I was down by Boston's Charles River Esplanade yesterday, and it was picture-postcard pretty. I took a break from my usual practice of taking pictures of my kids to take a picture of the view from the Longfellow Bridge:

The Charles River and Back Bay neighborhood as seen from the Longfellow Bridge

And yep, it's postcard pretty. It looks like one of a million generic images one can find on 50¢ postcards in corner stores all over town — and in every other town in the world with a slightly different scene.

This is why I tend to make sure there's people in my pictures; I understand people and how they are unique and expressive, and can, in my best moments, make photographs of them that capture some of their special humanity. In a grand, metaphorical way, cities are often described as having personality — can one capture this in a cityscape photograph, or does that really only come out in street photography with details of people or architecture? I've seen some amazing cityscapes that did feel effective, but I can't really identify or quantify what it is about them that makes them work.

One could obviously go all postmodern on this, and apply special effects either in camera or in post-processing. But I'm not talking about that. I'm wondering about the straight genre of cityscapes — how can I say something more than "forgettable done-before postcard image"?

  • \$\begingroup\$ great question. \$\endgroup\$
    – garik
    May 28, 2012 at 15:47

4 Answers 4


Ask yourself the following before you press the shutter:

1 - Is it a good location?

I'm quite familiar with that location so I'll mention some specifics: the Longfellow bridge is a beautiful view in person, but there are 2 flaws that make it tough to produce a compelling photo. (1) It's a narrow bridge, roughly a quarter mile long but the sidewalk is 2 feet wide. So your options for composition are very limited. (2) You're about a half mile away from land, with a lot of water and sky in the way, so it doesn't always lend itself to wide-angle shots. In general you want to get as close as you can.

In addition you want to make sure everything in the frame is something you want in the frame. It doesn't really apply here since the view is nice, but if there's a big ugly water tower or boarded up building in the way, that may not be something you want.

2 - Is it a unique location?

As you said, it's postcard pretty. Meaning everyone who comes by wants to get that shot. And since the bridge is so narrow, everyone is taking the exact same picture. And in this case I do mean as similar as you can get. Try taking a shot from somewhere people don't always do it. If you can get on a roof somewhere, that's great - everyone else is stuck with the same perspective at ground level. Or if you can figure out how to make a location that most people skip work for you, that's even better. For example, if there's a fence in the way, get right up to it and shoot with a wide aperture to hide it.

2.5 - Is there something unique about the location RIGHT NOW?

All that said, you can make a great shot in a cliché location by being in the right spot at the right time. People have taken a trillion shots of the moon, but if you get a silhouette hot air balloon or bald eagle right in front of it, that's pretty cool. As far as a skyline goes, are the buildings lit up a funny color for a sports team? Are there fireworks? Are the Blue Angels flying overhead? These are just a couple ideas.

3 - Is the image well-composed?

You should always be asking this, but just a refresher - is everything that I want in the image, actually in the image? Is there anything in there that I don't want in there? The good thing about cityscapes is you usually have time to recompose, try again if some ugly tourist hat pops up in front of you. In this case, the boats are really nice - they add some interest to the image. On the other hand, that bird in the top middle is distracting.

4 - What's compelling about the image?

Last, why are you taking the picture? You have to ask yourself is it just a nice snapshot, or are you trying to show something. What's special about this that I'm taking a picture of it? Do the colors look special at sunset, is there motion that you can freeze, or can you add motion by using a slower shutter speed? There's nothing "wrong" with a snapshot, but generally there's no artistic intent in there. What's your intent?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like 2.5. I think this is necessary to break away from the standard postcard skyline shots. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    May 28, 2012 at 19:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ It think for this particular place the fireworks are pretty well cliché as well — july4th.org. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    May 29, 2012 at 2:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ So, here's a question: can you expand on why you find that the boats add interest to the image, but the seabird flying overhead is just "distracting"? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Jun 1, 2012 at 4:00
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The main thing is that the bird is alone in the sky, completely black surrounded by light blue. It really sticks out, almost like a dust speck on the lens/sensor/screen. \$\endgroup\$
    – DHall
    Jun 1, 2012 at 13:20

@DHall gave a good, complete answer. To give you a concrete example (and I have not stood on the same bridge as you did so I don't have an apples-to-apples image), I shot this:

enter image description here

The differences between the two image (in my mind) are:

  • In your image, the skyline occupies so little of the image that its impact is very low.
  • In your image, nothing is distinctive about the clear sky or the blue water that hooks the viewer.

