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What is Cityscape Photography? A Beginner’s Guide With History, Tips, and More 

What is Cityscape Photography? A Beginner’s Guide With History, Tips, and More 

Cityscape photography has a way of igniting a viewer’s sense of adventure. Capturing the majesty of cities can seem intimidating at first, but this is where your own bold attitude comes in.  

A major aspect of photography is stepping out of your comfort zone to see what’s possible. Cityscape photography challenges everything from our sense of scale to our technical ability. It’s a complex subject that constantly dares you to capture the history, style, and infinite stories bustling beneath its surface. 

What is cityscape photography and how can you capture all the little details that make it so distinctive? I’ll touch on the history of the niche, then provide some cityscape photography tips and tricks to help you capture a city’s majesty.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Cityscape Photography? 
  3. A Brief History of Cityscape Photography
  4. Different Types of Cityscape Photography
  5. What Makes a Good Cityscape Photo?
  6. Five Tips for Getting Started With Cityscapes
  7. Conclusion: Cityscape Photography is a Visual Celebration of Human Ingenuity

an overhead cityscape shot of the city of frankfurt lit up at night

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Cityscape Photography? 

From postcards to vlog banners, cityscape photography regularly captures our imaginations. This distinctive niche is beloved for celebrating the beauty of cities and everything in it. 

Cityscape photography is a subniche of urban photography, but with a focus on iconic city imagery. Buildings, towers, and landmarks are popular focal points, but you can technically hone in on anything that tickles your artistic fancy. Some photographers prefer the blur of car lights curving down highways, while others enjoy distant shots that reduce cities to glimmers. Although metropolitan cities take up the bulk of the attention, smaller cities and city-ports are equally valid.

Like with any photography niche, the lines between one niche and the other can get blurry. You can narrow down your shot to include human or animal subjects, though the city should make up the bulk of a shot. When it comes to cityscape photography, the city’s personality and culture is the focus.

a wide shot of a mexican cityscape against a blue and white sky with mountains in the background

Source Image: Pixabay

A Brief History of Cityscape Photography 

Cityscape photography is closely related to urban photography, but with a distinctive focus on city imagery. It technically has hundreds of years of history behind it, dating all the way back to the birth of photography.

According to historians, the oldest remaining photograph was of a small French city taken by photography’s inventor: Joseph Nicephore Niépce’s back in 1826. Cityscape photography started out as a way to document the development of cities, freezing them in time for the sake of cultural conservation.

The mystique of the city never fails to attract attention, from hundreds of years ago to the modern day. Cityscape photography is also the natural evolution of classical art, a field that regularly recreated the cities of the time. Look no further than the brilliant Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro, a famous impressionistic painting of a bustling Parisian cityscape

Nowadays cityscape photography serves several purposes. Countless industries depend on it to bring in visitors or buyers, such as travel and hospitality, food and beverage, and real estate. On a purely artistic level, cities tap into natural human curiosity – they hint at stories and secrets underneath a glittery package. 

two people standing next to a car in a neon alleyway in a Japanese city

Source Image: Pixabay

Different Types of Cityscape Photography 

Cityscape photography seems pretty straightforward – just take a snapshot of a city – but it can be further divided into smaller categories. These categories depend on the focal point and the story you’re trying to tell.

Keep in mind cityscape photography is a subset of urban photography. What tends to separate the two is the focus – urban photography often has humans as a focal point or a significant supporting element. It also tends to focus on smaller areas such as alleyways, plazas, parks, streets, and bridges. 

Cityscape photography sometimes includes people, but the city is always front and center. These photos tend to pull back more, too, to show off the size and scale of buildings or landmarks.

Cityscape Skylines

With a flat horizon and a serious sense of scale, the cityscape skyline is one of the most popular variations on this niche. These shots are taken at an extreme distance to capture the city as a whole, rather than focusing on any one detail. 

Since the skyline composes a significant chunk of the shot, cloud photography and astrophotography frequently crossover here. Some photographers enjoy the golden hour that comes with the setting sun, while others may try to capture a thunderstorm up ahead.

Cultural Cityscapes 

“Wait, aren’t all cityscapes cultural?”, you may be asking. This area can be a little tricky since culture is everywhere you look, but there is a distinction to be made.

Cultural cityscapes tend to have cultural iconography front and center. For example, a snapshot of the Paris skyline would be a fine contender for a general cityscape. However, taking a photo of the Eiffel Tower or the Seine river would dip into the cultural cityscape category due to being iconic cultural landmarks.

This emphasis is particularly important in travel and hospitality photography to draw in tourists. It can also be an important point for traveling photographers who want to learn more about the local culture and history of a region. You don’t have to only take photos of major landmarks, either – this category also includes lesser-known locales or murals. 

Night Cityscapes

Not all cityscapes have to be taken at night, but you could be forgiven for thinking so. This dazzling variation is quite popular for its emphasis on glittering lights, neon colors, and evocative atmosphere. 

Night cityscapes can be a little challenging due to so many different colors and contrast changes, but they’re well worth the effort. Again, astrophotography is common here, as are special events that involve fireworks or light shows.

an example of nighttime cityscape photography showing a south korean city by the ocean

Source Image: Pixabay

What Makes a Good Cityscape Photo?

All forms of photography have their unique challenges and cityscape photography is no different. This niche requires several of the below features to resonate with a viewer.

A Breathtaking Sense of Scale 

You can’t have cityscape photography without a sense of scale. Cities are massive constructs with massive populations – capturing this with your camera means getting comfortable with photography fundamentals.

