If you want to get better as a photographer, you have to practice (and read lots of excellent articles! 😉 ). And for lots of easy opportunities, there’s nothing better than using your own surroundings as your playing field, and since 3/4 of the (French) population lives in a city, why not try your hand at urban photography?
Maybe this is stating the obvious, but in cities, there are (generally speaking) lots of buildings. If you’re off on a City Trip, you’ll certainly want to show off those urban landscapes. If you’re in a city where the buildings and monuments are of different heights, move back so you can get in a full view of those famous “skylines“. You might want to showcase the sky and its prominent clouds (with a polarizing filter for instance) or a sunset. But undoubtedly, more so than with any other photographic genre, the art of taking successful urban photographs resides beyond all else in the composition of the image, particularly in lines and forms. This requires first and foremost careful choice of point of view. Each photographer has his or her own sensitivity, and each will take advantage of the specific characteristics of the city and deploy his or her own vision:
1 – A photographer who wants to convey a sense of the extraordinary proportions of the modern metropolis can create a dizzying effect (by adopting a high angle or low angle), an unbalanced and dynamic effect (by playing with, among other things, oblique lines, depth, fleeting lines of the roads, and the structures) or by employing sharply contrasting light. New Vision and Constructivist photographers (like Rodchenko) were the pioneers of this modernized point of view.
2 – Now, to convey a sense of disorganized chaos, the picture will tend to avoid a strict focal point, instead offering a composition that is saturated with elements, emphasizing oblique shapes and asymmetrical curves over orthogonal lines. This saturation effect (urban / photographic…) can also be achieved through the use of superimposed planes. There are no escape hatches here. Think of each empty space as a box to be filled in, like a window with a view.
3 – If the photographer wants to make perceptible the expression of the rigid organization of the city, he or she can use vertical and horizontal right angles, a frontal approach and a symmetrical composition of the city to make it perfectly rectilinear or totally chaotic…
You might also choose a building because of its special features (size, shape, the materials used, how reflective it is, what details it has), with a framing that will showcase them (elongated perspective, wide angle to the point that you create an abstraction, repeated forms…), and the same principles (static / dynamic; symmetrical / asymmetrical) may apply. You can also impose a frontal view on the subject and annihilate all depth from your shot. It will appear more massive, all the more so if you achieve a tight framing. By going more radical in your process, your composition becomes more important than the photographic subject, to the point that you create an abstraction, and it becomes a play on form, color, and light…
Cities are above all a hodge-podge of details! An accumulation of “insignificant details”, those small elements that only your careful eye can detect, even when nobody else can see them. There’s no single recipe that works every time, just your own sensitivity confronting the evocative force of the cranes along the docks in Barcelona, or a young girl with a wing right at her back, or a gondolier turning a Venetian cliché on its head… We have to know how to take advantage of opportunities when they come up and be ready, like a reporter who works on the fly whenever the story presents itself.
The city, by night
Some of the finest moments in urban photography occur right before sunrise and right after sunset. These glimpses of time between the bud and the bloom are called the “blue hour”. It is particularly precious to urban photographers because this moment brings together in a single image two complementary visual elements: intense and deep blues of the sky and the warm glow of city lights. These two colors are at opposite ends of the color wheel which increases the contrast and along with it the impact of your photograph. This moment stretches over an hour approximately, depending on the season of the year. Be prepared and anticipate both the right moment and the right spot to take your shots. To be sure you’re ready, you can use the application that will give you all the information you need as far as sunlight is concerned.
After that, night falls…And even if darkness washes away color, it’s the best time nevertheless to play with the colored lights of city life, meaning street lighting, lit-up buildings, neon signs, etc…These colors will be even more vibrant because they pop so well against the darkness of the night. That’s right, despite the intense power of city lights in the night sky, black will be the fundamental chromatic element in your composition. Raise ISOs to the minimum to avoid “too much (digital) noise”, which will require the use of a tripod. It’s all the more so if you close your diaphragm (f/16, 18…) to capture those beautiful twinkling lights.
There’s a whole other way to explore the hidden world of urban photography called Urban Exploration or Urbex for short (even though it’s often practiced outside the city center) and it consists of visiting abandoned buildings, blighted factories, etc. Generally the location is kept private to avoid over-utilization and to make sure the hunt for such spaces remains part of the challenge. Photos of such places are usually shots that establish the extent of the scene, or still life photography to showcase the absence haunting these places, how they are frozen in time, with furnishings or objects still in place. I had the chance to visit Doel, near Antwerp. Policy led to the evacuation of this village, and since then it’s become a Street Art haven.
Co-editor of the Trace Ta Route (Track Your Route) photo blog.
I am a lover of Art and mountain hiking, I adore vast landscapes and hidden, deserted or abandoned spaces. I am particularly fond of the Sublime, that aesthetic of emptiness and silence. I’m influenced by the works of Caspar David Friedrich, Edward Hopper, Luc Tuymans, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andres Serrano, Eric Poitevin, Michelangelo Antonioni, Gus Van Sant…