Today there are a number of budget airlines offering cheap flights to a great many Eastern European cities, where affordable accommodation is easy to find, particularly in the months running up to and shortly after the Christmas holidays. These cities, such as Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Riga, and Tallinn, as well as featuring excellent museums, galleries, restaurants and bars, also offer a wealth of photographic opportunities, from spectacular medieval cityscapes, through well-preserved art nouveau districts, to gritty former-Soviet architecture, all surrounded by the hustle and bustle of modern city life.
The key to capturing the heart and soul of a city in photographs in the short space of time afforded by a three- or four-day city break lies in preparation. Familiarise yourself with what the city has to offer photographically. Searching the internet and reading well-illustrated guide books is a good starting point. Try to get a good understanding of the city layout before you fly, and locate your hotel in relation to the key sites, identifying if possible the tram or bus routes that you’ll most likely be using. By all means plan daily itineraries, but be realistic about how much you can do in a day. Remember you’re there to have fun as well as to take photos.
Unless you’re prepared to pay for extra baggage on the plane (and waste time waiting around at airports) you’ll only be allowed a small bag as hand luggage. This will have to contain clothes and toiletries as well as your camera equipment, so be prepared to photograph with the bare minimum. In addition, you’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so carrying around a heavy equipment bag is impractical.
Assuming you’re going to be shooting with a DSLR, a good-quality, medium telephoto lens (with an effective focal length of around 30–150mm) makes an ideal “walk-around” lens. You’ll definitely need the wide-angle focal length for cityscapes, while the telephoto end of the lens helps to pick out details. If you have a compact, fast (f/1.8) 50mm lens (often referred to as a “nifty-fifty”) it’s certainly worth taking that with you. It gets dark early in Eastern Europe in the winter and you’ll appreciate having a fast lens option for late afternoons. In addition a fixed lens forces you to think about your framing, while the really wide aperture allows for creative shallow focus. These lenses are relatively affordable, especially second-hand. If you find 50mm too long for a cropped sensor camera, consider a 35mm lens. There are small, lightweight and fast models, but they are more expensive than their 50mm counterparts.
As you’re unlikely to have room for a tripod and remote camera trigger, a small camera beanbag is a useful option. If you’re not familiar with these, they are small portable beanbags that you can place on a wall or similar support and rest the camera on for stability when poor lighting conditions mean that you have to use a slow shutter speed setting. You can always rest the camera directly on a wall or other similar support, but a beanbag makes it easier to get the framing you want and it protects the bottom of the camera.
Other equipment options include lens filters. These are small and lightweight and will usually fit into a coat pocket. A circular polarizing filter will enhance skies on clear sunny days, while ND (neutral density) filters can help you get shallow depth of field even in bright conditions. The filter cuts down the light striking the sensor, thereby allowing you to use a larger aperture (so creating shallow depth of field) than you would normally be able to use. Another filter to consider is the grey graduated filter. With this filter you can achieve a balanced exposure when shooting with a bright sky in the frame. But again, as you’re going to be carrying your equipment around all day, think about carrying as little as possible – and remember, it’s the photographer that captures striking images, not the equipment. Deliberately restricting equipment will often free up photographers to shoot in a more natural, spontaneous way.
Finally, make sure you have at least two batteries, a charger and any necessary plug adaptors, and a sufficient number of memory cards to last you. You’re unlikely to have any way of downloading images, and although you can do mini edits at the end of each day to delete images that don’t work, you’ll find that you’ll want to keep a surprising number of shots. As a very rough rule of thumb allow for between 50-100 shots per day in your preferred format (RAW or JPEG).
Before you set out on your first, and subsequent, photographic forays:
• Check that both batteries are fully charged (get into the habit of charging batteries overnight) and that you have sufficient memory cards.
• Check your ISO setting, particularly if this isn’t automatically displayed in the viewfinder. As light conditions fall during the course of the day you’re likely to increase the ISO sensitivity. It’s easy to forget you’ve done so when you finish shooting, and extremely annoying to discover that you’ve been shooting with an ISO setting of 800 all the subsequent morning.
• Check the file format. If you’re going to edit your images using editing software when you get back home, shoot RAW. As you’re unlikely to be able to go back and retake any shots that haven’t quite worked out, shooting RAW gives you maximum leeway when editing – providing, in terms of exposure for example, generally a + or – 2-stop adjustment and the ability to “open up” shadows to reveal noise-free detail. If, however, you’re printing or uploading straight from the camera, shoot JPEG and check that the various settings, such as sharpening, noise reduction, and so on are as they should be.
• Check the lens and any filters you might use are clean and free from smudges.
So it’s time to hit the streets and start photographing. Most of us probably have our favourite exposure mode and rarely digress from that, whether its aperture or shutter priority, flexible program or automatic. Use the opportunity of a city break to experiment with settings that you wouldn’t normally use. If you shoot mostly landscapes then it’s likely that aperture priority is your primary mode. This is great for photographing buildings and cityscapes, when controlling depth of field is paramount, but it’s less successful for grabbing candid street shots. When shooting in a crowd – to capture the atmosphere of some street theatre for example – it’s more important to freeze the action than control depth of field. In which case switch to shutter priority, set a speed of 1/125 sec and let the camera worry about setting the aperture. That way you’ll know that all but the fastest movement will be frozen. By all means experiment with different shutter speeds. You may want to try a slower speed for deliberate blur that relates a sense of movement; but as long as you’re in shutter-priority mode you have control.
