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My friends always joke that if I had my way I would pack my belongings, load up the family car, and head to the mountains to live out the rest of my days away from all the chaos of city life. What a happy dream, and one that someday I hope to make a reality, but for now I live in a urban city as far away from mountains as you can get. Urban living does have some benefits, in that it presents some wonderful photographic opportunities, if you know where to look and how to go about it.
There is some confusion among photographers between the terms: urban photography and street photography. Technically they are quite similar, and it is very easy to overlap the two, but here’s how I look at them. To me, urban photography portrays the urban landscape (e.g. buildings, bridges, structures, monuments, etc.) and does not necessarily include people where as street photography often features people or other human elements living in an urban setting. Now keep in mind, urban in itself has different meanings for different people. Wikipedia says, urban is anything related to a city. I like to think of urban as anything that is not rural (e.g. no corn fields, agricultural lands or remote mountain areas). This opens up a whole gamut of photographic opportunities for every pallet.
In general, here are some of the rules or tips I like to follow while on an urban photo expedition.
Before going on an urban photography excursion it is very important to be prepared. That not only means packing your gear the night before, and making sure all the cards are formatted and all batteries are charged (although you should do that too), but it is also beneficial to understand where you are going, and how are you going to get there.
What are the traffic patterns? Are there any parking restrictions? Do you need any special permits to photography there? Is photography even allowed? The Art Institute of Chicago is a perfect example. While photography is permitted, they don’t allow large camera bags or roller bags. So a small purse/backpack with a single camera and lens setup is your best bet. Do some research, and ask around if other photographers have experienced any issues in the location you want to explore.
I touched on this briefly already, but most urban photography expeditions are best done on foot where you are free to explore alleyways, buildings and street corners. I don’t know about you, but walking with about 30lbs of gear on my back is not my idea of fun, unless I am backpacking in the mountains! Pack light and carry at most two lenses.
My camera of choice is the Canon 5D MKIII and my go to lenses are Canon EF 24-70mmL zoom and Canon 100mm macro. Sometimes if I am brave, and in the mood for a good upper body workout, I will ditch the 100mm macro and carry my Canon EF 70-200mm. I carry an extra battery for my camera and one extra 32GB memory card. All of these fit comfortably in my backpack.
Often we tend to photograph first and think later. The mindset of, “I have a limited amount of time so I will take pictures of everything and anything and cull my images later” is one that is very easy to adapt. I am guilty of this as well, and have to consciously remind myself to think first, and photograph later. But challenge yourself to stop being a lazy photographer (I fall into this trap too) and start photographing smart. Especially with urban photography, there is only so much you can portray about a building or a monument. Limit yourself to
- One horizontal photo of said object/building/monument
- One vertical photo
- One zoomed in detail if there is anything particularly appealing
- One wide angle shot to give a sense of place and space
Angles and Framing
This tip goes hand in hand with the shoot smart strategy above. Try and get everything correct in-camera so you spend less time in front of the computer, and more time out exploring. I find that when I am out photographing urban scenes, I am shooting in conditions where I don’t have much control – think harsh midday sun, far away subjects, etc. Hence, I pay particular attention to the technical aspects I can control.
When I am framing my subject and composing the image, I try to convey a story. There is no right or wrong way to do it, remember it’s your story, so as long as you can convey your message, go for it. When photographing a really tall building, go wide. If you cannot go wide, then try to either get the top half or the bottom half. Is it a historic site? Are there some special markers or markings? Something that will help explain why you have taken that particular shot?
Experiment with various angles as well – get down low or shoot from high above. I am not a big fan of tilted angles, particularly on urban landscapes. They make me dizzy and I always wonder which way am I supposed to tilt my head to see the image. Unless the building has a natural slant like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I don’t get the image! Of course, this is just my personal preference. If tilting is your thing, your forte – then go for it. Experiment and see what works for you.
Always have an end goal for any photographic exercise. Goals can vary. Maybe you want to try out new gear, explore modern architecture, or maybe you just want to explore a new city or an old favorite neighborhood though your view finder. No matter what the goal, be clear and set your own expectations.
At the end, when all is said and done, if there is one tip I can give you, this is it – remember to have a good time exploring, and don’t get too caught up in getting the perfect shot. It is okay to put down the camera at times, engage in conversation with others, and also experience the space and place you are in with your mind’s eye! So get out there and explore.
Here on dPS this is landscape week – here is list of what we’ve covered so far. Watch for a new article (or two) on landscape photography daily for the next day or so.
- 6 Tips for Better Low-Light Landscape Photography
- Landscape Photography and the Human Element
- 5 Ways a Telephoto Lens Can Improve Your Landscape Photography
- Landscape Photography from the Side of the Road
- 32 Majestic Landscape Photos to Inspire Your Wanderlust
- Weekly Photography Challenge – Landscape
- Landscape Photography – Shooting the Same Location Through the Seasons
- How to Solve 5 Composition Conundrums Faced by Landscape Photographers
- 6 Tips for Creating More Captivating Landscape Photographs
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