Composition in shooting cityscapes relies heavily on your choice of lens. With the right lens that matches your envisioned image, your urban landscape photos can have so much visual impact.
When photographing any outdoor scene, visual design and composition rely heavily on how well we are able to illustrate and isolate patterns within the scene. Our choices of lenses and how 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 urban landscapes that you should definitely be aware of every time you are shooting or scouting new vantage points. These factors collectively lead you to come up with the composition that you envision, which will determine which lenses would actually be useful for that particular shot.
The first and easiest factor to observe and consider is simply the distance of your vantage point to the skyline or the patch of the cityscape that you aim to photograph. Shooting cityscapes doesn’t always mean shooting its entirety, but simply finding something representative of the city altogether. Much like any other kind of photography, your distance to your subject dictates your choice of lenses along with how much of it you want to show. Portrait photographers consider if they are shooting headshots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits, and the thought process for shooting cityscapes is pretty much similar.
If your vantage point is intimately proximal to the city, an ultra-wide angle lens would probably be the best option. This can either be an ultra-wide zoom, which can be more flexible in terms of distance, or an ultra-wide angle prime if the angle of view fits the framing you have in mind. While I appreciate ultra-wide angle prime lenses, especially for shooting landscapes with the night sky, I often prefer using zoom lenses for cityscapes for better flexibility. At the same time, since there’s almost never any use for larger apertures, zoom lenses with f/4 apertures or even variable aperture lenses (such as those found in kit lenses) suffice as long as sharpness is not compromised.
Shooting just outside the city or the area of the city with the interesting skyline, the most flexible option is a standard zoom lens. While they are relatively limited in the extreme wide-angle and telephoto ends, these lenses contribute a lot to being flexible in shooting scenarios where moving closer or farther away from your subject is not an option. Standard zoom lenses go from relatively wide (commonly) at 24mm to relatively tight (commonly) at 70mm and just like in any other kind of photography, if you were to only have one lens for multiple uses, a standard zoom offers that duality. Longer range zoom lenses, commonly called all-around or walk-around zoom lenses, are also reliable for the same reason, and for a vantage point that isn’t too close but also not far from the cityscape, these lenses provide good coverage. Normal-range primes such as 35mm or 50mm lenses can be used as well, but in terms of framing, it would be a hit-or-miss approach.
Sometimes, the only available or accessible view of the cityscape is from a nearby city or a nearby hill. This is where telephoto lenses come in handy. Obviously, telephoto lenses allow you to shoot objects that are much farther away. However, they can also help you isolate more minute details from relatively close distance. Commonly, in terms of photographing an entire skyline, the usual 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom lens is more than enough. A flexible option is a 100-400mm lens especially if you aim to isolate specific patterns or details within the cityscape.
One effective way to make your cityscape images look 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 far away or up close may be interesting perspectives, other interesting factors could be height, angle, or through forced perspectives using various foreground elements like reflective surfaces or frames.
One commonly interesting perspective is that of the city from a certain height. This can, of course, be achieved by shooting from elevated vantage points such as skyscrapers, nearby hills, aircraft, and of course, through a camera drone (if aviation regulations allow). Shooting from certain heights commonly requires the widest lens possible to be able to capture the entirety of the cityscape with whatever limitation on height that the vantage point implies.
Ultra-wide angle lenses are also useful in using foreground elements for relatively reflections, especially when shooting close to the city. However, longer lenses can also be useful if the foreground element and/or the cityscape are relatively far away.
Your use of space in a photograph contribute to how you portray the cityscape in the image. Shooting closer through zoom lenses and filling the frame help your viewers appreciate the textures, patterns, and details that can be found within the city. By occupying all the space in the frame with urban details, you also create a perception of the city being busy and possibly crowded.
On the other hand, if you use wider lenses to allow for 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 surrounding environment. This can include mountains or bodies of water in the background, or simply some clouds or even stars in the sky. Classic cityscape shots often show the entirety of the city along with a pleasant sky that complements it. The crucial aspect is finding the right proportion between details and negative space to create balance in terms of visual weight that would be satisfying to look at.
A huge compelling factor to consider when choosing which lens to use are 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 the nearby streets, bridges, or other illuminated paths that move inward into the frame, as well as clouds in the sky that lead towards the same direction. Using and including such patterns within your frame can be done with any lens depending on your distance, but the general principle would always be shooting a bit wider to make way for the foreground or the sky.
Photographing cityscapes almost never disappoints in terms of creating dynamic images. The bright lights in the city can create attractive contrast even on days with unpleasant weather. The most important factor is how you compose your image so that it creates a dynamic yet singular experience for the viewers to enjoy.