How to Shoot Urban Landscapes

Tokyo, 2013
Tokyo, 2013

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?

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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:

  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Excitement
  • Despair
  • Loneliness
  • Solitude

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”

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