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4 tips to get better urban landscape and cityscape photos

Brian Matiash
May 4, 2022
Time to read:
15 Minutes

Article Outline

What is a landscape, anyway?

The dictionary defines the word “landscape” as “all the visible features of an area of countryside or land, often in terms of their aesthetic appeal.” When you hear the word “landscape,” your mind likely summons a vast and sprawling natural expanse, perhaps with trees and rolling hills.

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It’s OK; the same thing happens with me when I think of that word. I believe that it has become a bit of a knee-jerk instinct for photographers to associate landscapes with nature. It’s why when you search for landscape photos, you’ll likely be treated with a bevy of beautiful natural locations. However, it’s worth pointing out that the genre of landscape photography is quite broad.

As someone who grew up in New York City and who didn’t leave it until I was 18 years old, the only landscapes I ever knew were urban ones. Instead of giant trees lumbering over me, I had massive buildings that scraped the sky. Instead of forest trails to navigate, I had grids of paved streets, avenues and alleyways. This was my landscape, and it served as the bedrock for how I began my journey into photography during my freshman year in college.

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Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching myself how to see the forest for the trees, so to speak, and appreciate the abundant nuances of urban landscapes. I’d like to share four tips so that you can also learn to appreciate the diversity of city life.

Tip #1: Get the "Gimme Shot" and move on

Every photographer knows what the “gimme shot” is. Whether that’s how you refer to it or not, you’ve taken many of them and likely have lots of examples in your photo library. The “gimme shot” is that de facto photo that virtually every photographer takes, especially when it’s of a popular place or thing. It’s the photo that requires almost no thinking because it simply documents the subject.

Getting the “gimme shot” is important, and I’d never imply that you should ignore it. However, the quicksand that I’ve seen so many photographers fall into is that they become fixated on the “gimme shot” and forget to move onto more creative approaches for capturing the subject.

One of my favorite examples of a “gimme shot” is one of the Brooklyn Bridge I took years ago and have taken many similar photos of this scene since then. And when I return to this place, I’ll take this photo again.

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The reason is that once I get the “gimme shot” out of the way, I free up the mental bandwidth needed to get that particular photo and can begin focusing on more creative ways to capture the bridge. Look, I get that we all want to photograph the regality and beauty of such popular subjects. The important point to remember is that there are many ways to do so.

Once you nab your “gimme shot,” you should immediately begin looking for different ways to capture your subject. Maybe that means getting much closer or using a totally different lens. Perhaps you can get down on your back and shoot straight up. The key is to break yourself out of getting the obvious photos and spend time looking for those hidden gems. In fact, despite my fondness for my “gimme shot” of the Brooklyn Bridge, I have far more love for my more obscure photos of it.

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This is another photo of the Brooklyn Bridge, except you can argue that its presentation is wildly different from the more conventional composition in the “gimme shot,” right? I was inspired to take this photo while standing beneath this arch. I looked up and realized that I never noticed this particular vantage point. It was such a refreshing and rewarding moment because I found a fun and new way to photograph this iconic structure. I love the sweeping perspective of the bridge’s stonework as it expands up into the sky. For bonus points, I used Sharpen AI to bring out a little extra detail in the stone texture.

Tip #2: Find the city's rhythm

Every city, especially big ones, has a rhythm. Sometimes it’s referred to as “hustle and bustle.” To me, this defines the heartbeat of a city and its denizens. Photographically speaking, it’s the way motion can be used to convey the way a city breathes. In my experience, I’ve found that there are two primary ways to capture the motion of a city: by focusing on your subject moving through a scene and by focusing on your scene as something or someone moves through it. Let’s take a deeper look at both methods.

Panning Photos

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When I say that I want to capture a photo of my subject as it moves through a scene, I’m referring to the act of panning. In other words, I turn or twist my body so that my camera moves through the frame at the same pace and in the same direction as my subject. That’s how you pan. Be sure to check out my guide to get great panning photos if you want to learn even more about this technique.

Typically, I aim to get the shutter speed of my exposure between 1/15 sec. and 1/30 sec., and if it’s particularly sunny, that will require me to use a neutral density filter. Doing so will reduce my chances of blowing out the exposure at those shutter speeds. It’s also helpful to set your camera to manual focus and manual exposure, as well as burst mode, so that it doesn’t have to hunt for focus, calculate the exposure or slow you down when firing off your shots.

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The most important thing to remember about panning photos is that it requires a great deal of patience, discipline and practice. You’d probably shudder if you saw the ridiculous number of failed panning photos I’ve taken just to get that perfect one. What’s important is to find a compelling subject. I tend to find people who are moving fast on a bike or in a car when I practice panning. When done right, panning photos can provide an instantly striking and dynamic result in urban environments.

Stationary Photos With Motion

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Another compelling way to capture the rhythm of an urban landscape is by illustrating motion within a static scene. This is especially easy to do when you find yourself in a crowded location or one with fast moving subjects like a subway car. Similar to panning, I tend to find myself using between 1/10 sec. and 1/50 sec. shutter speeds. In these situations, I also find myself relying heavily on image stabilization—whether it’s with my lens or camera (when available)—to reduce or eliminate shakes or vibrations.

