Focus on Lisbon, Berlin, and Barcelona [Encore Publication]: History, architecture, and cultures yield boundless photographic opportunities

My wife and I recently returned from two weeks of travel in Europe to fulfill several of my photography assignments. I’ll publish separate posts in the coming weeks covering some of those professional assignments. In today’s post we’ll explore the vibrant capital cities of Lisbon, Berlin, and Barcelona. While each of these three cities has a personality very much its own, I’m hoping my images will demonstrate that photographing cities, like photographing people, is all about looking for what we have in common even as we celebrate our differences. Urban photography is special to me because cities are the places where history, architecture, and culture often align most dramatically to paint a full picture of how we live today. Note that all of these images and many more are available to view and, if desired, to purchase; just click on any image to view the gallery. Enjoy!

On arrival in Lisbon, we are treated to an early morning view of the old Moorish quarter of Alfama. I like to underexpose by 1-2 stops when shooting sunrises and sunsets to bring out more intensity in the colors. If in doubt, bracket your exposures and choose the one that best captures the scene as you experienced it, or combine the different exposures into a composite high dynamic range (HDR) image.
I loved the look and feel of the old streetcars plying the streets of Lisbon, so I found this picturesque spot and waited until the next tram came into view.
If you had told me one of the most amazing experiences in Lisbon is visiting a tile museum, I’d have answered it’s more exciting to watch the grass grow. But it turns out the National Azulejo (Tile) Museum is absolutely incredible from start to finish. This ornate chapel, decorated in azulejo tiles, is entirely contained within a part of the museum. When shooting interiors it is often advantageous to use a wide-angle lens, but it’s important to keep the camera level to the plane of the ground and avoid shooting upward or downward in order to avoid the severe proportional distortion that can occur in these situations. While it is possible to correct for this sort of distortion in post-processing software like Lightroom, it is preferable to get it right in-camera.
A nighttime street scene in Lisbon’s old Moorish neighborhood of Alfama. When handholding the camera in a low-light situation, especially when a small aperture is required for depth-of-field, it’s a good idea to boost the camera’s ISO sensitivity setting in order to achieve a relatively fast shutter speed.
We spent a full day exploring the Sintra region about an hour west of Lisbon, at the very far western edge of the European continent. Quinta da Regaleira is a wonderfully eccentric estate including a palace, a chapel, and several strange features adorned with symbols of alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. Our favorite feature was this stone tower. I’m always on the lookout for repeating geometric patterns that often make for compelling images. It’s important to compose such shots carefully to enhance the power of the recurring pattern. I converted this image to black-and-white during postprocessing to give it a high-contrast graphic arts style look.

The Alfama neighborhood is famous as the birthplace of fado, a form of music typically performed by a solo singer accompanied by two Portuguese guitars. Fado is essentially a Portuguese version of the blues, with lyrics and melodies emphasizing the melancholy side of the culture. Most fado clubs feature extremely dim lighting to set the mood, and flash photography is strictly prohibited. This results in a technical challenge trying to capture good images. Here I used a very fast (f/1.4) prime lens almost all the way open and also boosted my camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to 6400 (as high as I like to go in order to avoid excessive digital noise), but still the required shutter speed was a rather slow 1/15 second. Instead of trying to capture the moving singer in tack-sharp fashion, I leaned into the mood of the place and allowed some motion blur to occur.
On our final day in Lisbon we explored Belem, an historic Medieval parish most well known for its medieval tower. Again, when shooting architecture with a wide-angle lens, try to shoot with the camera parallel to the ground to avoid distortion of the vertical lines. I also underexposed this image a bit to make for a more dramatic sky, recovering some of the shadow detail in post-processing.
Enjoying the Lisbon obsession, the sublime custard pastry known as Pastel de Belém, at the cafe that invented them (well, the recipe was probably borrowed from the Jerónimos Monastery next door). Food is a key part of any people’s culture, so I like to capture food scenes as part of every urban shoot. Insofar as possible, I try to arrange the various elements on the table so they tell a story in the frame of the image. Here I removed some of the items that cluttered the background, including just the pastries and the local coffee drinks. I try not to shoot straight down onto the food, as that usually results in unappealing shots. With food photography, some work is usually required in post-processing to adjust color temperatures and remove distractions like dirt and shadows.
After our stay in Lisbon, we enjoyed an unforgettable two days on assignment shooting the annual Mardi Gras Carnival festivities on the Poruguese owned island of Madeira. Those images will be featured in a separate post. Then, onward to Berlin. Our hotel was right next to the infamous Checkpoint Charlie section of the old Berlin Wall, shown here.
No visit to Berlin would be complete without passing through the stately neoclassical Brandenburg Gate. It can be very challenging to get a clean shot of very crowded iconic urban sites. Here I fitted a wide-angle lens, composed the shot looking straight toward the gate without pointing the camera up or down, and waited until nearly all of the tourists had left the frame. Some straightening of the vertical and horizontal lines still had to be done in post-processing to avoid the perspective distortion introduced by the very wide focal length.
Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial takes up a large city block and requires some time to take in and explore. To capture this large, powerful, and rather imposing monument, I composed using a moderately wide lens stopped down to a small aperture for maximum depth-of-field and keeping the horizon line with the background buildings completely straight. I converted to black-and-white in post-processing to achieve a stately, somber feel.
On our way home from Berlin, we had an overnight layover in Barcelona. With time in town for only one dinner and a bit of nighttime and morning sightseeing, we enjoyed Catalonian tapas for an authentic local dining experience. I arranged the stuffed pasta and wine glass in a pleasing pattern against the simple background of the wooden table and cropped the image to emphasize the food and wine without distractions. The color temperature usually needs to be adjusted during post-processing to give the food and beverage a realistic color.
Exploring Gaudí’s masterpiece, the cathedral known as La Sagrada Familia, at night. When shooting really iconic sites, I like to seek out unusual perspectives to avoid the dreaded “postcard shot”. Here I composed looking up from near the base of one of the towers, allowing the background to be filled by the dark night sky. This composition cleaned up most of the busy urban scene’s clutter and made for a dramatic capture of the basilica bathed in several types of light.
We had only 90 minutes to visit the interior of La Sagrada Familia before heading to Barcelona’s airport to fly home to San Francisco. I shot this self-portrait (Mary is also included) using a mirror positioned so visitors could view the soaring interior space of La Sagrada Familia.

I hope you enjoyed these favorite images from three great European cities, along with my descriptions of how the images were made. To view more images, or perhaps to purchase a few, just click on any of the photos to go to the gallery.

What are your favorite techniques or images from your urban photography? Do you have urban themes you like to document wherever you travel? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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