Photographing Urban Landscapes by Verity Milligan
Based in Birmingham, Verity Milligan is an award-winning professional photographer and educator. In her commercial work she works with many household names but Verity also loves to shoot the city and especially the one she calls home. Here, she gives us a guide, plus some very useful tips, on how to give yourself the best opportunity to photograph urban landscapes successfully.
I like to think of landscape photography as a broad umbrella term that encompasses both natural and urban environments. When I first got into photography I couldn’t drive and I was often limited to the cityscapes of Birmingham. Although this was frustrating at first, this period of geographical limitation developed into a productive and satisfying ongoing creative relationship with the city and its evolving skyline. It also provided me an opportunity to apply the techniques I would practice in a rural setting to images of the city. In this article I’ll explore some of the techniques and approaches I take towards urban landscape photography.
I tend to approach urban landscape photography from a similar perspective as I would landscape photography. Birmingham is surrounded by sprawling, urban scenery that is in constant evolution. You might associate shooting in a city centre with street photography but I enjoy the challenge of finding beauty in the architecture and showing off unique features of the city. I like to explore the city across all parts of the day. Sunrise is quiet and can bring with it atmospheric conditions but the joy of urban photography is that there is something interesting to photograph no matter the time or season, for that matter. Cities provide abundant photographic opportunities, whether it’s spring or autumn, summer or winter. Birmingham, like many other cities in the UK, has a mix of modern and historic buildings standing in juxtaposition to each other and I enjoy capturing both in the same frame, contextualised by the surrounding space. Similarly, cities offer up the chance to capture surroundings from different perspectives. The urban sprawl can look quite different at street level compared to an elevated perspective.
One of the most interesting aspects of building a creative relationship with an urban centre such as Birmingham is that you can become an unwitting documentarian. Unlike nature, urban scenery can change rapidly and, often, vistas can appear and disappear within a short space of time. Returning to capture the city time and again facilitates producing a body of work that not only shows the urban space but how it fluctuates over the space of months and years.
Get to know the city
In my earlier days photographing Birmingham I regularly visited places that might be considered obvious, such as Selfridges, Gas Street Basin and Chamberlain Square. I was walking in the footsteps of many other superb photographers whilst trying to forge my own style. In those first few years of capturing urban landscape photos I was obsessed with colour and the drama that sunrise or sunset could bring to an image and I was often guilty of over- processing. However, cutting my teeth in such a manner meant I walked the streets of Birmingham and really got to know the city. This allowed me to create a map in my mind of locations that would
look good in different conditions. I’m not the kind of person who likes to just photograph a location once, like a tick-box exercise. For me, there is a joy in returning to locations, as every time the light is different and you never know how the conditions might impact on the scenery.
Birmingham in Fog © Verity Milligan
Embracing the Gloom
Unfortunately, creating the same imagery or chasing similar conditions repeatedly can impact on creativity and I found that limiting myself to photographic time at either end of the day, when I perceived the light to be ‘best’, started to impact on my creativity, especially as it’s not often that we encounter conditions considered ‘good’ or even ‘very good’. I won’t even utter the word ‘perfect’ as I’m unsure that’s obtainable. As photographers, there is always something that could be better! After a few years of chasing conditions, I eased into something I like to call ‘embracing the gloom’, where I found beauty in the grey, the rain, and the occasional drama that comes with bad weather. This involved moving away from the notion of shooting during the golden hour and concentrating more on exploring other times of the day, especially the blue hour, when the city is descending into the evening. I find this an interesting time to shoot in an urban environment because it provides a completely different set of challenges. Much like photographing during the golden hour(s), there is a limited amount of time when civil twilight provides optimal shooting conditions. Once twilight becomes night, the scene loses some of the magic and atmosphere. This can be the perfect time for long exposures because of the shortage in light and, in urban environments, there are always opportunities for light trails to add some interest to an image. Another bonus of shooting during the evening is that I’m not beholden to the weather. I’m capturing the relationship between the absence of daylight and the abundance of artificial light so cloudy skies can often enhance the image.
A guide to shooting the city, whatever the weather
People can add context. Cities are full of people and it’s hard to avoid having them in imagery but they also give context and life to a scene. I enjoy including people in my urban landscapes to give scale, but also interest, to a foreground. This works especially well during interesting light and weather. Low sun can offer up long shadows, acting as leading lines and complementing the surrounding architecture and items such as umbrellas during rain showers can provide a pop of colour to an image, especially at dusk.
Rain can lead to interesting skies. Rain can put people off from going out with their camera but these can be some of the most interesting conditions to shoot in the city (although I recommend investing in some good waterproof clothing). Specifically, there is potential both before and after the heavens open to invigorate a scene, especially at either end of the day. If you get lucky, the conditions could conspire to create colour and light in the sky as the sun bounces off the cloud and kicks back in style. These conditions have led to some of my most favourite urban landscape shots.
