Shooting cityscapes: 8 tips to take dramatic shots of urban skylines

Chad Verzosa

We’ve all been there at some point: we go to a city, fall in love with all the tall structures around us, and casually take a snapshot of the skyline. But then we soon realize the outcome often doesn’t look like how we see it in real life at all—it’s blurry, grainy, and dull.

Photo by Sebastian Pichler

Photographing cityscapes takes more than just pointing your camera at the buildings and pressing the shutter. Although an expensive camera isn’t necessary to make your photos look magical, you still need to learn a few skills and have a lot of patience to get the results you want.

Follow these eight simple tips to capture the sparkle of urban landscapes just the way you really see them:

01. Get the right lens

Let’s start with the most critical piece of equipment: the lens. There are many choices out there for shooting cityscapes.

Photo from Yun Xu

The ones commonly used are wide and ultra-wide since they’re able to include more in the scene than any other options. You can start with 24mm., which is considered wide-angle, and go as low as 10mm., which is ultra-wide.

Photo by Piotr Chrobot

You can also use standard lenses such as 35mm. (technically considered a wide angle lens), or a 50mm. lens. Their focal lengths closely match the human eye’s perspective, allowing you to capture scenes just like how you see them in reality.

Photo by Zia Syed

If you want more versatility, use a telephoto to let you zoom in or out of the scene you want to photograph. There are many options available, including 24mm.-70mm. and 70mm.-200mm. The good news is you can even use your kit lens (usually 18mm. - 55mm.), which is technically a telephoto, when you’re starting out photographing urban landscapes.

02. Switch to Aperture Priority Mode

When you’re still starting out, you don’t have to worry too much about using complicated settings. Just switch to Aperture Priority, so you can change the aperture you want, and it will select the shutter speed automatically.

Photo by Joseph Chan

Since you’re shooting mostly in the dark, select a wide aperture to let in as much light as possible. However, you need to remember that the wider your opening, the more shallow the depth of field (DOF). To keep everything sharp, refrain from using the widest possible aperture. For instance, if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, use f/2.8 instead.

If your photos still look soft, feel free to use f/11 or an even smaller aperture to achieve an even deeper DOF, which makes everything sharp. Consequently, your camera will automatically choose a slower shutter speed, which could result in motion blur, but as long as your camera is on a tripod, you shouldn't worry too much about it.

Photo by Zoltan Kovacs

03. Focus manually

Autofocus may be your best friend in the daytime, but it can give you a headache if you try using it photographing buildings at night. To avoid running into problems, switch it off entirely and just use manual focus instead.

Photo by Pedro Lastra

First, twist the focus ring all the way to infinity. Next, look into the viewfinder or the screen and check if the whole scene is in focus. If you need to make minor adjustments, just twist the ring ever so slightly to the left or right until the furthest building you see looks sharp.

Photo by Adi Constantin

To be entirely sure everything is in focus, look at your screen and enlarge the frame by pressing the magnifying button (the one with the magnifying symbol). Once you get a better view of the buildings, adjust the focus ring until the image looks sharp.

Photo by Jared Erondu

04. Get to your location early

Some of the best skyline images are shot during the golden hour—that short period after sunrise or before sunset when the sky looks orange. It creates a picturesque backdrop that makes the sky burst with colors and the buildings stand out.   

Photo by Alex Block

You’d be surprised how quickly the sun rises or sets, so you need to catch it before it’s too late. Get to your location before dawn or dusk, and set up your equipment before the sun is too low on the horizon.  The moment you need to wait for only lasts about ten minutes—more or less. That’s when the sky is dark enough that the building lights can be seen, and the sun peeks behind the horizon just enough to spray a burst of orange against the dark sky.

Photo by Shea Rouda

Another reason you need to get to your location early is to avoid big crowds, especially if you plan to shoot in a public space. There's barely anyone around in the wee hours of the morning, but try going to your spot after breakfast, and you'll have people walking in front of your lens all day long.  

