No open fields? 8 reasons to love a city setting for portraits

  • photo of boy playing in a large water puddle in the city by Tarah Beaven

Nature, grass stains and muddy faces are synonymous with childhood.

But what if you don’t live in suburbia?

Maybe a concrete jungle surrounds you instead. Living in a metropolitan city has a unique set of obstacles when it comes to photographing children like not having a backyard – let lone a front-yard! Raising my family in San Francisco forced me to get over my ideals of photographing them in idyllic locations. Embracing where I live made me realize how special it is to raise my family here. Backyard or not, capturing your urban lifestyle will make for cherished photos.

Here are a few tips on how to photograph your children living in a big city:

1. Look beyond the frame

How does your family exist within your city? Look beyond your immediate focal point and incorporate more of your environment. What surrounds you will tell the story of your life, after all. It’s easy to want to crop out buildings and gritty sidewalks from your images because it’s not nature. But that’s city living’s version of mud, tumbleweeds and trees. Remind yourself that you’re a historian of your life. If you’re choosing to raise your family in a city – it’s for a reason.

picture of siblings in San Francisco by Tarah Beaven

2. How to find the light

One of the trickiest parts of living in a big city is that golden hour really only happens at the city outskirts, such as the beach. By the time golden hour rolls around, the high-rises will have obstructed it and now your location is in full shade. Check out this nifty app, Sun Surveyor, and problem solved! It gives a live-view of where the sun will be at your exact location in a 24-hour period. You can also use it remotely by typing in an address for a map view.

tween photo around some trees by Tarah Beaven

3. Combat the full sun in the city

Speaking of buildings obstructing the sun. To get softer light and sunbursts in full sun, use a building to filter it. By shooting with the sun partially clipped by a building or wall, it will soften the highlights and shadows on your subject.

backlit picture by a red wall by Tarah Beaven

4. Incorporate the architecture

Big cities have some of the best architecture. Strategically intertwine your subject within the environment to bring it to life. Shoot with a wide lens, 24mm or wider, to show scale and to fit everything in the frame.

child portrait around city buildings by Tarah Beaven

5. Go on an adventure

It’s easy to forget what makes your city special and unique. Take advantage of what your city has to offer and plan adventures with the kids to see some of your favorite iconic and local places. It may seem like a hassle now, but having photos of your children in these iconic places will be a nostalgic reminder of growing up in the city.

picture of people looking out windows of a parking garage by Tarah Beaven

6. See the texture

Metropolitan cities have interesting textures everywhere, be it an art installation or unique exterior/interior design elements. Contrasting textures, smooth verses ridged, make photos pop. For example, look for opposing elements like bricks and leaves. Remember to get in close for these portraits so you can see the texture. Wide shots are fun too, but the contrasting texture will soften the farther you move away.

tween portrait against a wall by Tarah Beaven

7. Embrace the grit

Ah, city grit. Love it some days, hate it most others. Broken glass on the sidewalks and streets – not fun. But funky wall murals or rundown buildings? LOVE IT. There’s something freeing and rebellious about city grit, like graffiti – maybe because kids know they’re not allowed to color on walls. Have fun and play-up the mood of the grit, be it silly, nefarious or serious. Remember, playing up the mood is key to a successful portrait.

pic of kid by a grafitti wall by Tarah Beaven

8. Find hidden treasures

Finding you in a metropolitan city is so important. It’s easy to forget what your identity is amidst the hubbub of tourism, commerce and over population in a big city. What makes your heart sing? Find those small nooks within your city that you and your children love. Maybe it’s a community garden or at the beach. Go there and connect with each other.

photo of girl on a swing overlooking San Francisco by Tarah Beaven

Calling all urban dwellers, what do you love most about photographing your children living in a big city? I’d love to hear your city living experiences, comment below and let’s chat.

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About the Author:

Tarah is a lifestyle photographer in San Francisco specializing in maternity and newborns. She also loves photographing her son and their adventures together. Tarah has been featured by Good Housekeeping and Red Tricycle and more.

17 Comments

  1. Tami Nov 02 2016 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Such wonderful tips, Tarah! Definitely gives me some ideas for shooting in the city! <3

    • Tarah Nov 03 2016 at 5:42 pm - Reply

      Yess! Shoot away! It’s so much fun and has its own unique set of photo perks and challenges.

  2. Tarah Nov 02 2016 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing my tips Clickin Moms! Love you guys.

  3. Jessica Nelson Nov 02 2016 at 9:18 pm - Reply

    This is really great! I have a tough time with my yard and lots of obstructions so these are wonderful suggestions. 🙂

    • Tarah Nov 02 2016 at 10:32 pm - Reply

      Oh, yea, it’s tricky! We don’t have a front or a backyard! Pair that with living in a city and it makes you get creative. Glad you enjoyed the tips! 🙂

  4. John Nov 03 2016 at 12:16 am - Reply

    Great article and tips!

    • Tarah Nov 03 2016 at 5:43 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much! Hopefully you found some to be inspiring.

  5. Heather Nov 03 2016 at 9:41 am - Reply

    This is amazing! I need to get out and do more site shots!

    • Tarah Beaven Nov 03 2016 at 9:44 am - Reply

      Thanks Heather! Yes, getting out and taking photos in and around the city you’re raising your children in is so special and makes for treasured memories when they’re older. Have fun and can’t wait to see what you capture!

  6. Emily Beaven Nov 03 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

    I can tell it’s SF, but also not – there are so many surprise surroundings in here. I especially love the tree swing – how amazing is that! I think you did a good job of breaking through the cliche spots (e.g., GG Bridge) and captured a really unique point of view of our awesome City By The Bay. And these tips totally translate to other cities too! FAB!

    • Tarah Nov 03 2016 at 5:44 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much Emily! Yes, when you live in the city, going to all the iconic places can be a drag. I do recommend it though! At least to get your stamp on it. And then explore from there. Happy shooting.

  7. Olga Levien Nov 03 2016 at 6:49 pm - Reply

    Love these tips, thank you for sharing!

    • Tarah Nov 04 2016 at 11:30 am - Reply

      Thanks Olga! Hope it gave you some ideas. 🙂

  8. Kat Figlak Nov 03 2016 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    What a great article! Thank you for all the information very helpful!! I can’t wait to try your advise.

    • Tarah Nov 04 2016 at 11:30 am - Reply

      Thank you Kat! I can’t wait to see what you capture.

  9. Matt Cranford Nov 04 2016 at 4:08 am - Reply

    All great tips. I’ve always known that a city can have good, out of the way areas for taking pictures. But I have not considered incorporating my child into those pictures until now. This has given me s new approach to using the city as my backdrop.

    • Tarah Nov 04 2016 at 11:32 am - Reply

      Indeed! It’s easy to want to cut out the “city.” But when you take a step back and really think about where you’re raising your family and how you live, incorporating these attribute make for memorable portraits of your children. This can applied to anywhere!

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