How to shoot urban landscapes

Jon Smith, a finalist in last year’s Photography.Book.Now with his book “The Bridge Project” talks to Pocket-lint about his career taking photography in urban areas and shares some tips on how to take photos at night.

What’s your approach to urban photography and how do you go about shooting large structures such as bridges?
Living in New York, I am lucky enough to have some of the best urban photography locations in the world on my doorstep. I love to explore the city and find new places to photograph.

I work deliberately slowly and methodically. I travel around and take time to look at the space and find the best light. I set up at a location and take some preliminary photos to find the best possible angles. If a particular location interests me I often return at different times of the day and even in different seasons to find the best light.

I like to place large structures like bridges in the context of its surroundings and think about how these massive, imposing structures relate to the architecture around them.

My advice to photographers looking to develop their experience of shooting large structures is that they should make sure they have a fairly wide angle lens. You don't know how much space you are going to have to back away from the object that you are photographing.

I also love to play with the idea of scale. If you are shooting something that is large scale, it is sometimes interesting to have something small in contrast to counter balance and give a sense of size. With architecture, it works well to have a figure in the shot.

What equipment do you use?
It’s important that I’m mobile so I travel as lightly as possible. I work with a large format Camera (toyo) and a medium format camera (Pentax) and shoot with a sturdy tripod. My prints are Digital C prints.

What other projects are you currently working on?
I generally like to focus on one or two projects at a time, but I’m also forever adding to my larger body of work – whether it’s the desert landscapes of Nevada or the night time backstreets of New York. The Bridge Project inspired me for my next project – focussing specifically on New York at night.

New York at night sounds cool, have you got any tips for people interested in night-time photography?
The great thing about taking pictures at night is that as it becomes dark, I start to notice the details in the surroundings, the interactions of architecture, landscape and light that appears out of the darkness.

My advice to anyone shooting at night is to keep your equipment to a minimum. You are going to need a good tripod, a cable release, a light meter, and a log book. The reason that I take a log book is to record the colours that I see with the human eye. This way, when I'm printing I can adjust so that I'm actually creating a print that is as true to the event as I can get it to be.

Also, I take notes on my exposure times so that I can learn what exposure really works in a certain situation. The light meter is great but sometimes it is trial and error with night shooting and often I may make a few different exposures to really make sure that I'm getting all the information that I need in the shot.

There may be many people thinking of entering urban photography into this year’s PBN, can you give them any advice to take the best shots?
My advice would be to keep yourself to a strong theme with whatever urban photography that you are shooting. You really want to have coherence to the work, a common thread that holds it all together as a book.

Whatever your choice of project, I would advise shooting at different times of the day and night, details are always beautiful, and also shots taken at a fair distance can add dimension and scale to the work.

Above all, having an interest and a sense of intrigue about what you are shooting is most important. If you don't feel this way perhaps you are shooting the wrong subject.


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