Shooting Urban Landscapes: Turning Grit to Glamour

February 21, 2017

By Heather Shuker

© Eclection Photography

Peaceful, natural and romantic—these are the words that no doubt spring to mind when you think of a rural landscape. You notice the gentle light and the complementary tones and colors, and, most of all, lots of open space. By contrast, the city is more closely associated with being noisy, dirty, aggressive and crowded. The light is harsh and directional, and the surroundings are awash in grays with clashing colors—not to mention, a comparable lack of space.

The city is an assault on the senses for both you as a photographer and for your wedding party, but with a little shift in perspective, it can be just as visually stimulating. What photographers don’t always consider is that the essentials of composition in the city are no different when shooting in nature. You just need to use the basic elements and principles of art—color, line, shape, space, plus a dash of situational spontaneity—to create visual impact.

Speaking from the perspective of a London photographer, I also turned to Scotland-based photographers the Hendrys for their take—“the contrast between grimy, urban and rundown locations and the polished, clean and beautiful bride and groom is something special,” they say—as well as across the pond to Brooklyn’s Amber Gress, who grew up on a rural farm.

“When I first started shooting weddings in New York, I really had to switch up my ideas around aesthetics and how to work with the city,” Gress says. “It became this thing about going with it, rather than fighting it.”

Night Light

The city becomes alive as the sun goes down and we enter the twilight zone. There is something about twilight that infuses the city with a moody yet magical atmosphere.

Photo © Eclection Photography

A featureless location—like the front of this hotel in Shoreditch, East London—can quickly become cinematic and romantic when electric lights mix with the ambient light.

Photo © Lisa Jane

“Surrounded by the chaos and noise of a Saturday night in Soho, it would be easy to shy away from doing portraits, but I love London weddings because of this. It forces you to find light, to find color, to find a spot where you can create and capture a moment like no other. I hope when the couple looks at this, they remember the excitement and fun they had on this portrait session, and I hope it brings a smile to their faces that they stood in front of a restaurant, where I was using the neon sign in the window to light the shot.”
Lisa Jane


Within the city, light changes constantly as it moves, reflects and is channeled between buildings. Scout locations at different times of day to see how light can transform and make a scene. As light is so fleeting—there one minute and gone the next—you need to be ready to capture light before it disappears. If jumping at scenes as you come across them spontaneously doesn’t suit you, plan ahead using a map-centric sun and moon calculator.

Photo Ephemeris is a handy app that plans out, in advance of any visits, where the light will be at what time of each day throughout the year. It’s a map-centric sun and moon calculator that helps you “see how the light will fall on the land, day or night for any location on Earth.”

Photo © The Hendrys

“Walking back to the venue, we spotted a shaft of light on the brick wall under the bridge, grabbed the couple and plonked them right in it. the contrast between light and dark was amazing. we just had to use it before it disappeared.”
the hendrys | brixton, london

Photo © Amber Gress

“Late afternoon light, can come raking in from the side streets, to create beautiful hard light, like this photo. This is just a regular drop down door, but the light coming from the side creates some drama, to make it feel much more cinematic.”
Amber Gress | Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY​


Space—or rather, its lack—is one of the biggest challenges in the city. It’s difficult to shoot wide in streets, as composition becomes challenging with restricted views and unsightly objects. Be selective in what you choose to put in the frame. Simplicity is often key. Using negative space is one approach—this can be something as simple as a white wall shot from across the street—or scout for open spaces, such as industrial areas, where there will also be fewer cars and people.

Photo © Amber Gress

“I like to look for locations that can give a little breathing space from the crowded city, like this photo of a couple on a handball court. I used the negative space to frame them, and the yellow court lines to create the composition.”
— Amber Gress

Leading Lines and Symmetry

Swap tree lines for subways! Lines are everywhere in the city: roads, bridges, walls—all of these can add a sense of dynamism to an image.

Photo © Eclection Photography

A moment in time with Simon and Chris in East London’s Mile End district. This is a busy cycle path in London, with a traffic-heavy road running above. Tight framing and timing (in between cyclers!) give a sense of whimsy and dynamism.

Like the view from a mountain, you can go high in the city to create scale. Think about rooftops, bridges and areas elevated from street level. This not only gives images a sense of expansion, it’s also a great opportunity to showcase the city where the couple have chosen to wed.