When it comes to wide-angle cityscapes or creative shots, however, switch to aperture priority. In this mode you can accurately control depth of field and the camera will set the shutter speed. For pin-sharp foreground to background use a wide-angle focal length and set a narrow aperture (such as f/11 or narrower). As a general rule, if you focus about a third of the way into the scene you’ll achieve the widest possible depth of field. When using a narrow aperture it’s vital that you check the shutter speed is sufficiently fast enough to avoid camera shake (see box Avoiding Camera Shake). You may find that as light levels fall you have to increase the ISO setting to achieve the shutter speed you need. For this reason, it’s important that you know the maximum ISO setting you can select that doesn’t produce images that are unacceptable to you due to noise.
Don’t always assume that your images of buildings or street scenes need to be tack sharp from foreground to background. Experiment with a wider aperture setting for shallow depth of field and creative blur. Don’t go overboard with the technique as it will start to wear thin in your collection, but it’s certainly worth trying as it will introduce variation.
As well as experimenting with different shutter speeds and aperture settings to vary the look of your images, there are other key variations to consider:
• Variation of subject
Don’t just shoot buildings and cityscapes. Cities are populated by people, and they should figure in your photos. Most city break destinations attract a lot of people with cameras so the inhabitants are used to them. Smiling and being sensitive to people’s reactions to seeing a camera pointing towards them is important. Don’t impinge too much – take the shot and move on. If you become aware of a scene you’d like to shoot, and you don’t think you’ll have more than a one-shot opportunity, set the camera to full auto. That way you can concentrate on framing and focus and not have to worry about setting the right exposure. Go to local food markets when you can. These are packed with people going about their daily lives and usually the goods on sale have rich textures and colours.
Markets are good places to capture the day-to-day atmosphere of a city.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/60sec, Aperture f9, Focal length 100mm
Be on the lookout for quick candid shots that capture a specific atmosphere.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/50sec, Aperture f6.3, Focal length 24mm
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/1600sec, Aperture f5.6, Focal length 50mm
• Variation of scale
As well as the big vistas and sweeping views, look for the detail as well. All of the popular cities have innumerable fascinating architectural and other details that make for interesting images – and these are just as powerful at conveying a sense of place as the iconic cathedrals and castles.
Don’t always aim for the bigger picture, details can relate a sense of place in a different but equally effective way.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/100sec, Aperture f4, Focal length 70mm
• Variation of view
Try to avoid taking all your shots from a standing position looking straight ahead. Get down low to emphasize the reflections on wet cobble stones, for example, or find a higher viewpoint from which to capture an alternative perspective. It’s unavoidable when photographing in cities to have the camera pointing upwards for much of the time, so ensure that you seek out places that offer a good view over the city – bridges, towers, and even restaurants and bars are often good places to photograph from. Be aware of reflections though when shooting through glass, and ensure the lens is as close to the glass as possible.
Don’t always shoot at head height. Get down low to add perspective to your images.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/80sec, Aperture f9, Focal length 28mm
Use high vantage points to capture unusual views of the city.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/80sec, Aperture f5.6, Focal length 50mm
When you find a good viewpoint, consider shooting a panorama. When shooting images for a panorama use the manual exposure mode. This ensures that the exposure remains consistent across all the images. Use manual focus as well in case the auto focus system suddenly latches onto something in the foreground.
Shooting at night
Cities, with their numerous lights, are also great for nighttime photography. However, the best time to capture city lights is in fact at dusk, when the sky has a remnant of blue and has not turned completely black. This has two advantages. First, with some light left in the sky, it’s easier to balance exposure between the bright artificial lights and the background. Secondly, at this time buildings are still just visible, and the sky has some texture and tone rather than just a featureless black.
When photographing at dusk, exposure times can be as long 10-15 seconds, so you’ll need to find somewhere to place the camera and use the self-timer to trigger the shutter. With such a long exposure, you may want to make use of car lights to add a light trial through the image. Use the camera’s noise reduction setting for long exposures such as these.
Look for strong reflections in water, particularly at nighttime.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/15sec, Aperture f3.5, Focal length 24mm
Shooting in snow
Snow, like light-coloured sand, can often fool a camera’s meter into underexposing. If you’re taking shots in bright, snowy conditions use the histogram to review the exposure. If the images look consistently underexposed, set the EV compensation dial to +1/+2 to increase the exposure by one or two stops. That way the snow will appear pure white.
Review your shots
Get into the habit of reviewing your shots as often as you can. Don’t just rely on the image preview to gauge exposure. Check the histogram to make sure there aren’t too many pixels pushed up against either the left side (indicating underexposure) or the right side (indicating overexposure). By all means use the camera’s flashing highlight warning option if it has one (indicating overexposed areas).
City break photography has much to recommend it. You’ll see some breathtaking sights, gain a good amount of experience, and have a lot of fun. You should also come back with some memorable shots – na zdraví!
Eastern European capitals, such as Prague, are enormously photogenic. Look for viewpoints that allow you to capture structures from a distance.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/25sec, Aperture f5.6, Focal length 75mm