digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

Get Inspired · Find Creativity · Seek Adventure

How to Capture the Heart of a City in Photos

Last month I was in New York for a conference (a very unique and interesting one which is basically summer camp for adults – if you're interested it's called Camp Good Life). I met up with my friend and dPS writer James Maher and we co-hosted a photo walk in New York City. He led and created the route as he's local to NYC and knows the city well.

New York City photo walk

We had just over 30 people join us. If you were among the group – it was great to see and meet you! But if you weren't able to make it, perhaps there will be another opportunity in the near future (invite me to come to your city!) as we plan to do it again next year. James also leads street photography and other workshops in NYC (more on that below if you're in the area and interested in attending).

New York is a fascinating and diverse city with so many things to see around every corner. It's a photographer's paradise. Many people filled their cards as James led us through alleyways, over the Manhattan Bridge, and through Chinatown. Here are some of the things I captured and what I look for as I shoot. Notice the categories and use them to help you when you are out and about in your city. Look for these things there too!

Architecture

Each city has its own unique brand of architecture and buildings. Photograph them in an interesting way and look for details and textures.

nyc-photowalk-750px-04
I love the texture on this building. You'll notice I tilt my camera a lot. It adds a more dynamic look to your image as all lines become diagonal. But remember a 5-10 tilt is crooked, 30-45 degrees is on purpose.
nyc-photowalk-750px-05
The little green plant at the end caught my eye. Look for things that are out of the ordinary.
I love these classic brownstone buildings. Notice the message under the watch dog!
I love these classic brownstone buildings. Notice the message under the watchdog!
Detail of the Manhattan Bridge looking down between the steel girders.
Detail of the Manhattan Bridge looking down between the steel girders. Remember to look down!
Tower in the Manhattan Bridge shot with a fish-eye lens.
Tower in the Manhattan Bridge shot with a fish-eye lens. Remember to look up too!

Reflections

Reflections can happen anywhere there is a shiny surface. Look for them in windows, puddles, monuments, glasses, etc. Make sure that what you capture in the reflection is also interesting in itself. Also, watch where you focus. Shooting glasses for example, if you focus on the glasses the thing reflected in them will not be sharp and vice versa. So make a decision as to which is more important – the reflection of the thing it's reflected in.

I saw the parked bike reflected in the cafe window and was able to position myself to see the table inside and the bike. My first shot felt empty though so I waited for cyclist to pass by and timed my shot to capture him too. It took me about six tries to get this one - patience is a virtue in photography!
I saw the parked bike reflected in the cafe window and was able to position myself to see the table inside and the bike. My first shot felt empty though so I waited for a cyclist to pass by and timed my shot to capture him too. It took me about six tries to get this one – patience is a virtue in photography!
I loved the other building in the windows of this brown doorway.
I loved the other building in the windows of this brown doorway.
nyc-photowalk-750px-08
It was the colors here for me – the complementary blue sky and yellow tint of the building.
nyc-photowalk-750px-09
I focused on the glasses here but you can still tell what's reflected in them.

 

A quick selfie in another photo walkers glasses!
A quick selfie in another photo walkers glasses!
I noticed the whole group reflected in Viv's glasses so I got him to pose for this one. He is from France (living in Oslo Norway!) and I met him at the camp.
I noticed the whole group reflected in Viv's glasses so I got him to pose for this one. He is from France (living in Oslo Norway!) and I met him at the camp.
Noticed myself in a big store window and couldn't resist this selfie - complete with my yellow deely-boppers that I wear on photo walks so people don't lose me.
Noticed myself in a big store window and couldn't resist this selfie – complete with my yellow dealy-boppers that I wear on photo walks so people don't lose me.

Other people on your walk

Whether you're on a photo walk with a group or just by yourself, capturing photos of what people are doing around you is important too. They set the scene and the tone of the photos for other people viewing your images. If you're photographing locals it gives people a sense of life in that city. I consider myself primarily a people photographer and when I travel I love to capture the essence of a place through its people.

Taken with my Fuji X-T1 in pano mode. James getting us all started at the beginning of our walk.
Taken with my Fuji X-T1 in pano mode. James getting us all started at the beginning of our walk. Viv even has two faces – cool!
nyc-photowalk-750px-16
Another NYC photographer who joined us, Phillip Van Nostrand (in shorts) chatting with another photo walker as we were on a bathroom break.

nyc-photowalk-750px-15

nyc-photowalk-750px-17

This guy actually paused and waited for me to take the photo. Notice he's smiling!
This guy actually paused and waited for me to take the photo. Notice he's smiling!
This fellow was washing the sidewalk outside a high-end shop as we went by. I got down low to get a different perspective.
This fellow was washing the sidewalk outside a high-end shop as we went by. I got down low to get a different perspective.

