I love a good photo safari , and while most of my favorite outings are in the woods or on the water, a good urban photo safari can be just as fun and rewarding as a nature photo safari. Recently, I found myself in a downtown Tampa parking garage with a rather scenic view. Actually, the view from the Poe Garage is usually pretty scenic, but the advent of late afternoon light and some terrific storm clouds made for particularly photogenic experience.
So instead of heading back out to the highway when I'd finished my work, I drove up to the roof top level of the garage to have a look-see. It was totally worth the extra dollar in my parking fee for the view!
What follows are some tips and tricks for making the most of a nice cityscape opportunity - maybe not really all that sexy but I liked the alliteration.
Step 1: Find a Good Vantage Point
Downtown parking garages can offer some stunning vantage points for good cityscape photography. Apply usual precautions when hanging around parking garages - be self-aware and tuned into your environment, and be with a friend, especially at night. That's good advice for any photo safari, in nature or in the city, actually. No need to get eaten by a bear while trying to get a good shot of a butterfly.
You can get some good views from high rises, too, but a rooftop parking garage gives you more angles of approach.
Step 2: Do a 360
Check out the view; do a 360, and take a few test shots to see what the lighting and the view looks like in different directions. You may have to move around a bit - actually, DO move around a bit.
In these fairly ordinary long shots, you see that the storm clouds create a good deep blue-gray background in a couple of the shots, and in the other direction, you get a brighter view. The one of the bridge, with all that white, smooth concrete offers the brightest views. The others, a bit more contrast.
Step 3: Tighten Your View
Go in for a tighter view - I used my 250mm zoom lens on my Canon T2i for most of these shots. Zoom in and see how different geometric shapes, colors, light and shadow present themselves. You'll find some views that appeal to you more than others. There's no right or wrong way to do this. "Good" photography, like any art, is largely subjective, although certain basic rules of perception apply.
That rule of thirds, that I talk about disregarding sometimes in "It's a Long Shot," is a good basic rule for thoughtful perspective that's generally pleasing to the eye. Reflections in glass buildings can be interesting, contrasting colors, and horizontal and vertical lines can be appealing when grouped in certain ways. You can go study some basic photography textbooks and sites to understand why, or you can just see for yourself by looking through your view finder.
Step 4: Go Off Center
So after telling you about that rule of thirds, experiment with breaking it. Go off-center to experiment with ways to give a sense of size and scope. In the view of the tall glass building, off-set just a bit, you can see in the lower left the top of an old hotel called the Hotel Floridan. Off setting the tall building next to it is a way to show the difference between the old and new construction downtown.
Step 5: Take Multiple Shots
Speaking of the Hotel Floridan, its big old red neon sign, even when turned off during the day, looks particularly striking against the purpley blue sky of a massive incoming Florida thunderstorm. It also looks pretty neat set among date palms, and next to more modern structures.
Look at the same piece of architecture in a cityscape, in a few different ways, and consider the story you want to tell.
Step 6: Look for Signs
Nothing apocalyptic, but look for iconic, interesting or artistic signs to accent your shots or enhance your storytelling. The Floridan sign is historic and iconic, and as noted, looks good against the sky. But the big Art Museum banners, especially the one with the rowers, juxtaposed beside the Hillsborough River, makes for an interesting visual.
Step 7: Accent Architecture
Downtown Tampa is fortunate to have the unique architecture of the University of Tampa to use for a photographic playground. It was originally the Henry B. Plant Hotel, a 500+ room resort hotel opened opened in 1891, and was intended to be eye catching from the very beginning. It's no less eye catching today, with its shiny minarets lining the river bank.
Other good architectural subjects are old courthouse buildings, church steeples, domes, and other structures that stand out from the surrounding buildings. Almost every city has them - find them and help keep their story alive.
Step 8: Find the Lines
Cityscapes are full of wonderful geometry! High rises with horizontal rows of windows, set against vertical rows of frames or structural columns can convey power, industry, inscrutability, spareness, or, as the shot with the balconies, where the single plant that stands out, a touch of verdant humanity amid the sterility of concrete and glass.
Step 9: Use the Sky
If anything can scale down a cityscape, it's the sky - especially a stormy sky, which puts mother nature back in control. Aim high to maximize the scope of the sky, and you can accomplish a few things. You can reduce the city landscape to more fragile proportions or, conversely, the breadth of the sky against a big building, can accent the size of the building - making it a true "sky" scraper.
Step 10: Enjoy the View!
So next time you find yourself in the heart of a big city with your camera, find yourself a nice tall vantage point and make an hour of it. It'll give you a whole new perspective on the urban landscape!