Photo © Amber Gress

“Get access to a rooftop. I love how this can incorporate scale and drama. This image is one of those that I’ll always love, as the couple looks super stylish and…on top of the world, so to speak!”
— Amber Gress


Unlike the countryside, color in the city can seem clashing and discordant. Color is everywhere—doorways, street art, road markings—so learn to accept and take advantage of this, as it can bring an ordinary scene to life and make your photos pop.

Photo © Eclection Photography

We drove past this door—in Haggerston, East London—saw the color and had to stop! I love the turquoise and the graphical 2D effect on the door, providing a perfect frame and a pop of color.

Time and Memories

The city is not timeless, so capture that. Cars, buildings, advertisements and the like are always changing. Capture the present, because what might be the everyday now may be iconic in the future. There is always something new to see, whether it is a modern building, fresh graffiti or perhaps a temporary art installation. Also keep your eyes open for ways to add historical context and memories to a photograph, such as a building known to the couple but soon to be demolished, or even a detail like the year on a billboard.

Photo © The Hendrys

“On their way to their venue, this couple wanted their portrait in front of this cinema readograph, which folks can pay to get personalized with their details, and the money goes toward a good cause.”
—The Hendrys

Photo © Eclection Photography

They met in Chelsea and married in Chelsea. I shot there for that reason, and the red makes this building memorable—it is also about to be redeveloped.

Don’t Fight the City

Embrace the life and energy of the city! People love a wedding and getting involved in the celebration and joy. Expect the unexpected and capture it rather than fighting it.

Photo © Eclection Photography

This bunch of girls—in Hackney Wick, East London—were so full of energy and wanted to join the shot. It’s a great memory with girl power!

Photo © Eclection Photography

The workers here—in Deptford, South East London—were chatty, charming and had the girls in hysterics. I love the orange boiler suit; it happens to work with the flowers perfectly.

Photo © Babb Photo

The juxtaposition of the wedding day and real life is really fun to play around with, as seen in this shot by Laura Babb of Babb Photo.

Photo © Paulo Santos

“Changing to urban surroundings makes you realise the knowledge you take for granted. It offers the photographer a new set of challenges to overcome – traffic, people, space, and especially light (both quality and quantity are different). Ultimately, shooting city weddings can be more of a challenge, but if you can adapt and change your mindset to not only work with these challenges, but to wholeheartedly embrace them, then the outcome can be so incredibly rewarding and unique for both the photographer and the client.”
Paulo Santos

Photographing a wedding in the city is challenging, but there are so many opportunities for amazing photographs if you can accept the hustle and bustle. Get creative with the everyday of city life to elevate the familiar and ordinary into magical photographic memories.

Scouting Locations

Even if you scout your locations ahead of time, your perfect location can suddenly be filled with cars or garbage, even get demolished, because the city is in constant flux. Don’t have just one idea for a location; have a plan A, B, C and even D.

Also consider taking your couple to a quieter location outside their reception venue. Jump in a taxi. You could even plan a location to stop en route to the reception venue. The City of London (a business district known as the “Square Mile”), for example, can be quiet on weekends when the banks and offices are closed.

Second Shooter

An assistant is a great help. They’re another pair of eyes and voice (it can be noisy in the city!), and they can help with carrying kits, spreading the gear load between the two of you. An assistant is also invaluable when lighting is required; it’s almost impossible to use light stands by yourself in the city. Travel separately to minimize the risk of theft or your plans being thwarted (like being held up in traffic).

Best Defenses Against City Thievery

I was mugged during a wedding, and other photographers have had their bags snatched in London as well, so take sensible security precautions.
1. Record onto dual cards, and swap one set regularly. Keep the cards on your person.
2. Be light on gear for both mobility and safety, and carry only what you need.
3. Drop off evening gear such as lights and additional lenses at the reception venue ahead of time.
4. Never leave your camera bag—one that allows you to shoot and move comfortably—or camera on the ground, let alone unattended.

Heather Shuker created and directs Eclection Photography. She has been a creative arts photographer for over a decade. Based in London, Heather commissions worldwide.

To read this article in the digital edition, click here.

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