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The key to these types of photos is to find unique ways to juxtapose your moving subjects against your stationary ones. Maybe you can set a moving bicyclist against a sitting pedestrian. Or you can have a group of cars moving in one direction while there are others sitting at a red light. The point is that motion is a natural occurrence in any urban environment, and it can be fun to find all the different ways to photograph it.

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Tip #3: Nighttime is the right time

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Cheesy rhyming aside, one of my favorite times to explore any city is from dusk through nighttime. Most cities take on an entirely different feel once the sun has set and is a forgotten memory. Instead of dealing with sunlight and shadow, every street and alley is illuminated with myriad artificial lights. Neon, incandescent, halogen. White, blue, yellow. These light sources provide countless creative opportunities for urban landscape photos.

Here’s one piece of equipment you may want with you: a tripod. Because of the limited amount of light, even in brightly lit areas of a city, you may find it difficult to get a sharp photo. Having a sturdy tripod can help eliminate that concern and open up all sorts of creative opportunities to capture light trails, for example. Using a tripod also allows you to reduce your camera’s ISO setting if needed.

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It’s also understandable that you may not always have access to a tripod or it isn’t feasible to use one. In those situations, the best thing you can do to get a properly exposed photo while minimizing camera shake is to increase your camera’s ISO setting. The higher you set your camera’s ISO, the more sensitive the sensor will be to light and the faster you can set your shutter speed.

The primary byproduct to using a high ISO setting is the introduction of both luminance noise and color noise. The biggest problem with noise is that it often ends up distracting the viewer from appreciating the photo itself. Rather than focusing on the subject matter, viewers often get waylaid by the grain-like presence of noise, which detracts from the overall experience. Fortunately, DeNoise AI does a masterful job in removing distracting noise while retaining important details throughout the photo.

Here’s an example of a photo I took while roaming around Tokyo shortly after midnight. I set my camera’s ISO to 1600 because I didn’t have a tripod with me and I needed to reduce my shutter speed enough that I wouldn’t introduce camera shake by handholding it.

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You can instantly see both luminance and color noise when zooming in, especially in the darker areas of the frame.

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However, when I use DeNoise AI to analyze and remove the noise from the photo, the resulting image is clean and distraction-free. Best of all, DeNoise AI was able to retain all of those important edge details.

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Tip #4: Plant your feet

I strongly believe that if you want to get to know a particular neighborhood of a city, you need to plant your feet. In other words, find a corner, stoop or wall—and wait. Well, don’t just wait. Observe life occurring around you. Pay attention to all of the little moments. Train yourself to anticipate an event that may be about to occur and get your camera ready to capture it. The more time you allow yourself to remain in one spot, the easier it will be for you to blend in and become wholly overlooked by other pedestrians. Several years ago, I put this practice to use when I created a series called “Chinatown at Dusk.”

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I didn’t choose this neighborhood accidentally. It wasn’t like I pulled a card from a hat or threw a dart at a map of New York City. Between my own experiences and seeing photos of other accomplished photographers whom I admire, I made a mental note to spend more time in Chinatown at dusk.

That neighborhood consists of a wonderful medley of varying elements and factors, and when it all comes together, it’s magical. Everything from Chinatown’s residents to the colors of all those glowing signs to the variety of storefront merchandise—you can find a never-ending source of visual inspiration.

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Because my challenge was based on a specific window of time, I made sure to get to the location about 90 minutes before dusk. This allowed me to leisurely scout the neighborhood and make mental notes of specific places I wanted to return to.

I also kept a running list of compositional ideas that I tested while scouting. After a while, I realized that there were two primary compositions that I found myself leaning toward. The first was photographing head-on while standing across the street from a storefront. The second was shooting at an angle while peering into a doorway or window.

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What was helpful was because I had this figured out in advance, I could spend less time look- ing for places to put myself and more time on waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. Investing time at a particular scene is a critical component of street photography and one that often pays back with dividends. The more time I spent standing in a single location, the more I began to notice nuances, like the way a barber shaved his customer’s hair.

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I gave myself the time to simply be an observer. That afforded me the luxury of photographing the right moments as they happened instead of haphazardly spraying a series of shots and hoping one of them would be a keeper.

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And speaking to the benefits of staying put, one of the most important is that it aids in being able to blend into your surroundings. Rather than frantically walking, then stopping to shoot, then walking again, I just leaned back against a light post or building façade and faded into my surroundings. People who may have noticed me initially eventually forgot I was there. I was just another guy, and that was enough to allow them to return to doing whatever they were doing. The less they were paying attention to me, the more I was able to get natural photos of them.

Wrapping it up

As much as I enjoy photographing vast treelined vistas, mountain ranges, and waterfalls, I will always have an affinity for capturing the frenetic energy of bustling urban locales. Much like natural landscape photography, urban landscapes offer their own unique rewards and challenges. I hope that these tips inspire you to look at your next big city visit in a new way by gaining an appreciation for the little details that make up urban living.

And don’t forget that you can download free trials of both Sharpen AI and DeNoise AI to use with your own urban landscape photography.


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Brian Matiash

Brian Matiash is a South Florida photo educator who serves enthusiast photographers looking to grow their landscape, travel, and wildlife skills. Learn more on his website and YouTube.