What is urban photography?

Svetlana November 11 2021

General characteristics

It may often be the subject of a discussion amongst photographers who specifically shoot within or around city environments. The purpose of this article is to serve as a guideline for those individuals that are unclear about what "urban photography" is, and what it stands for.

Urban photography can be defined as any photograph that has been taken in an urban environment.

Urban areas are more than just cities; they encompass suburban areas surrounding cities, towns of any size, commercial districts & retail locations, transportation hubs of any kind (railroads, subways), and vast stretches of undeveloped land encompassing natural features such as mountains or rivers. Since each person's definition is different, some would not include all these things in the idea of "urban".

An urban photograph can depict anything from a skylift to a building, a subway platform to a person walking down the sidewalk. It's subjective and ultimately an opinion on whether or not the photograph is considered to be urban in nature.

However, one thing that should always be included is an element of man-made construction - even if it's simply captured in the background of another photo. When photographing cities and other man-made settings, there are many elements that pertain to this style of photography: graffiti, urban decay (old buildings plucked for salvage), street art (legal murals, stencils, etc.), cloud graffiti/skywriting, etc., abandoned homes/buildings/vehicles/objects . . . the list goes on.

Difference between urban and street photography

However, there's a fine line between "urban photography" and "street photography".

This makes it difficult to categorize based on human elements alone; because we need to draw a line between something like an image of a person standing beside graffiti versus one with the person simply including a wall or mural in their otherwise empty city scene. It can be confusing sometimes, but you can feel that overall it allows for more creativity when defining your own style as you're not limited to just one genre.

A photograph of a person alone does not necessarily make for an urban photograph - just as capturing a telephone pole by itself won't be considered street photography (without any other element). Urban photographs are more than just people-less images of buildings or objects.

When most people think of their own definition, they tend to agree that there needs at least one human element in the scene, otherwise it wouldn't be considered an "urban" photo". It's all about the human element, and how society interacts with man-made objects.

It's also worth noting that many (purposefully) leave their definition of street photography pretty open-ended. This is because it can include things like photos taken in public locations, but not necessarily "on the streets".

The term was coined by American street photographer Ted Grant. It took hold back in the 1950s and 60's when photographers (such as Garry Winogrand) would take candid shots of everyday life on city streets without asking their subjects for permission to be photographed.

Another key difference is that it doesn't always have to be a candid shot. It doesn't have to follow the traditional guidelines of street photography, where it's typically taken from a distance and you don't include yourself in the photo.

Urban art - graffiti, stencils & et cetera

There is a certain type of photos that can be accepted as both "urban" and "street photography", but I feel it's important to distinguish between the two as they're not necessarily synonymous. A street photograph is generally one taken without permission from a stranger or non-internet published photo shared by a non-famous person on their own personal social media platform.

Urban photographs instead can often include photographs of famous artists' work (muralists) who have been commissioned for a specific mural across a city/country/state/world. . . by an organization or with the artists' own free will (such as street art). The difference is that these photos will be published online and possibly printed in magazines or other forms of media.

Light

Urban photography relies on several forms of lighting. Low light images may include neon lights or moonlight images, while daylight images consist mainly of shadows and high contrast scenes with sunlight shining through windows or upon a subject.

A photographer must have a thorough knowledge of lighting in order to capture good urban photographs, from shadow and contrast enhancement to the understanding of how light reacts with various surfaces.

Variety of photos

Other forms of photography that can be included in this category are night sky images, cloud formations, fireworks, and lightning. These areas of photography overlap with each other and maybe combined together for maximum effect. For example, capturing a silhouette while firework displays explode overhead while photographing a cityscape at night.

The urban landscape is a vast field that includes many different styles - some starting off as one thing but eventually melding into an entirely new concept. Take for example "urban decay". This style started out as simple street graffiti shots taken at night, which eventually morphed into abandoned homes and buildings.

The style of photography progressed to where it can also include grand-scale images of grand structures left behind after the economy collapsed (and before they are demolished).

Occupying large amounts of space on social media are "skyline" images - these could be simply clouds forming an interesting shape or major cities at night with fireworks exploding overhead. Urban landscape photography doesn't always have to refer to cities either; railroads cutting through mountains, metropolitan skylines viewed from across a body of water, or even huge bridges spanning great distances between states/countries.

It's quite possibly one of the most popular genres because it appeals to a wide range of individuals.

