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How to Take Stunning City Photographs - CNN Travel

Photographing a city is no easy task.

As a landscape photographer who has lately grown accustomed to photographing the iconic national parks of America and the feeling of humble self-realization that comes from such vast natural landscapes, my assignment of photographing the landscape of Seoul -- even though it was a city that I lived in for 25 years –- came as a challenge.

If gray concrete buildings all start blurring together though the viewfinder, and there seem to be more cars and pedestrians around you than the nerve cells in your brain, it's time to put down your camera and think about a few things.

(1) Find a Theme

If you plan on keeping the photos to yourself and consider them rather random recollections of the past moments or experiences, this would not matter that much. But if you are drawn to producing beautiful images to share with others, the first question an amateur photographer should ask is: What is the theme of my photography?

Simplicity is best, you might say. And nothing would be simpler than settling on the beauty of Seoul as in beauty of nature in any landscape work. But if you want to make your images unique, it becomes more difficult. Seoul is a city of high-end digital camera pro-sumers, where pretty much everyone with a camera carries professional grade photo equipment, even to Starbucks.

In a city where every single corner has already been photographed, it may be challenging to find your unique shot. So be as specific as possible in the theme that you choose, and try to infuse your artistic voice as you angle your camera.

(2) Let Your Photos Speak

One rewarding way to photograph the city is to try and make your photographs tell a story.

Having just about two weeks for the assignment, I tried to illustrate the feeling that I always get when I fly back to Seoul. The city, to me, is a place where basic human needs are greatly emphasized.

In the frame we can find street vendors and people indulging themselves with street foods, an old lady trying to make ends meet by selling sugary cookies, a young couple who just got out of a lingerie shop. Above all these people and fast-walking pedestrians a giant poster of a rather exotic lingerie model rears up, something that is quite out of the context -- or maybe she fits perfectly?

As I wandered throughout the city, I began craving nature and couldn’t help feeling lost. And perhaps that was the story I was aiming to tell.

(3) Study Your Subjects

After years of experiences in the field, the greatest lesson that I've learned is, "Everything changes and every shot is unique, but it does not guarrantee your photo's excellence."

For this image, I had to spend 12 hours over a total of three nights (which is actually not too bad for the efforts that I put into landscape photography). There weren't that many people on the street and one of the stores was closed the first day; second day, somehow I placed my lens a bit far from the show window that I was shooting through and unusual glares from the street lights ruined the shot. The third day, having learned from the previous experiences, not only had I solved all the problems, I had also visited the Eblin store ahead of time and asked them to turn on the poster lights earlier than usual for the best lighting, and they kindly helped me out.

Sometimes you can obtain a fantastic photograph by luck but that doesn’t give your work consistency, therefore researching or scouting the locations ahead of time can greatly minimize the potential mistakes and increase your chances for that beautiful shot.

(4) Two Shots a Day

"One of the biggest mistakes a photographer can make is to look at the real world and cling to the vain hope that next time his film will somehow bear a closer resemblance to it."

As the late Galen Rowell pointed out, one of the biggest challenges for outdoor photography is the simple fact that you will not have control over light. And photography is all about light. One thing that one will quickly learn is that human eye and camera function very differently. So overcoming the differences and making the image look and feel similar to your experience is the key to good photographs.

Often, the daylight can be too harsh and unlike your superb visual system, your camera may not be able to handle the broad range of light. So your images may show blown-out highlights or blacked-out shadows that cannot be recovered. The best way to deal with this is to take shots when the light is tamable. And this is why many landscape photographers take most of their photos at dawn or dusk. Warm light from the sun can add a nice touch to your main subjects and sometimes produce intense colors but with manageable contrast.

With unobstructed direct sunlight, the best time window starts at about 10 minutes before the sunset, twilight is a direct result of clouds acting as a natural light reflector, and you may experience intense colors depending on their heights and distributions. With enough gap of clear sky right above the horizon towards the setting sun, the lowest clouds will give you decent colors almost at sunset, and the highest clouds will light up more fiery and as late as 25 minutes after sunset. Sunrise is very like sunset only in reverse order, so technically you can have up to two decent shots a day.

Cityscape at night can be very tricky, since often the city lights, especially at a closer range, can be very harsh. The best light critically depends on how close your camera is to these light sources, but you can think of from sunset to as late as 45 minutes after sunset as a rough time window. Unlike in landscape photography, sunset is better time than sunrise mostly because all the city lights and traffic are more available in the evening. Experiment with different settings and try to find the best condition for the specific location of interest.

(5) Handheld Versus Tripod

Landscape photography is simply impossible without a tripod. But sometimes a landscape photographer should set it aside. Candid shots can often be done better without the tripod, and most of the modern DSLRs boast amazing low light capability, which greatly reduces the reaction time to an unexpected scene or event.

Traveling with a tripod is very difficult, but I would like to recommend it to every photographer, since it can make the difference between a high quality image with great sharpness and a blurry image with no hope of salvaging. Take take advantage of both worlds.

(6) Exploit Newest Technologies

Modern digital cameras offer a number of advantages over classic film cameras, one of the outstanding aspects being the low light capability. In conjunction with fast prime lenses, you can attempt things that traditional photographers never even dreamed of. State of the art cameras offer decent image quality even up to ISO 6400, and it opens up endless new possibilities.

