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shooting in the city


Towns and cities present an amazing array of subjects to shoot – here’s how to make the most of them with your Pentax


Urban locations are a thrilling mix of photo opportunities. In any town or city you’ll find brilliant architecture, man made landscapes, and textured still-lifes to capture; after dark, it can look sparklingly romantic or ominously low-key, depending on what you shoot. And of course you can document the population through street photography. In fact, there’s so much to shoot in towns and cities that it’s important to slow down and concentrate, sticking to a shooting plan so you don’t get distracted. Here you’ll find ideas on what to shoot and see how to adapt your camera setting to make the most of urban subjects.

  • good composition
  • poor composition

what makes a good urban landscape?

Urban landscapes work in a very similar way to countryside scenes, so to make the most of them a wide-angle lens can be helpful. Try the smc DA 12-24mm F4 ED/AL (IF), which has a 99° angle of view at its widest, taking in lots of the scene. With such a lens you can ensure there’s plenty of detail in the foreground of your scene, too. So after you’ve found an interesting subject match it with a strong foreground, because without the latter your less likely to have a good picture. Shooting vertically can also improve foreground detail, especially when you’re using a wide angle lens on the camera.


what time of day should i shoot?

Thanks to artificial lighting and the way the sun is cut up into light and shade by tall buildings, you can shoot 24 hours a day in the city. But if you want to bring out the best in a location, showing it in a classic light, then just like in the countryside, shoot when the sun is low. This gives a warmer and more inviting look to the scene, but more importantly side lighting increases the amount of contrast, picking out detail in stone and metal textures. To keep the colours true to the conditions, you may need to change the white balance setting manually, but that’s easy (see below).

  • show grid
  • hide grid

how do i compose urban landscapes?

Look for a good view to start with; for instance a solitary, well-lit building in the distance, or a pool of light at the end of a street. Next, find some detailed foreground element to anchor the composition, like a bench, or the cobbles of a street. Alternatively find something to lead the viewer’s eye into your urban landscape, for example the curve of a street, a path, a river – even the angles of buildings as they reach up at the sky can work as a lead in. You can balance these elements by lining them up with the lines of the Grid display when you’re shooting in live-view mode.

what exposure mode for urban scenes?

The best mode to shoot in for urban landscapes is aperture-priority (Av). Here you’ll be able to control the depth-of-field in the scene and, in the main, ensure that it’s sharp from front to back to maximise the amount detail. To pack in the most detail and texture, set a high f/number, like f/16 or f/22, and then focus on the foreground a few feet away. But it doesn’t have to be all about detail. If you want a more intimate feel to your street scenes, concentrating on keeping just one part of the scene sharp while the rest of it blurs, switch to a low f/number.


how do i use hdr mode?

Exposures can be tricky when shooting cityscapes because you’ll often be faced with a bright sky and more shadowy buildings. That’s where your Pentax’s HDR Capture mode comes in. Activated via the Info menu (or direct from the mode dial with the K-S2) the camera takes three pics with different exposure values, then combines them to produce an image with well-balanced highlights and shadows. The variation in the exposures can be controlled by you for a subtle or more exaggerated look and if you’re shooting handheld, you can also get the camera to align the pictures for you, offsetting any changes in shooting position.

  • 1/160 sec
  • 20 secs

why do long exposures work in cities?

If you want to give familiar locations a fresh look, shooting a long exposure is an easy way to do it, and the hustle and bustle of urban scenes, they’re a perfect place to try one out. There’s such an amazing array of movement in towns and cities that you’ll have no end of choice, making a smooth blur from commuting crowds, flowing rivers, swarming traffic or drifting clouds; with the right settings; they’ll all just melt away into a ghostly mist, and make city itself seem all the more solid. And if you leave the shutter open long enough, they’ll disappear completely.


how do i shoot a long exposure?

First mount your Pentax DSLR on a tripod to prevent camera movement during the exposure and switch to shutter-priority (Tv). Next, dial in the shutter speed you want to use and the aperture will open or close to compensate. Because slow shutter speeds usually require small apertures, you’ll see the f/number rise. However, if it starts blinking it means there’s too much light in the scene and you’ll be over exposing the picture. If the aperture is blinking, lower the ISO setting. In broad daylight conditons this happens often so it makes sense to try long exposures when the light is lower.

what shutter speed do i need?

The speed you need depends on the pace of movement. You don’t necessarily need a lot to blur motion, and too much blur can actually spoil the effect, with a subject disappearing completely, so the trick is finding what works for different subjects. For example, while you might blur cars or trains at 1/60sec, to blur people, water or clouds you’ll need something slower, like 1/8sec, or several seconds. The amount of blur also depends on the focal length - tight framing appears to show up more blur than very wide-angle views because the subject moves further across the frame.

how can i make the shutter speed fall?

If you’re already using the smallest aperture and the lowest ISO setting possible, and you still can’t get a slow enough speed for the effect you want there’s probably too much light in the scene. In these cases you’ll have to wait until conditions are dimmer, or use a neutral density (ND) filter to block out some of the light. ND filters come in various strengths and either screw into the filter thread on your lens, or slot into a holder. Their strength is measured in ‘stops’ with each stop cutting out half the amount of light, so a 1 stop filter would turn a 1 second exposure into 2 seconds.

what’s the best way to use bulb mode?

