Top tips for urban and city photography

Create stunning cityscapes and urban scenes – here is all the advice, tips, techniques and inspiration you need.
An aerial view of a city at night, many buildings illuminated below a dark blue sky streaked with pink.

Cities are energetic and magical places. Their people, buildings, rivers and diverse streets provide endless photographic opportunities. So why not grab your camera, get out and explore a city near you? We've compiled some top tips to help you capture images you'll feel proud of. Read on and learn how to improve your composition, cope with fading light and tell your city story.

1. Urban photography kit

A person holding their Canon EOS M50 low to the ground to shoot a city at night.

If you're trying out city photography at night, the electronic viewfinder on a mirrorless camera can be invaluable – it will show you exactly how your shot is exposed and update as you make adjustments. On a DSLR, the rear screen can help you to judge exposure settings, along with providing a brighter view of the scene.

A Canon EOS M6 Mark II on a pavement shooting a city at night.

Just before sunrise or after sunset, the 'blue hour' of twilight is a great time for shooting cityscapes. The quality of light tends to be surreal and streets are often less busy. With most lenses, setting an aperture of around f/11 to f/16 will turn bright points of light into starbursts.

While any Canon camera can be used for urban photography, interchangeable lens cameras give the greatest versatility. Smaller is often better, too, as a discreet approach can help capture candid shots of city life as people go about their business. Canon's mirrorless EOS M-series cameras such as the EOS M50 Mark II are particularly compact and unobtrusive.

Many photographers prefer 35mm prime lenses for their small, light profile and a field of view which, while wide enough to fit lots into the frame, remains relatively free of barrel distortion compared to ultra-wide-angle lenses. The diminutive Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM pancake lens is absolutely ideal, with an 'effective' 35.2m focal length in full-frame terms. The Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM gives a more standard perspective and its fast aperture is great for isolating objects against a blurred background. If you're looking for versatility, the Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM is a wide-angle lens with built-in macro features. It's not just about prime lenses though – the compact Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM also goes large on versatility as a wide-angle zoom.

For DSLR users, the lightweight Canon EOS 250D features a vari-angle articulating screen, ideal for capturing unusual and exciting perspectives. This is also featured in most other current Canon cameras, including the more sophisticated yet relatively compact Canon EOS 850D, better suited to enthusiast photographers. Ideal city photography lenses for APS-C format DSLRs include the super-slim Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM pancake prime and the diminutive Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM ultra-wide-angle zoom – both are great for fitting even the largest buildings in the frame.

Moving up to a full-frame DSLR such as the Canon EOS 6D Mark II, the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM is a top choice for shooting cityscapes handheld at night, its four-stop optical stabilisation and fast f/2 aperture allowing light in when it is needed most. For mirrorless shooters, the full-frame Canon EOS RP and Canon RF 35mm F1.8 IS Macro STM make a powerful yet compact outfit. The impressive ultra-wide-angle Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM is a versatile option for urban photography, enabling you to capture wide cityscapes as well as close-ups of architectural detail thanks to its maximum magnification levels of 0.26x.

2. Urban inspiration

A road network at night with car headlights creating clearly defined light trails.

Long exposures are ideal for turning night-time traffic into light trails, transforming ordinary scenes into mesmerising creative images. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 61 sec, f/16 and ISO400. © Lorenz Holder

All cities are historic and cultural melting-pots containing thousands of different stories. As you explore a city, think about which of its tales most interests you, then dig a little deeper. Ignore well-known sights and try to find a unique narrative focal point that will invite your viewer into the world of your photo.

The movement of people, goods or transport create the beating heart of most cities. To capture the city in motion, try exploring it on foot until you chance upon a busy junction, then stop and take a few shots from an interesting vantage point.

Many cities take on a new life when night falls. Try to shoot night-time cityscapes in places which have bright lights – like Prague's Christmas markets or London's West End. Shooting light trails can also be rewarding. Why not find a high vantage spot, such as a bridge or rooftop terrace and capture the street below?

Some of the most striking city images show contrasts – between old and new, peace and discord, or between a city's cosmopolitan communities. Try to capture your own interpretation of this theme – for example, you might spot someone meditating in a busy Shanghai park, shoot a historic London building being dwarfed by a new skyscraper or the bustle of New York's hipster quarter.

