Let’s start by defining what URBEX is in a very simple way. Practicing « urbex » might sound like going to places you’re not supposed to, crossing the borders people arbitrary plotted. Urban Exploration can be a way to browse human-built civilization, forgotten buildings, abandoned places but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
To me, Urbex is more about inhabiting common places in a different way, revealing its hidden potential, making it a whole new space, experimenting, finding new connections, and then maybe encountering your own connection to this human civilization.
To begin with, you’ll obviously have to find a place to explore. Don’t feel the urge to find the perfect spot, the perfect shoot, or the perfect concept. There are a lot of ways to practice urban exploration or urbex as a photographer. And you’ll certainly find your own; human civilization is a land of possibilities.
There is no magic bullet to find a place to « urbex » . Exploration implies tenacity, you have to exert a certain amount of effort. However, it’s not that complicated: keep your eyes wide open, anytime, anywhere. When you’re going somewhere -by car, by bike, or by feet, why not try to make a detour? I’m pretty sure you already know some suitable locations in your neighborhood. So, you just have to walk the talk, and start to explore!
For my part, I live in a small village, and yet, there are so many places waiting to be found, explored, shot. Personally, cemeteries and night shot thrill me. Sometimes, an ordinary place turns extraordinary as dusk falls, or haze thickens.
Some Sundays are dedicated to cemetery-wanderings near my place, especially when the weather is foggy.
If I could give only one advice about practicing Urbex, it would be to : « stay safe ». Don’t take unnecessary risks. If you don’t feel like climbing a wall, or jumping on the top of the building, then don’t do it. Go with your instincts. And don’t push yourself too hard when you feel insecure or unsure especially with regards to your safety.
Whenever I go on an urbex trip, I make sure I notify someone about it. I also try to avoid squats, especially when I carry valuable equipment, you never know, and if possible, don’t go alone… the more the merrier (and the safer)! Besides, there is no need to take too much equipment. Keep in mind you’ll have to carry them all the way long.
For instance, on urbex trips, here is my basic backpack:
A flashlight, a phone (fully charged), snacks, water, pen lens cleaner, a second battery (fully charged too).
A first-aid kit is also a must have during these trips, keep one in your car.
Urban spots at night are usually dark, so don’t forget your tripod, gorilla pod, and the remote if you have one. Actually, I often take two flashlights, a Led lenser P7QC for light painting, and a Thrunite TN12.
Urbex can be shot with either a mobile phone camera, a compact or a reflex – each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. I use a D7000, a D750, and a Sony rx-100.
A wide-angle lens is usually easier to use, but dealing with long focal length or a 50mm can be really challenging. For instance, these days I’ve been using a 35 mm, because of its characteristics it makes me think ahead, about composition, and framing.
The greater constraint, the greater the creativity.
Doing Urbex is technically very similar to landscape or architecture. You can also add some light painting, and HDR, techniques if you like.
It’s a very complex exercise, which needs various skills to achieve high-quality work. But don’t feel overwhelmed. By avoiding common mistakes, plus a having an unfamiliar view, it can lead to a good results.
From my experience, here are two common mistakes:
- Using a wide-angle lens doesn’t mean everything has to fit inside the frame. Focus on the main subject, and find every possible way to enhance it: with composition (symmetry, vanishing point, perspective rules), luminance, hue, depth of field.
Experiment, be creative, be innovative!
- Don’t use the infinity focus. Be meticulous with the foreground, use the hyperfocal to be more accurate.
Don’t rush. Feel the mood. Take a few minutes, before shooting to ask yourself : how do you feel? Scared? Little? Alone? Sad? Excited? When you know how you feel, then try to picture it down.
Get out when everybody get back home, at night or when the weather is bad (also, a cloudy sky can be a great giant natural reflector).
A human hint in the frame can add some life and another perspective to the picture. Play with the lights (on site, or with the flashlight you brought), to create contrasts, to highlight some relevant elements.
Sometimes, post treatment can help. I do love editing pictures on Photoshop as a huge vibrant color and surnatural renderings fan. Lightroom, Dxo, can do miracles on wasted pictures (image noise, lens barrel distortion,.).
I usually process with Lightroom first, to find the suitable exposure, white balance, and I do the major editing. Then I export it to Photoshop, duplicate the layer, and start by using Nik color efex (which is now free) to try some pro filters one the picture. You can easily explore various options: desaturate a lot, add tons of colors. Some purist might cringe… but you know what? Who cares!
Last advice : use and abuse of selections. Watch Jimmy Mc intyre’s tutorial about luminosity masks. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to manage all types of photography from landscapes to portraits.
Being able to harmoniously arrange differents tons of highlights and shadows can upgrade a picture from a good but basic one to an eye-catching and fascinating piece of art.
Tips by Thomas Sifferlé
Lighpainting and Urbex usually make a great pairing. If you don’t know them yet, have a look at Illusion in Ruins -Xiao Yang’s work, Digital noises, Markus Lehr, TCB, Pala Teth, Bousure, Mr Monster, Sleeping places, Suipixel, Francis Melet.
They all have their own style, now find you own!
Thank you for reading, I hope I gave you the desire to explore your neighbourhood at night with a flashlight. Just have fun, that’s why we like photography, right?