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Tips and techniques

Urban Nature (Revisited)

By August 2, 2022No Comments
Photo of Manhattan skyline with added vegetation. A “garden-variety” view of Midtown Manhattan © F. M. Kearney

A “garden-variety” view of Midtown Manhattan © F. M. Kearney

Revealing the Softer Side of a Concrete Jungle

By F. M. Kearney

One of the problems for nature photographers who live in urban areas is where to find nature. I’ve written a number of articles that touch on this topic in the past. One that specifically pertains to this issue can be found here. I hope this article will open up even more avenues of creativity.

Loading Files into a Stack

City parks, of course, are obvious locations to start. But what if you want to do something a bit more “out the box”? The opening image is a photo illustration of what Manhattan might look like if its rooftop gardens got a little out of control. I created it Photoshop by combining two images. There are many ways to combine images, but the method I like to use most often is: File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack.

Combining images in the days of film was quite different. You either had to make a negative or slide “sandwich” by physically placing two or more pieces of film together and scanning the image compilation, or (my personal favorite) by shooting an in-camera multiple exposure. Neither method came anywhere close to the levels of creativity and control that are now possible with today’s digital technology. When you load images in a stack, you’re able to combine them in ways that were never possible with film. To make my “garden-variety” view of Manhattan, I loaded Photos “A” and “B” in a stack with Photo “A” on top. By adding a layer mask, I was able to use the brush tool to “paint in” various parts of Photo “B” in strategically selected areas.

To make this image work, I needed to find an urban photo and a nature photo that complimented each other well. The multi-colored skyscrapers, bathed in the warm, evening light, paired perfectly with the fall foliage of Croton Dam Park, located in Upstate New York. As you can see from the original photo of the skyline, the only area of nature was the small park in the foreground. All of the other trees and foliage were blended in from Photo “B” – creating a scene that most New Yorkers might wish existed in reality.

PHOTO A: Midtown Manhattan skyline  (left)                                   PHOTO B:  Croton Dam Park – Cortlandt, NY (right)  © F. M. Kearney

This compilation produced a photo that was somewhat believable. However, if you want to go full “fantasy-mode,” feel free to have some fun with it. I combined the Lower Manhattan skyline (Photo “C”) with a bed of tulips (Photo “D”), resulting in an image that could only exist in one’s wild imagination (Photo “E”).

Two more images for a composite. PHOTO C: Lower Manhattan skyline PHOTO D: A bed of tulips © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO C: Lower Manhattan skyline                                                   PHOTO D: A bed of tulips © F. M. Kearney

A composite photo with tulips superimposed on the Manhattan skyline. PHOTO E: A whimsical view of the Lower Manhattan skyline © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO E: A whimsical view of the Lower Manhattan skyline © F. M. Kearney

This compilation was much easier to create, because I wasn’t at all concerned with strategic placements. Once again, I combined the images in a stack, then, made a selection of the outline of the city – taking care to ensure that all traces of the buildings were included in the selection, without any of the sky being selected. This required tightly zooming into the image to check all the minor details. I didn’t want to completely replace the city with the tulips, so I reduced their opacity just enough so that some city lights and windows were still visible.

Composing for Compilations

When I first started doing compilations like this, I would simply go through my files to find images that might work well together. I shot the bed of tulips (Photo “D”) in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Each spring, they host a spectacular display with hundreds of colorful tulips that attract hoards of visitors. Getting a wide shot of the display without including any visitors is tough. You have to zoom in for a tighter view to crop out the crowd. But, since I only intended to use this photo in a future compilation (although I didn’t know what at the time), I wasn’t at all concerned with the distractions in the upper left.

Lately, I’ve gotten in the habit of shooting images specifically for the purpose of making future compilations. If I come across an interesting cluster of flowers, I’ll try to shoot a closeup, a mid-range and a far shot – giving me a variety of size options. As a result, these images are often filled with many distractions around the edges (like Photo “D”). I wouldn’t exactly consider most of them as quality, stand-alone photos, but they more than suffice as compilation images. Of course, you can always resize images in Photoshop, but this just gives you more options to work with.

Urban Exploring

Image compilations are fun, but if you prefer something a little more natural-looking, just take a walk around town and see what you might find. Elements of nature can be found in all large cities, but you want to capture something a bit more interesting than a row of trees on a city street. Creatively merging these two worlds can be a tricky and/or difficult endeavor. You need to capture both the natural and urban subjects at just the right moment. If you’re lucky, you may find an unusual juxtaposition.

One winter, I went to the top of a hill the northern part of Central Park. I was able to get an overview of the entire park – all the way to the skyline buttressing its southern end. I knew I had found that unusual juxtaposition when I came across a grove of staghorn sumac trees. At any other time of the year, the branches would have been covered with leaves – completely obscuring the view. But, in the winter, only the upright buds remain at the tips of each branch. Viewed from afar, these buds sort of resembled a type of skyline themselves – mirroring that of their urban counterpart in the background. I started shooting late in the afternoon and continued until just after sunset. It was the images I shot after dark that had the most impact. Silhouetted against a colorful sky and twinkling city lights, these buds looked like dozens of tiny Empire State Buildings, as seen in the center with the green antenna (Photo F).

PHOTO F: The wintery remains of staghorn sumac trees provided a nice foreground element for the city skyline. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO F: The wintery remains of staghorn sumac trees provided a nice foreground element for the city skyline. © F. M. Kearney

Finding nature within an urban environment really isn’t that difficult. Creatively combining nature with urban subjects, however, can be a challenge. But, if you take the time to carefully study your surroundings, you just might reveal a softer side of your city as well as a unique juxtaposition.

F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit He can be contacted at, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).