Blair Sugarman: The Magic of Cityscape Photography and Bad Weather

All images by Blair Sugarman. Used with permission. Be sure to follow him on Instagram and check out his website.

I take a lot of drone shots, usually at ridiculous hours of the morning,” says photographer Blair Sugarman in an interview with the Phoblographer. “I’m also a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to taking shots, sometimes taking the same angle repeatedly just because the conditions have changed slightly.” Blair is a photographer based in Hong Kong and adores cityscape photography like no other. He believes cityscapes offer a unique perspective into an entire way of life. We have to agree with him; a photo of a city can at anytime contain hundreds of people or even more. Though he hasn’t been shooting for long, Blair has a creative spark about him that permeates through his work and in his photography.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Blair: My first foray into photography was about 2 years ago, just before I booked a year-long trip around the world and wanted a way to document my journey beyond just smartphone pictures. I was living in Shanghai at the time and purchased my first camera, a Canon 80D, to learn the basics. Obviously, when you’re a complete beginner you don’t know what you don’t know, and for that reason looking back at my travel photos is a constant source of amusement (and shame) – I spent most of the year shooting jpeg and messing up the focus modes, but am glad to say I’ve found my way to the settings menu of my camera now!

Phoblographer: What made you want to shoot cityscapes?

Blair: Living in large cities would be one key factor, I’ve spent my time in between London, Shanghai and Hong Kong and, whilst there are abundant opportunities for other kinds of photography, I feel that cityscapes can offer unique perspectives into an entire way of life. As someone with a (relatively serious) smartphone addiction, city photography has been a fantastic way to notice and document the particular characteristics and architecture of an entire city or area. Each place is completely different and worthy of exploration – living in a certain place for a prolonged period of time can sometimes reduce the interest that people have in their surroundings, so shooting cityscapes keeps the urge to discover and explore alive.

Phoblographer: Your photos are from unique and breathtaking points of view. How do you get these? Drone? Helicopter? 

Blair: I take a lot of drone shots, usually at ridiculous hours of the morning. Obviously, there are certain safety precautions that have to be taken with a drone and metropolitan areas. My policy is constant flight checks, stay away from NFZs, and fly for sunrise so that areas are as empty as possible. This also means that the street and natural lighting work to your advantage.

Obviously, when you’re a complete beginner you don’t know what you don’t know, and for that reason looking back at my travel photos is a constant source of amusement (and shame) – I spent most of the year shooting jpeg and messing up the focus modes, but am glad to say I’ve found my way to the settings menu of my camera now!”

 

Phoblographer: Your portfolio is very manicured, clean, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of repetition. Does this careful curation start from the moment you press the shutter, or do you tend to overshoot and then pick later? What’s your mental process like when doing this? Do you have a creative vision in mind when you shoot?

Blair: I tend to overshoot and then pick later. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to taking shots, sometimes taking the same angle repeatedly just because the conditions have changed slightly. This means that I usually get home with SD cards full of what looks like very similar shots, but I will go through them till I find the one I’m most happy with. When it comes to being out and about with my camera, I try to look for compositions that are less popular – don’t get me wrong I will still go to so-called ‘insta spots’ to check certain images off my list, but will try to add something a little different. With drone photography the changing weather conditions make every shot different, even if it’s from the same location and for that reason, I will go back to a certain spot and take an angle I have taken previously, but get completely different results.

Phoblographer: What makes you choose your locations?

Blair: It’s the style and features of a building that stand out, as well as it’s surroundings. I might walk past a place and notice a specific feature, drop a pin on my maps and have to run back there with my camera at the right time.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the photographers who inspire you. How did they make you want to pick up a camera?

Blair: Jordan Hammond and his impeccable Instagram feed were definitely one of them. He has a love for Chinese photography that I can relate to after spending time living out here. When I moved out here I was also introduced to some drone photographers who really opened my eyes in terms of what could be accomplished and, having become part of the community out here, have them to thank for making me want to go out and take photos, even when it’s 4 am and I have to drag myself out of the house to do so!

Phoblographer: What’s your creative process like? Do you ever feel like you need a break from cities?

Blair: I usually start by looking online for certain areas that I want to shoot, including Google maps for potential look downs. Having done this for a couple of years I would most definitely like a break to try out more landscape photography (everyone seems to want to go to Iceland nowadays!) as I think I would welcome the challenge of something new. I also want to go back to New Zealand for some photography, as when I was there last time I was still in my ‘shoot-everything-in-jpeg’ phase that I know didn’t yield the best results.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear you use and how you feel it helps you deliver your creative vision.

Blair: My main camera is a Sony A7R3, for which I have 3 main go-to lenses, the 16-35mm F2.8 GM, the 24-105mm F4 G, and the 70-200mm F2.8 GM. I use the wide-angle lens for most of my architectural photography but will switch to the 70-200mm to zone in on a key area of focus. My drone is a Mavic 2 Pro and I use GNDs for sunrises to keep the detail in the sky whilst maintaining a good level of exposure on the cityscape.

Phoblographer: Many of your photos seem like you wait for bad weather. Is that the case? How do you feel it adds to the magic of your images? Unless, of course, that’s pollution.

Blair: Waiting is half the fun as they say! Actually, no one says that, ever, but it’s definitely a part of the process. ‘Bad weather’ is extremely subjective, but for me usually means dark, thick rain clouds that either leave the sky looking completely flat or…lead to large amounts of rain. Whilst the weather in my photos looks pretty bad, the conditions I’m usually waiting for are low, not too dense clouds, low wind and clear skies above the cloud layer that add color and texture where possible. These conditions seem to only occur in the first few months of the year and are very hit and miss, requiring almost constant observation of weather patterns and reports.

Phoblographer: Would you say you’re a perfectionist? If so, do you go back and ever edit older images to make them become even better?

Blair: Most definitely. But your idea of perfection evolves as you improve, meaning that when I look back at past photos the perfectionist in me now wants to give the perfectionist back then a good shake and stern talking to. ‘Move the camera down slightly’, ‘Don’t go so harsh with the gradient filter,’ ‘what made you crop out that area?, ‘WHY WERE YOU SHOOTING IN JPEG?!!!’ would all be things that I would say (read shout) at my former ‘perfectionist’ self. That being said, I do have photos that I took that I feel need to be re-edited to reflect my current style, and will definitely get round to them if I can find my way out of the ever-growing pile of new photos!