Photographing Skylines Using Your Digital SLR

Every city has a unique skyline that people familiar with the place can readily identify. With your digital SLR camera, you can capture your hometown’s skyline and try your hand at photographing one of the skylines indelibly etched into the memory even of people who have never been there. Shooting a skyline at dusk offers opportunities for dramatic and dreamy photos.

Camera settings for city skyline photos

In photographing a skyline, you want to capture every subtle detail. Therefore, use Aperture Priority mode and an aperture of f/8.0 or smaller to get a large depth of field. If you’re doing a nighttime shoot, you want the largest aperture you can get, so start with an f/stop of f/3.5. You get a very shallow depth of field, but as long as you focus on the center of interest in the scene, and a focal length between 28mm and 50mm, you’ll be good. Other settings to consider include:

  • Metering Mode: Evaluative

  • Drive Mode: Single Shot

  • ISO Setting: 100 to 400; 800 to 1000 for nighttime shots

  • Focus Mode: Single Shot

  • Auto-Focus Point: Single auto-focus point

  • Focal Length: 28mm to 100mm for a single landmark or a wide expanse; 50mm is the max for nighttime pictures

  • Image Stabilization: Optional in daytime; turn it off if you use a tripod for a nighttime shoot

Shooting a skyline picture

Don’t settle for the first vantage point that shows the entire skyline. Try to get several different and perhaps unique perspectives. You may just end up with images that stand out from everybody else’s. When you’re scouting for locations, keep in mind that you can see a lot more and locate interesting vantage points if you’re a passenger, rather than the driver.

If you’re photographing a specific set of buildings, rotate the camera 90 degrees so that you can match the format of the image to the shape of the buildings:

The bridge and reflections lead your eye to the Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida.
The bridge and reflections lead your eye to the Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida.

When you photograph a city skyline, you may not have a horizon for reference and therefore end up with an image that’s off kilter. Take the picture again and pay attention to the vertical lines in the center of the image: Make sure they go straight up and down and aren’t slanted. If the buildings appear to be falling over, you tilted the camera to get everything in; back up, keep the camera level, and try again.

If you’re photographing an interesting cityscape at sunset, start taking pictures before the city lights come on, all the way through the city coming to light. A sunrise shoot can produce memorable pictures, too. A photograph of a city at dusk with a still lake provides a mirror reflection that adds interest to the photo:

Dusk and a duck provide visual interest for a silhouette skyline.
Dusk and a duck provide visual interest for a silhouette skyline.

The high ISO setting needed for a cityscape at night can produce a photo with a lot of noise, especially if you have a large area of even color, such as dark sky or shadows. Mitigate the problem by shooting the scene from a different vantage point that doesn’t include as many areas of even color.

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