Capture the City: How to Snap & Share Beautiful Photos of Detroit!

June 04, 2014 | Detroit

CM Statue KEENA editedIt’s summertime in Detroit, and that means weekend after weekend of festivals and fun. Basically, every night, The D is the place to be.

If you live Downtown, or if you’re just here visiting, it’s also the perfect time to get some great shots of the city! From cool new construction, like The Z Lot, to historic architecture, like the Guardian Building, to iconic images like The Spirit of Detroit there’s not only a lot to do in Detroit, but there’s even more to see…and then to share (via a great pic) with your friends.

Alright, so the only pictures I take that turn out worth sharing are of Little Dog. And that probably has less to do with my camera-skills (which are seriously lacking) than with the fact that she is just so dang cute (which is probably also just my personal bias).

That said, I’ve decided I want to take some photographs of the city I love that are actually worth saving and sharing. Here’s what I discovered about how to ‘capture the city’ while you’re out and about having fun this summer.

The first thing I learned is that photographers speak a whole other language when it comes to talking about photography.

“Keep the composition as clean as possible and try to avoid distracting elements,” I translated as, ‘keep it simple.’ If there’s something on a building that catches your eye, focus or zoom in on that part of the building. Don’t try to get the whole structure at once. In these cases, you’re not going for the ‘big picture.’

When something stands out to you, you can emphasize it further with the way you frame the shot. For example, if it is a curved element, then go for an angular shot: anything that breaks up the symmetry of your picture will draw the eye to that detail, and make the whole photograph more ‘artistic.’ Or, if something is a completely different or contrasting color from its surroundings, crop your shot so that the element that is vibrant is in the center of the image, and the rest of the image consists only of the less intense color on the structure, creating a ‘mat’ or frame within the photograph itself.

While less elements often create greater impact in an image, I also learned that it can be good to include repetitive elements in your photograph: and buildings intrinsically offer repetitive elements like doors, windows, or details that form lines and patterns. The more of these identical elements there are, the more you can widen your shot and still maintain impact. You can also play with the visual impact of the repetitive pattern when there are multiple lines by directing them into the corners of your shot.

So, when something catches your eye, consider a tilted or diagonal composition to add an interesting dynamic to the image. (Just don’t tilt your camera too much. That can just make it look like you were having too much fun. Which is also always a possibility when you’re hanging out having a great time Downtown….)

If you want to emphasize the size (the solidity or the enormity) of a structure, take the picture so that it has a strong symmetrical composition, with the horizontal and vertical lines dominating the image. Frame your shot so that those lines are balanced from top to bottom (and side to side if applicable), and do your best to avoid any tilted lines. A great trick to locate the best center of the symmetry of the structure is to hold your hand vertically between your eyes and then construct the frame of the shot around this ‘center.’

To emphasize the height of a building, stand as close to its base as possible and shoot straight upwards. This will distort the perspective in a way that captures the effect of actually being there. You can also add scale to your picture by including a nearby object – a street sign, a flag, or even a bench.

While it’s always fun to have your friends in the picture, you can also use them to add perspective to the size or the angle of a structure. Frame the shot so that they are shown not simply having a great time Downtown, but in ‘relationship’ to background. When you’re including your friends in the shot and want to emphasize the size of the building, shoot from a lower angle and from a greater distance.  If you want to show your friends in front of an interesting ‘element,’ line up the shot so they are centered not only beneath (or above) the element, but so that they are in the center of the shot (including the foreground, the area in front of their feet, and the background, the area above the element).

With the Detroit River, the myriad fountains, and plate-glass windows that you find all over Detroit, consider using ‘reflections’ to add an extra dimension to your architectural images. This can add a ‘narrative’ to your image (the reflection of people gathering in front of your favorite spot) or you can use the reflection to distort the structure in a way that shows how you ‘see it.’ After it rains, puddles are fair game; and if it’s sunny, consider framing your reflection shot in a pair of sunglasses.

Since all summer long, there are things going on Downtown from sun-up to sun-down, you also have excellent opportunities to work with the different levels and angles of light in your photographs. Whether you’re at Comerica, walking from meeting-place to meeting-place, or just looking out your windows at the city, Detroit and its architecture looks different at every time of the day. Take advantage of the intensity of the light and the change in color that sunrise, midday, and sunset offer in your images.

In photography-speak, this is translated to light “interacting” with the structure, creating “plasticity,” and giving it “depth.” (You know, just in case you want to add really expert sounding captions and comments to your incredible pictures when you share them!) When you’re trying to make something stand out, the sky itself can provide a good counterpoint with color, and (if it’s a cloudless, clear blue sky) less detail in the background. Early mornings and late afternoons often provide the best light for photographs, but they aren’t the only times of day you can get that perfect shot.

And, strangely enough, even as you take advantage of the light, you should look for the shadows that the same light creates. You can use those to provide contrast or to emphasize an eye-catching or repeating element on the building. Play with the shadows and experiment with those that are clearly defined to add contrast and a boost of dimension to your architectural photo. If the shadows are more subtle, you can play with those to add atmosphere and mood to emphasize the element. The sun is something you can’t control: but you can move around the building or object and see what angle gives you the most interesting light and shade.

Sunset also offers an excellent opportunity to capture a beautiful picture: the colors of the setting sun can add depth and interest to the surface of a building, or you can use the sunset to silhouette the structure (just make sure the building is between you and the setting sun). Nighttime is also an excellent opportunity to catch and emphasize lights from business signs, neon, windows, and street lights to add ambiance to your picture.

And, okay, so it’s not always sunny in The D. But that isn’t an issue either when you’re shooting that perfect picture. Cloudy overcast days or even rain can create atmosphere and mood in your image. Unlike, say, shots of you and your friends at the beach, photographs of the city and its architecture can be beautifully captured in all different types of weather.  A picture of the Ren Cen on a sunny day may be pretty, but it can also be a little boring. Consider capturing it (or coming back to get the shot) when it’s a bit foggy, or a storm is brewing, or it’s drizzling out.

And if you have a favorite spot, consider going back to take pictures of it at various times of days and in various weather conditions: then put your best three shots together into a super-cool triptych that literally captures the wide variety of ways you can experience life in Detroit!

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