Urbex Photography. What is it? Urban Exploration photography has a few definitions but for the most part it is the exploration of decaying and aging man-made structures. It can also be places were the everyday person may not travel such as under bridges, inside tunnels and the list goes on and on. In all my photography I had never really traveled down the road of this genera in a meaningful way. Sure I have photographed ruins and burned out houses and the like, but I have never put a model in the scene. I have seen it and admired it on 500px.com and again never really gave it a thought. That is until recently when I met a model who unknowingly steered me to this rather unique style. I love street photography and again street has a few interpretations but it is basically capturing life, not necessarily always shot on a street but in the streets is where a lot of life is happening. Urbex is kind of the opposite, there is not much happening. So when you incorporate a model into the scene you have something happening. The biggest thing you have going on is the contrast of the beauty of your model (you do have a pretty model… right) playing off of the decay or whatever the situation is around you. Now contrasting a model’s beauty against something plain, uninteresting or deplorable looking is not a new concept by any means. We have all seen what we may have deemed a “crazy” photo of a model in a Victorian style dress and she is in some sort of horrible background. The background by its self would most likely not catch our eye, however the beauty of the model would catch our eye or if it is a couture fashion shot her dress maybe the focal point. But put that beauty against a decrepit background and we get a contrast going that really sets things apart. Apart to the point that now we may even notice the background more so because of the beauty that is playing against it.
Where I was shooting yesterday in the historic section of Bethlehem Pennsylvania there were these Moravian ruins. If I had walked past and stopped to look at the location where I was shooting, and I was not there with a camera… I would have thought “just another old building in decay” and I might have wondered as to the history of the building, but other than that I most likely would not think any further. Now change things up… I approach the scene with a model (the beauty part) and it changes the whole game. Now I’m looking as to where and how I want to shoot her… with a camera of course. So now instead of just hiking along looking at old ruins, I have a reason and can turn it into a project.
Keep in mind it is not always about shooting a vast scene with a model in the middle. As I was shooting yesterday, we were under a huge and very high arched cement bridge. It was cool and there was a very nice breeze coming through, a nice place to take a break from the heat of the day. I looked around and noticed a cement wall that had several things going on. There was the age of the cement; there were huge water stains that were rusty colored to varying degrees, faded paint from old graffiti and mold. Looking at this I said to Reese (my model) “some photographers would give anything to have this background in their studio” and she agreed. So she went to work right away posing and we captured a nice series with this one of a kind background. Only thing I did wrong was I did not shoot the background by its self to use in Photoshop later. Oh well, now I have a reason to go back there.
Let’s talk about the camera & lenses; Ok so for this kind of photography I like to use available light when possible. I feel it gives a feel to the whole photo. I guess you could say it adds to the patina of the scene. But with that said, there are times when I could see myself setting up a 5 foot softbox for lighting the scene in a particular way. But available light is what I shoot most. I try to keep ISO in the 50 to 100 range when at all possible, although the newer cameras are really improving with a whole lot less grain in the higher ISO ranges. Just a few years back if I had to go to ISO 800 I would cringe. But now… last year I shot a bride in a hotel room at ISO 2000 & 5000 and had beautiful shots to work with and not much processing. The key to high ISO shots is; you must crop in camera, period. If you crop in camera the noise is to a minimum. As for lens choices; if I was just shooting the scene of the decaying building I would most likely shoot wide. But for faces, my 70-200mm is my favorite choice. I can zoom in for nice face shots of the model and if I want wide, I zoom back using my feet. …can you believe that “zoom out using your feet” what a novel idea? And lastly I must say I like to use a tripod whenever possible. The tripod will increase your score on “in focus” shots. Being on a lot of uneven ground and strange surfaces, it only makes sense to steady the camera the best you can.
In part two, I’ll talk more about an actual shoot, finding a location and more.