A fascinating spectrum of motifs can be found in a relatively small space in cities: Ultra-modern architecture, winding old streets, famous attractions, hidden small parks, people in all their diversity, animals and plants, snacks and drinks, cars and bicycles ... And all this constantly changing, alive and pulsating. A treasure trove for photographers.
Nevertheless, we often come back from a city trip with the same old postcard images. A weekend in Paris? Clearly, it has to be a frontal view of the Eiffel Tower. A sunny afternoon in Heidelberg? Then we just snap a picture of the Castle and the Old Bridge from the right bank of the Neckar. While these motifs have their authority, tried and tested perspectives are now not even the worst and anyway, such photos fulfil their documentary purpose. But such pictures often convey the soul of a city (or in modern German: their "vibe") inadequately. Usually, although, it only requires small tricks to turn a boring standard photo into a special picture.
This article will provide a few ideas on how to come home from the next city trip with an impressive and unusual portrait of the city. The tips are illustrated using the example of my home town Heidelberg, but can be applied just as well in any other city.
Heidelberg Castle and the Old Bridge are a well-known motif world wide. Unconsciously, you will tend to photograph these two attractions just as they have been seen countless times before in guidebooks and on postcards. But why not just play with the perspective? In the photo above, the Castle and Old Bridge can be identified easily, but only form the background. The foreground gives the image a wider level of meaning, and sets the classic castle motif in a new context: The worn-out boot heels tell of a long march through the city (perhaps even more than 300 steps up to the castle?) from which one is now recovering, lying in the tall summer grass of the banks of the Neckar. The beetle's perspective plays with the proportions and can make the castle and bridge seem small compared to the boots in the foreground.
This photo also works according to a similar principle. The famous towers of the Old Bridge can be identified, but only form the context in the background blur. Anything can be chosen as an individual point of interest for the foreground: He himself or his travelling companion, a coffee mug or a postcard - what exactly should form the motif by which the background is to be seen?
If there is nothing like that at hand, nature itself often helps and his motif can be framed with a leafy branch or something similar.
Or, for a change, you can follow his motif quite closely for variety, such as here on the railing of the Old Bridge, which now forms the framework for the view down toward the Neckar.
A city is only alive through the variety of people who populate it. But even if it is tempting: In no case may one "just simply" photograph people on the street! The right to one's own image, §22 KunstUrhG is applicable in Germany, which states that portraits may only be disseminated or put on public display with the consent of the person portrayed. But even the mere making of the photograph without publication may constitute an interference with the general right to privacy. Therefore: Always seek the agreement of the person to be photographed beforehand! Each individual must give his permission, even in group images. Exceptions are pictures of figures of contemporary history who appear in public, photos in which the people cannot be recognised, and photos in which the people are regarded only as an accessory - that is, the picture would work in statement and motif even without the person. A photo of the Cologne Cathedral for the family album, in which a foreign tourist runs here and there through the picture, should thus not be a problem.
Because the legal situation is often quite complex here and may be different in each individual case, one should always be aware of one's own responsibility and be less likely to press the shutter button in doubtful cases.
But if you get permission or any of the exceptions applies, pictures with people are an asset to any urban portrait - whether only atmospheric silhouettes or the charismatic vegetable seller in the market. For people on the move, the continuous mode is recommended to really capture the most expressive moment.
If people are disruptive, you can set the camera on a tripod or a solid surface and extend the exposure time extend (in broad daylight, a grey filter is required here). People will blur or disappear altogether because of motion blur, while the motionless buildings remain sharp.
Glaring midday sun causes harsh shadows that are often undesirable when taking photographs. Also, there is the usual everyday activity in the city which can additionally interfere with the hunt for unusual photo motifs. You can avoid both either by getting up very early or once again go on a photo tour in the evening. During the well-known golden hour, about an hour before and after sunset, the light is very warm and soft and the colours are more intense.
A little later, during the blue hour, the dark blue sky has about the same brightness as the artificial light from street lamps and houses. A similar light is often found in the early morning before sunrise. At this time, you can photograph illuminated buildings or street lamps in a particularly atmospheric way.
In addition to the large squares and wide streets, there are also the details that make up the special charm of a city and are worth being photographed. It is indeed not a question of photographically checking off all sights worth seeing and to make a complete picture of the city - that has been implemented many times in guidebooks and with Google image search. It is much more fun drawing a very personal city portrait: What impressed me, what do I associate with the city, which little things do I want to remember? This can be colourful flowers in the windows, the carafe of wine that you drank in the evening or the display from your favourite store ...
A simple but effective trick: You can always find the name of the city as a written word on street signs, souvenirs, at the station, on beer mats, postcards or guidebooks. Just keep your eyes open and photograph the city name in several variations and situations - our brain often works more primitively than we believe and, when considering the photos, gets excited about the direct info: "Aha. This here is also Heidelberg."
In the truest sense of the word, you can get a new view of the city simply by stepping up a few metres. Whether it's a church tower or an observation tower, a nearby mountain, a Ferris wheel or a cable car - almost any city offers opportunities to go higher. The photographer opens up a whole new perspective from above: You can recognise hidden symmetries in the cityscape, experience the city in the context of its environment (rivers, mountains, forests, desert ...) and get an overview of all the city's landmarks. And perhaps you may even spot new and interesting photo opportunities?
Also, the characteristic skyline of a city can be wonderfully photographed from an elevated point of view:
Or you can play with interesting details that can set the scene particularly well against the background of the entire city:
Many cities are located near water, be it a river, a lake or the sea. In addition, there may be rain from time to time and large puddles may form on the streets. In any case, it's the perfect opportunity for making a reflection photo! A calm water surface is best suited for this so you can see many details in the reflected image. The symmetry of the reflection should be also be considered when forming the composition, so that the axis of symmetry lies in the exact centre of the image, as in the first photo, for example. Cleverly rotate the mirror image a full 180° and create utter confusion about what is the original and what the reflection!
Another characteristic of large cities is the busy traffic. At night, you can take wonderful advantage of that in order to enhance the your photos with so-called light trails, traces of light from passing vehicles. This requires a long exposure time and therefore a tripod to avoid a blurred photo. Since the brightness of the environment and the speed of the vehicles is never constant, it is difficult to give accurate exposure times and apertures that always work. As a rough guide, however, an exposure time of 10 seconds is often appropriate.
If you would like to make a city trip with as little equipment as possible yet remain flexible, a Megazoom objective can be used to capture all available motifs. The perfect travel companion is the Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 for cameras with APS-C sensor (alternatively, the 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 for full format). All photos in this post were taken with the latter. The large focal length range covers everything, from the (super) wide-angle shots, to detail with beautiful background blur, to the telephoto range. The objective is relatively light here and the distortions which inevitably occur in such a zoom lens are well controlled, or are easily corrected in post-production. An optical image stabiliser ensures that you can do without a tripod in most situations without any problems.
And now have a lot of fun creating a very personal urban portrait in your next city trip! Cities are showing off their best side right now, in the summer, so what are you waiting for ...
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