Brennan Anderson Photography Brennan Anderson Photography

The anatomy of my urban landscape photography

The anatomy of my urban landscape photography

the city below
I’m always on the lookout for another atmospheric scene.

Ever since I visited Chicago for the first time in the early 90s, I’ve been enamored with nighttime cityscapes. Before I owned a DSLR, I sketched urban scenes as quickly as I envisioned them. Fifteen years later, I headed downtown with a camera in hand to capture my creative vision.

So what exactly am I looking for when I scope out my next shot? Here are a few elements of my signature gritty look:

Foreground elements

chicago riverwalk
An easy way to add dimension and pop to your shots is to keep elements in the foreground. Shooting with an object right in front of your lens can add a three-dimensional quality to your images and guide viewers into the rest of the frame. If you’re shooting wide open with a fast aperture lens, make a few test images to be sure the foreground isn’t distracting. While our eyes can detect depth in a scene, a camera flattens backgrounds and foregrounds and eliminates context. Whenever possible, add interest at all levels — foreground, middleground, and background — to keep viewers engaged.

“Bad” weather

night street - chicago
If it’s storming, I’m probably outside cloud watching, studying the way gleaming streets reflect light or how raindrops gather on a slick surface.

Never use unruly weather as an excuse to stay inside. An ominous sky, dense fog, or fresh snow might be all you need to add a dramatic touch to your photos. Some of my most memorable images were shot during — or right after — a storm.

Next time the weather goes south, instead of putting your camera away, take advantage of the situation and capture a unique shot. But before you venture into the eye of the storm, make sure your kit has weather resistance. Fujifilm, Canon, Nikon, and several other manufacturers make weather-resistant cameras and lenses that will protect your gear from the elements in all but the most extreme conditions.

Shadow play

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One of the greatest compliments I’ve received is that my street photography looks like it’s straight out of a spy thriller or noir film. Why was I honored? Watch one of these productions, and you’ll see masterful shadow control and low-key lighting. While some photographers aim for flat, shadowless light, my street and urban landscape work revolves equally around light and shadow.

It’s dark out there when roaming the streets at night; don’t be afraid to use deep shadows to add a sinister vibe to your shots. Remember to pay as much attention to shadows as you do to midtones and highlights. Shadows shape and draw attention to light, and without shadows, drama can't exist.

Reflections

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This might be something I learned from watching Wong Kar-wai films, but some of my all-time favorite night street shots incorporate reflections. Whether it’s from a puddle, a glass storefront, or the side of a car, compelling use of reflection can create a dual reality of sorts that mesmerizes viewers.

Keep in mind that shooting reflections isn't as easy as it looks. Be mindful of angles and lines, and pay special attention to your perspective for the best results.