I consider “urban landscapes” as a sub-genre of street photography. But it is tricky — what differentiates a great “urban landscape” from just a snapshot of a building?
In this guide, I will try to offer some tips, and deconstruct how to shoot more emotional, memorable, and powerful urban landscapes:
What is an urban landscape?
To start off, an “urban landscape” is literally taking a landscape of something urban. We think of landscapes as generally pretty sunsets, mountains, and the such.
Yet I find it fascinating to photograph the urban environment. The fake environment that humans have created.
To me, urban landscapes are more interesting than natural landscapes— because they offer more of a social commentary, critique, or reflection of society. Many urban landscapes are alienating and unnatural. They trap us as humans, and make us live these unnatural lives (think of life in the suburbs, where we don’t even have sidewalks).
1. Find buildings with emotion
I think to start off, a great urban landscape needs to have emotion. This is the only way we can relate to a building, an urban environment, or a scene with some sort of empathy or feeling.
For example, look for buildings that are worn down. That have character. That have history. That have peeling paint, bricks falling off the side, or a small detail somewhere that evokes emotion.
There is no science to this. It is just how you feel.
Assignment: Add emotions to buildings
As an assignment, walk around and try to photograph these different emotions with buildings:
Of course, buildings have no emotions. However as humans, we can add or impute our emotions to buildings.
What would a “happy” building look like to you, vs a “sad” building?
Just use your own judgement, and try it out.
2. Take a lot of photos
With urban landscapes, the benefit is that they don’t move, yell at you, or change when you bright up your camera.
The mistake a lot of photographers make when shooting urban landscapes is to just click once, and move on.
Assignment: Work the scene
Rather, try to take a lot of photos of the urban landscape you find interesting. Photograph it from different angles and perspectives. Shoot really close, then take a step back. Shoot from the left, the right. Crouch down. Perhaps try to get to a higher perspective and shoot at eye-level or down.
Try out different exposure-compensations. Shoot it at 0, -1, -2, +1, +2.
Take as many photos as you can, and realize afterwards that a subtle difference in terms of framing or exposure will totally change the impact of the image.
3. Look for the “cherry on top”
I think the key to a great urban landscape is to have a “cherry on top” — a small little detail which turns an ordinary snapshot into something more intentional or interesting.
Perhaps the “cherry on top” in your photograph can be a lone safety cone. Or it can be a single crack in a window. Or it can be a person walking by the urban landscape. Or it can be a certain color in the frame.
Essentially you want to make your photographs to look more intentional — that you didn’t just take a snapshot. Rather, you want your viewer to know that you intended to take a photograph a certain way. That you found something unique about a certain urban landscape. And by highlighting a “cherry on top” — you try to point out to the viewer, “Hey! This is what I found interesting — and this is why you should take a closer look at this image.”
Assignment: Look for the “cherry on top”
If you’re shooting an urban landscape, pause, and look around. What can you add to the frame that is a “cherry on top”?
Perhaps there is an abandoned bicycle close-by. Then try to take a step back, and figure out how you can include the bicycle into your frame.
Whatever the “cherry on top” is— see how you can include it into the frame.
But what about moving things around in a scene? Honestly, just do what feels right to you. Personally I don’t like to move things into the frame, but I don’t mind moving things out of a frame. Just follow your own gut and rule of ethics.
4. Perfect your composition
If you’re photographing an urban landscape that doesn’t move — you have no excuse for making a bad composition. To the best of your ability, try to make a perfect composition.
I recommend perfecting your composition by taking your time, and by focusing on the edges of the frame. Think of how you can avoid distracting elements, or over-lapping figures in your background.
Assignment: Remove clutter
I feel the best way to have a better composition is to remove or subtract clutter, distractions, or complexity from your frame. See how you can make your urban landscapes as simple as possible, yet still have that emotional impact.
Also try to separate the different elements in your frame by avoiding over-lapping figures. Add some negative-space in between things in the background, which will add more depth to your frame.
Or on the flip side, try to see how you can make different elements in your background stack on top of one another. Try to flatten the perspective.
5. Shoot during golden hour, or use a flash
The light affects the emotion of a scene. If you shoot an urban landscape, try to do it during sunrise or sunset. Flat light usually means flat emotions.
If the light isn’t good — try to use an artificial lighting source (like a flash). Sometimes the harshness of a flash can affect the mood of an urban landscape (to make it feel more alienating, anxious, or depressing).
Assignment: Re-visit the same place over and over again
When you see a good urban landscape, try to shoot it in different lighting situations. Return over and over again. Shoot it during sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day. Shoot it with a flash.
Try to also experiment shooting your urban landscape in black and white and color. See which aesthetic changes the emotion and mood of a scene.
Shooting urban landscapes is harder than shooting people — because generally buildings are boring, and just look like snapshots that any tourist could have photographed.
If you want to learn how to shoot truly great urban landscapes, I recommend studying the “New Topographic” photographers, as well as some of these other photographers:
As street photographers, we are usually focused on documenting people. But realize that the urban environment is equally important — because photographs of our urban cities is a reflection of who we are as humans, and a society.
Not only that, but think about how your photos of urban landscapes will look 20, 50, 200, 1000 years from now. You are documenting history in the making.
About the author
Eric Kim is a street photographer and photography teacher currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. His life’s mission is to produce as much “Open Source Photography” to make photography education accessible to all. You can see more of his work on his website, and find him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission