Into photography started with a ‘specialisation’ in landscapes – at least, that’s what I told anyone who asked. The inverted commas are entirely justified because it wasn’t that I particularly liked to take pictures of grand vistas; I just didn’t have the nerve to do anything else. Yes, we all started out as self-conscious ‘fraidy cats! Don’t worry, I’ll explain how to get over that in later posts. So, why are landscapes a good place to start? In part, it is because they don’t get impatient while you fiddle with your settings or try out different ones to see what effect it will have. They don’t judge while you struggle through the essential but unpleasant process of trial-and-error. They don’t mock you if you have a technical problem. And cityscape photography looks nice – there’s certainly no doubting that.
A self-taught snapper friend of mine once told me that he learnt his craft using one particular landscape. He kept going back, over and over, making tiny adjustments to the same shot. This was before digital and he said that he used easily 30 or 40 rolls of film, just for that one perfect shot. You can’t do that with a model!
Bangkok doesn’t have the rolling hills of Thailand’s north or the beautiful beaches of the south; both common clichés of landscape photography. It has tall buildings and busy streets – not a landscape, but a cityscape. It’s a very different environment, but the same basic rules of composition still work just as well. These are they:
Cityscape Photography – Get High
Cityscape photography is a very different discipline to street photography. You are trying to capture a ‘scape’ – a broad view of the whole area. Down on street level, this just isn’t possible – there’s too much clutter, too many people and you can’t see the city for the buildings, as it were.
Bangkok is a really great place for cityscape photography because it has seemingly endless elevated perches. Just take a look over the railings next time you’re waiting for your BTS train to arrive, try out one of the seemingly limitless rooftop bars and restaurants, climb up to the Wat Saket (if you’re feeling fit) or Wat Arun (if you’re feeling brave). The views are pretty impressive, which is always a good start in a great cityscape shot.
Cityscape Photography – Rule of Thirds…err…again
Yes, it’s that old chestnut. I pretty comprehensively covered this (and its application to landscapes) in the last post, but it is an important one. The most pivotal aspect of it is putting the horizon line either a third from the top or the bottom of the frame as opposed to right through the middle.
Of course, actually finding the horizon can be a challenge in a city environment. I’m afraid that I can’t really teach you that – it’s a judgement call. Take a broad look at the scene in front of you and imagine where the horizon should logically be, then put it a third from the top or the bottom of the picture.
From your elevated position, the horizon will usually want to be towards the top of your frame, but that can depend on exactly how elevated you are. I’ve found that the view from the BTS, for example, can be disappointing if you angle the shot down. Taller buildings behind, a bright blue sky and maybe a few fluffy white clouds can mean using the bottom line for the horizon makes for a good shot.
There’s a lot more to cityscapes than just the Rule of Thirds. The objective of image composition – of photography as a whole – is to draw the viewer into the picture, so that they feel like they’re right there with you, rather than looking at a flat, 2D image. Where you put the horizon in the frame will help make a good image, but it won’t draw people in.
As the name suggests, lead-in lines are lines that lead in from the outer edges of the image, toward the centre. They can be anything that forms a line – and it doesn’t even need to be a straight one. So long as it draws the viewer into the image, that’s all that matters.
In a countryside view, this is a stream, footpath, fence or the line of the beach, but Bangkok doesn’t have that kind of stuff. What it has in abundance are roads, electricity cables, BTS tracks; again, anything that forms a line from the edge of the picture towards the middle.
Sounds really simple, doesn’t it? That’s probably because it is, but it makes all the difference. I was taking a few cityscapes from the Above Eleven bar in Bangkok (on Sukhumvit Soi 11) recently and I found that you only really had two views from the long and narrow building top. To the west was the sunset, but this was not the better picture. The nearby buildings were all parallel to the one I was on, making the scene flat. To the east, the streets ran at enough of an angle to create lines leading from the corners towards the middle, making the shot I wanted.
This is probably the hardest of the general rules of landscape photography to carry over to cityscape photography and, in truth, it perhaps is not entirely necessary in every case. However, it can add a greater degree of depth to the picture, which draws the viewer in that much further.
As with lead-in lines, the aim of foreground interest is to draw the eye towards the middle of the picture. In this case, I mean the middle-ground of the shot. The background (generally the buildings which blot out the horizon) is your backdrop and the mid-ground is your cityscape. Something in the foreground, if properly placed, can act like a stepping stone from the outside of the picture into the midst of it.
Despite the name, foreground interest doesn’t actually need to be something interesting. All it needs to do is catch the viewer’s eye and define the foreground layer of the picture. If this were the countryside, I would be suggesting rocks, flowers, fenceposts; anything that’s a bit different from the mid-ground. From a rooftop bar, tables, other diners and even just the edge of the railing can be enough.
Don’t forget to apply the Rule of Thirds with your foreground interest item. When you’re framing your shot, you want the interest to be on one of the cross points of your imaginary grid – a third in from the left or right and a third in from the bottom or, in very remarkable cases, the top.
In the example I gave before – at Above Eleven – the automatic response of the amateur photographers around me, when faced with the view from 32 storeys up, is to rush right up to the rail. This frustrated some of the people around me, who felt that their shots were being ruined, but I loved it. The folks by the rail were now my foreground interest!