Education
10 Tips For Urban Portraits
by Chris Daniels

This probably ain't your first rodeo. You've shot plenty of portrait sessions. You know what you're doing, but maybe you haven't shot in a downtown environment that much.

There's a lot to take in. There are people, lines, textures, shadows, and contrast everywhere! It can be overwhelming, and that's a lot to consider all while addressing your primary concern: a happy client and killer images!

Here, I'll share a few tips and tricks for you to keep in mind on your urban shoot. They'll help to keep you focused amidst the chaos of the city, giving your clients full confidence in you and making sure that you all have fun!

Selecting Location:

  • Do some research so that you know where you're going to meet, park, and start shooting.
  • Have in mind the vibe and environment you're going for. Do you want it to be all urban, or do you want to mix it up a little? This could affect your meeting or starting point.
  • If you're shooting in a city you've never been to, do your research. If you can, arrive early and explore. Ask a friend for advice. Ask a local. Ask the internet.

Location Ideas:

  • If you're looking to mix things up with a little nature, look for an inner-city park, which can also be a great meeting place. You can start by shooting in the park, and simply continue on foot to the hard lines and shadows of the concrete jungle.
  • Consider areas that offer a wide variety. In an urban setting, this usually means downtown. Within a four-block range, you are sure to have a multitude of options and light.
  • Parking garages: Look for a garage with an open roof-top lot. Meeting there is convenient, and they provide an excellent shooting environment!

The images below were taken at a parking garage in the center of downtown Seattle. The whole team met there, and we shot at that location for a solid hour before moving onward, on foot.

Come Prepared:

Like any other shot, you'll need all your essentials: camera, lenses, batteries, film, cards, etc. I'd also recommend bringing a collapsible reflector.

  • Keep your kit light. Assume that you may have to have everything on your person the whole time. There's sure to be a lot going on, and you want to be able to move quickly.
  • Consider bringing an assistant along. They can help with reflectors, changing out your gear, and keeping an eye on it while your eyes are on the subject(s).

Choose the Wardrobe Intentionally:

If you have the luxury of input in the wardrobe choice, choose items that will adequately compliment or contrast the overall environment.

  • If you know that you'll be shooting around lots of bland concrete, select bold colors that will allow your subject to stand out from the background.
  • If you suspect the areas you're shooting in will be heavily textured or busy, avoid clothing with tons of text or patterns.
  • It's always good to have a few outfit options if the situation allows for it.

Use the Lines:

One of the great benefits of shooting in an urban setting is all of the lines. From the buildings, architecture, lamp-posts, signs, and even the streets themselves, there are boundless opportunities to use the lines to lead the image or frame your subject.

Go In Buildings:

This is a great way to shift your environment and background quickly and dramatically. This should be done with some discretion and caution, however.

  • If you want to shoot in a privately-owned business, it may be best to ask someone there first. Shooting in public buildings is usually fine.
  • Be courteous to others around you and to those working. Keep your footprint in the location as small as possible.

Use Different Angles (Especially Low Angles):

A city-scape is massive and alive. Change and explore different angles often to try to capture this. Low angles are especially great in these environments, helping to show the scale of the city. The opposite is also true. If you have an opportunity to shoot from an elevated position, try it.

Use Texture:

Everywhere you go, there will be a lot of texture. Use them as backdrops or to give the viewer a greater sense of the environment.

Use Movement:

Don't be afraid of slow shutter speeds. The city is moving. Have your subject move along with it.

  • Have your subject move past you while you shoot below 1/60s.
  • Pose the subject and shoot with a moving background.
  • If you have two or more subjects, direct some to stationary positions and others to movement.

One Final Piece of Advice: Let Yourself Play!

Shooting in such big, everchanging areas means that no matter how much you plan, there will always be unknowns and things that happen outside of your control. Plan as much as you can, keep these tips in mind, and then just play and have fun!

Try new things. Be silly and weird. You might be surprised at the little gems you find just by having fun.


Show us your downtown shoot on the Mastin Labs Facebook Community Page!

Comments