Photographers frequently rely on wide angle lens, telephoto lens, and tripods to provide scale and stability to their shots. 

Strong Attention to Detail for Interesting Subjects

Although cityscape photography tends to avoid smaller details in favor of scale, you can still hone in on certain subjects. Building clusters or landmarks make great focal points to draw the viewer’s eye, keeping the photo from being a mush of color and lights.

For example, a tall clock tower can make for a solid focal point to add visual breathing room in a clutter of buildings. If you don’t have a distinctive landmark to work with, the skyline or the ocean also work well to create visual balance. Their horizontal shapes offer great contrast to vertical buildings, while their flat detail also contrast the glitter of buildings.

The Most Appropriate Depth of Field

Stellar cityscape photography makes a viewer feel as if they could walk straight through the photo themselves. Depth of field is a simple and clever way to make a flat image seem three-dimensional. 

A shallow depth of field (also known as a narrow depth of field) brings a focal point closer to the viewer. Since cityscape photography often requires the photographer to pull away from a specific focal point, a wide depth of field is more suitable. 

Clever Use of Long Exposure

Long exposure (also known as slow shutter photography) extends the amount of time your camera’s shutter is open. The end result will create a fascinating blurring or stretching effect.

Photographers often use long exposure to sprinkle in extra style, such as stretching out lights into long, lingering trails. 

Stylistic Touches Such as Bokeh

Not all cityscape photography needs to be grand or mysterious. You can also create a sense of charm with aesthetic techniques such as bokeh. 

Bokeh is a popular photography technique that can make night cityscapes more whimsical, transforming lights into bubbles or fairylights. Achieving this involves using a fast aperture as well as a long focal length. 

an example of sunset cityscape photography showing classic architecture and old churches

Source Image: Pixabay

Five Tips for Getting Started With Cityscapes

Cityscape photography can be an intimidating field due to the size of buildings, the bustle of people, and the limitations of a growing skillset. These tips will help you get started confidently.

Get Comfortable With Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lens are best for cityscapes because they give you a nearly 180 perspective on your subject. You’re able to capture as much as possible without focusing overmuch on any one detail. 

The best wide angle lens for cityscape photography will depend on your personal tastes, but I recommend starting with the classic prime 50mm. If you feel like distorting your shot a little more for stylistic purposes, try the 24mm lens. 

Feel like capturing more of the environment alongside the city? Suitable aperture settings for distant buildings hover between f/6 to f/8.

Try a Telephoto Lens to Shake Things Up

A telephoto lens may seem completely contradictory to the needs of cityscape photography. How can a lens designed to make subjects closer help you with wide shots?

What makes the telephoto lens useful is how it compresses the foreground and the background together. This result can be useful if you want to provide emphasis on surrounding elements to a city such as clouds, distant mountains, or nearby forests. 

A telephoto zoom lens can also help you ‘close the gap’ if you can’t get particularly close to the city. You can still capture sharp detail and a sense of scale without traveling closer. 

Plan for the Blue Hour or the Golden Hour

Timing your photography is essential to adding extra finesse to your shot. Both the blue hour and golden hour are prime for injecting rich, complex color to your setting.

The blue hour refers to the twilight period just after the sun dips beneath the horizon. In the absence of warm light are deep blues and purples, ideal for creating moody cityscapes. 

The golden hour provides the opposite effect. The brief window right before the sun rises or sets, washing everything in a vivid and warm glow. This hour creates romantic and inviting photography, capable of bathing buildings in peach and pink.

Use a Tiltshift Lens or Find Level Ground to Avoid Tilted Shots

Perspective is essential to make sure your photo doesn’t have an amateurish crook. A tiltshift lens will automatically position itself to remain level with the camera’s sensor.

For example, if you try to take a photo of a cityscape head-on but are struggling with shaky hands, the tiltshift lens will kick into gear. It will choose the depth of field and image orientation so the final result is stable, even if the camera is in the same position. 

While smartphones generally don’t have a tiltshift lens, you can download apps to make up for this. Always err on the side of caution and read recent user reviews to make sure the apps are safe. 

Be Mindful of the Story You’re Trying to Tell

The most impactful photography tells a compelling story. This is a foundation that can’t be repeated enough – the soul of your photo lies in what you’re trying to get the viewer to feel.

Cityscape photography taps into many powerful emotions such as curiosity, adventure, mystery, romance, and loneliness. How you utilize surrounding elements will nurture the sensation of your snapshot.

The golden hour drenching a series of cathedrals in warm light can make a graceful and enchanting photo. Using a wide angle zoom lens to show the city around the beach can inspire awe and fascination at the possibilities in the distance.

an example of cityscape photography showcasing brown and orange buildings next to the beach

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Cityscape Photography is a Visual Celebration of Human Ingenuity

Cityscape photography distills human ingenuity into one brilliant snapshot. It’s a celebration of society, culture, and all the little parts and pieces that make up everyday life.

This subniche is part of the broader category of urban photography. The focal points are often clusters of buildings, though you can incorporate other elements such as skylines or cultural landmarks. Since cityscape photography often brings in the sky for breathing room, cloud photography and astrophotography frequently cross over.

Cityscapes can be approached from a variety of angles, though the wide angle lens is most popular. This lens allows you to capture as much of the city as possible while not focusing on too many finer details. The telephoto zoom lens is particularly useful for snapping shots at a distance, while the teleshift lens is helpful for stabilizing perspective.

Despite its intimidating size and scope, cityscape photography is a great subject for beginners. What better way to get inspired than with a subject practically tailor made for adventure?


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