man sitting on top of a building at dusk

The Secrets of the City

Jeroen van Dam

As blue hour sweeps across Paris and electric lights begin to twinkle in the gathering dark, photographer Jeroen van Dam trains his Sony Alpha 7R III on a couple staring at the illuminated face of a historic clock tower. But this is no ordinary urban image. Instead, with Jeroen perched on a nearby ledge, tens of metres above the streets, the pair are themselves placed on the precipitous roof of the building below. How did we get here, exactly?

couple gazing up at a huge clock at night

© Jeroen van Dam | Sony α7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 2.0s @ f/9.0, ISO 160

With a background in architecture, urban planning and inspired by cityscapes in science fiction and action movies, images like this are a natural fit for Jeroen. “When I started photography about six years ago, cities were a logical choice,” he explains. I always want to find that ‘secret’ part of the city, like rooftops, tunnels, and abandoned buildings… magical places that most people don’t get to see on their way to work or shopping…”

In his search for striking scenes, Jeroen’s recent work combines cityscapes with what he calls a ‘secret night life’. These projects “are a way to explore and re-discover our urban world,” he says, “and a chance to show an alternative version of the city. As part of that, I work with young people who are brave enough to dive into the unseen parts of our cities, composing them in the scenes. It always adds scale. And, because they can seem out of place in these big spaces, it’s a way of questioning our relationship with the city.”

man staring at the eiffel tower illuminated at night

© Jeroen van Dam | Sony α7R III + FE 12-24mm f/4 G | 1.6s @ f/5.6, ISO 500

Jeroen shoots almost always at night “because of the way that man-made light adds depth, texture and vibrant colour to the city.”“I also like to work in blue hour where remnants of daylight blend with the artificial,” Jeroen explains. “I shoot in Aperture Priority,” he continues, “usually around f/9 to f/11 to make sure the whole scene is crisp and clear, so a tripod is vital, too.”

In that way, the image quality of his Sony Alpha 7R III is instrumental, Jeroen says, as well as the dynamic range it offers. “These images take time to make, so I want a camera that makes the most of the effort I put in. Sony’s high-resolution models give me the option to print large, but also means I can crop the original image a lot to refine the composition. Balancing natural and artificial light is often difficult, too, but the Sony Alpha 7R III makes it easy to bracket exposures or pull all the shadow and highlight detail I need from the Raw file in Lightroom.”

a grand cathedral illuminated at night

© Jeroen van Dam | Sony α7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 30s @ f/9.0, ISO 200

So how else to make subjects that many of us experience daily seem so much more dramatic? Amongst other things, height is the answer, says Jeroen. “Unusually high or low angles can make familiar spots more exciting,” he explains, “so simply taking the camera away from eye level is a start.” Of course, Jeroen takes it a little further than that, scaling the tallest buildings to find the angles he wants. “It’s always about the best composition,” he continues, “and finding lead-in lines or places where the building sit nicely on the thirds of the frame. Sometimes that view is from halfway up, in place where you’re still part of the cityscape, rather than seeing it from a bird’s-eye perspective.”

Another advantage that’ll be clear to anyone who’s walked up the stairs of a skyscraper is the size and weight of the Sony Alpha 7R III, as well as other full-frame mirrorless cameras and lenses in the Alpha line-up. “As you’d expect, these locations can be difficult to reach,” Jeroen smiles, “and sometimes I need to walk for hours carrying everything, or climb 40 floors, so all my gear needs to be small and light – but at the same time powerful. Everything needs to fit in my backpack, and combined with their quality, Sony cameras are the best for that.”

birds eye view of a city at night

© Jeroen van Dam | Sony α7R III + FE 12-24mm f/4 G | 2.5s @ f/8.0, ISO 100

“The FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM is my go-to lens for most occasions,” he continues, “as it has incredible sharpness throughout all apertures, and those ultra-wide angle focal lengths are essential when shooting most architecture or rooftops. Ultra-wide lenses also increase depth and if you use that feature correctly, it can emphasise the scale or height of buildings. Sometimes, as in my image of the Vienna Gasometer, I need an even wider view, but the lack of distortion on these lenses means I can easily shoot two or more frames and combine them later.”

looking down from the roof of a circular apartment block

© Jeroen van Dam | Sony α7R III + FE 12-24mm f/4 G | 25s @ f/9.0, ISO 320

So what does Jeroen feel he’s learned from shooting cities in the way he does? “A couple of things really,” he smiles. “First, always try to look for unusual angles and places. Think about the way other people see and then do something else. That will give you a different perspective and make more intriguing photos.” And second? “I’ve found that the challenge of finding and reaching these amazing urban places is all part of the fun,” he continues, “so it’s important to get out there and experience it for yourself.”


See more of Jeroen's work:


Featured products

Related stories

Sign up to get your α Universe newsletter

Congratulations! You've successfully subscribed to the α Universe newsletter

Please enter a valid email address

Sorry! Something went wrong

Congratulations! You've successfully subscribed