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Cities constantly engage and fascinate travellers, and even for most wilderness lovers, there will still be any number of exciting cities on the travel wish list. Yet they can be difficult places to photograph. Many people return from a supposedly relaxing city break with memories of trudging through grey streets with a heavy camera bag in the midday sun, and they still don't have any pictures to be proud of.
When you only have a limited amount of time, the absolute key to successful photography of cities is planning and preparation. It doesn’t matter how much you plod round when you get to a city, if you haven’t done any research then you're pretty much on a hiding to nothing.
Read a guidebook – especially one of the more visual ones – and do a search online. Finally, when you get to your destination, check out some of the postcard stands. Some of these shots can be quite cheesy, but they'll give you an idea of the iconic sights of a city and also some of the angles.
Get up high
For the best shots of a city, you have to get a good vantage point. If all of your shots are from ground level, looking up, then you won’t be showing the true scale of a city. Many cities such as Paris and Rio have public viewpoints where you can get good access to take dramatic cityscapes. Otherwise, you will have to look for towers, and even hotel bars to get up high. Bear in mind though that the most obvious vantage points are not necessarily the best. You get great views from the Eiffel Tower, but where do you go if you want to get a high view with the Eiffel Tower in it?
Don't just look for the big picture
Look out for typical things that sum up a city. This could be something as simple as a British postbox or the ornament on the front of a Venetian gondola. Smaller details will also help to break up your pictures and give them a more human dimension. Most cities have quirks too. It might be the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London, or the dabbawallahs who deliver food in Mumbai.
You should also identify market, shop or souk districts. These are often in old atmospheric streets where you can just walk around and be rewarded with endless details and candid portraits. Markets are great for taking pictures. Not only will you get lots of locals, but also colourful and local produce. Many generally start early, and it is worth getting there before they get full of tourists.
People are what give a city life, and your coverage will be quite flat if you don’t include them in your pictures. The problem is that many of the people you will see will be other tourists. Look for people who are integral to the city.
Local people going about their day to day business are also great for photography, though you should try not to be too intrusive. Ask before you shoot any portraits and consider festivals when people are often at their most relaxed and colourful.
When the sun goes down
Many cities look stunning at night when buildings are floodlit and all of the tower blocks are lit up, but the best time to take so-called night shots is actually at dusk, before the sky is completely dark. There will be a moment when the light in the sky will balance the lights in the picture, giving a balanced and colourful image. Sometimes the sky will render a rich blue, other times a deep purple.
Many people go on city breaks for the bar life and restaurants. These are vital when showing the true face of a city, and are something that you can photograph after dark.
One of the biggest issues when photographing a city is the distortion that you will often get when shooting buildings. This is caused when you have to tilt a camera to get the top of a building in the frame. Called ‘converging parallels’, it makes a building appear to narrow at the top. The more wideangle the lens, and the more that you tilt the camera, the greater the effect.
As with many things in photography, distortion can either be a problem or an asset to your pictures. I don’t like mild distortion. It just looks like you could avoid it. If you are going to have distortion in the picture then exaggerate it. Move in close, use the widest lens you have and tilt the camera a lot. The high level of distortion can be used to accentuate the scale of a building.
Header shot: Antananarivo, Madagascar. An open space will let you take advantage of sunrise or sunset, when the light is warmer and comes from a lower angle.
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