Urban Nature

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

How can I crop out the edge of that building?

Has the traffic completely cleared the scene yet?

Are those tourists ever going to move?

If you’ve ever tried to shoot nature photos within an urban environment, you’ve undoubtedly asked yourself questions like these at one time or another. I often write about the difficulties of pursuing a career as a nature photographer in a large metropolitan city. It’s not always economically or logistically possible to escape city limits and venture into the wild to capture true nature. You sometimes have no choice but to shoot nature wherever you can find it—amidst all the inherent distractions of a concrete jungle.

I used to go to great lengths to avoid any man-made objects in my nature photos, believing that any hint of urban artifacts would lessen the impact of the natural subject. This would be true if the objects were only in the shot due to careless oversight. However, it’s an entirely different story if their inclusion is deliberate and done for creative purposes.

Cities come alive with color in the spring. You probably won’t have to go far to find a beautiful flower display. Instead of attempting to isolate it from its surroundings, try to incorporate the natural and the artificial worlds.

Looking down Park Avenue

Looking down Park Avenue

In New York, colorful tulips adorn the median of Park Avenue for several miles. With the traffic zooming by just a few feet away, it’s amazing that they survive. Yet, not only do they survive in this inhospitable environment, they flourish. And for a couple of weeks during the season, they really put the “park” in Park Avenue. Countless tourists photograph these flowers each year, but very few hang around until twilight. That’s too bad (well, it’s great for me since I practically have the whole place to myself), because the city and traffic lights add a lot of vitality to the scene. Instead of waiting for the traffic to clear out of the shot in the photo above, I waited for it to enter. I wanted to use the light trails from passing vehicles as a dynamic framing element for the tulips, as well as a way to help draw the viewer’s eye into the shot. I chose this particular spot in between two glass towers for more symmetry and more colorful light reflecting off the windows. Lastly, I used a 16mm fisheye lens to emphasize the “tunnel” effect of the scene.

Tulip display near The Empire State Building New York, NY (HDR compilation of 5 images)

A sidewalk planter near the Empire State Building.

If your town doesn’t have a famous, floral-festooned boulevard, try a sidewalk planter. Primarily found in commercial districts, these little pockets of nature are often placed near landmarks or well-known buildings—perfectly situated to be used as interesting foreground elements. The photo above shows one of the many planters near the Empire State Building. Once again, the fisheye was my lens of choice. By placing the Empire at center-frame, only the surrounding buildings were affected by its barrel distortion—creating the illusion of the buildings bowing to her majesty.

Spring certainly isn’t the only season when you can capture great shots of nature within a city. Winter is a wonderful time as well. Although one might envision a beautiful, snow-covered scene, snow doesn’t always have to be present to appreciate the beauty of the season.

Sunrise at Twin Lakes New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY (HDR 5-image compilation)

Sunrise at the New York Botanical Garden

I shot the photo above early one morning in the New York Botanical Garden. Known for its beauty, the garden is located in the heart of the Bronx—a much less picturesque neighborhood than Midtown Manhattan. Before I shot this, I had taken several other photos of the bare trees reflecting on the still lake in the pre-dawn light—successfully avoiding any traces of man-made objects. I looked at this scene for some time before deciding if it was even worth a shot. Capturing the sunrise was impossible without including the nearby apartment buildings as well. As the sun began to rise, I figured it was now or never, and I shot this scene. I’m really glad I did, because it shows just how beautiful the Bronx can be at this magical time of day.

Attempting to remove the urban from the nature is no easy task. Sometimes, it seems like no matter where you point your camera, elements of man are never too far away.

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Clouds in their natural (left) and artificial environments.

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This is evident even in a simple photo of clouds (above) that I shot from my bedroom window. A much wider view reveals the true locale of the scene. In a way, photographing nature in the city makes me think of the 1983 hit song from Naked Eyes—“(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”—that civilization is literally just around the corner. So why fight it? You may not be able to do anything about the tourists, but with a little creative thought and planning, you can produce some unique and compelling images by combining the natural and artificial worlds.


F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.