Think outside of the norm. I’m guilty of this myself but urban landscapes aren’t just about an illustrative representation of the skyline; there are myriad opportunities to represent the space in more abstract terms. Some of my favourite images of Birmingham depict the architecture in an abstract fashion, whether it’s the façade of the library or the reflection of architecture in one of the various water features. Allowing the opportunity to see the city in a different way can often unlock creativity and become a satisfying endeavour.
Birmingham City © Verity Milligan
Rain means puddles and reflections. While passing rain showers won’t always result in glorious sunsets or sunrises, they often do leave behind puddles of water that can be used to great creative effect. Although Birmingham has plenty of water, especially the numerous canals, puddles mean reflections in unusual places, ensuring a unique and interesting perspective on familiar surroundings as long as you’re willing to get low to the ground. In these situations a circular polariser can be useful for both enhancing (and reducing) reflections when required.
It’s not all about the city centre. It’s easy to think that the city can only be photographed when in the city itself but often the city, especially one as big as Birmingham, can be seen from miles around. I enjoy exploring the skyline in different contexts, such as how it looks from the various natural beauty spots such as Clent or the Lickey Hills. Often this requires a long lens but can offer up some potentially intriguing photographic opportunities.
Overcast skies can enhance long exposures. If you find yourself shooting during windy weather, using an ND filter to create intriguing long exposures can be really fun. Wet, windy weather means the clouds move faster than usual and even a 30-second exposure can give an impression of movement and narrative in a single frame. This can be even more effective when including transportation to create light trails. In Birmingham the trams provide endless opportunities to add light trails to long exposures, especially during dusk.
Fog makes everything timeless and atmospheric. If there is one weather condition that I wish I could shoot in more, it’s fog. Because cities tend to be a little warmer than rural areas, fog is a rare occurrence but that makes it even more special. People become spectres against non-existent backdrops and monotonous architecture becomes ethereal, making the imagery feel timeless. On the even rarer occasion that the light breaks through, the results can be tremendous.
Falling rain, sleet and snow. If fog is rare in the city, then snow can be even rarer. There have been a few times when I’ve seen Birmingham blanketed with snow but snow storms and sleet showers are more frequent, which again have the potential to turn the mundane into something altogether more atmospheric. In this situation, deploying a fast shutter speed to capture the individual droplets or flakes can augment the feeling of an image. This can be especially intriguing if there’s some backlight but, even without, the whirl of rain or snow isolated in the moment can be creatively satisfying.
Snow brings uniformity. As a child, snow can be magical but, as an adult, it’s seen more as an inconvenience. Seen in the right light however, it can bring distinct opportunities. Snow, especially just after it has fallen (before it becomes slushy or used to make snowmen) provides a homogeneity to the landscape. It condenses chaotic scenes into something much more uniform. I particularly enjoy the neutral palette that snow provides and it’s one of those weather conditions I look forward to every winter.
BT Tower in the fog - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Fog in the city - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Sturdy, reliable tripod. Photography in urban spaces is about telling the story of the architecture at various points in the day during different times of the year. If you’re shooting in low light then a tripod will allow you to create sharp images and provide much more creative control, enabling such processes as long exposures.
And on that note, invest in some decent filters. I treat urban photography the same way I do landscape photography and a good set of filters enables you to make the most out of the light. Using a 10-stop will allow you to create compelling long exposures and a circular polariser can reduce or enhance reflections and glare when capturing architecture/water.
Composition is the key. Experimenting with composition can have a big impact on your images. I like to use my phone to explore different angles and framing before using my ‘big camera’. Moving the position of your camera can influence the mood and feeling of an image. Shooting from a low angle can increase the impact of architecture and if you shoot from a high perspective (such as a rooftop) this provides an opportunity to visualise the city differently.
Reflections. Many urban spaces have waterways such as canals or reservoirs based in or near the city. This can provide plentiful opportunity to photograph distinctive cityscapes, especially around sunrise when there is more chance of the water being still and reflective.
Shooting during civil twilight. Cities have a different atmosphere at night, especially during dusk when the lights come on. This can be a good time to capture the city as commuters will be heading home, providing opportunities for long exposures of light trails, evoking a sense of movement and life in an image.
Foggy morning - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Frozen Gas Street - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Gas Street Fog - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Library Tram - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Selfridges - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Shoot at Night (2) - Rotunda - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Hitchcock © Verity Milligan
Good gloves. A lot of urban photography is done during the colder months of the year as I prefer the light during these periods. Cold hands are never appreciated so invest in a good pair of gloves to minimise exposure to the cold, especially during those early mornings.
Lens hood. This is invaluable if you’re capturing photos during the golden hour when the sun is low in the sky. I’m not a huge fan of lens flare so try to avoid it where possible and a lens hood can really help with that. It is also useful for reducing rain/snow on the lens when the weather is inclement.
Lens cloths. A dry lens cloth is essential, especially when shooting in bad weather, as those rain spots will show up on the image. If you wash your lens cloths, try to do so without fabric conditioner as it will reduce the effectiveness.
Tram - Fog - Birmingham © Verity Milligan
Tram - Snow - Birmingham © Verity Milligan