modern buildings, and alter how your camera will manage the exposure. 

To capture and make the most of great contrast and reflection, your cameras must be well controlled. If cameras are left on auto, they will usually make a nice image but not create the most interesting photograph possible. This is why it is more fun to photograph streets and subjects using manual mode. If you are a photographer who is not used to this, try photographing streets and buildings rather than making a portrait or taking a photo of something moving.

Including People in Your Urban Photography

Many photographers prefer not to photograph portraits in the streets. This can be too challenging and not at all fun. Even making a candid portrait of a person is too difficult for many photographers.

But, once you start and make your first urban photography portraits out in the streets, you might get hooked on it. Photographing a portrait in the streets has its own challenges, but the rewards that come with it often help people overcome their fears.

A photographer who is not sure at first how to manage to take urban street portraits must overcome the thoughts in their head that are holding them back. It’s not so difficult once you get your head around the fears and negative thoughts that often accompany the notion of making a street portrait. 

You need to be confident with the settings of your camera and also be confident in how you present yourself. If you approach a person and ask if you can take their photo, how you appear will determine a lot of how that person will respond. Approach people with a confident, open, and positive attitude. You’ll have more fun and success than if you ask for a portrait and you are looking frightened.

If you are not the type of photographer who thinks you can capture street portraits, why not start by making some candid urban street photography portraits? By taking candid portraits, you can use longer lenses and not have to talk to anyone. Attaching a long lens to your camera with the focus to capture portraits without being noticed is an alternative.

woman exercising outdoors in the city.

Composition Techniques for Urban Street Photography in Cities

How you compose an image can make or break it. An image that is well composed will hold a viewer’s attention for longer than an image that is not well composed. Take your time when you are out taking urban street photographs to look at how you can best capture what you are looking at.

Remember that we do not see with four borders. But this is how our camera takes a photo. Everything that fits within the four edges of your composition should work towards making a more interesting capture. 

The art of filling the frame is assisted by as many other composition techniques as you can possibly manage. Using learning lines, the rule of thirds, and other composition techniques can all help make a photograph more interesting. If you don’t fill your frame well, then the image will not be so strong. This is regardless of what other composition rules you follow.

You may find a city scene where you want to use the rule of thirds with. However, if you cannot fill your frame well, then abandoning the idea of using the rule of thirds is probably going to help you capture a more interesting photograph.

Don’t get hung up on the rules. They are there to help you make better photographs, not to hold you back.

In cities, there are so many options for how you can compose. Much more so than if you are photographing landscapes or seascapes. This is because there are more lines and subjects in cities.

There are so many different things to photograph in urban areas, so you have a lot to work with. Make the most of every element you fit in your composition to make the best photograph.

black and white urban photography.

Some Urban and City Photography Tips for Beginners

Here are some tips for photographers who are new to urban photography.

Tip #1: Use a Long Exposure

Capture interesting photographs of movement in the city by using a long exposure. Setting a slow shutter speed will add cool motion blur to an image where the subject is moving. 

Moving subjects in cities can include people walking. Cyclists passing by. Birds in the city square or in the trees in the park. At night using a long exposure to photograph moving traffic is a lot of fun. You’ll certainly need a tripod if you are going to try this technique.

Tip #2: Control Your Aperture and Focal Length for a Shallow Depth of Field

When you can control the aperture setting on your lens and choose a suitable focal length, you can create a shallow depth of field. This can make a subject stand out from the background and result in very cool urban street photography.

Tip #3: Use Wide Angle and Long Focal Lengths

Use a variety of lenses to photograph the streets in the city. It can be tempting to stick with using a wide-angle lens when doing urban photography. But when you mix up the focal lengths, you use you will make a more cool collection of images.

woman on the phone in central area of a city.

Tip #4: Take Your Tripod Especially for Night Street Photography

Sometimes you’ll want to find a great spot to set up and wait for the right time to take your urban landscape photography. When you have your tripod with you, it’s more comfortable to do this.

You can find your best urban landscape photography location, set your cameras on tripods, and wait. When you have more than one camera, you can use different focal lengths on each one and capture a different photograph with each one from the same location. This will also free you up to watch what’s going on around you.

Tip #5: Don’t Only Take A Photo from the First Angle You See

This is one of the biggest mistakes many beginning urban street photographers make. 

Always take more than the first photo you think of. Start with that one, and then look at the scene again. Think about how you can make it look more captivating and move around. 

Take time to find other spots to stand, sit or even lie down. You never know until you actually put yourself into a position what a particular point of view will look like through the lens.

When you find a great scene to take a photo of, the more you move around, the more likely you are to create the best photograph of it.

cityscape with clean lines.

Conclusion

Urban photography is a very broad subject. You can spend years taking photographs of the same city and never get bored or repeat the same thing twice. Each time you go out with your cameras to take photos, you will find new and perfect things to photograph. Use your imagination, and you will not be bored taking photos in the city. 

Go out at night or in bad weather. You can capture such a variety of photos when you try different approaches. If you do go out in the rain with your camera gear, make sure you have it safe from the effects of the weather. 

You don’t always need to photograph the city in color. Desaturating an image can make it more vital. But when you think in monochrome as you are taking your photos, they will certainly look better.

In cities, you will always find people. If you want to capture the nature of a city, then make a few portraits. You can set these up or make candid portraits. Either way, aim to help tell the story of the city by showing the people who live there. 

Compose your urban photography well. There are so many opportunities in cities to compose great photos. You have always got so much to work with. As with any kind of photography that you start out doing, the more you practice, the better you will become.

Check out our 365 Days of Photography Course. It helps you to practice using your camera and become more confident and skillful with it. It’s a sure-fire way to become the best urban photographer you can be.

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