Tips for Urbex-Style Portraits

Tips for Urbex-Style Portraits

Urbex, or Urban Exploration photography, is a very attractive genre, and not only for photographers. These urban settings present interesting and unique images. It is also a perfect opportunity for experimenting with portraits. What does Urbex photography entail? It can be exciting and sometimes a bit dangerous. It’s sure to give you an adrenaline rush. So be careful and watch every step you take. 

Let’s take a look at how to find the right Urbex location, how to get there, how to safely move about, and how to jump start your creativity. We’ll go over some ideas and focus on costume photoshoots in abandoned locations that are difficult to access.  

Finding abandoned locations for your photoshoot  

Urbex photographers are notorious for not sharing their secret locations with the general public. Hence, it can be quite a challenge to discover these abandoned places. Then again, you can try shooting in relatively well-known Urbex locations that can be easily found on the internet. These tend to be in larger cities, though some are also found in smaller towns. They are often found along major roads with a lot of traffic, such as old factories or former train stations. One of these more well-known locations is the Rolava mine in the Czech Republic, where almost every photographer from Bohemia goes. 

Urbex-Style Portraits
The Rolava mine – A famous abandoned location for Urbex photography in Czechia.
Nikon D750, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, 1/160s, f/2.2, ISO 500, 50mm

Try asking around. You may even find Urbex locations near your home. For example, you can shoot in an old attic that is not in use but serves your purpose perfectly. 

Urbex-Style Portraits
This attic made for great lighting with the light streaming from the small windows along with a smoke machine I like to bring along.
Nikon D750, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, 1/160s, f/2.8, ISO 200, 50mm

Prepare for an unpredictable environment 

When shooting Urbex photography, keep in mind that you can encounter several dangers Floors that can cave in at any moment or ceilings that can collapse. Don’t take these dangers lightly. Move with care, don’t shout, and plan every step. Most importantly, always make sure you look beneath your feet.

Urbex-Style Portraits
Be extra careful at the edge of the stairs so no one falls.
Nikon D90, Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4, 1/125s, f/1.4, ISO 400, 35mm

Also, be cautious of local inhabitants. You can encounter two types of people in abandoned places like these. The homeless and drug users. Homeless people are happy to leave you alone and give you your space most of the time. Drug users should be avoided or left alone. Go elsewhere or come back at a different time. You don’t know what condition you’ll find them in and that is where the real danger lies. Both types of locals may have dogs with them. If you’re lucky, they’re on a leash, but don’t count on it. Be sure to proceed with care. 

Making the most of Urbex in your photography

Use Urbex in its entirety. Forget about close-ups and take advantage of your model’s surroundings. Don’t be afraid to use wider lenses and blend the setting in with the photo. For instance, 35mm or 24mm lenses can be fun to work with in these types of settings.  

Urbex-Style Portraits
The doors in the abandoned factory provided a great base for playful composition.
Nikon D750, Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4, 1/4000s, f/1.4, ISO 400, 35mm

I generally recommend working with natural light, and I don’t only say this because I am a fan of natural lighting. These places are usually dark and depressing which means less light suits them. Flash would only brighten things up and take the focus away from the setting itself.  

Urbex-Style Portraits
The light of the sunset worked perfectly here.
Nikon D90, Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4, 1/125s, f/1.4, ISO 200, 35mm

You can come up with a costume for your model to wear to bring out the uniqueness of a location. You can try using a costume inspired by a game or movie character. You can use a post-apocalyptic costume, which is perfect for Urbex. Feel free to try anything else, from abstract to even nudes. It’s completely up to you.  

Urbex-Style Portraits
Post-apocalyptic costumes work for Urbex photoshoots.
Nikon D750, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8, 1/200s, f/2.8, ISO 400, 105mm

Include graffiti or natural elements that are growing throughout the building and make use of old furniture or old machinery. In short, incorporate everything into the photoshoot that can be of interest for Urbex photography. Find the right angle and the right lighting. Don’t be afraid to use smoke bombs or kick up dust to add to the atmosphere.  

Urbex-Style Portraits
A fascinating old electrical box (or whatever it is) in the background. 
Nikon D750, Nikkor 50mm f1,4, 1/160 s, F 1.4, ISO 500, 50 mm

Shooting Urbex is guaranteed to spark your creativity. As soon as you enter the grounds of a dilapidated, abandoned building, you are immediately surrounded by its already-forgotten history. It’s almost poetic. Thanks to the interesting visual elements, you certainly won’t be bored. Walk through every safe and accessible corner and set up the right composition, poses, and angles. You’ll soon see the photographs start to form on their own. 

Urbex-Style Portraits
Beautiful old train station in the Žižkov neighborhood of Prague.
Nikon D750, Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8-4.2, 1/200s, f/2.8, ISO 200, 80mm

In closing 

There’s no doubt that these Urbex locations will get your creative juices flowing. Just keep an open mind and when you find places that exude uniqueness, it will come naturally. Keep in mind that danger lurks everywhere and be extra careful. Time your photoshoot just right to get good lighting. It may be too late for the golden hour when the building is closed off, but it may just work. Enjoy the unforgettable experience of shooting Urbex photography! 

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AuthorZdenka Povolen

I haven’t been a photographer for long, but I certainly love taking photos. I like creating atmosphere in my photographs and adding emotion. I think it’s important that a photo has substance. I predominantly photograph people, often in costumes, sometimes nudes, and photographic storytelling series. I value effective communication and a pleasant atmosphere in my photoshoot. I like to use practical effects such as smoke, fire, sparks, light, or movement of cloth and fabric. I know that I still have a lot to learn, but that will come with 20 years of experience under my belt. I believe in lifelong self-improvement.

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