7 Ways To Take Better Photos of MBS & the City

We photographers are beasts of a herd mentality.  We buy our cameras to express our creativity then read the same books & guides, learn the same compositional rules and use the same tools in processing.  It's no surprise then that a great many photographers turn out the same views of the same scenes time and again.  This isn't always a bad thing - everyone has to learn the basics somehow - but it can be disheartening for new photographers to produce something they love only for it to be ignored at best or ripped to pieces at worst.  This is a universal problem photographers face!  One example of "the common photograph" specific to Singapore is the 'meme' of the Marina Bay Sands photograph, a generalisation that also stretches to cover photos of the city too.  The universally accepted thought is that every other photograph shows either Marina Bay Sands, the city/CBD or Marina Bay Sands & the CBD.

If you're part of any Singapore online photography group, whatever the type of group you're in, you'll be aware of what I mean.   Images like this are extremely common.  I'm as guilty of this myself as anyone - just take a look at my current banner image for the site! - because these are beautiful views.  The CBD skyline & the waterfront are extremely photogenic and whether you like the design of MBS or not, it's certainly eye-catching and striking.  With the rate of change & growth in Singapore there's also a good argument to make sure we photograph it lots now before it changes

With such a striking & accessible view and with such an active photographic community here in Singapore you can understand why we see these images so frequently.  That said, I've come up with some simple suggestions for how you can think about photographing this subject in a different way to produce eye-catching photographs.

1. Choose Your Focal Length Wisely

Most photographers use a wide angle lens to capture as much of the skyline as possible but the drawback of this is that wide angles make your subjects appear small in the frame.  Unless you're prepared to crop heavily or you're capturing a wide sweep of landscape with lots of focal interest, you're likely to end up with your city skyline totally overwhelmed by sky or the bay.  Sometimes this doesn't hurt the image but if you look at the most common images all too often the subject is tiny when compared to the sky.  

Ignore the post-processing that has been applied, here I'm showing that simply sticking MBS on the horizon gives a ton of empty sky and empty water.  It results in a commonly-seen image with less long-term appeal than you might be able to achieve with planning & thought. Image credit Jz, seen here

Ignore the post-processing that has been applied, here I'm showing that simply sticking MBS on the horizon gives a ton of empty sky and empty water.  It results in a commonly-seen image with less long-term appeal than you might be able to achieve with planning & thought.

Image credit Jz, seen here

If you're going to use a wide-angle lens, be sure to include foreground interest - it really improves the appeal of an image, even if the light isn't quite so complimentary.

Even though the light isn't exactly great, the sailing boats give a foreground interest that adds impact to the scene when compared to the empty view above. Image credit William Cho, seen here

Even though the light isn't exactly great, the sailing boats give a foreground interest that adds impact to the scene when compared to the empty view above.

Image credit William Cho, seen here

The flipside of this is when you crop too heavily or use a telephoto to fill the frame, you end up losing a sense of context & scale and your composition suffers too - you run the risk of simply producing a record-shot or "holiday snap" without a personal touch or strong interest point. 

Barely any extra space around MBS here but also not much else in the way of interest - compositionally, placing the subject right in the centre of the frame is usually not so appealing.

Image credit Drriss, seen here

Always be mindful of the tried-and-tested compositional guidelines when framing your photo and if a particular angle isn't working - whether it's too tightly cropped or lacking a point of interest - either try a new shooting position, change your composition or wait for something to enter the frame.  Making the landmark you want to shoot PART of the scene rather than just dumping it smack in the centre and shooting away like crazy isn't going be as effective as taking the time to correctly compose your photo.

2. Use The Best Light

Blue skies & fluffy white clouds can be pretty but it's almost always better to time your photograph during the blue & golden hours - an hour just before & after sunrise/sunset.  As well as the attractive colour of the sky, the lower angle of the sun can produce interesting shadows and contrasts.  Even clouds will be more visually appealing and there's always the chance of crepuscular rays and other exciting lighting effects.  The colours at these time of day change quickly, make sure you have plenty of space on your memory card to capture the swiftly-changing hues!