Post-processing in urban shots

One thing that has become quite popular in urban photography is post-processing. Most shots of abandoned homes and buildings include filters on social media to add effects such as "darken sky", giving the photo a full moon (even when the actual moon wasn't present), or even adding clouds into an otherwise clear blue sky.

Just because it's urban doesn't mean that everything has to be shown exactly as it was captured; digital enhancements can include changing light sources, changing weather conditions, and even adding people and objects not actually seen during capture.

Types of cameras used for urban landscape photos

Just like all styles of photography, there are different types of cameras used for capturing images in this genre. Although most start off with a point & shoot camera or smartphone, other varying types of cameras are used during the course of a project.

This includes DSLR camera bodies, bridge/medium format cameras, and even smartphone lens adapters for capturing unique angles not normally possible without using special equipment.

Realism in urban images

Urban photography is at the forefront of "realism" versus "artistic expression". The genre tends to live right on that line between what is considered "photography" and what is considered an "image".

Because it has so many components (from lighting to human elements), it's also capable of including many different styles together at once to create something entirely new.  It's one genre where everyone has their own vision when they start out - meaning that there isn't just one way to create urban images.

Although there are a few "standards" for composition, everything else has the potential to go in any direction as it's being captured.

Tips for taking an urban photo:

  1. Use what is around you - if you're in the city, there's a lot of stuff to work with. There's also a ton of things that aren't particularly interesting either! Experiment with close-ups and long shots; shoot objects up high or capture items from ground level. Find unusual angles and use those as your basis for experimenting with other types of shots.
  2. Use the right equipment - although smartphones are capable of capturing some amazing images, they still have their limitations when it comes to focal length (or lack thereof). Don't be afraid to invest in special lenses for your phone so that you can get exactly what you want out of your project.
    Remember that even if something doesn't start off "urban", it can evolve into one as you keep taking photos and find inspiration in areas where you normally wouldn't (Think about something as mundane as a parking lot that could be turned into an interesting scene if approached from the right angle).
  3. Look up - it may seem like common sense, but one of the most unique angles for urban images is to shoot down. Ground-level isn't always the best option and shooting through fences/grates/ladders can provide interesting effects along with different shapes and sizes. Just remember that these types of shots require extra care so don't forget your tripod!
  4. Watch out for safety! Don't just think about yourself - others around you may not realize they're being photographed. This means keeping your camera at eye- most, framing your shot, and then looking up to focus before capturing the image. It may take a little longer but it's worth it in the end!
  5. Take a wide variety of photos - from portraits to landscapes, from basic compositions to experimental abstracts, don't be afraid to capture many different types of images within the same project. This will help you identify what works or doesn't as you go along because not every photo turns out as planned! 
  6. Be mindful of light sources - shadows cast on texture can make an ordinary scene look extraordinary. Shadows also create depth between objects and require careful composition so that they're placed exactly where you want them for a unique effect. The same goes with the light source itself; it creates highlights and dark shadows depending on the angle of the sun. Conditions must be considered before shooting, including whether or not your subject will be staring directly into a light source.
  7. Shoot against a strong background - sometimes it's easier to create a scene that captures a lot of attention by simply using a plain background instead of something more intricate. Look for non-distracting elements and use those as the "backdrop" for your object/subject.
    If you still think something is missing from the image overall, consider adding additional pieces of interest (such as signs, ads, or even people) rather than making things too crowded with too much going on behind or around your main focus point. It may seem unnatural at first but completely different photos can be accomplished with this kind of composition.
  8. Experiment - all of the above are just suggestions that can be taken or left depending on your personal preferences and type of photography. Try new things, test out different angles and experiment with lighting conditions while you're at it! This way, you'll learn what works for you while developing a style that looks unique to anyone else who is shooting in the same area as yourself.
  9. Understand the point of view - if something isn't interesting when looked at straight-on, try getting down low or looking up high during your next shoot! Different perspectives will result in photos that look very different from one another even though they're both shot in the same location. Think outside the box when taking shots because otherwise, you'll limit your creativity from the very beginning.
  10. Don't forget to have fun with it! Nobody is going to hire you if you're miserable, so make sure to take a break when needed and smile when looking at negatives or looking at negatives on a lightbox! This way, the next time someone asks about your hobbies outside of work, you can talk about something that makes you happy.