Invest in the memory cards, buy large enough ones so that you don't have to worry about how many shots are left. Unlike films cameras, you are most likely not limited by the number of shots, so do not skimp and take as many shots as possible. Even though deleting all the substandard shots may be annoying and time consuming, getting the right one greatly outweighs the inconvenience. Remember, you can always throw away the shots you don't want to keep, but you cannot keep the shots you did not take.

Mirrorless cameras are probably the greatest photographic invention for the past five years, since its portability is a great advantage for travel photography. DSLRs still hold their advantages, especially the difference is significant in auto-focus, since mirrorless cameras rely on the contrast measurement technique, which is substantially slower than the phase detection method of the conventional DSLRs. Thanks to the omission of the view finder and optical elements, mirrorless cameras can have their lenses much closer to the image sensor than the DSLR, which enables even further reduction of the size by use of so called 'pancake' lenses. This new type of cameras is strongly recommended to avid travelers whose first priority is portability.

(7) Seoul Specifics

Here are a number of detailed tips for photographing Seoul specifically.

Take advantage of Seoul’s excellent public transportation unless you are carrying a whole production. You can get to almost all possible locations in time by getting on either bus or subway. The only exceptions are the bridges along the Han River, but they are still within walkable distances.

From early autumn to early spring is usually the best season for outdoor photography, summer can be very rainy and hot in Korea, even the biggest storm-chasing landscape photographer would not be very happy in summer.

Do not expect colorful sunsets or sunrises unless there was a rain storm. Even in fall, air pollution builds up very fast and mutes the twilight. Some of the best open views of the city can be photographed from the rooftops of skyscrapers, which have a good chance of being militarized. Check with the security guards and local police department.

Dongjak Bridge

Some 27 bridges span the Han River and most of them offer beautiful views of Seoul. The riverside cafés at the ends of some bridges provide good vantage points. Try shooting towards the rising or setting sun for more interesting colors in the sky, 10-45 minutes before sunrise or after sunset for a better exposure. Use long exposures to capture the effects of the traffic.

63 Building

At 249 meters, the 63 Building was the tallest skyscraper outside North America when it was first completed in 1985. Because of its reflective glass surface, the building can look very different depending on the angle and surroundings.

Wonhyo Bridge

It’s really the light that photographers capture, not the subjects themselves. Wonhyo Bridge might not be the best-looking bridge, nor does it look nearly as good during the day, but with proper light and weather, it reveals a different side.

Banpo Bridge Fountain

As one of the most popular locations for Seoul photography, this Banpo Bridge Fountain attracts visitors every night. Economic and environmental arguments aside, it’s worth checking out. When photographing the event, use a tripod and try to keep your exposure short since the water jets may change the direction or colors every few seconds.

City Lights

‘Golden hour’ is very important for a night shot like this, Unlike during the day, lighting is softer and warmer and the city lights from the buildings and traffic illuminate the details. Typically over the course of a sunset, the ambient light gets dimmer and therefore city lights get relatively stronger, you can find a few minutes of time window where these two balance each other. This may not be very obvious to beginners, so take as many shots as possible and review them carefully afterward.

Deoksu Palace

A challenge for every photographer is making the two dimensional images resemble the three dimensional world that we live in. One way of doing this is creating layers. Foreground, m idground and background can all serve different purposes but eventually they have to come together and create the illusion of the reality on a flat display (or paper). Framing the main subject with a closer object is another way of creating layers, which is demonstrated in this shot.


Symmetry is one of the main elements that contribute to the aesthetic aspect of your image. Keep this in mind while composing a shot, since it is usually done by carefully arranging the geometric shapes inside the frame. Symmetry can be emphasized explicitly with a typical perspective and strong leading lines, but it can also be accounted implicitly. It may not be very obvious, but this shot has a number of symmetric elements.


Shutterspeed for photographers is like the choice of brush for artists. Many tend to choose a faster shutterspeed to freeze the action, but a slow shutterspeed can accentuate the movements of the objects but still retaining their original shapes. In this shot, fast-moving pedestrians reflect the lifestyle of many Seoulites.

Cheong Gye Cheon

Humans are hydrophilic by nature; of course, I say that metaphorically. Water can change many things : sights, sounds, smells and tastes. And therefore emotions, experiences and memories. As a photographer, you may want to pay close attention to the aesthetic aspects of the scene and the role water plays in your work.

Youngpoong Bookstore

Look for a vantage point. Unlike on the ground level, where closest objects can block your view, higher ground gives you an unobstructed overview. From a vantage point, you can photograph the entire view by including all the details or selectively pick your subjects by narrowing down and focusing on a part of it. This also helps you create layers in your frame and make your images multi-dimensional.


Check the histogram and do this frequently. Most of the digital cameras offer tools to check the highlights and shadows, so it’s a good idea to actively utilize these features. If the scene cannot be captured with a single exposure, try exposure bracketing. The lost information can be restored from the bracketed images and you can try HDR (high dynamic range imaging) or Exposure Fusion to improve your images. However, going overboard will make your photos cartoonish. In this shot, the blown out highlights are loaded from a separate exposure and manually blended in.