Compare this to the previous shot of the Merlion and the differences are immediately apparent.  Although there's nothing wrong with the second shot at all and it's well exposed for the conditions, the first shot is much more dramatic and appealing.  This is largely due to the blue sky & scattered clouds. Second image credit to Rolf Piepenbring, originally seen here

Compare this to the previous shot of the Merlion and the differences are immediately apparent.  Although there's nothing wrong with the second shot at all and it's well exposed for the conditions, the first shot is much more dramatic and appealing.  This is largely due to the blue sky & scattered clouds.

Second image credit to Rolf Piepenbring, originally seen here

Night photography is another option and comes with the added option of timing your photo around one of the many varied lightshows in the evening.

You can use tools like The Photographer's Ephemeris to plan exactly what time of day you will have sunrise/sunset and even the exact angle of the sun.  By timing your shot to take advantage of the best light you have a better chance of producing an image that's memorable rather than a tourist snapshot!

4. Find New Angles

You don't need to shoot the same old scenes to make use of the wonderful city skyline.  Focusing on just a small section of the city can yield unique & interesting views.  With the right conditions you can get some stunning results.  Even if you aren't lucky enough to get the best light your photos will stand out by virtue of being new & different.  You only need to include a small recognisable landmark or building for people to recognise what they are looking at yet still present an unusual angle.

Exploring and looking for new scenes will also help you learn to "see" and improve all aspects of your photography.

5. Ditch the HDR

Well, maybe you don't need to ditch it completely but please use it in moderation!  HDR can be a powerful tool but all too often people simply crank the sliders to max and produce images that look like a computer generated scene at best or a vomit of colour at worst.

By all means, create an image you love and you are happy with but when it comes to improving your photography and your usage of HDR, less is DEFINITELY more.  Try to learn to use filters to handle difficult lighting situations rather than simply using HDR and you'll find you've learned another skill you can apply in future.

Image credit CandiiCandii, seen here

Image credit CandiiCandii, seen here

Image credit Nguyen Ngoc Trang Dai, seen here

Image credit Nguyen Ngoc Trang Dai, seen here

The best examples of HDR are often ones where you don't realise it's HDR at all.  Using the technique to tease out more detail while still ensuring the scene looks realistic will really give your images appeal and will help you work on nuturing your own signature look & feel for your images. Using the same old presets in Photomatix or Silver Efex Pro isn't teaching you anything!

6. Be Creative

BASE Jump

If you can include a human element in your photography or capture a unique moment then it will have a huge attraction from the outset.  People tend to like photos with other people in them and they can be useful to give a sense of scale & drama.

Alternatively, if you can capture unique & interesting moments against a familiar backdrop that really helps your image stand out.

Don't settle for taking the same photo time and again.  Look for something new or different you can incorporate and keep an eye out for public events & special occasions that will help you add a unique element to your shots.

7. Find Your Own Style

This could also have been written "Avoid tired cliches", or maybe even "Know Your Audience" depending on what you're trying to achieve.  There are an awful lot of very similar images out there and on the rare occasion people do produce new and exciting photos of a familiar scene its often tempting to simply take the same photo yourself.  Someone finds a good, new spot and all of a sudden you see a flurry of clones hit Facebook & Instagram!

Long term, this doesn't help you as a photographer.  If all you are doing is waiting for someone else to take a picture before you try and copy their approach, you're not growing or learning.  It's much, much more productive and fulfilling to get out there yourself and challenge yourself to produce something new.  If you don't do this, and simply go to the same tired old spots everyone else has used a thousand times already you aren't going to learn anything new or produce a remarkable photograph.

If you push yourself to find new scenes & new ways of processing and presenting your work then you can take landmarks & sights like MBS and the city skyline and show them in new & exciting ways.  You'll learn in the process and your results will stand out in the crowd.

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You've probably realised that I've used the example of MBS to cover some very basic concepts to help push you towards developing & improving your photography.  While it's true I picked the topic because MBS photos are definitely something of a cliche, it's a good example of how you can challenge yourself to take a photo that's been shot a million times before and try to produce something that is recognisably your style and that has appeal over and above the mundane photos we see every day.  If you can challenge yourself to do this, even if you don't succeed at first, you're still going to improve as a photographer in the long term.