Why I chose to show my image is that it features a sky, a skyline, and water in the foreground. The treatment is a bit different, though. I waited for a particular time of day when the water would work for me, giving me reflections and an abstract leading-in foreground (the lights on the ferry boat give additional motion to what would otherwise be a "nice" but static image). There is also something happening in the sky, so it's not just a canvas of solid color which detracts from the effectiveness of the skyline as a central component.

You might have been more successful by cropping to a more "panoramic" aspect ratio, thereby emphasizing what's important and cropping out much of the sky and water, while still leaving enough to provide a sense of place:

crop of example image

  • \$\begingroup\$ It's my default LR export-for-web setting. Regardless, CC does not mean "no copyright," it means available "subject to terms of Creative Commons License." \$\endgroup\$
    – Steve Ross
    May 29, 2012 at 19:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you're right about the crop. On the actual day, the blue of the water was really appealing to me, but in the photo it doesn't have as much interest as the details of the buildings and shoreline. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Jun 1, 2012 at 4:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm -- You're also handicapped by the fact that the skyline is behind a good deal of foliage. That occupies a band that obscures some of the shape of the building. As a detached viewer of the image, that particular skyline view has less meaning to me than it probably would for you. A key I look for is how to bring out something that will be interesting to someone who's never visited. And there are times when what I visualize (knowing the location) simply can't be captured effectively in a single frame. It just doesn't work out. \$\endgroup\$
    – Steve Ross
    Jun 1, 2012 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Steve — as it happens, that belt of green is one of the most beautiful and unique things about this area. I think probably what I need to do is get off the bridge and down into a boat. Much, much closer, so that the Esplanade is really shown as key to the picture, not just foliage that gets in the way of the buildings. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Jun 4, 2012 at 21:02

My 5 cents:

Some nature's effects will be a good (or maybe the best) option on this photo.

Clouds: before weather change, for example before storm, or big clouds of interested forms.

Fog: in the morning before, or just during sunrise.

Time: sunrise or sunset or eclipse of the sun! :) (I don't that place, maybe it's impossible to catch the sun from "useful" point).

Composition: big ship, or ordered line or yacht (regatta), fire ship: some object to "cheer up" this composition.

Fireworks: maybe it's possible.


Some possibilities are to look for stand-out items or different perspectives or elements which look different. (OK - why not just summarise that as striking and/or different?).
Many landscapes tend to not have much detail, so getting something to stand out can be difficult. So involving the foreground which is close so that it can look big can help. There is of course the risk that you are converting the photo to "Thing with landscape backdrop" rather than "landscape".

I like taking (at least some) shots which are noticeably different - whether that makes them post card suitable is another matter.

Imagine a view of a railway station taken at night. There may be some signs and railings and track, and a platform and maybe a building. Akin to a middle distance landscape. Does your mental picture look like anything like the photo below? You said your sample photo was from an esplanade. Does it have railings, vanishing points, a wall etc ?

Look for trains ...

enter image description here

Here's a landscape - actually more sea than land but I think it qualifies. Please excuse the noisiness - as I recall it's a crop and I think it wa a somewhat hurried shot for reasons which will be obvious when viewed. That may be too far away from what you want to do with a landscape, but maybe not.

Taken from somewhat higher up this is a landscape - or a city scape - taken lower down wit the foreground getting in the way of the nice view it's something else. Maybe too far away from what you want. Not a bad postcard though :-).

Fog and mist can help. Especially if transitioning. This is not photoshopped - just standard adjustments as they say. You may have to wait a while for this sort of thing but other versions that remove details occur. Sunrise, sunset, rain ... .

enter image description here

Same again but totally different - 95%+ of the time this is a very pretty but very normal city view. But on some days ... .

Look for some visual props - one this good may be hard to find on some occasions.

Anon ...

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The question talks about city skylines...but your examples seem to talk more about landscapes \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    May 28, 2012 at 22:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.