Transportation

I love all the yellow taxis in NYC. Its part of the city's culture.
I love all the yellow taxis in NYC. They're part of the city's culture. Notice the shoes on the light post?
A subway train rambles over the Manhattan Bridge.
A subway train rumbles over the Manhattan Bridge.
Taken later after our walk in the subway.
Taken later after our walk in the subway.
The train arrives in the subway.
The train arrives in the subway.

Light

By far and away the thing I look for the most when I photograph is light. If I find some good or interesting light I will look for a subject inside it. When I find an interesting subject with bad light – I either don't shoot it, or come back later after the light changes. Light is everything in photography if you focus on learning to see it your work will improve.

The unusual pattern of light on this green door caught my eye.
The unusual pattern of light on this green door caught my eye.
This was taken from the bridge on our walk. I noticed the light and reflection in this window and later enhanced the moody feel by adding a dark edge vignette in processing.
This was taken from the bridge on our walk. I noticed the light and reflection in this window and later enhanced the moody feel by adding a dark edge vignette in processing.
This was taken from the window of the apartment I stayed at in the East Village (thanks Airbnb). I saw the light skimming across the bricks and further enhanced it in processing.
This was taken from the window of the apartment I stayed at in the East Village (thanks Airbnb). I saw the light skimming across the bricks and further enhanced it in processing.
The pirate flag was backlit and that's all I needed to draw my attention.
The pirate flag was backlit and that's all I needed to draw my attention.
You don't need to see what made the shadow here and combined with the texture of the walls makes for an interesting image.
You don't need to see what made the shadow here and combined with the texture of the walls makes for an interesting image.

Cultural areas

I cannot explain it but somehow I always end up in Chinatown in NYC. Perhaps I was Asian in a past life – I certainly tend to eat any type of Asian food as my preference (Japanese, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Malay, Korean, you name it). So I was glad James led us through a park where they play various games and some of us ended up having lunch in the neighborhood too.

If your city or the one you're visiting has an ethnic or cultural area – visit it and take it all in. How is it different than other parts of the city? What do you smell and hear as well as see? Try and capture that in your images.

nyc-photowalk-750px-27
I love the chaos of all the signs.

nyc-photowalk-750px-28

nyc-photowalk-750px-29

nyc-photowalk-750px-30

Cityscapes

Like landscapes, you can capture a larger view of the city in a cityscape. To do so you need to find the right vantage point. You can use apps like The Photographer's Ephemeris, PlanIt! (Apple OS only) or even Google maps to find the perfect location.

On our photo walk of NYC, James took us part way over the Manhattan Bridge and it gave us some great city skyline viewpoints along the way. Shoot the whole thing or just parts, your choice.

nyc-photowalk-750px-36
Looking down a busy street from our viewpoint on the bridge.
nyc-photowalk-750px-37
Some rooftop graffiti from the bridge.
nyc-photowalk-750px-39
Even though this is shot at midday, it works well converted into black and white as it has good contrast and lighting direction.
nyc-photowalk-750px-41
Fun with a fish-eye lens. This is shot with the 8mm Rokinon for my Fuji X-T1.
nyc-photowalk-750px-42
The fish-eye again resting on the edge of the bridge, shooting between the railings. Notice it's so wide that it even gets the railing in the shot.

City at night

Last but not least, get out and photograph the city at night. Often places like New York (the city that doesn't sleep) and other big cities the really interesting stuff happens after the sun goes down and the city comes alive. Grab a tripod and a friend, and get out and do some night photography.

Keep in mind that if you want color in the sky get out right after sunset at blue hour!

