Composition in cityscape photography is highly dependent on your choice of lens. With the right lens that matches the image you envision, your cityscape shots can have tremendous visual impact.
When shooting an outdoor scene, the visual design and composition is highly dependent on the ability to illustrate and isolate the scene’s motifs. Our lens choices and how well we are able to adapt to what the situation calls for definitely make or break the shot. There are various considerations in choosing lenses for landscapes as well as cityscapes that you should definitely be aware of whenever shooting or researching new vantage points. These factors collectively lead you to come up with the composition you envision, which will determine which lenses would actually be useful for that particular shot.
The first factor, and the easiest to observe and consider, is simply the distance between your vantage point and the skyline or part of the cityscape you wish to photograph. Photographing cityscapes doesn’t always mean filming in its entirety, just finding something representative of the city as a whole. Like any other type of photography, your distance from your subject dictates your choice of lenses as well as how much you want to show. Portrait photographers think about whether they’re shooting headshots, full body shots, or environmental portraits, and the thought process for shooting cityscapes is pretty much the same.
If your vantage point is intimately close to the city, a ultra wide angle lens would probably be the best option. It can be either an ultra wide zoom, which can be more flexible in terms of distance, or an ultra wide angle lens if the angle of view matches the framing you have in mind. Although I like ultra-wide-angle prime lenses, especially for shooting landscapes with the night sky, I often prefer to use zoom lenses for cityscapes for better flexibility. At the same time, since there’s almost never a use for larger apertures, zoom lenses with f/4 apertures or even variable aperture lenses (like those found in kit lenses ) are sufficient as long as sharpness is not compromised.
Shooting just outside the city or area of town with the interesting skyline, the most flexible option is a standard zoom lens. While relatively limited at the extreme wide-angle and telephoto ends, these lenses go a long way towards being flexible in shooting scenarios where getting closer or further away from your subject isn’t an option. Standard zooms range from relatively wide (usually) at 24mm to relatively tight (usually) at 70mm and, as in any other type of photography, if you were going to only have one lens for multiple uses, a standard zoom offers this duality. Longer-range zooms, commonly referred to as general-purpose or walk-around zooms, are also reliable for the same reason, and for a vantage point that’s not too close but not far from the cityscape, these lenses provide good coverage. . Normal range lenses such as 35mm or 50mm lenses can also be used, but in terms of framing this would be a hit and miss approach.
Sometimes the only available or accessible view of the cityscape is that of a nearby city or a nearby hill. It’s here that telephoto lenses be useful. Obviously, telephoto lenses make it possible to photograph much more distant objects. However, they can also help you isolate finer details at a relatively close distance. Generally, to photograph an entire horizon, the usual zoom of 70-200mm or 70-300mm is more than enough. A flexible option is a 100-400mm lens, especially if you want to isolate specific patterns or details in the cityscape.
An effective way to make your cityscape images interesting is to show a unique or even unusual perspective of the city. This is closely related but not limited to the aspect of distance from the cityscape. While seeing the city from afar or up close can be an interesting perspective, other interesting factors can be height, angle, or through forced perspectives using various foreground elements like reflective surfaces or frames.
A generally interesting perspective is that of the city from a certain height. This can, of course, be achieved by taking pictures from high vantage points such as skyscrapers, nearby hills, airplanes, and of course using a camera drone (if aviation regulations permit). Shooting from certain heights usually requires the widest possible lens to be able to capture the entire cityscape with the height limitation that the vantage point entails.
Ultra-wide-angle lenses are also useful for using foreground elements for reflections, especially when shooting relatively close to the city. However, longer lenses can also be useful if the foreground feature and/or cityscape are relatively far away.
Your use of space in a photograph contributes to how you portray the cityscape in the image. Shooting closer with zooms and filling the frame helps your viewers appreciate the textures, patterns, and details that can be found in the city. By taking up all the space of the frame with urban details, you also create a perception of the bustling and possibly crowded city.
On the other hand, if you use wider lenses to allow more negative space in the frame, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you make the city look small but allows your viewers to see the cityscape in relation to its environment. This can include mountains or bodies of water in the background, or just clouds or even stars in the sky. Classic cityscape photos often show the entirety of the city with a pleasant sky that complements it. The crucial aspect is to find the right proportion between the details and the negative space to create a balance in terms of visual weight that would be satisfying to watch.
A determining factor to consider when deciding which lens to use is the presence of foreground or background elements that create leading lines (or curves) towards the heart of the city. These lines can be roads that are busier than neighboring streets, bridges or other lighted paths that move inward from the frame, and clouds in the sky that lead in the same direction. Using and including such patterns in your frame can be done with any lens depending on your distance, but the general principle would always be to shoot a bit wider to make room for the foreground or the sky.
Photographing cityscapes almost never disappoints in terms of creating dynamic images. Bright city lights can create an attractive contrast even on bad weather days. The most important factor is how you compose your image so that it creates a dynamic yet singular experience for viewers to enjoy.