Cities provide a ton of opportunities to get creative with your photography. With gritty textures, array of colors, and unique lighting, downtowns become playgrounds for photographers with keen eyes for composition. In this video, I’m going to challenge myself to find 5 compositions for portraits in the city using only available light and existing elements in the city.

Video: 5 Compositions for Portraits in the City Using Only Available Light

I love this photography challenge because it’s designed to get us out of our own heads. Wielding just a camera and a basic lens, you have to work with what’s available to find your portraits. You’re forced to really see the way the light bounces off surfaces and look for unique shapes, textures, and compositions. Simply get out there, and see what you find!

Before we dive in, be sure to give Kiara a follow on Instagram. For today’s portraits in the city, I’ll be using my Canon EOS R5 with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. All of the final portraits in this video are edited using Visual Flow’s Mood Presets.

  1. Scene #1: The Grate
  2. Scene #2: The Stairs
  3. Scene #3: The Crosswalk
  4. Scene #4: The White Window
  5. Scene #5: Nighttime

Related Reading: 5 Things to Look For When Shooting Natural Light Portraits in Urban Locations

Scene #1:

portraits in the city reflected light
Camera settings: 1/500 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100

We began toward the end of the day and the sunlight was reflecting off of a building in the background. This provided a nice light on the grates on the side of this building. For our first shot, I used the grates as leading lines and framed Kiara on the right third of the image.

Scene #2:

portraits in the city stairs
Camera settings: 1/500 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100

For our second scene, we headed over to these stairs. Rather than capturing straight on, I moved to the side and shot through the railing. This angle gives us a cool, voyeuristic perspective. The color of the railing also fit with Kiara’s outfit, giving us a cohesive feel the final photo.

Scene #3:

Camera settings: 1/1000 sec, f/1.4, ISO 400

Our next location provided a great opportunity to add in some motion. We came across this crosswalk with a building in the background still catching some of the remaining sunlight. I angled the camera low and up and shot as Kiara walked across the street. This created an awesome “city” vibe. To prevent motion blur, I cranked the shutter speed up to 1/1000.

Scene #4:

Camera settings: 1/500 sec, f/1.4, ISO 800

Next, we stopped at a closed-down ship with a large window that was covered in white paper. The white paper created a large negative space that doubled as a fill light. I got right up against the window and had Kiara lean against it as well. I utilized the negative space by framing Kiara on the left for a “commercial” look.

Scene #5:

portraits in the city nighttime
Camera settings: 1/160sec, f/1.4, ISO 1600

Our last scene takes place after the sunset. I found that at night, the city takes on a while different vibe with the various store lights creating unique portrait opportunities. We found a large window that created a beautiful soft light. By having Kiara casually lean against it, we get this perfect downtown, winter-style portrait.


I highly recommend this challenge for anyone looking to sharpen their eye for portraits in the city using available light! If you enjoyed this video, check out our Mastering Lightroom course on SLR Lounge Premium. There, you’ll also find entire training systems on Flash Photography, Wedding Photography, and more. You can also visit Visual Flow for our library of Lightroom presets and retouching tools.

Don’t miss our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!