The longest shutter speed you can set on your Pentax DSLR is 30secs – plenty for most scenes – but if you switch the Mode dial to Bulb (B) you can keep the shutter open for many minutes rather than seconds. In Bulb mode, you can set the shutter to stay open as long as the button is depressed, or to open and close with separate presses (all found in the Custom settings menu), or use a remote control like the O-RC1 wireless remote to trigger the exposure. When shooting very long exposures it’s also sensible to turn on the Slow Shutter Speed NR (noise reduction) mode.

why should i shoot candid street pictures?

Following in the footsteps of past-masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, you can use your DSLR to record the vibrancy, drama and humour in towns and cities. And the shots you take will grow in appeal as fashions and places change, becoming historically important. Street photography can be challenging as the best shots are taken in candid style, meaning you have to remain inconspicuous, but pick the right settings and you can do exactly that. The K-S2’s fully articulating LCD screen can help here, allowing you to compose from unusual and unseen angles.

what exposure mode for streets shots?

Candids are about capturing life not fiddling with settings; you need to spend your time observing and shooting. Therefore, it’s fine to shoot in full Auto mode or one of the advanced Scene modes like Night Portrait which get results fast. Also try Program (P) which creates a good exposure without you setting the aperture or shutter speed, but allows control of focus and ISO. There’s also Pentax’s TAv mode, which lets you pick the aperture and shutter speed for creative effects, with the ISO sensitivity compensating – in that mode just press the Green button to meter exposure automatically.

  • single point af
  • face detection af

how do i focus for candid portraits?

For candids, you’ll often need to focus fast, so using the right mode is essential. Occassionally, you’ll have time to use Single AF (AF.S) and the Select mode to focus exactly, but not often. When speed is required, it’s better to shoot in auto, and in live view mode, Face Detection AF is very useful. Hit the Info button to switch it on from the AF Area menu and it will automatically focus on a face in the frame. As a bonus, live view is actually great for candid photos as it attracts less attention than composing through the viewfinder and the K-S2’s tilting screen makes it even more adaptable.


how do i keep the action sharp?

Because candid street photography involves working quickly and taking split-second chances, you need to be assured that images will be sharp even at slow shutters speeds. To make sure your shots are full of detail and free from camera shake, remember to keep your Pentax DSLR’s Shake Reduction system switched on to compensate for any movement. And to help keep the shutter speed as high as possible, switch your ISO to the Auto setting (as standard in TAv mode), which will increase the sensitivity when the shutter speed is getting too low and raise it again.

what lenses are best for street shooting?

You might think that long, telephoto lenses are best for candid photography, allowing you shoot from further off and unobserved, but they can actually attract more attention, not less. Better are standard prime lenses that also have fast maximum apertures, like the HD Pentax-DA 21mm f/3.2AL or SMC Pentax-FA 35mm f/2 AL. These let you get closer to your subjects, include their surroundings, and their wide apertures allow faster shutter speeds in low light. Because they’re small, they make it easier to pocket your camera while keeping them attached, therefore speeding up your shooting.

  • daylight
  • low-light
  • full night

what should i look for at night?

With the right kit, and the knowledge of how to expose and focus, all that’s left is composition. And in macro, one of the most important compositional aspects is attention to detail. With the subject highly magnified, it’s very important to make sure that it’s clean and uncluttered, so before shooting a flower, for example, use small scissors or tweezers to remove stray foliage; left unattended, these will stick out like a sore thumb. On still lifes, try removing dust and hairs with an air blower or compressed air spray because even an eyelash can look like a tree trunk when magnified.

how does low-light affect exposures?

At night, towns can seem brightly lit to the naked eye, but they’re actually very dim, so in aperture-priority mode using small apertures will force the shutter speed to be very slow. The effects of using different apertures can also be more visible when shooting in low-light because points of light in the scene with change appearance depending on the f/number. Lamps will turn into tiny starbursts when shooting at f/22, but will diffuse into broad discs at wider settings like f/4, depending where you focus. Shoot in aperture-priority mode and you’ll have full control.

how do i shoot
traffic trails?

Like other long-exposure techniques, traffic trails use a slow shutter speed to record the movement of subjects through the frame, in this moving lights. Find a good vantage point, preferably one that overlooks an area of heavy traffic and frame up with your DSLR on a tripod. Set your ISO to a low level like 200 and switch to shutter-priority (Tv). Here you’ll be able to set the exact exposure time which is good for long uninterrupted streaks, and avoiding stubby, cut-off trails. To decide the speed, count how long it takes a car to pass through the frame, then dial this value in and get shooting.

can i shoot
handheld at night?

Absolutely, but to get sharp shots you’ll need to push the ISO up (around 800 or 1600 is often enough). At this high sensitivity when you switch to aperture-priority mode (Av) and use a wide aperture (a low f/number), faster shutter speeds will be available. Switch on Shake Reduction too as you may still be pick up camera shake. The downside of high ISOs is that they add more digital noise to the picture, but some grain is better than a blurred shot. But because their larger sensors produce less digital noise in pictures than compacts DSLRs like the K-3 II and K-S2 will give good results.

  • NR ON
  • NR OFF
  • ISO 1600
  • ISO 3200
  • ISO 6400
  • ISO 12800

how do i use iso at night?

Shooting handheld, or freezing subject movement in low-light scenes usually means increasing the ISO. To make controlling this easier Pentax DSLRs have a unique sensitivity-priority (Sv) mode. In Sv mode, you set the ISO then the shutter speed and aperture compensate to give a good exposure. If you want a long exposure, set it low but if you’re trying to keep the shutter speed fast in dim conditions, set it to a high level like 3200 or 6400. Keeping the ISO there will give consistent results and you can control the digital noise using the High ISO NR (noise reduction) setting from the menu.