The classic skyline
- words and images by Richard I’Anson
Every large city has a unique skyline and getting to a vantage point in the first or last hour of the day should be a top priority in every city you visit. The classic skyline – a panoramic view of the skyscrapers and buildings in the city’s central business district – is a great opening image for albums or slide shows and provides a context for the photos that follow.
Many cities have well-known vantage points on nearby hills or in public spaces along rivers or around harbours. Often there will be several viewpoints with different perspectives on the city. These will feature in local postcards, souvenir books and tourist brochures, giving you a good idea as to which location will offer the shot you’re after.
Vantage points are sometimes on city outskirts, so find out how to get there and how long it will take. If the viewpoint is on the remote side or in a park, it’s more practical and often wiser to pay a taxi to wait for you. Use a map to determine the direction of the sun in the morning and evening and thereby establish the best time to visit and capture the city in great light. No matter where the sun sets, you’ll be rewarded with great pictures in the half-hour after sunset as the sky darkens and city lights begin to take effect.
Even if the weather isn’t good, make your way to the vantage point at this time. The combination of illuminated buildings, a darkening sky and long exposures creates dramatic and colourful images even on the worst of days.
To capture these classic twilight skylines with maximum sharpness you’ll need a tripod and cable release. It’s also worth taking your full complement of lenses to the viewpoint because they are never one-shot spots. You’ll have the opportunity to capture all sorts of images, from entire city panoramas to the city’s signature skyscraper, in various vertical and horizontal compositions.
Just as importantly, until you’ve been there, you can’t be sure just how far the lookout is from the city and you might end up requiring a 200mm lens to shoot the panoramic view.
Two very different views of the same city, from two very different locations. The Kerry Park view (top) is the classic skyline-at-dusk image, featuring the city’s most prominent building. It’s the must-have shot when planning a shoot in Seattle and is quite easy to organise. On the other hand, shooting a skyline from a moving ferry is a little trickier and requires a good range of focal lengths so you can capture the composition you want when a burst of late-afternoon sun lights up the city beneath a sky of dramatic storm clouds (above).
Cities built beside rivers are a real bonus for the photographer. Many and various vantage points along the riverbank and bridges are just about guaranteed. Not only do the reflections of the buildings in the river add a very photogenic element to the composition, but they also prevent linear distortion.
The view from Kirribilli is one of several classic views of the Sydney skyline featuring the Opera House. Taken 20 minutes after sunset, the lights are bright, the sky dark and the sense of a city after dark strong. Exposure can be tricky as the contrast between the lights, sky and foreground increases. Take a reading from the lights then overexpose by up to two stops in half-stop increments to retain colour and detail in the sky and foreground.
At the end of a really bad weather day, with storm clouds still threatening, the high-rise strip at Surfers Paradise still looks great. At dusk always make your way to your chosen vantage point because even on the worst of days you can almost always guarantee pleasing results in the half-hour after sunset.
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