Urban areas present a vast treasure trove of potential for creating content. Creators can functionally use city stock footage of skylines, roads, sidewalks, parks, buildings, and other public spaces. Urban areas also have some artistic design features that can undoubtedly boost your projects. Here are some ways you can get creative filming in an urban environment!
What is Considered “City” or “Urban” Footage?
When content contains common city elements, where people, buildings, vehicles, and concrete coexist in a dense environment, it is “City” or “Urban” footage. It doesn’t have to be modern architecture, either. Plenty of cities have structures and features that are thousands of years old.
It also doesn’t have to be “New York City.” Some cities don’t have skyscrapers; some are in tropical places; some are in deserts; some are coastal; some are in the mountains; some are sprawling; some are only a few square miles. Use whatever “city” you have available to you. (Or even one where you are vacationing!) What might be a common “uninteresting sight” to you might be a unique and enticing visual sight to others. You can also be specific or broad with the subject matter. We will explore this more later on. Likewise, you can also decide to film your urban footage in a traditional or experimental style. Much of this depends on your project, but it also helps showcase the possibilities available to you, even when filming at a familiar location!
Do Your Research!
You may not know this, but the internet has a lot of information on it! To learn about an area before your shoot, use social media, YouTube, general web searching, and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) chatbots to gain more knowledge about the location. (Searching a city’s hashtags on (Searching a city’s hashtags on Instagram is one of my favorite ways to discover interesting sights in a city!)
Research goes beyond finding the best locations, angles, and general (virtual) location scouting. Also, check weather conditions, transportation/parking options, and any local regulations or fees that may come with accessing specific locations. Some cities require a tripod permit to shoot footage you plan to sell. Buildings like the Eiffel Tower at night are trademarked displays, and you may get pushback for filming there. Shooting aerials in a city is always a situation that can require permits and licenses, along with area-specific flight rules. In general, follow the main principles of pre-production, and it’ll help make things easier when you’re filming.
Time to Shoot
Once you reach your location, look at the current conditions and ensure everything works as planned. As often happens, you can still run into unexpected things upon arriving on the day of the shoot. (Events, festivals, construction, traffic, etc.) If everything looks good, this is where you can let your creativity run wild. The number of things you can shoot without moving is a testament to what’s possible. You’ve got congested city streets, steaming manholes, storefronts, people walking, subway entrances, bus stops, and more, all visible at eye level. You can look up to get a ground-level view of skyscrapers or get up high in a building to look down on the world. There are city reflections to play off of, parks juxtaposed with construction, scaffolding you could shoot through, and plenty more examples.
Each of these perspectives can (and should) motivate, improve, provide transition, or expand the story of your project. Some shots of urban areas have the added benefit of being more generic with a broad appeal and can have many different uses. Two of our top-selling clips on Pond5 are of people walking along a city street! (These two shots are even on the same street! Just at different speeds!) The anonymous but distinct nature of these shots gives them universal appeal. They can work for a documentary about climate change or an ad for sneakers. Buildings and traffic also have universal appeal as long as no famous structures or obvious signs denoting the specific location exist. You can also film underpasses and sidewalks in a way that obscures the particular site to prevent copyright issues. Shooting unique footage that appeals to multiple clients and customers is always something to consider.
In contrast, being very specific about your location also has its benefits. The Coliseum in Rome, the Empire State Building in New York, and Christ the Redeemer above Rio De Janeiro all set a specific location that can help buyers. In addition, particular landmarks or urban features can be just as famous and relevant for people to use in their projects. There are various ways you can be specific, too. You could film a wide-angle shot, showcase a distinct city skyline, or focus on a few highly identifiable buildings. Alternatively, you can be specific by simply showcasing street signs or other signage that says the city’s name.
Use urban design to your advantage. Cloverleaf interchanges, stairwells, basketball courts, trains, lamp posts, parking garages, and other urban structures can create some of the coolest and most interesting visuals you can’t create with your own lighting. For instance, a shadow or sliver of light may pass through a narrow alleyway, creating a one-of-a-kind phenomenon (think Manhattanhenge). A subway station may have a specific feature that can tell a story all by itself. There may also be a statue or landmark intentionally pointing in a specific direction, which you can lean into.
When setting up for a shot, try filming one version highlighting more specific city identifiers, such as signage. Then, similarly, film the same scene but exclude the city-specific identifiers. This isn’t always possible, but it can immediately expand the appeal of the footage you shoot at any location.
Capture the city skyline for scope. Depending on the size of the city, you may need to travel outside the city to get the skyline in the shot. Use drones or wide-angle lenses up high on a hill, or find overpasses outside the town on a beltway to get the best angle. This broader view of an urban area works great for any establishing shot and can save you from driving into city traffic. Skyline shots can also show the stark natural settings in which some cities were built.
Stay Flexible and Ethical
Always keep an open mind while filming, and do not force anything. If the weather is bad, the light is not quite right, or too many people are around, don’t be afraid to move on. Cut your losses and get more at the next location! (Or adapt your original idea to incorporate the hurdles you run into.) Along with staying flexible, always stay ethical when filming in public places. Check out this blog post where several Pond5 artists give insight into how they navigate filming in public spaces with people around. The more you film in a public place, the more adaptable and comfortable you will become!
Using City/Urban Footage
Many of the same reasons one would film urban scenes are why it can work so well in video projects. The energy of a city can come through the footage and give your project that same energy. Think of how many ads and videos start with narration, essentially saying, “In our fast-paced world…”. It’s almost always a shot of busy streets, traffic, subways, and other urban scenes. There’s no easier way to depict that concept than with places that have the visual energy built-in.
Documentaries that focus on economic and global issues also use a lot of city-centric footage. The visualization expands the scope to show the importance of the topic at hand. Brands also want to showcase their customers around the world in advertisements. They have the product to help a consumer, which needs to reach a global audience to make more money and grow their business. Film and TV show producers shoot on backlots, in studios, or in entirely different cities where they take place. In these cases, city footage is a must if the story needs a specific setting, especially for cutaways and establishing shots. Travel vloggers can also expand their story to include more landmarks and visuals they may have yet to get on their travels. There are a plethora of uses!
Urban and city footage have many uses for various video projects. You can find special shots just by looking for unique designs, reflections, lights, and shadows all around you in an urban environment. With careful planning, an eye for detail, and a willingness to move around to get creative angles, you can provide fantastic content for yourself and your clients.