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 a little daunting. So here are my top tips for getting the 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 plan an urban photoshoot
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 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’re using 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 just in case the location has changed drastically since the street view photos were taken.
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 will be handy for you on the day, but will also help your model to know what to expect.
Further reading: 7 essential elements to preparing for a photoshoot on location
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.
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.
Here’s what you’re looking for…
1. Open shade in urban locations
Because of the number of buildings, you’ll always be able to find open shade in cities to avoid harsh shadows on your subject.
Further reading: Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes
But more than that, you can use a reflector or flash for greater control of light and to make the image more interesting.
Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash
2. Reflective surfaces – the added bonus of urban portraits
Cities are full of glass and shiny surfaces, which is great for including reflections. 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.
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.
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:
- A row of posts
Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition
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.
Further reading: How texture in photography composition adds interest
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.
For equally dynamic photos, if the building color and your subject’s clothing colors are complementary colors, the contrast will be eye catching.
Further reading: Using color in photography composition for standout photos
Alternatively, you could incorporate the background colors into your subject’s clothing for a more harmonious color scheme.
Further reading: Why an analogous color scheme in photography works so well
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.
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 one, 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.
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