The cities of the world are as varied as the areas in which they are situated, but most have grown over the centuries to their existing size because of the significance of their location. They occupy coastal bays, surround natural harbours and sit astride major rivers. From within they are intense, chaotic places when time and space seem almost exhausted, but when viewed from afar a broader elegance is usually apparent.
The principal problem for the photographer seeking to capture the grand view is finding a suitable viewpoint. In most cases the viewpoint must be high, and therein lays the problem. Cities located among hills invariably have high vantage points served by convenient public transport. Coastal cities, and those adjacent to open spaces, can sometimes be seen in their entirety from a distance at ground level, but this is unusual. More commonly, observation platforms and towers of various types are the only public viewpoints available and therefore must be investigated. Otherwise, visit the upper floors of hotels where bars and restaurants are often found. If all else fails, try the view from your own hotel room.
Before deciding which vantage point to use, think carefully about the nature of the city. What are its principal characteristics and which features will best convey these to the viewer? In San Francisco one cannot ignore the Golden Gate Bridge or the bay, and in Rio de Janeiro the hills and the curve of Copacabana Beach define the city.
Midday pictures are usually rather flat and dull. The light of early morning or late afternoon may be more interesting, and sunset shots are always worth a try. Include the setting sun in the composition, together with any reflections of it in water that are available, but remember also to turn around and view the scene from the west. The last rays of the setting sun sometimes bathe buildings in wonderful warm colours. Twilight shots are perhaps the most rewarding of all. Plenty of blue light remains in the sky in the minutes following sunset, and many of the city’s lights will have been turned on. Use a multi-segment exposure measurement as a baseline and bracket a stop either side in small steps.