10 rules to being a great urbex photographer

We asked Canon fan Wouter Kingma for his tips on urban exploration in the UAE.

February 15, 2016

Wouter Kingma, renowned photographer and avid Canon user, defines the idea of Urban Exploration (urbex) and shares some photography tips and tricks for enthusiastic shutterbugs in the UAE. 

1. Hit the street
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. Pick a bag that’s comfortable, practical and doesn’t get recognised as photographer gear, allowing you to blend in with the crowd.

2. Do your homework
A simple Google search will have tonnes of images, or better yet 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.

3. Stay unnoticed and blend in
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. 

4. 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. 

5. Go somewhere truly off limit
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 other ones where I guess you’re not supposed to but a little sweet talk might let you get away with it if caught. I would call it just unharmfull naughtiness, for example a container complex at the harbour, an old archaeological site, building rooftops, abandoned warehouses. 

It all depends on your own comfort level, but it’s important that you make sure you’re not doing anyone harm, damaging anything, or doing something illegal. The key here is to just use common sense!

6. Have a wish list but don’t get hung up on it
Be open to change. Take a left turn when 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 wander. As JRR Tolkien said, 'Not all those who wander are lost’, they’re just exploring.

Don’t feel disappointed if the wishlist is not met. Instead celebrate the lucky and unexpected encounters. 

7. 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 hours a day. The bakeries, the fish markets, bus stations, entertainment areas, ports, they all run around the clock. There’s a story in each of them at every time of the day. I booked a heritage hotel along the Dubai Creek once to fully emerge in three days of exploring on foot, walking around the different corners of Deira and Bur Dubai.

8. Switch your phone off
Enjoy the moment on the street. Being glued to your screen will make you miss moments, and 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 an opportunity to disconnect from the digital rat race we’ve created.

9. Manage 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.

10. Add more value 
It’s about meeting interesting people with unexpected conversations. It’s about having roadside food, a simple shawarma, and drinking local tea in a crowded local joint. It’s about the mindset of choice and freedom and not chasing someone else’s wishlist. It’s about the adventurer and explorer that lives in all of us. It’s quality ME time and that’s so valuable. 

All images are of Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah. Second gallery by Olga Petroff.

All photographs clicked using Canon’s hero models EOS 5D S and 5D SR, EOS M10, and PowerShot models G9 X and G5 X.