Times Square with a fish-ehe
Times Square with a fish-eye lens. I wanted to capture the hustle and bustle of this busy intersection.
One neat side benefit of the fish-eye lens is that I was so close to this pretzel vendor he had no clue he was in the photo.
One neat side benefit of the fish-eye lens was that I got so close to this pretzel vendor he had no clue he was in the photo.
HDR of 3 exposures blended use "Merge to HDR" in Lightroom.
This is the first version of this shot. I did 3-4 bracketed exposures and did some HDR but here is the original one-shot version. Notice there is a nice balance between the sky still having some color in it, and the city lights that have come on.
HDR of 3 exposures blended use "Merge to HDR" in Lightroom.
Three exposures blended using the “Merge to HDR” in Lightroom feature. It does a really nice job, even fixing deghosting (areas where things moved or changed from one shot to the next).
Oops! This is what happens when you do HDR merge without the deghosting. Kind of humorous actually.
Oops! This is what happens when you do HDR merge without the deghosting. Kind of humorous actually. Notice the man's head in the sign on the left, and the multiple images in some of the signs making them look almost posterized.
Use a long exposure to capture car trails as vehicles drive past.
Use a long exposure to capture car trails as vehicles drive past.
Street lights and headlights will turn into starbursts if you use an aperture f/8or smaller.
Street lights and headlights will turn into starbursts if you use an aperture f/8or smaller.
This is another part of NYC - eating! I pretty much ate my way around the city. Here are are having pulled pork and coleslaw in Times Square.
This is another part of NYC – eating! I pretty much ate my way around the city. Here are are having pulled pork and coleslaw in Times Square.
New York city's finest! Yes I asked them permission to take their photo. Apparently it's okay to be almost naked on the street (g-string and body paint only as some girls do and pose for photos to make money) but it is NOT okay to use a tripod (from 142-155 streets). We got told to cease and desist but they couldn't tell us why the rules are that way.
New York's finest, the boys in blue! Yes, I asked them permission to take their photo. Apparently, it's okay to be almost naked on the street (g-string and body paint only as some girls do and pose for photos to make money) but it is NOT okay to use a tripod WHAT?! (from 142-155 streets). We got told to cease and desist but they couldn't tell us why the rules are that way, they just enforce them and were actually very nice about it.

Conclusion and action plan

I'll leave you with this photo I took of myself (by holding my camera upside down).

nyc-photowalk-750px-43

The biggest thing I'd like to see you doing is having fun! If you can't be a little silly and play what's the point?! Make sure not to take yourself too seriously and always have fun with your photography. There is no right or wrong only different.

Our photo walk group near the end of the route. Don't they just look like they are having fun?!
Our photo walk group near the end of the route. Don't they just look like they are having fun?!

Street photography workshop with James Maher in NYC

Now it's your turn! If you are in the New York area or want an excuse to visit the city, check out this workshop with James Maher next spring.

This is James (in grey shirt) doing one of his East Village interviews. I just randomly bumped into him on the street.
This is James (in gray shirt) doing one of his East Village interviews. I just randomly bumped into him on the street.

You can see more of James' photos and interviews with people from the East Village in NYC here.

11-brooklyn-bridge-on-fire

James' workshop is April 29-30th, 2017 and if you register before October 10th, 2016 you will get the early-bird price. You also get two of his ebooks included with your workshop fee. Two full days covering all aspects of street photography and the best NYC guide you can ask for!

Get more info about the street photography workshop with James. Here are a few more of his images. You can see some past articles he's done here on Digital Photo Mentor as well:

2-subways_in_motion_new_york

Polka Dots and Pink Shoes, Subway, 2012.

new-york-street-photography-7

Cheers,

Darlene-1-250x130.png

You are here: Street Photography » How to Capture the Heart of a City in Photos


  • Joe Large

    Good article and some solid ideas. Thanks for the post

  • Frank Tinsley

    I’m glad you enjoyed my hometown of NYC. Just made me homesick for the great foods in NYC.

    • I always love NYC, where are you now? You couldn’t join us?

      • Frank Tinsley

        I’m living in Virginia now. I’m going to NYC for the Christmas holidays. Spend the whole week re-exploring my hometown.

  • Pierre Boucher

    Some wow pictures in there with very solid ideas to try in our own city. Thanks for the post.

  • Graham Gall

    Thanks for sharing. Inspired to use my 8mm fish eye more in city work. Cheers!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Reflecting on the reflections… Must have come subliminally as I have been cashing in on the same idea lately. Good to get some more inspiration.

  • pulsar8472

    If a 5-10 tilt is crooked, 30-45 degrees is on purpose, then how would you describe angle ranges between 0<angle<5, 10<angle<30 degrees

  • pulsar8472

    NOT okay tripod from 142-155 streets. Got it, bring monopod that doubles as cane. Thx!

Next Post:

Previous Post:

Featured Photography Special

4 Weeks to Better Photography

An online
photography class for beginners


Join the Photo Community

10 Photography Challenges

Participate in monthly photography challenges. Join our very interactive community, participate in challenges each month that help you stretch and grow. Learn new skills and make your photos "pop".

More Articles Here

All my past photography articles here.

We publish regularly, so if you'd like to posts sent directly to your inbox, just put your name and email into the big orange box at the top of this page.

Adobe Training

Learn how to use Lightroom
Learn how to use Photoshop