City Swap :: Digital Photo Secrets

City Swap

by David Peterson 0 comments

You know your own town so well, you could probably walk blindfolded down the street and know exactly how to get to your favorite café. All of the photo-worthy spots are not only ingrained in your memory, but well-documented in your photo album as well. In fact, you've probably got photos of the same spots taken at different times of the day and in different seasons, too. As far as photography in your local area goes, you are the expert.

Now, I'd like to challenge you to step outside of that very comfortable comfort zone and consider exploring new territory. Your town is a fabulous place to take photos, but it's familiar, which means that you may not always be thinking creatively about how to take pictures of those well-known places. For this photo challenge, we're going to do a little bit of traveling — I'd like you to think about some of the towns that are within driving distance of your local area. Pick the one that you are least familiar with and plan to spend the day there.

Research, research, research

This is the sort of photo project that you need to make plans for. Start by doing a little research about your destination. Historical research is always a good place to start—find out what some of the prominent buildings are in your town of choice, and read a little bit about the history behind those places. Look at the historical photos and the modern ones and ask yourself how you as a photographer might set out to capture the same places.

Now hop on Flickr and do a search for that destination. Check out some of the photos other photographers have shot in that town, and bookmark your favorites. Find out where those places are, and mark them on a map. You can use a smart phone app or a website like MapQuest to plot your trip stop by stop. Start with the must-have spots and then move on to the ones that will be nice to do but are not critical.

Of course there's also something to be said for spontaneity, so don't just stick with those images that have inspired you on Flickr or in your historical research. It's also a good idea to just visit the city center and spend an hour or two wandering around looking for photo wordy things that may not have appeared on Flickr or in your research. So schedule some time for that, as well.

Inside Down Street Station by Flickr user failing_angel

Once you've got your day mapped out, think about what you might have to bring with you in your camera bag. You can really do this project with any camera, but you're going to have more options if you bring a camera that lets you have manual control over your settings.

You'll probably also need to bring a tripod. Chances are you're going to want some wider angle shots with good depth of field, which means shooting at narrower apertures. You'll also want to use lower ISOs, which are really necessary any time you're shooting scenes that have a lot of detail in them. Narrow apertures and low ISOs go hand-in-hand with slower shutter speeds. That means that you need to have some way to stabilize your camera during those longer exposures.

Along with the tripod, you'll also need a cable or remote release, although you can get away with using your camera's self-timer feature if you don't have a remote release handy. To use the self-timer feature, set it to countdown about five seconds from the time you press the shutter button to the time the exposure is actually made—that should be enough time for vibrations to cease so that you can get a clear picture.

In addition to that tripod I like to bring along a couple of filters. A polarizing filter is an indispensable tool that can do a number of things for you with this type of photography. First, a it can darken the sky, creating separation between sky and clouds, which can help add some interest to both wider angle shots of cities and closer shots as well. But the other thing polarizing filters do is limit reflections both in water and on glass surfaces such as windows. This can be particularly useful when you're photographing buildings, especially tall skyscrapers that have a whole lot of windows. Of course keep in mind that reflections can also have some artistic value, so if you're not sure, twist the polarizing filter in one direction to remove the reflections, and then in the other direction to add them back, and take one shot each way.

Another thing that a polarizing filter will do for you is cut back on the amount of haze in the sky, which can be particular problem whenever you are taking photos in populated areas, especially photos that include a distant horizon.

Another great tool for city photography is a graduated neutral density filter. Sometimes when you're photographing cityscapes, you can have too much dynamic range between the sky and the city. So you may end up with a blown out sky, or alternately, an underexposed city. To even out the light, use graduated neutral density filter. A graduated neutral density filter is basically like a set of sunglasses for your lens, except it only affects one part of the scene. There is a dark side and a light side—put the dark side over the sky and the light side over the city, and you get a much more even exposure.

  • Canon EOS 600D
  • 100
  • f/27.0
  • 15
  • 12 mm

The Calls Landing. by Flickr user 30miller


Your trip to a neighboring city is not going to be complete if you don't take a few pictures of the locals. This type of photography is known as street photography, and it probably ranks right up there with death and public speaking as one of the most terrifying activities that the average person might have to do. That doesn't mean that you should avoid it, however—people are what help give a locality flavor and character, and without them your photo series may have a lot of visual interest but lack heart.

There are a couple of popular techniques for capturing street photos and it's up to you which one you go with. It's really a personality thing — some people are okay with getting right in the faces of the people that they don't know, and other people like to take a more stealthy approach. If you're okay with just raising your camera and pointing at a random stranger, by all means do so. Most random strangers are going to be so surprised that they won't really have time to say anything to you, and even those that do will probably be more flattered than upset, unless of course you happen to catch them doing something that they really shouldn't be doing.

If this approach is not one that appeals to you, you can practice stealth photography instead. Shooting from the hip is one great way to capture images on the fly. To do this you literally let your camera hang on its strap around your neck, and you take pictures without looking through the viewfinder. Most people are not going to suspect that you're taking pictures if you're not looking through the viewfinder, so you should be able to get away with this technique without attracting any attention at all. Of course the challenge of shooting from the hip is that you're not looking through the viewfinder, and therefore, you're not really able to frame your shot before you take it. The most successful way to shoot from the hip is to use a wider angle lens and a narrow aperture so you don't have to think too much about focusing or framing. Shoot in RAW format if you can, which will give you more leeway to crop the image later if you didn't guess correctly when you framed it.

    Oldmans walk by Flickr user enticedphotography

    You can also use your smart phone pretty stealthily—try holding it out in front of you as if you're taking a selfie, but reverse the camera so that you're actually shooting whatever is in front of you. Ham it up and grin so you'll keep up the illusion—selfies are such a common practice these days that no one is going to suspect that you're not the subject of the photo (they are!) You can also pretend to be texting or playing a game—the key is to adopt the same expression you generally use when playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds. Unless you're blantantly framing a photograph, no one is likely to even notice you and your smart phone.

    Look for subjects that have character, either because of the way they are dressed or because of their mannerisms. A person in a hurry always carries a story along with him—try to capture the intense expression on his face and your viewer will wonder where he's going and what desitination is so urgent.

    • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
    • 100
    • f/3.5
    • 0.017 sec (1/60)
    • 50 mm

    Cal by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks


    This project works best if you arrive early in the morning and stay late into the day, after dark if you are confident of being able to stay safe (bring along a friend for extra security). Be mindful of where you are going, and stay out of dodgy areas. Pay attention to the light—try to capture the city waking up in the morning golden hour, the buzz of rush hour and lunch hour and the after-work activity in the late golden hour. Bring lots of memory cards and an extra battery and enjoy your day out—and don't forget to sample some of the local food, while you're at it.


    1. Research your destination
      • Plan your photo shoot
      • Find photo worthy subjects
      • Explore
    2. What you need
      • Wide angle lens
      • Tripod
      • Remote release
      • Polarizing filter
      • Graduated neutral density filter
    3. Photograph the locals
      • Shoot from the hip
      • Use your smart phone
      • Look for subjects with personality and character

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