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How to shoot an urban portrait

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by David Em
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Urban portrait photography is a great way to have fun exploring the city and capture eye-catching photos. Here are 5 tips for awesome city portraits.

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Urban portrait of a person looking back.

What is an urban portrait?

Urban portrait photography is a style of photography similar to street photography. However, the key difference is that an urban portrait is posed, whereas, street photography is very candid.

Photographing portraits in the city is fun for both the subject and you, the photographer. There are incredible scenes that are only found in the city, high energy, and lots of moving parts.

From skyscrapers to many cars, the city offers an endless amount of interesting backgrounds for portraits.

Related: How to fix grainy photos

Photography gear needed

Before we dive into the 5 tips to shoot great portraits in the city, you need to have the right gear. When you have a photoshoot in an urban area, it’s best to carry light.

Oftentimes, you’ll find that one camera and one lens are enough to capture interesting urban portraits. If you’re shooting at night, you may want to add a flash in there.

Related: How to avoid glasses glare in photos

To capture photos at different focal lengths, you can bring multiple lenses or a zoom lens. Cropping or physically moving around are two ways to capture photos that look different without carrying more than one lens.

Best lens for city portraits

Three camera lenses.
85mm Lenses. Right to left: Canon, Nikon, Sigma

The environment is one of the most important factors of urban portrait photography. This means wide-angle lenses are the perfect fit because you’ll be able to capture more of the scene.

Also, large apertures work very well with this style of photography. You’ll be able to photograph well in low light and isolate your subject by blurring out the background.

Here are the best lenses for an urban portrait:

  • 85mm
  • 50mm
  • 35mm
  • 24-70mm

Lighting equipment

Person holding a camera.

Lighting equipment is optional.

Natural light portraits are great in the city and you can capture interesting shadows due to the many tall buildings. However, if you have more space or if you’re staying in one spot in the city, artificial light can help.

Here’s the lighting equipment you’ll need:

  • Speedlight or Strobe
  • Soft-Box
  • Light Stand (bring a sandbag to keep it sturdy).

How to shoot an urban portrait

Outdoor portrait photoshoots in your city can increase your creativity and capture visually interesting photos. Here are 5 ways to help you shoot better urban portraits.

1. Find great locations

Cars and high-rise buildings.

Different locations offer different feelings. The mood of a photo can drastically change when you change the background.

When you’re choosing a location, make sure it matches the mood that you want to portray.

There are many cool locations and interesting backgrounds in the city. Here are examples of different locations for your urban photoshoot:

  • Alley
  • Architecture
  • Public parks
  • Public rooftops
  • Bridges
  • Cars
  • Stairs
  • Train/Subway stations

Location scouting before your photo shoot is the perfect way to go into your session with a plan. You’ll know where to shoot, what type of photos are best, and obstacles you may encounter beforehand.

Another way to find great locations without going outside is to use the street view on Google Maps. This will allow you to move around the city and find locations without leaving the comfort of your home.

2. Work with the light

Person standing in a parking lot.

When shooting outside, you’re subject to the light that’s given to you, naturally. In the city, you can expect to get a lot of reflections off of buildings and cars but don’t let these hold you back, work with them.

Throughout the day, you’ll notice how the light will change. From morning to midday, you’ll see the lighting go from low to right above you.

When you’re shooting midday, the top light can cause a shadow underneath your subject’s eyes which results in “raccoon eyes”. Since the sun is at it’s highest point, you’ll also get harsh lighting.

Harsh light shouldn’t be avoided because learning how to shoot in it can result in great portraits with interesting shadows.

From midday to the evening, you’ll see the lighting go from top light back to backlight or sidelight. In the evening, the light will be warmer. A warm light means that the color is more orange, which creates a warm feeling.

Regardless of when you shoot, you’re bound to have reflections. So, how do you deal with them? Reflections can be used as a light source.

Reflections can also be avoided by finding a spot where the reflection isn’t affecting the portrait or finding an alley.

You’ll have many lighting situations when you are out shooting urban portraits, learning how to shoot in different situations will be an important skill to learn.

3. Stick out from the crowd

Selective focus on a person in a crowd.

When you’re photographing an urban portrait, you can expect crowds of people. It can be frustrating when people keep getting in your shot or maybe someone bumps into you.

Instead of getting frustrated, expect it and work with it.

Here’s what to do next time you have a photoshoot in a crowded area: Place your subject in the crowd and shoot the portrait with your subject in sharp focus and the crowd blurred out.

Your subject can be in the crowd or even in front of them. Either way, make sure that your subject is clearly the main focus.

Now, you might not get it perfectly on the first try. Don’t allow that to discourage you, give it several attempts and it’ll work out.

You’ll always have photos where someone steps in front of your camera or blocks your subject. However, when you get the perfect urban portrait of your subject in the crowd, you’ll be happy you stuck with it!

Another great way to isolate your subject is to shoot from a low angle. A low angle will make your subject appear taller and it’ll block out most of the people that would’ve been in the photo if it was shot at a straight-on angle.

4. Walk it out

Person walking on the sidewalk.

Walking photos look incredible in the city. It’s also a great way to capture movement and candid photos.

To do this, you can use the continuous drive mode on your camera and just press and hold. Doing so, you’ll have plenty of images to choose from.

One of the best ways to capture walking shots is to have your subject cross the street and photograph them as they’re walking.

Photos with the subject crossing the street are great because you can have other people, cars, lights, buildings, and many other great scenes to add interest to the portrait.

5. Showcase tall buildings

High-rise buildings.

Lastly, we’ll talk about showcasing tall buildings. Tall buildings are one of the reasons city architecture is unique. So, why not show it off?

To successfully showcase a tall building, you’ll have to shoot from a lower angle. Your subject will look taller from a lower angle and you will be able to capture the magnificence of most or all of the building.

If there are many buildings that you want to include in the photo, you can use a wider angle lens or step further away. These are two easy ways to capture more buildings in the background.

Conclusion

Use what you’ve learned to photograph urban portraits that instantly grab the viewer’s attention. There are many options and an endless amount of backgrounds so get creative and have fun photographing portraits in the city.

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Featured photo by David Em/Portraits Refined.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

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About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.

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