Cityscape Photography: Composition, Gear and the Application

All images and text by Bryan Minear. Used with permission.

When it comes to cityscape photography, I truly believe that every city has a unique “soul” to it that you have to find and visualize. Let’s begin by talking about your mindset when approaching a new city. Sometimes it takes a little time to acclimate to a certain place in order to really get the “vibe”.

For example, I have been to Chicago about 10 times now. But it wasn’t until my 3rd or 4th trip that I really started to mesh with the city and shoot the kind of photos that were portfolio-worthy. The same can be said for NYC, which is wildly different than Chicago. I still absolutely love looking back at photos from my first or second trip there, but it wasn’t until later trips that I found my groove. All in all, just do what you can when you are visiting a place. When I vacationed to London, I only had four days before we were on our way to Florence and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to just come back to shoot anytime that I wanted. So I had to do the very best that I could in the time that I had.

Our Own Unique Perspective

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

This theory of mine, of course, is going to be different depending on the artist’s own vision. We all experience things differently. One of my favorite things as of late is going on a trip, shooting alongside people and getting to see their shots as they post them to Instagram. It never fails that there are unique perspectives, even though we were all there in the same place. This is something that makes photography so great.

In my cityscape work, I rely heavily on good light and/or weather conditions. I love clouds and I like to utilize them to create truly one-of-a-kind images (more on the how of that later). Much like my landscape work, I am looking for symmetry, reflections, unique perspectives, as well as interesting light and shadows.

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

I am not a “rooftopper” but I know lots of people that are and I think one of the reasons that stuff is so appealing is because of the unique perspective that it gives. All of us are used to seeing cities from eye level, and when you start to really deviate from that by shooting really high or low to the ground, you add immediate interest to your images.

Thoughts on Composition

That isn’t to say that all it takes to snap a great photo is changing up your perspective. You absolutely need to keep composition in mind. When I am framing up a shot, whether it is something that I am meticulously setting up a tripod for, or I am just walking around on the streets and shooting handheld, I am making conscious decisions about what to include in my frame and what to leave out. Cities can be tough because there is so much going on and you want to be conscious of every detail you choose to leave in your frame, especially around the edges. This is something that I always try to get people thinking about early, so that it becomes second nature for you over time. Having multiple layers of interest within your scene is what separates a good shot from a great shot. This is another are where you can incorporate the street mindset and wait to snap right at that decisive moment.

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

Cityscape and street are very different art forms in the sense that one focuses more on moments and people while the other puts more of an emphasis on architecture. But I believe that they can be related and even have a little bit of crossover. I don’t shoot much street photography anymore, but one of my favorite things to do when I was shooting street was to find a composition, post up there, and then just wait and see what happens. By observing the changing light, and who or what will enter your frame, you can really build a story within your photo. This same technique can be applied when you are shooting cityscape, just on a much larger level via sky, sun, and weather, or by including people, cars, or birds to help show portray the passing of time and/or scale within your image.

My Gear

X-Pro2 + 56mm f/1.2

X-Pro2 + 56mm f/1.2

The lightweight gear that I prefer most in travel situations is my Fujifilm X-Pro2 + 10-24 f/4 OIS and X100T. The 15-35mm FF equivalent focal length gives me a decent range to work with when deciding on a composition. And the X100T is small enough that i can stash it in a pocket and grab it out when I see something of interest. It also becomes my go-to camera for when I want to shoot something with bokeh. For an f/2 lens, the X100T has such a pleasing bokeh wide open and I love the way that it handles flare.

People always comment on the “glow” effect within a lot of my images, and I can attribute that to experimenting with my camera/lens setup so that I know how my gear will perform when shooting into the sun. Both cameras provide an optical viewfinder which allow me to see just outside of my frame to help in timing up objects or people coming into frame. But the majority of the time, I am using the EVF in order to see my exposure and colors as I am shooting.

X-Pro2 + 23mm f/1.4

X-Pro2 + 23mm f/1.4

For the times when I want to capture long exposures, which happens a lot in my work, I always have my Vanguard Alta Pro 284 CB Carbon fiber tripod with me. It is the best tripod that I have ever owned due to its light weight and ability takes the punishment I dish out when traveling.

As I said earlier, I love to shoot low, and the Alta Pro has a pan and tilt head that allows you to shoot very low to the ground. When I am shooting my long exposure work I am using Formatt-Hitech Firecrest ND filters, most often a 10-stop to give me around 15-30 seconds during a bright day at ISO200 on the Fujifilm system. Whether you are blurring clouds, or water, or people, ND’s are a surefire way to add another dimensionality to your cityscape work.

X-Pro1 + 14mm f/2.8

X-Pro1 + 14mm f/2.8

On Applying to Cityscape Photography

On a recent trip to Chicago, it hit me that I have never taken a photograph at Cloudgate (or the “bean”) and mostly it was because it is always crawling with tourists unless you are there early, and when I go to Chicago early, I want to shoot the skyline. So I thought that I should try a long exposure and see if I could blur the people around the sculpture to give the appearance that it was empty. I’ve never tried utilizing my ND filters for this purpose and thought it would be something unique for me. The results were great.

I had to shoot several exposures as there were a few groups of people that refused to move enough, even though my shutter was open for 2-3 minutes. But this was solely a test, as it was pretty overcast and the sky was completely blown out and white. In my head I can envision my “shot” with some cloud movement above reflected in Cloudgate, as well as the blurred people movement. Sometimes you just have to bide your time and experiment, and even though you may not get the shot you are looking for, you will undoubtedly come away with ideas of how to do better the next opportunity that you get.

X-Pro1 + Zeiss 12mm f/2.8

X-Pro1 + Zeiss 12mm f/2.8

And for me, that is all that I could ask for. To see a constant improvement in my creativity and output, as I strive to be a better photographer.

If you are looking for some amazing street/cityscape photographer’s be sure to check out some of my favorites on instagram: @photoventureboy, @dmalikyar, @dylan.schwartz, @edwardkb, and @tobishinobi

X-T2 + 56mm f/1.2

X-T2 + 56mm f/1.2

X-Pro1 + Zeiss 12mm f/2.8

X-Pro1 + Zeiss 12mm f/2.8

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

X-Pro2 + 10-24mm f/4

X-T1 + 10-24mm f/4

X-T1 + 10-24mm f/4