Photo by Josh Bean

05. Shoot inside your hotel room

One of the best vantage points for shooting cityscapes is from an extremely high angle. However, it’s not always possible to access rooftops or hills where you get a panoramic view of the city. The best solution is to rent a hotel room that’s high enough to offer a great perspective.

Photo by Alex Block

The main hurdle you’ll encounter when shooting in a hotel room, however, is shooting through glass windows. Sometimes they’re dirty, foggy, and may include unwanted reflections. Thankfully, there are a few techniques you can use to overcome these obstacles.

Photo by Annie Spratt

To start, turn off your air conditioning to prevent windows from fogging. To avoid reflections from your camera or anything else in the room, turn off the lights and cover your camera with a dark cloth or towel. You can also tape up the camera logo (which is typically white) or any part of your camera that lights up. Furthermore, you can use a polarizing filter to remove any glare you can't get rid of with a towel or tape. Finally, use manual focusing to make sure the skyline, not the dirty specks on the window, stays sharp.

Photo by Sergi Pinedo Martinez

06. Do bracket exposures

Lighting can often be tricky when shooting cityscapes. When there are too many light sources, it’s hard to judge where to meter your exposure. The best way to make sure you get the correct exposure is to use a technique called bracketing—or taking a series of photos with varying exposures.

Photo by Pedro Lastra

To apply bracketing, look for the exposure compensation button on your camera (marked with a plus and minus symbol). Press it and simultaneously adjust the button or the click wheel on the back of your camera until it's about two or three stops underexposed. If you do it right, you’ll see that the entire scene goes darker as you adjust. After you’ve made your adjustment, press the shutter. Repeat the process, increasing the exposure incrementally until it’s two or three stops overexposed.  

Photo by Pedro Lastra

When you’re finished, you should have about three to five photos of one scene. The whole point of shooting a cityscape so many times is to increase your chances of getting at least one of the exposures correctly.

However, if you find that all of them are poorly exposed, you have the option to blend those shots into one image using a photo editing tool to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image. This technique basically takes all of the properly exposed parts from the bracketed photos and stitches them together into one well-exposed image.

Photo by Pedro Lastra. An example of a High Dynamic Range image.

07. Layer light trails

Photo by Alex Iby

If you want to capture light trails like the image above, it would be more practical to switch to Speed Priority instead of Aperture Priority. To create this effect, set your shutter speed to 10 seconds or longer. For exposures longer than 30 seconds, you can use Bulb Mode to keep the shutter open as long as your finger’s on the button. The longer the shutter's open, the longer the streaks.

Photo by Pana Vasquez

A single exposure, however, is usually not enough to create thick light trails. Often, your image would have thin streaks that don’t look that appealing. What you can do is to take several photos of the same location and superimpose all the images using a photo editing software (just like in tip no. 7). The result would feature plenty of bright streaks that look more intense and captivating.

Photo by Jonathan Pease

If you want to blend your light streaks without using a computer, you can try shooting multiple exposures with your camera, instead. Select Multiple Exposure Mode (depending on the camera, it could be a button, knob, or a menu option), then select the number of images you want to include in a single exposure (three or four should be enough). When you’re done setting your camera, shoot one scene several times, and the sequence of images you shot will be automatically superimposed into one photo. When in this mode, remember not to remove your device from the tripod and to keep it in one position. Otherwise, the superimposed photos won’t be aligned.

08. Include reflections

Photo by darkroomsg

To add dimension to your cityscapes, you can capture reflections of buildings on bodies of water. Lakes and rivers are often the best choices since they’re much calmer than the ocean. When the water is rough, you just won’t be able to see the reflection properly.

Photo by Aniket Deole

If you want to take a photo like the one you see above, remember this mantra: the calmer the water, the better the reflection. Wait for a quiet day without much wind. You want to look for an undisturbed area where you don’t see any ripples on the water. Compose your shot so that the skyline is in the middle and the sky and water more or less share equal space above and below.

Photo by Juan Di Nella. The reflection is caused by the flooded square.

Shooting cityscapes involves a lot of experimentation. It takes plenty of clicks before you get that one great shot. Don’t be afraid to play around with your camera settings because it will help you learn more about your camera and master invaluable skills along the way.