Monday, June 15, 2009

Tips for urban photography (Part 1)

Los Angeles SkylineTaking photographs in urban areas has its own particular challenges. Often there’s little room to get back far enough from your subject. Vehicles, poles, wires and other distractions seem to be everywhere. Often there are crowds of people blocking access or certainly not allowing you a clear shot. Lighting is often difficult.

Here are the first 9 of 19 tips to consider when taking photos in cities (The next 10 are in Part 2 which will be posted next Monday.):
  • Like landscapes, each city and town has its own look and feel. Cities have distinctive settings, architecture, and skylines. Cities may be known for a particular place, dress, food, site, or history, etc. There's always seems to be something unique which literally names your destination. When photographing an urban area you need to accomplish three basic things, if at all possible:
    • capture the sense of the area as a whole, which can be effected via a wide shot that shows the skyline, or other view that describes your destination,
    • capture landmarks which in essence name the city,
    • capture the life of its inhabitants, possibly with photographs of the city at work or play.
  • Pay close attention to details and distractions in the background of your photos and especially behind the heads of your subjects. A telephone pole or tree sticking up behind your subject can ruin the shot. Move around to get an angle which reduces the background distractions.
  • You never know when that “money shot” will reveal itself, so be prepared to shoot at all times. I usually keep my camera in “aperture priority” mode, with a reasonable ISO setting for current conditions, rather than manual, so I don’t have to worry about setting the exposure, as I turn the corner and see a great shot which could vanish in seconds.
  • Philadelphia Skyline at DuskUse the “golden hours,” which are the times just after dawn and just before sunset. Just after dawn has the additional advantage that most people are still in bed. Shadows are long and pronounced during this time, so look for angles that feature these contrasts. Perhaps your hotel is near a cathedral or any other interesting building. Make a point to check out the light early or late for a special photo opportunity when the light gives a golden cast to almost everything.
  • Shoot signs. I use a GPS connected directly to my DSLR whenever I’m shooting outside, so I know exactly where I was when the photo was taken. Even so, I take lots of photographs of signs to help identify and document my photographs. Signs can sometimes give me extra background material to help describe the photos.
  • Often in cities you won’t be able to take a photo of an important statue, work of art, person or other subject, with the sun illuminating it directly. Instead you might find the sun shining on it from behind. In that circumstance, use fill-flash to “fill-in” shadows and illuminate the front of your subject. Fill-flash can remove shadows when the sun is overhead too.
  • While you generally have the right to take photographs throughout urban areas, the right is not absolute. In the US, you normally can’t take photos of Department of Defense or Homeland Security installations, and other government owned buildings or land where photography is banned. You can’t take photographs of buildings from private property without permission, but you can take photographs of buildings from public property. You can take photographs of people in public where there is no expectation of privacy, but not otherwise. Elsewhere in the world, such as in France, photographs of people are normally not permitted without their permission, even in public. In locations such as the Middle East and South America, the issue of photographs of people is even more sensitive. Frankly, I don’t take photographs of anyone, unless it’s incidental to the photograph, without their permission. Moreover, before taking photographs in any country, research, not just their laws, but their customs as well. You don’t want to run afoul of the law, or rile the local population.
  • One of the reasons I normally have my DSLR in aperture priority is it permits me to set the depth of field of my photographs. Normally in urban photographs I want most everything in them in focus. Controlling the aperture in the photograph permits me the focus control I desire.
  • In front of Christ Church, Philadelphia, PAPut kids and old people in your shots for context. While including anyone in your urban photographs will add context and interest, if you think about photos you’ve seen of cities which are in travel magazines, and get smiles and “oohs and ahs” it’s one of kids and seniors. Getting them in your photos with a simple background will produce real winners. Think about a landmark photo at Ellis Island, New York City. Catch a shot of the main hall there and you have a snapshot of a historic building. Catch the same shot with an older person in the foreground, and you have a photograph.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Great list so far Ned. I'm looking forward to the next ten next week.

The suggestion about taking photos of signs is a real winner. I can't believe I hadn't thought of that. It's such a simple idea, it's elegant.


Post a Comment