It's the small details that give a city its identity. Often hidden in plain view, capturing these fascinating features can make striking photos. Think of London's ornate Victorian streetlights, the Paris Metro's Art Nouveau station signage or the patterns in Lisbon's distinctive pavement tiles. Look out for small and unique details when you next visit a city and think of interesting ways to shoot them.

3. Best camera modes

A person in high heeled boots walking through a puddle at night, orange and blue lights reflected on the wet pavement.

Try to avoid the standard city tourist shots – it pays to be creative and to look for unusual perspectives that add interest. Have a go at shooting from really low down or even from high up so you can shoot over walls and other obstacles, or above a crowd. The vari-angle screens of many Canon cameras are perfect for this approach. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Lorenz Holder

A close-up of the side of a building, a metal door number lit from the wall light above.

Don't always try to see the bigger picture. Detail shots can tell a different but highly effective story. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/664 sec, f/1.4 and ISO400.

By their nature, cities are busy places, but there are times when the pace slows, such as late at night or very early in the morning. For this time of day, you will need to be adept at low light photography. That means slow shutter speeds, high ISO settings, and steady camera-holding techniques.

The first thing to remember when taking low light photos is to stop your fully automatic settings from using the flash. You can do this by using the Flash Off mode or the Handheld Night Scene mode. In Flash Off mode, your camera will have to use its capabilities differently to capture pictures without flash. It will do this by increasing the sensitivity to light (ISO speed), reducing the shutter speed and opening the aperture of the lens.

The Flash Off mode is also the one to choose for shooting photos in city museums and venues where flash photography is not allowed or when the flash would spoil the ambience.

Many Canon cameras, such as the Canon EOS RP, have a Handheld Night Scene mode, which takes a quick series of four pictures and then combines the results in one single frame, optimised for minimum camera shake. Since a lot of cities have restrictions about using tripods, the Handheld Night Scene mode can be your path to sharp shots in the city at night.

A wide aperture prime lens such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM is always good to keep with you and is great for shooting in low light. Small and lightweight, this unobtrusive lens offers sharp image quality. Prime lenses' wide range of aperture settings offer fantastic control over depth of field. To make the most of these lenses, use Aperture Priority mode (Av) and control the depth of field from shallow to deep, or use Shutter Priority mode (Tv) to control how movement is captured. Another characteristic of this kind of lens is that you have to move to get closer to a subject, rather than zooming, meaning you'll often find more interesting angles to shoot from.

4. City photography techniques

A black and white image of the sky filled with skyscrapers and tall city buildings.

Switching to monochrome mode in your camera is great for accentuating shadows, light and texture, while banishing colourful distractions. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 11mm, 1/500 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

An indoor Turkish market. The low shutter speed has blurred the crowd, emphasising how busy the scene is.

City photography is as much about the people who live in them as it is about buildings and landmarks. Taken on a Canon EOS 60D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) with a Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens at 49mm, 2.6 secs, f/16 and ISO100.

To be ready to shoot at all times, you need to be aware of how the light is changing around you as you walk through the city. If it gets darker then plan on increasing the ISO, slowing the shutter speed or opening the aperture. If it gets brighter then lower the ISO, increase the shutter speed or close down the aperture. This way your camera setting will be close to the ideal one should you come across a spectacular scene that you want to capture.

Use the Monochrome Picture Style on your camera to create black and white images in-camera. Since black and white is all about shadow and light, using Monochrome mode will help you see the play of contrast. Your LCD will show the pictures in black and white, but if you shoot in RAW format, you can return to a colour image in the post-processing on your computer.

With time to spare in the city you can choose to revisit a location at different times of the day, to capture the changing people and light. Just three or four pictures taken at equally spaced intervals throughout the day can give a sense of how the city changes.

When shooting moving subjects such as people walking across a bridge or piazza, it is better to keep the camera still and turn the flash off, selecting longer shutter speeds to enhance the movement of the subject. When attempting this kind of picture, look out for surfaces and places where the camera can be placed or held for maximum stability. Try experimenting with Shutter Priority mode (Tv). After you set a shutter speed, the camera automatically balances the ISO and aperture value, leaving you to explore your creativity.

If you need any further help and guidance while you're on the move, the Canon Photo Companion app is packed with personalised content, challenges and inspiration, offering all the assistance you need to help bring your urban adventures to life.

Written by Matthew Richards

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