Urban photoshoot tips for creative portrait photography in cities

Cities are great places for portrait photography, because they’re full of interesting backgrounds, textures, colors and leading lines for dynamic composition. It’s a cinematic landscape waiting to be explored, but an urban photoshoot takes planning and preparation.

Unlike portrait photography in the studio, at a local park or at the beach, the city is a busy environment with a lot of distractions, which can be daunting. So here are my top tips for getting the urban shots you want, without overshooting or exhausting yourself and your subject.

But before we get into the details, what is urban portrait photography?

Street photography vs street portrait photography

Portrait photography in a city environment is referred to as:

  • Urban photography
  • Urban portrait photography
  • City portrait photography
  • Street portrait photography

Street portrait photography differs from street photography in that, like any portrait photoshoot, the shoot is planned and the subject is intentionally posed and knowingly photographed.

Street photography is unposed and the subject is often not aware of being photographed.

How to use city locations for portraits

How to plan an urban photoshoot

One of the essentials of planning an urban photoshoot is to be familiar with the area. But you don’t necessarily have to go there in person, especially if it’s far away.

The best part of planning urban photography is that Google has done so much of the work for us! Once you’ve decided on the look and feel that you want for your shoot, use Google maps to scout locations. It will save you hours!

Take a virtual stroll around urban locations for photoshoots with Google Street View.

What to look for when planning urban photography:

  • Variety in a small area – you don’t want to be walking far from one location to another, because it takes up valuable shooting time.
  • Light – whether you use natural light or flash, you need to plan for the light. More on this in a moment.
  • Nearby parking if you’re driving to the location – it just makes it easier if you don’t have to walk a long way before you reach your photoshoot location.

Cities are constantly evolving, so you need to be prepared for change. If you can’t visit the area ahead of time, choose a nearby backup location so that you have a plan B in case the location has changed drastically since the Street View photos were taken.

backgrounds in urban photography

See below for views of these locations. This whole area that I photographed in last year has since been demolished for a new development, but Google street view hasn’t yet been updated.

How to set up an urban photoshoot

Once you’ve decided on your locations, take another virtual walk through in Google street view and screenshot where you want to photograph.

Then create a simple shoot plan in Word and drop your screenshots into the document, along with street names and any notes you feel are relevant, like outfit colors, nearby parking etc. This’ll be handy for you on the day, but will also help your model to know what to expect.

planning locations for urban photoshoots

Screenshots from Google street view to plan a shoot a 5 hour drive away from me. All photos of the male model in this article were taken here.

Speaking of which, if you don’t already have someone lined up for your city photoshoot, the next step is to find someone. If friends and family aren’t an option, try searching in Facebook model and photographer groups for someone who suits the style of your shoot.

Finding a model based on style is just the first step. Good communication is key to a successful photoshoot, so make sure you choose a model based on their communication and not just their suitability to the shoot. They need to be as keen to do the shoot as you.

5 elements of a good location for urban portraits

You don’t have to be in a big city for urban portraits. Of course, the bigger the city, the more variety you’ll have. But even small towns can work for city photography – you just have to look a little harder for the big city look.

Here’s what you’re looking for…

1. Open shade in urban locations

Because of the number of buildings in urban locations, you’ll always be able to find open shade in cities to avoid harsh shadows on your subject.

But more than that, you can use a reflector or flash for greater control of light and to make the image more interesting.

Reflective surfaces for photoshoots

2. Reflective surfaces – the added bonus of urban portraits

Cities are full of glass and shiny surfaces, which is great for including reflections in photos. You have two options:

  • Position your subject up close to a window, even leaning against it, and shoot from the side so that you include the glass and their reflection. Offices with large windows are perfect for this, especially at the weekend when nobody is in.
  • Shoot through the window to your subject so that you include reflections of the street in the shot. Coffee shops with seating next to the window area great for shooting through. Just ask nicely beforehand, shoot quickly and move on without inconveniencing anyone.

Photographing through glass for reflections

But there’s another huge bonus to reflective surfaces…

They bounce light around!

So if you’re vigilant about where light is reflecting, you could get lucky with a patch of reflected light to light your subject and make the image more interesting.

That’s exactly what I did for the shoot below, because the bulb on my flash died during the shoot and I didn’t pack a spare. Fortunately, the setting sun was bouncing off numerous office block windows all around us, so I used the reflected light instead of my flash.

city portrait photography tips

3. Leading lines in cities

You can’t look anywhere without seeing leading lines in city photography – it’s what makes city locations so dynamic. So make sure you take advantage of leading lines for strong composition. Look for:

  • Railings
  • Brickwork
  • Steps
  • A row of posts

How to use urban locations in photoshoots

All locations were in the same city square not more than 20 meters apart.

4. Textures of cities

Likewise texture. Every building has a different texture waiting to be explored.

With urban portrait photography you’re not photographing the whole building, only part of it and very often it’s the texture of the building that’s the deciding factor for choosing it as a location

In fact, when I scout for a location, I look for textured backgrounds much more than whether it’s a pretty location or ugly location.

5. Colors in city portrait photography

When you think of urban photography and color the first thought is of graffiti, which of course makes a great background.

However, what if you went the other way?

Buildings are often quite monotone, so if your subject is dressed in strong colors they’ll stand out beautifully against a plain white, gray or black background.

Complementary colors in city buildings

For equally dynamic photos, if the building color and your subject’s clothing colors are complementary, the contrast of complementary colors will be eye catching.

Harmonious colors in city background

Alternatively, you could incorporate the background colors into your subject’s clothing for a more harmonious color scheme.

Two important tips for a good urban photoshoot

1. Don’t get stuck in one location

It’s very easy to get carried away photographing in a location for too long. Even if the location is great, you need to be disciplined with how long you spend in one place so that you can maximise the variety from your urban photoshoot.

After all, half the excitement of urban photography is the variety that’s available in a small area. Besides, you’ve put in the effort to work out the best background, so you don’t want to overshoot in one area and then miss out on all the others that you planned.

Time flies when you’re photographing, but there comes a point where everyone has had enough. Get the shots before you get to that point. Plan on two hours.

To keep me aware of time passing I set the timer on my phone to go off every twenty minutes. When the alarm goes off we change it up – either by changing the background or the subject’s outfit.

2. Don’t get weighed down

Be decisive and travel light! Don’t pack every piece of gear you own.

When photographing in an urban environment you have to keep your gear close by. If you’re photographing solo this means carrying everything in a camera bag, preferably a backpack style bag, that you wear throughout the photoshoot.

Your model should also restrict their luggage to one easy to carry bag, which should be kept near you while shooting.

If you have an assistant or makeup artist on set, it helps, but they’ll also be busy, so can’t stand around holding loads of bags.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about urban photoshoots, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my urban portrait photography tips have helped you, share that too.

1 thought on “Urban photoshoot tips for creative portrait photography in cities”

  1. Thanks for this article. Good practical tips that aren’t all that obvious, such as setting a timer on your watch, or photographing reflections from the side. Looking forward to trying this last one out.

    Cheers

    Dean

    Reply

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