I love living in NYC, but when I see the amazing landscapes that photographers in other parts of the county get to shoot, I admit I’m a little jealous. I would so love to shoot my clients against a backdrop of mountains, or a redwood forest, or a field of bluebonnets.
On the other hand, photographing savvy city kids in their natural habitat is pretty awesome! These kids are are a different breed! So confident and street smart. My 5 year old can tell you how to get anywhere in the city by subway, and he can navigate the hell out of a city block covered in dog poop and garbage. He can also hail me a cab! Today’s kids definitely seem more advanced than I was back in the day.
And as for the city itself, while it may lack natural beauty, it has so much else to offer — geometry, textures, shadows, and character. Preparation is required, but once you embrace it, there are so many ways to use the cityscape to your advantage when shooting kids and families.
I like using the city’s geometry to frame my photos and add visual interest. Below are just a few examples of how to use the lines and shapes to compose your shot. Tip: Use Photoshop’s perspective control tools to make sure all the lines are perfectly horizontal and vertical.
We may not have fields of flowers but dammit we have grit. A lot of it. Murals, graffiti, weathered facades, peeling paint, industrial storefronts — it’s not traditionally beautiful, but it’s real and it’s interesting. Just like the kids who live here.
These city kids will rule the world.
Take advantage of open shade
Those photographers who live in rural areas or at the beach are often limited to shooting during golden hour — the magical time period that’s roughly an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset. At other times the sun is too harsh. But in the city, the tall buildings provide ample shade, creating more opportunities to shoot at different times of the day with the bonus of some dramatic shadows.
These photos were taken in the middle of the day in bright sunlight.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Shooting amidst natural beauty is, well, beautiful (duh . . .). But it’s also kind of generic in that it doesn’t usually reveal anything personal about the subjects. When shooting in the city, there is opportunity to make the photos more personal, special, and authentic. I can photograph my clients on their front stoop, at their local playground, and in their favorite coffee shop. These local landmarks add to the importance of the photos, especially years later when families have perhaps moved or kids have grown up. I so wish I had a portrait of my family in front of the house I grew up in.
Even though I live in a very densely populated area, I still want my portraits to be free of distracting elements in the background. That means no cars and no random people junking up my photos. Having shot in Brooklyn for many years now, I know the dead end, scenic, quiet streets where I can take my clients to ensure a beautiful and clean background. This also allows them some privacy so they don’t feel “on display” during their shoot, as well as providing the kids some space to run and be spontaneous.
Developing this knowledge takes research. Use Google maps to find dead-end streets and then use streetview to scout them online. Review geotagged photos on Instagram for the city you’ll be shooting in. See what spots other photographers have already located. Once you have some potential spots visit them in person. Use an app to see where and when the sun rises and sets in relation to the location.
Some of my favorite spots here in Brooklyn are Verandah Place, Grace Court Alley, and Hunts Lane. In the photos below, the kids were able to play freely and safely (with mom and dad close by) while I photographed them on these quiet, scenic streets.
Grace Court Alley
Sometimes, there’s going to be junk in the background and you can’t escape it. But you can shoot wide open and blur it out. This photo was taken in the alley of a repurposed industrial building in Industry City.
Sometimes distracting background clutter is unavoidable. When possible, remove it using Photoshop’s clone stamp tool or spot healing brush.
When that’s not possible, you can sometimes neutralize it. In this photo, there were bright blue trashcans on the right side of the image. I couldn’t clone them out, so I changed their color so they blend more easily into the background.
When all else fails, fill the frame with the subjects to hide background clutter.
I love seeing the wonder of the city through my kids’ eyes. That means getting down on their level with my camera to see the city the way they see it. There’s something pretty amazing about seeing a small person look up at skyscrapers or a 3 year old strut down the city sidewalk like she owns it.
I still feel that sense of wonder myself, and these photos remind me how lucky I am to be raising my kids in the most amazing city in the world.
Brooklyn Bridge Park