Composition tips for breathtaking city photography

Unique angles and fresh perspectives – photographer Paula Stopka shares her tips for composing striking shots of the urban landscape.
The Chicago skyline during golden hour, with water in front of the buildings. The entire scene is tinged with the orange glow of the horizon.

From modern urban architecture glittering across skylines to historic brick structures that date back centuries, cities offer a world of perspectives worth capturing, each one unique to every photographer.

London-based self-taught graphic designer and photographer Paula Stopka hails from Kraków in Poland, and can often be found exploring cities around the world with a camera in hand, more recently the Canon EOS R, searching for new perspectives and innovative angles.

Here, we share her inspiring work alongside our best tips for composing creative shots of cityscapes and urban scenes.

1. Explore different perspectives

An image shot upwards through the hollow centre of a towering, circular structure. Rows of balconies form concentric circles up to the top of the structure, while a plane flies across the open sky.

Different vantage points can give a completely new perspective on city buildings. Don't be afraid to get low and shoot upwards. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Paula Stopka

An image shot upwards of a concrete spiral staircase, which forms a winding, shell-like pattern.

Stairwells can be brilliant environments to find texture, leading lines, curves and other shapes that help guide the eye. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens and a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 16mm, 1/50 sec, f/6.3 and ISO320. © Paula Stopka

Unusual vantage points can offer a new spin on city sights when roaming with a camera. Shooting upwards through striking architecture to the sky above and introducing layers with different floors of a building can add depth and lead the eye. Alternatively, try out views from above for a dramatic vista of rooftops and skyscrapers, peer through lookout points, or shoot your landscape scene from across water from a low vantage point for painterly reflections. Your camera's vari-angle touchscreen is ideal for such scenarios, especially when combined with a tripod, as it enables you to shoot from more creative positions.

Sometimes breathtaking buildings and their unique structures can be enjoyed from the inside too. Head to the top floor and peer down or across to hone in on roof designs while using light for dramatic effect. Or if you have a favourite building in your city, visit at different times of day – the golden hour just before sunset can ignite and transform scenes. Try photographing it from different spots to find a view that's entirely yours.

2. Create visual paths through an image

Ordinary city scenes can come alive when a photographer creates a composition with interesting visual paths. Stairwells with contrasting curves and straight lines can morph into beautiful shell-like images when using this technique, replicating the Golden Ratio composition tool, or Fibonacci Spiral, that photographers can use to guide a viewer through a photo.

Architectural splendour isn't always needed, as you can use this effect with escalators lit up at night to create leading lines, or even shadows on the side of a building to guide the viewer to a main focal point.

3. Give headroom to a scene

The New York City skyline seen from across a body of water, with rows of small pillars standing out of the water creating perspective lines towards the centre of the shot. A large, empty sky above the buildings is included in the image.

Space at the top of an image can help to emphasise the main focal points such as a striking angular skyline. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 72 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © Paula Stopka

The inside of a large, white building, looking up at the roof and the rows of struts holding it up.

Linear architecture can come alive on camera when you've found a unique angle. Taken on a Canon EOS 500D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) with a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at 10mm, 1/80 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Paula Stopka

Breathing space within the top of a photograph, particularly when it comes to spectacular skies, can allow a picture to take on another dimension and help eliminate distractions. Expanded headroom is also useful if you want to shoot a night sky and emphasise city lights twinkling with a lower shutter speed for a darker sky.

When shooting an urban skyline, the negative space above the scene adds balance to the image and prevents it from appearing cluttered. Don't forget the space below your cityscapes either – water reflections can be a really creative way to add another element of intrigue when you're looking to find a new perspective in a popular photo spot.

4. Embrace wide angles

All encompassing cityscapes are suited to a wide-angle lens. Canon RF lenses offer excellent image quality, enhanced image stabilisation and a faster autofocus motor. The Canon RF 15-30mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM has a wide zoom range with close focusing and powerful image stabilisation – ideal for landscapes and architecture.

For breathtaking panoramas, the Panoramic mode in the Canon EOS R7 and Canon EOS R10 will combine shots as you move the camera in one direction while pressing the shutter. It's a good idea to keep the camera steady and level when using this mode.

When shooting sweeping vistas generally, keep your horizon straight by using the auto-level if available on your camera. It's also helpful to display the grid in your viewfinder to ensure your composition is well balanced.

Shooting wide on a high-resolution camera also gives you the freedom to crop into an image to remove edges, improve framing or even accentuate part of a building for unique results.

5. Shoot vertically

The corner of a building, with rows of curved sheeting jutting out from each floor.

Clean lines with light and shadow teamed with uncluttered edges can result in impactful compositions. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 26mm, 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Paula Stopka

Rows of escalators, lit up against darkness, are reflected in the ceiling above them.

Creating visual paths through an image with urban features such as escalators can give photographs a graphic design-style aesthetic. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/50 sec, f/4 and ISO800. © Paula Stopka

A constant theme in Paula's urban compositions is portrait orientation. "I find taking photographs in vertical alignment fun and challenging. Once I turn my camera sideways it forces me to see things from a different perspective. It creates a sense of depth in the images," she says. "For me, it's all about symmetry and that's my main focus. Symmetry makes everything visually very pleasing, balanced and more attractive to the viewer's eye. It also brings harmony to the image."

Paula utilises helpful features in her Canon EOS R for her portrait-oriented images. She explains: "I always have gridlines switched on in my Canon camera, as it helps me frame and compose my images better, and at times I use the electronic level feature."

All Canon EOS R System cameras enable photographers to select how the viewfinder information is displayed when shooting photos vertically. It's possible to switch to vertical display so that information is automatically rotated and easier to read.

6. Use light to enhance composition

A London street at night, with a red telephone box in the foreground and St Paul's Cathedral in the background, and long light trails of red, white and yellow running along the road between them.

Get creative with light trails and a long exposure during darkness for an interesting twist on landmarks and to create your own leading lines. Taken on a Canon EOS 500D with a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at 13mm, 15 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Paula Stopka

Shooting at night can transform everyday scenes into extraordinary colourful vistas. Compositionally, when working at twilight or in darkness, it can help to set up a shot with any landmarks using the Live View screen so that you can see the composition clearly, altering your exposure by using exposure compensation or full Manual (M) mode on screen.

Using a cable release enables you to shoot remotely, which is useful for unusual angles and long exposures. The Canon Camera Connect app allows you to make changes to camera settings and exposures from your phone. You can even watch the Live View on your device.

Long exposures of a few seconds are brilliant for capturing movement of vehicles driving past an impressive landmark, just wait for a flow of traffic before pressing the shutter for creative light trails from tail- and headlights. Experimenting with a composition and angle of shooting to find out where the light trails will sit in relation to the landmark alongside varied shutter speeds is also part of the fun.

Watch our video on photographing cityscapes as the sun goes down for more tips and advice.

Final thought: how to add GPS into photos

When looking back over your favourite city sights, remembering exactly where they were taken can be really useful, especially if you want to revisit a certain location and relive a trip. Some Canon cameras have in-built GPS so location data will be saved in your image files. If your camera doesn't have this facility, the Canon Camera Connect app can use your phone's positioning data and add location information to your images.

As Paula concludes, shooting buildings and cityscapes are a great way to "stretch yourself as a photographer". Use our tips to create memorable urban images of your own.

Written by Lorna Dockerill

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