This article first appeared in The Post-Journal on Aug. 21, 2016.
Welcome to the second edition of Let’s Talk Photography! Today we’ll discuss a topic that is right up our alley here in Jamestown and Chautauqua County. Join me as I explore Urban Grit and Grunge.
Wait! This is just the second edition and we’re already jumping into something like this? Yes. As I write these topics, I intend to provide inspiration, suggestions, help and guidance so you can find greater enjoyment in your photography hobby. A topic like this is great because it invites imperfection and it actually looks better when it’s gritty and rough looking so there should be little to no intimidation in following along. There’s also one other reason I’m bringing this up, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out what that is.
Grab your camera and take a trip down any street in Jamestown where industry once flourished. You’ll find broken down and vacated factories, houses that are ready to fall down, remnants of what used to be. When you snap an image of these things you are looking back into history and you can sometimes see the ghosts of the past still inhabiting the photos. The images themselves tell a story of their own that your mind can put together just from the visual information.
As I mentioned previously, imperfection works well with this topic. If you’re just getting a feel for your camera and you haven’t quite mastered the exposure settings (or exposure triangle for the tried and true photographers out there) then you may find that you get underexposed (too dark) photos or overexposed (also known as “blown out” or too bright) pictures. In these cases, an urban grunge photo may look better than if you had perfect exposure.
The other thing that looks really great with these photos is grain. (Hint, here comes a little lesson.) Grain is the little black specks or dots that happen when you’re photographing a dark setting and your camera can’t receive enough light to make a perfectly exposed photo. This directly relates to the ISO setting of your camera. ISO is the sensitivity of the camera to light. When you have an ample supply of light, your ISO number is really low, like 100 or 200. When you have less light, you have to allow your camera’s sensor to become more sensitive to the light in order to get the photo so you either crank up the ISO value to 800, 1500 or even 26,000 which is possible in a lot of today’s cameras, or you set the camera to automatically adjust the value to capture the correct exposure. Just remember, the higher the ISO number, the more grain, or specks of black stuff, you’ll have in your photo. In a lot of cases, urban grunge photos make graininess look really industrial and beautiful and the grain itself adds to the interpretation of the subject. It invokes a feeling as if you are looking at a memory or seeing a nightmare in still life.
The other reason why this is a great topic to try if you’re just starting out is because it gives you a chance to play with your photo editing software and see what all those sliders and dials do when you apply them to the image. Software that either came with your camera or third party software titles such as Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, PaintShop Pro, etc. have a lot of fun tools that allow you to adjust the exposure, the contrast, the brightness of the whites, the darkness of the blacks, the saturation of the colors, the vibrancy of the colors, the sharpness or blurriness of the image and a whole lot more. Urban grunge images tend to get more dramatic and exciting when you exaggerate the exposure and contrast of the image or when you make colors surreal and oversaturated. You can sit in front of your computer and really play around with these images and get very creative and I can promise the images will look unique and interesting to anyone you share them with. Another thing you can do with your software is to convert the image to black and white and see how dramatic the scene looks when you eliminate the distraction of color and simply observe the light and the absence of light in the scene.
The real exercise in this is simply learning to compose your shot and make it interesting. Get close to things and allow the camera to distort the scene just a bit. Try an angle that you’ve never shot before and see how the interest changes in the subject. Photograph the ugly side of things and see how cool and beautiful you can make them look. Urban grunge is all about you and how you see the scene you’re shooting. It invokes the feelings that you had at the time of shooting and tells a story that every viewer can put together on their own.
I mentioned earlier that there was another reason for exploring this topic. If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can see examples of this style of photography on display from August 12th to September 9th at the Patterson Library Octagon Gallery in Westfield in a gallery exhibit titled, what else, “Urban Grit”. I was asked to submit some of my own images along with several other very talented photographers in our area. There are 60 images in the display and you’ll see some very beautiful interpretations of Urban Grit photography.
I’d like to invite you to give this subject a try and see for yourself how much fun it is to create a gritty, grungy image of one of our beautifully dilapidated buildings here in good ol’ Jamestown. And, if software is a mystery to you and you’re not quite sure what software to use, then the next edition of “Let’s Talk Photography” will be just for you. In the meantime, have fun shooting!