After shooting cities all around the globe for the past 15 years, I managed to publish seven coffee table books featuring cities like Paris, Venice, Los Angeles, and New York. I learned the hard way when was the best time to shoot and want to save you the time and effort so you can make the best photos of cityscapes possible.
Below are my steps to capturing the best photos of cityscapes possible.
Find Your Spot and Wait For the Good Light
First, I want to show you the same place shot during the day to show you the importance of determining the best times to capture an image. In the photo below, obviously, the location doesn’t shine or stand out, and it is not especially interesting. Overall, the photo is pretty boring and the lighting does little to inject any emotion.
That said, there is nothing particularly wrong with where I am standing or my perspective. From here, I can wait for the right moment for the light to come to me.
Composition is a Big Part of It
Having good light but not good composition will still not create what could be called “fine art” photos, but they could still be ok. That said if you’re aiming for some amazing, spectacular shots you need to perfect your composition as well as the light.
As far as composition goes, you want to try and have nice leading lines, a powerful or notable foreground element, a strong subject matter, and a good sky. Also, try different angles to see what will be more aesthetic and create a clearer message. You can do this step when the light isn’t perfect, as composition can be figured out in any light.
Below, I tried the same location but from a different angle to see how the composition would change.
The 15-Minute Window is Key
Once you figure out your composition, it’s just a matter of waiting for the right light to arrive. Be patient, as you do not want to miss the perfect moment to capture the photo as it happens quick. This period of time is called “blue hour” and it is what I aim for in almost every cityscape scene I capture.
As soon as the city lights switch on, you have about 15 minutes to get the shot. That’s the truth of it: there is just that magical moment where the sun is behind the horizontal line but the sky has still some nice texture and the buildings are shining through with light. The mixture of artificial and natural light is really what you’re aiming for.
Do not Shoot Cityscapes at Night
If you miss the magic window and the sky is black — that is to say, there are no more details in the sky — the contrast between the city and the sky strong and you won’t get those great results we are looking for. There are exceptions to the rule of course, like shooting Times Square in New York where you have so much light even at night and you can barely see the sky anyway, but other than that I would advise you avoid trying to take cityscape photos after the sun has fully set.
As you can see, in the example scene below, the image is a lot less powerful than when we had some natural light to work with.
“Develop” Your Best Shot
As I showed earlier, once you get the shot you can “develop” your photo in Lightroom or any software that works for you and get some nice results. Starting with a photo with great composition and ideal light will give you a better jumping-off point to make a fantastic finished photo.
Here are some of my best photos taken during the blue hour:
Enjoy taking some nice photos in your city and get the 15 minutes magic window for some really nice results! You won’t regret it!
About the author: Serge Ramelli is a landscape and fine art photographer who has published numerous books on the subject. His fine art photography has been sold in one of the largest gallery networks in the world. Ramelli hosts a YouTube Channel where he teaches photography and editing techniques which you can subscribe to here.