Photographing a wedding or engagement session in the city can be wonderful – the unique buildings, streets, and natural features provide backdrops that define each city in a beautiful way. But there is also a lot of stress that can come with photographing in a city. I used to get so anxious about shooting in the city! People everywhere, cars (parked and moving), and tight crowded spaces could make any photographer a little nervous. But photographing in the city doesn’t need to be scary! I use the following tips when photographing a session in a busy city ensure I give my couples the best pictures possible and that no matter what location I am shooting in, the pictures match my style. As someone who lives right in-between Baltimore and Washington DC, I get the opportunity to photograph a lot in the cities – and I have grown to love it so much! I hope this helps with your next city-based wedding or engagement session!
This may sound obvious, but patience is the key to getting those beautiful portraits without tourists in the background. I make sure I make this clear to my couple too, especially when we are shooting in an extra busy location, like the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, because it can be tough to hold a position and wait for the right moment. In this shot, Alexa and Josh knew to hold their pose for longer than normal while I waited for the steps around them to clear – and the second they did, I took the pictures I waited. That meant that I positioned them and myself in the location I wanted ahead of time, and then adjusted my settings and waited. If the wait will be long, I will position a couple but then tell them when to kiss, smile, etc. when the coast is clear.
This was shot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which on a Sunday evening was hard to even walk up because it was crowded with so many people sitting on the stairs and traveling up and down. I wish I had taken a shot of the steps because DC was packed! This shot was the result of true patience! Alexa and Josh held their pose while I waited for the right moment – my settings adjusted and camera at my eye. And we got it!
Be creative with angles
I’m not a big fan of angles in pictures; it reminds me too much of the early 2000’s! But finding different angles to shoot from can help hide crowds. For example, stand above the couple (on a bench or staircase) and shoot down. This will hide the crowds around the couple and give a new perspective to their shoot. Shooting up can do the same thing. Be careful shooting up, because it is not always the most flattering angle, but using the sky as your backdrop can hide crowds and provide another beautiful angle. Have your couple doing something (kissing, smiling at each other), since smiling at the camera in this pose would not be ideal.
On the left, Tina and Jacob were seated on a small staircase, so this was the perfect opportunity to get a shot from above them. Jenna and Charles went to Patterson Park for their engagement session, which can be a little busy. This angle helped hide people that were passing by.
Use layer masks
While patience works for most shots, it won’t always work. In those cases, I take two pictures – or a few more – and merge them together using layers and masks to remove the unwanted parts of each photo. This can be a little tedious, so this is not something you would want to do for more than a few photos, but in a busy city, it can be the perfect tool to get THAT shot in a crowded area.
During a wedding, there often isn’t much time to wait for the crowds to clear. But luckily with Photoshop I was able to create a tourist-free shot during Shaun and Nick’s Baltimore wedding. In the right, off camera, was a very large group, and to the left, up on the grassy area, was the cocktail hour. I used layers and the clone stamp to create a clean backdrop that would have been challenging to achieve in our timeframe otherwise.
Use your couple as a block and shoot with a high aperture
One of my favorite tips – and one I use a lot – is to compose the shot so that my couple is hiding tourists behind them. As the tourists behind them move, I can also move the opposite direction, thereby continuing to block them from the shot . I don’t just use this for tourists; if there is a sign or other city-element that I want to block, I can put my couple in front of it by some distance and then use my lens choice (longer lens for more compression and ideally a prime lens so that I can have a very high aperture) and how I move my body (oftentimes getting LOWER and standing some distance away) will work because it makes my couples appear taller than the object they are blocking. I use the high aperture, essentially, to blur the background, further drawing the focus to my couple and away from the other elements of the city. In one regard, the hustle and bustle of the city can be an interesting aspect of the photos, but my primary goal is to make the couple the focal point of the vast majority of my portraits. This is why I shoot with a higher aperture, shoot when the crowds subside, and block unwanted objects using the couple.
For this shot, Jenna and Charles (and their pup!) were blocking a crosswalk and moving cars! Jenna’s brother kept watch and when a car got close, we stepped out to let it pass, then moved back to our spot. The parked cars lining the street didn’t bother me; in fact, I liked how they provided leading lines, again bringing the focus to the couple.
Use tight crops
While wide angle shots are gorgeous, they can be tough in a busy area. To solve this, shooting in tight crops can help avoid distracting backgrounds. I will use wider angles when I have a clean, open background – either a location without tourists (like a wall or open water behind the couple) or when the tourists have cleared.
At Cathy and Allen’s Pier 5 wedding, shooting tight helped us avoid busy backgrounds with distracting people. We also used the water as a backdrop to keep the focus on the couple.
Choose your times well
Some locations are almost always crowded – like Washington DC. But there are days and times with less foot traffic. For example, a Wednesday morning at sunrise will be far less crowded than a Saturday at noon. Weekdays are excellent times for photo sessions, as weekends (Friday through Sunday) tend to be very crowded. Shooting earlier and later – at sunrise and sunset – will also be less crowded than the middle of the day (plus you’ll have much better lighting!).
Now this is not a city, but Patapsco State Park gets so crowded on weekends that it can feel like a city! Katie and Joe smartly chose to go on a weekday evening (and even then we had some crowds!). We waited our turn for this waterfall, and it made for some gorgeous pictures! On a weekend, though, this waterfall is filled with waders (and water-loving dogs), so this shot would have been close to impossible on a weekend.
Finally, find those hidden spots
Cities are crowded – and they get even more crowded around popular areas. The DC cherry blossoms, the monuments, or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor will always be hot spots for tourists (and locals!). But there are lots of great hidden gems near these locations. Head for side streets for fewer crowds and a new perspective. At the monuments, check out a different side – oftentimes the front will be packed and the back is not crowded! And during cherry blossom season, look for other gorgeous flowers; they will be less crowded and just as beautiful (plus, they add variety to a cherry blossom session).
During Jackie and Zach’s sunrise Washington DC engagement session, we got lots of gorgeous portraits with the cherry blossoms and the monuments, but one of my absolute favorite pictures (ever!) was this adorable shot of these two in this tulip tree that was just one street over from the cherry blossoms. Whereas the cherry blossoms were beginning to get crowded with vistors, this tulip tree had nearly no one around. It was perfect!