I live in London; it’s a big city with an array of portrait photography location choices, but it’s a fast and busy place. Other cities are similar: New York, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Beijing, and more. Even smaller cities can get pretty busy in certain areas, which is why, no matter your location, it pays to understand exactly how to navigate the hustle and the bustle so you can capture gorgeous portrait shots.
In fact, with the right approach, you can not only create great images, but you can even improve your shots by using the hubbub and the constant activity to your advantage. In this article, I share five tips to capture amazing portraits in busy cities – and by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be prepared to produce gorgeous shots in the world’s most frenetic locations.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Scout out the location and look for potential spots
It’s always a good idea to scout out portrait photoshoot locations in advance, but this is especially important for busy-city photographers. I’d recommend taking a walk around the same time you plan on having your portrait session (so that the activity levels mirror the activity levels you’ll experience during the actual shoot) and identifying areas of interest.
In particular, keep an eye out for locations that, despite the hubbub around them, manage to stay rather quiet and empty of people. Little corridors, nooks, and crannies can work great for this, such as this delightful little alley that leads toward a restaurant:
Once you’ve found some options, talk with your portrait clients. Give them some location ideas and options from which they can choose. While this isn’t particular to busy city photography, if you can get them involved in the process, they’re more likely to look forward to the photoshoot and really own it.
When discussing locations, you should also talk about outfits, as clothing is important to the overall look and feel of the images. It’s important that the clothing matches the feel of the location; otherwise, you’ll end up with a strange contrast between the background and the subjects.
For the example photoshoot depicted throughout this article, we had two different locations in mind, each with its own ambiance and style. Originally, the couple wanted to photograph outside an old ruined church, with its stunning walls, old architecture, and some greenery. The church offered a really cozy country feel, soft light, and an enchanting ambiance (in many ways, it offered the opposite of a busy city feeling).
But the couple had already decided on their outfits and had purchased them specifically for the photoshoot. In my opinion, the outfits worked far better in an urban environment than in a rural scene, so I encouraged them to go with a busy-city location instead.
One quick piece of advice:
As you scout out locations – and as you pitch different locations to your subjects – try to match their personality to the scene. If you’re photographing a somber, serious individual, you might want to choose a more monochromatic, quieter location. But if you’re photographing a bubbly couple, a colorful, bustling market backdrop will make far more sense.
2. Incorporate icons and landmarks
Every city – no matter how small – has its own landmarks. In major metropolises, you’ll come across world-famous icons such as Buckingham Palace and the Eye of London. But even little cities feature specific sculptures, buildings, and streets that are iconic in their own way.
So before heading out for your photoshoot, determine a few fun landmarks to incorporate into your shots. (Your subjects’ input can be very helpful here – ask them in advance if they have a favorite building or attraction.) You don’t have to go landmark-crazy, and not every busy-city photoshoot needs to include an array of recognizable attractions. But if you’re looking to embrace the city feel while also capturing images that feel unique to that location, it can be a helpful approach.
For my example photoshoot, we chose boutique shops and food stops that were traditional and well-known in the area, and I elected to use their shop windows as backdrops. Again, it’s important that you know a little about your couple and what they like so you can keep your eyes peeled for anything that appeals to them. In this case, Tom is English and likes beer, so we stopped by a tavern:
You don’t have to restrict yourself to photographing outside, either. Plenty of locations won’t mind if you come inside for a few portrait shots, though it’s important that you always ask for permission, first. (Usually, the shopkeepers are helpful and allow you to grab your photos if you are quiet, non-disruptive, and quick. But some may refuse and that is perfectly fine. Don’t take it personally!)
3. Leverage the busyness
If you choose to photograph on crowded, busy streets, there’s just no getting away from people. Often, it’s a waiting and asking game. You either wait for people to walk past and clear your space, or you ask them to move away. (Do it very politely, and if they agree, thank them profusely.)
However, if you don’t want to wait or you’re looking to create something different, why not leverage the busyness by incorporating motion into your images? That’s how I got this photo:
Try slowing down your shutter speed, narrowing your aperture (for extra sharpness throughout the scene), and either mounting your camera on a tripod or using a setup with impressive image-stabilization capabilities. Also, make sure that your subjects stay very still while you shoot. Wait for a bus or car to drive by, then fire the shutter!
Note that it can take several attempts to get a good result as it’s a difficult setup with no planning ahead or anticipation of what is to come. Of course, if things don’t go quite right, you can always rely on a bit of Photoshop magic.
4. Do something fun and quirky
Busy locations offer all sorts of attractions, including colorful buildings, interesting parks, and public art. If you’re working with the right subjects, try to keep the photoshoot lighthearted and fun by finding some unusual spots and asking the subjects to do some quirky things. You may not end up using the images in the end, but it’s generally worth a shot and will help keep the photoshoot interesting!
For this next image, my subjects stood between huge exhaust installations with the BEL-AIR sign in the background, and they pretended to get blown away:
But to be safe, I also captured a few normal shots:
Then we found this old chapel with sculptures and thought it would be funny to copy the sculpture poses:
Remember: A photoshoot is more than just taking pictures! It’s an experience, so aim to make things both fun and easy. That way, your subjects head home with the feeling that it was time well spent.
5. End on a high note
As you’re shooting, don’t forget to include key indicators: How far you are into the photoshoot, other plans you may have in terms of locations, certain shots you want to try, etc. As you walk to new locations, explain to your subjects how far you are into your plan, and always make it clear when you’re nearing the end of the session.
Why is this so important? People appreciate knowing where they are in a photoshoot! Some people cannot handle more than half an hour of portrait posing and these markers help them get through it. Others like long photoshoots, so you need to keep tabs on your time to ensure you don’t run over. But whatever you do, don’t look at your watch.
As you reach the end of the shoot, do your best to end on a high note with lots of laughter. If you can achieve this, it greatly helps reinforce good photoshoot memories so that there will be another photoshoot down the line. You want your subjects to look back and remember good times (rather than the bad weather, the cold, the hassle of waiting for people to get out of the way, and so on).
Relatedly, when you show your couples their image gallery, end with happy photos, too!
Portrait photography in busy locations: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some amazing portrait shots – even if you live in hustling, bustling cities like London, NYC, or Tokyo.
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Do some location scouting, pay attention to your subjects’ personalities, and above all, have fun!
Now over to you:
Do you have any additional tips for shooting in busy locations? Where do you plan to photograph next? Share your thoughts in the comments below!