Capture the Essence of a City in a Photo: 6 Tips

Mention landscape photography and one probably thinks of mountains and lakes. However, there is much to be found among urban landscapes.

If you find yourself in a large city, you can employ the following tips to create great city landscape photography.

1. Elevate yourself

While you may not have a helicopter handy to capture skyscrapers from above, there may be a tall building or two in the city that you can climb to change your elevation. The photo below was shot from the top floor of my hotel in La Paz, Bolivia.

City Photography from Hotel Top Floor

From the ground, it was impossible to capture a sense of the scale of the city, yet just a few floors up, I could get a better sense of both the sprawl and compactness of this city.

2. Anchor your buildings

Skyscrapers are lovely to look at, but they need to be a distance away to get a true sense of their grandeur. As such, photos of tall buildings can really benefit from having something to anchor the buildings in the composition.

Anchor Buildings in City Landscape Photography

While it may not always be possible to find one, an anchor can bring both interest to the foreground and provide a sense of scale.

3. Include a sense of place

Some cities, like New York, are expansive metropolises. Others, like Manila, have a more centralized city center. In a situation like this, you can move yourself a bit out of the city to get a sense of where the city itself is located.

Taking City Landscape Photos Outside of the City

In the above photo, I had moved out of downtown Manila into the old town and loved the juxtaposition of the abandoned school in the foreground with the bustling city in the background.

4. Look for details

It’s easy to be distracted by all the sights and sounds of a city. Keep in mind, though, that there are often little details that are unique to the city, though they may be tucked down an alley or in between grander sites. This old fire station was discovered while wandering downtown Los Angeles one day.

Finding Small Details in City Photography

While the city itself is fairly modern, it’s good to find and document some sense of its history hidden among the larger buildings and traffic jams.

5. Don’t forget the people

I will admit that when I’m in a large city with tall buildings, I find myself looking up a bit too often. While this can be great for architectural photos, it can distract one from capturing one of the most important elements of a city — its inhabitants. Here you can catch a moment, an individual or include a sense of the variety of the people in the city.

Photographing People in Cities

The photo above was taken in Hanoi, where I wanted to capture both the ever-present scooters along with one of the merchants to be found along the side of the road.

6. Seek out street art

While it may not be present in every city, there is a growing amount of street art to be found in larger cities around the world. In my travels, I have come across many great examples in cities ranging from London to Los Angeles to La Paz.

Street Art Photography

The photo above was shot around the corner from my hotel in Singapore. While one thinks of Singapore as being a very regulated and orderly place (both chewing gum and spitting are illegal), there is surprisingly a fair amount of street art to be found.

While I have focused on tips for city landscapes in larger cities, these tips can also be used in smaller cities as well. Not every city has skyscrapers or street art, but that does not mean they lack interesting architecture to focus on or maybe even some artistic graffiti to capture. Just remember to always keep a sense of the city in your photos and they will rise above the ordinary.


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