11 tips for gritty urban travel photos #fortheweekend

Jazirat Al Hamra
Get out and explore - it's the best way to get awesome images such as this one, shot at Jazirat Al Hamra, the Ras Al Khaimah 'ghost town'. Photo courtesy Canon

So you’ve bought yourself a shiny new DSLR (or even a V10, which some say is as good), but still aren’t aren’t getting loadsa likes on your Instagram posts? We feel your pain, so we turned to Wouter Kingma, a Dubai-based award-winning photographer for his photo tips.

The avid Canon user gave us a quick lesson in how to make the most of photography – particularly in urban spaces. Urban Exploration, or urbex as it’s called, has been trending in recent times, so Kingma’s tips are appropriate. Read on.

  1. Do your homework to see what the area has to offer. A simple Google search will have tons of images, think coffee table books or better do a search on a good image bank like Getty Images or Arabian Eye. Get a detailed map to plan a rough route. I find the ‘sun scout’ app super helpful to see how the sun travels at precise times of the day.
  1. Exploring is all about spending time on the street, either on your feet or on a bike. Strap on the backpack and hit the road. I’m a big fan of an fstop gear bag for three reasons: It is very comfortable and practical to store your photography kit. It doesn’t instantly get recognised as photogear, allowing you to blend in with the crowd. And it provides easy access to kit.
  1. Stay unnoticed and blend in with the crowd. Look like a tourist or local (that depends where you are in the world). Ditch the tripod and keep your camera in your pack until it is really needed, but keep it ready with the lens mounted. Don’t walk around with a camera around your neck as it just attracts more attention than needed. This specially counts when you are keen to shoot a location where photography might be an issue.
  1. Be bold. I’m a fan of ‘Ask for forgiveness rather than permission’. From experience I know that if you raise the question whether it is permitted to enter somewhere to take a photograph, you’ll spend ages waiting for someone to make a decision, which eventually also turns out to be, “Problem, not allowed”. So just find a way and walk in confidently like you know where you’re going. (Of course, you’ll need to bear in mind local laws!)

    off limits
    Going off-limits can yield some stunning images. Photo via Canon
  1. Go somewhere (truly) off limits. My point of view is that there are certainly things that would be futile to try entering into, such as a military camp or an area reserved only for ladies. And there are others where I guess you’re not supposed to but a little sweet talk might let you get away with it if caught. I’d call it just harmless naughtiness – for example a container complex at the harbour, old archaeological site, rooftop of buildings, abandoned warehouses. Both lists can go on and are different to every person. It all depends on your own comfort level. I find it important to mention that make sure you’re not doing anyone harm, damaging anything, or doing something illegal. The key here is to just use common sense!
  1. Have a wish list, but don’t get too hung up on it. Be open to change. Take a left turn whilst you planned a right, just because the light looks better or you feel there’s a good story on the other end of the street. Follow your gut feeling. If found the best places on a random wonder. Remember, not all wanderers are lost, they’re just exploring. Don’t feel disappointed if the wish list is not met instead celebrate the lucky and unexpected encounters.
  1. Beat sunrise and shoot well beyond midnight. Remember, the most unexpected stories come from the out-of-the-ordinary. Every city bustles with energy 24 hrs a day. The bakeries, the fish markets, bus stations, entertainment areas, ports all run around the clock. There’s a story in each of them at every time of the day. If travel or time availability is an issue just book/ find/ share a room in the neighbourhood. I booked a heritage hotel along the Dubai Creek once to fully immerse myself in three days of exploring on foot, walking around the different corners of the Deira and Bur Dubai.
  1. Switch your phone off and leave it at home or in the car. Enjoy the moment on the street. Go for the simple life! Being glued to your screen will firstly make you miss moments, second won’t allow you to connect where you are when disconnecting is the whole purpose. A buzzing pocket just messes up the experience. Urban Exploration is the opportunity to disconnect from the digital rat race we’ve created.
  1. A word on managing low light photography. Just crank up the ISO, get to understand what the maximum number you can still shoot at without getting too much noise in the image is. Train yourself to shoot with a steady hand, you can always find a ledge/lamppost/table to lean on or place your camera on. Or just go with the flow and allow a bit of movement in your images, this can look really nice. Or if worst comes to worst, just take a mini emergency tripod out of your pack…
  1. Try to add more value to your exploration. It’s about meeting interesting people with unexpected conversations. It’s about having roadside food, yes a simple as a shawarma when hungry, drink local tea in a crowded local joint. It’s about the mindset of choice and freedom and not chasing someone else’s wish list. It’s about the adventurer and explorer that lives in all of us. Its quality “me” time and that’s so valuable.
  1. Finally, it’s all about doing it. So get out and enjoy it!

What to pack?

Camera – Document your urbex adventures from start to finish, capturing every detail as you explore to share and keep

Gorilla pod – Many urbex locations will often be abandoned and poorly lit. A flexible tripod is therefore essential for setting up shots in small spaces and achieving sharp photography

Bottle of water – Whilst exploring it’s easy to get caught up in the moment but it’s important to remember to keep yourself hydrated

Comfortable shoes – Wear light footwear to allow you to explore freely and feel the many textures beneath your feet

Flashlight – A small but powerful light can be used to brighten up your shots and pave the way if the locations you’re exploring are dark.

Wouter Kingma
Wouter Kingma is an award-winning photographer. Photo courtesy Canon