Every city has its own unique character. Whether you’re shooting with a pro-level SLR or the simplest point-and-shoot cellphone, the most impressive cityscapes you capture will be the ones that say something about the cities you visit. If you take time to hunt down an original angle and adapt to circumstances, you’ll consistently get the best images possible under a variety of conditions.
As an assignment photographer, I’m often sent by magazines to capture the soul of a city through my camera lens. There are usually unavoidable obstacles to overcome: smoky Sumatran skies meant that the only colorful shots of Palembang were captured after dark; a commission to photograph shop houses during a particularly drizzly Singapore rainy season led to a strategy of shooting close-up architectural details rather than wide-angle skylines. In many cases the results were surprising.
1. CITIES THAT NEVER SLEEP—KUALA LUMPUR
TIP: BE THERE AND BE READY
Many cities are at their most vibrant at night. Carry a tripod if you want to capture the play of neon and moonlight, but try to plan your shooting strategy in advance. Take some test shots so that you’ll be ready to capture the exact one you’ve envisaged in your mind’s eye when the lighting is just perfect (and there’s still a hint of sunlight in the sky).
15/sec; F4; 24mm lens
2. PUT THE VIEWER IN THE PICTURE—BANGKOK’S CHAO PHRAYA RIVER
TIP: INCLUDE FOREGROUND CONTEXT
Find a vantage point that puts the viewer in context and don’t be afraid to include foreground to create something original out of what might just have been a boring city shot. This image was taken from Wat Arun temple. By setting a relatively long depth of field (on your SLR it will show as a high F-number) I was able to keep everything in focus, from the nearest stupa to the Royal Palace across the river.
200/sec; F10; 80mm lens
3. RIVER OF NEON—PALEMBANG, SUMATRA
TIP: ADAPT TO THE SITUATION
A slow speed setting captures an image that could never be seen by the naked eye. A smoggy, smoke-filled sky had threatened the success of my assignment so it was crucial that I take advantage of the color that nightfall brought with it. A 5-second exposure was needed (at ISO400) to ensure recording not only the changing lights on Ampera Bridge but also the light trails from a Musi River cruiser.
5 seconds; F5.6; 24mm lens
4. URBAN SKY—SINGAPORE
TIP: LOOK FOR UNEXPECTED COMPOSITIONS
Even in the most developed business centers, the most fascinating images are often wonderful contrasts between the old and the new. The sky was insipidly white but by zooming in I was able to frame the image so that the high-rise building behind these lovely old Tanjong Pagar shop houses (dating back to 1903) appears as a patterned backdrop. The apartment block almost looks like some weird urban sky. (This effect could have been accentuated by soft-focusing the new building but a minimum of F5.6 was needed to keep the all-important shop houses in focus).
800/sec; F5.6; 130mm lens
5. URBAN JUNGLE—TAIPEI
TIP: WORK TO FIND THE BEST ANGLE
Taipei 101 (at 509 meters, or 1,671 feet) was the first building in the world to break the half-kilometer mark. As such, it’s visible from almost anywhere in the Taiwanese capital. Nevertheless, to get an original shot the photographer might have to ‘go the extra mile’ (in this case literally). From the slopes of Elephant Hill it’s possible to photograph the Taipei skyline framed in jungle foliage—thus transporting the viewer to the tropics in a way that a purely urban image could never do.
640/sec; F7; 24mm lens
6. UP ON THE ROOFS—BUKIT TINGGI, INDONESIA
TIP: UNDERSTAND YOUR EQUIPMENT
Shooting with a long lens (and maximum depth of field) accentuated this jumble of roofs to create a very busy image that portrays modern city life in a way that wide-open spaces rarely will. If it’s true that a picture can say a thousand words then the unique melange of architectural styles in this shot (Chinese, Islamic, Dutch colonial, Minangkabau) speaks volumes about the fascinatingly convoluted history of Bukit Tinggi.
320/sec; F22; 120mm lens
7. CONVERGING PARALLELS—KUALA LUMPUR
TIP: KEEP MOVING
Cityscapes and buildings aren’t mobile so that’s all the more reason for you, as a photographer, to be active in chasing the unusual angle. Play with distorted—almost vertigo-inducing—angles that non-photographers would rarely even notice. Switch lenses and shooting angles tirelessly and, from time to time, you’re sure to come up with an original angle even of a city that is as exhaustively photographed as Kuala Lumpur.
150/sec; F6.3; 24mm lens
What’s your proudest cityscape shot? Got your own photography tips you want to share with us? Tag #momentumtravel on Instagram.