Cities are possibly the most accessible photographic locations we have. They are also the most diverse in terms of what we can shoot. Architecture, street, urbex, travel, sports, and even wildlife are among the genres that photographers can delve into.
There are some cities however that rise above all others when it comes to photography. Cities that are incredibly photogenic. These are my top ten most photogenic cities in the world. In a break with traditional top tens, I am writing this from my own actual experience of having shot in all of these locations. It is therefore both subjective, personal, and in no particular order. If you would like to add your own suggestions and expand the list, let us know in the comments.
1. London, England
There are two triple A-rated global cities on Earth. New York and London. In terms of photography, I personally feel that London has the edge. Two thousand years of history have provided stunning juxtapositions around every corner. The River Thames provides sweeping views with eclectic architecture and diverse looking bridges.
There are of course the icons of red buses, black cabs, and even the occasional red telephone box. However, beyond them, London is chock full of photogenic locations to suit all. Want to shoot wild parakeets in a temperate city, head to the Royal Parks. Sport is going on everywhere and at every level. Even the shallow hills that surround London can provide great locations for capturing cityscapes. It’s as diverse a photographic location as you will ever find.
2. Paris, France
If London is a city of juxtaposition, then Paris is its polar opposite. Stunning symmetry and the uniformity of the grand city plan upon which it was built make it one of the world’s most stunning locations and not just for photography.
Like London, many of its most photogenic locations lie along a river, in this case, the Seine. From Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower the river is a stunning backdrop to some of the most beautiful architecture in the world.
It is also a beautifully lit city, the origins of the blue hour come from l'heure bleue and it is fitting that France’s capital is one of the world's best places to practice blue hour photography.
3. Havana, Cuba
I will confess that I have a huge soft spot for Cuba’s incredible capital, Havana. It’s a place I have been drawn back to many times. The light, the architecture, the people, and of course the cars all conspire to make Havana a photographer’s playground.
It’s a remarkably safe city given its size and relative poverty. The people are open and gregarious and love having their photos taken but always ask first. It's rare that a Habanero will refuse, but some might ask for a little money.
The light especially during the golden hours is stunning. You could spend every sunset of a trip along The Malecon, Havana’s famous seawall, and always come back with new interesting shots.
4. San Franciso, USA
Many a photographer has left their heart in San Fransisco. Of the US cities I have been to, it is by far the most photogenic. With a very European feel and look and built on hills around a sweeping bay, San Francisco is a stunning location.
It is full of iconic locations, sweeping views as well as little details, all of which make it a veritable smorgasbord of photographic delights. Add in the beautiful Northern Californian light and you will certainly leave your heart there.
5. St Petersburg, Russia
Yet another city built upon water. Are you noticing a theme here? St Petersburg is a beautiful city that is photogenic both at the height of summer and in the depths of winter. In summer the White Nights give you an ethereal twilight throughout the night, a sort of eternal blue hour. With the city’s stunning and well-lit architecture it makes for great blue hour shots. In Winter the Neva River freezes over, the white of the ice, punching out the colors of the czarist architecture even more.
In recent years, St Petersburg has seen a building boom. Now along with the Czar’s palaces and 18th-century buildings, there are stunning modern skyscrapers to compete for the photographer’s eye. Add in some beautiful gold dome churches and narrow canals and St Petersburg is a must-visit for any travel photographer.
6. Shanghai, China
If shooting modern architecture is your thing then Shanghai should definitely be on your bucket list. Its ever-changing and dramatic skyline is best shot from across the Huangpu River on The Bund.
The Bund itself is a great place to shoot people but also to capture the juxtaposition of modern China with the fast disappearing 19th Century China. Head into the city’s older quarters for great street photography, old temples, and beautiful gardens. Shanghai is an extremely varied destination for photographers.
7. Hong Kong, HKSAR
Like Shanghai, Hong Kong is a master of modern architecture. Unlike Shanghai, it is built around steep hills affording some incredible cityscape views, especially from Victoria Peak.
Heading down in to the city there are still some left overs from it’s colonial past that contrast with the modern skyscrapers.
Take the Star ferry to get great shots of the city skyline and the hills behind. The ferries are also a photographic icon of the city and make a good counterpoint to skyline shots.
On the waterfront in Kowloon there is a viewing area for the nightly light shows that light up the skyline. Be sure to take a tripod to get the best results.
8. Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon is a city built upon seven hills. Hiking up them with all your camera gear will get you fit. It will also get you some great cityscape shots. Of all the cities I have visited, Lisbon has more viewpoints for great photographs than any other.
The center of the city remains un-blighted by modern architecture, yet is beautifully lit at night. The sweeping arc of the River Tagus is a constant and photogenic backdrop to this beautiful city. Being close to the North Atlantic, it can often be cloudy, but when the sea winds blow the clouds away, the light is spectacularly clear, perfect for photography.
9. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I will be honest, I never felt 100% safe in the times I have been to Rio, especially because of my camera gear. However, exercise some caution such as blanking out brand names and not walking around with your gear on show, and you will be fine.
Rio is arguably the most photogenic city on Earth. The Sugar Loaf and Corcovado both provide platforms for stunning cityscapes. The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema provide wonderful places to photograph Brazilians at play.
Like in London and Hong Kong, there is an abundance of juxtapositions, the modern against the colonial, the uber-rich, and poverty. Apply some sensible precautions and Rio will pay off big time as a photographer.
10. Cape Town, South Africa
Sitting at the southern tip of the African continent, Cape Town is a beautiful and highly photogenic city. The iconic Table Mountain affords incredible views over the city. In the city itself modern and colonial architectures work well together. The harbour area with it’s malls, restaurant and expensive yachts also has many wonderful locations to shoot from, nearly all including the backdrop of Table Mountain.
To the south west of the centre, lies Camps Bay, a very photogenic seaside resort with spectacular surf and white sand beach all enclosed by mountains in the background. Like Lisbon, San Fransisco and Havana, the ocean light is crystal clear, making photography a very pleasurable activity.
If there is one theme that ties all my top ten photogenic cities together, it’s water. Rivers, bays and oceans often give us sweeping views of the city and can provide great light too. Another thing that ties these cities is history. All have an abundance of historical locations often mixed in with the more modern.
Of course this is my personal list, based on the places that I have visited in my time as a travel photographer. You may well have visited others that you feel deserve an equal footing with the ones I have listed. If you have a favourite photogenic city, let us know in the comments below.