There is a saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. It’s a saying about how there is no judging for taste, or should be no judging for taste, as what one person may think is worthless can be cherished by another. This phrase can ring so true when it comes to scouting locations for photography where it be landscape photography or portrait photography. What others may deem ‘trash’ or ‘ugly’ can be literal gold to someone with a completely different creative vision. And I think that is where the #UglyLocationChallenge stemmed from. A way of showing in portrait photography that somewhere considered ugly can be real gold for photographs, you just need to see it in a different light and mindset.
There is also the word ‘photogenic’ and we normally apply that to a person within the photograph, but we can also apply it to the landscape and the area the person is being photographed in. As well as being photogenic ourselves we want to be photographed in photogenic places, in visually pleasing places to enhance the photograph. But the reality is that the unconventional can also be visually pleasing and photogenic.
I first heard about the Ugly Location Challenge, and the hashtag that then followed, by an article that got shared around social media sites. It wasn’t really an article but more a news meme that went around showing how a photographer used a hardware store in the USA (a Lowe’s hardware store if you were interested to know) as a photo shoot location! It was a great way of showcasing that portrait photography is down to the skill of the photographer rather than the gear or the location/backdrop. Us as photographers definitely see the world differently and I know for a fact I see beauty in what other people I know see as ugly. I definitely don’t see a hardware store as ‘ugly’ but I do see it as a completely unconventional place for a photo shoot with a model and fancy clothes. And I think that is why it became so popular and interesting. It was a way for the photographer to showcase her skill in a place that has limited lighting and with no set design. The photographer didn’t bring artificial lighting in or changed the store displays, she literally used what was around and created some magic within the constraints of a store and it opened the door for people to try out new things in a place they would never normally consider for a photo shoot. I mean, who would try shooting a model in a hardware store? You don’t really see it as photo shoot material. But now you can (just make sure you have some kind of permission).
^ Image by Kylie Eyra
It became proof that you don’t need a ‘pretty’ location or to hire an expensive place out to produce some amazing portrait photography. You just need to have an eye for lines, or colours, or angles and you are bound to create something interesting with the setting you are in.
Your creativity can become so much higher turning trash into treasure and it helps push you out of your comfort zone as a photographer also. I honestly think it is a great challenge to help a photographer grow and produce some work truly for them, and to help others see the world in a totally new and refreshing way also. Since seeing the photo shoot in a hardware store I personally really want to produce some work within a supermarket now. Amongst places we don’t see as conventional for portrait photos to happen. A petrol station also is another one. Just please remember to have some kind of permission if it is a public place such as stores and to also be respectful of other people who may be in that space. Not everybody wants to be photographed or within a photograph.
I did some shots within a clothing store after being inspired by this challenge. It isn’t a location I deem as ugly personally but it is definitely something I see as unconventional. Most people though may see it as ugly because it is a case of “how do you make a clothing store a desirable place to have photos taken?!”. And that is where ugly becomes totally subjective. My idea of an ugly location is completely different to another persons view of an ugly location. I see beauty in really weird and unconventional places whereas another person may find it the ugliest place ever and won’t want any photos taken there at all. It comes down to knowing composition also and the best angles to shoot from to make a place seem interesting. This shot works because of the leading lines from the escalator and the framing of the person within the photograph. A low aperture has helped to blur out any other customers within the frame also but it also helps add to the photo and show that it is a public area.
When I visited Alcatraz, a now old and unused max security prison off the coast of San Francisco, most people would deem it as unconventional and a really ugly place. It is run down with paint peeling off and bits now missing from the walls and parts are in ruin. To me, it was a completely stunning place full of photography potential. This random sink attached to the run down wall? I can imagine some high fashion gowns worn by a model draping herself around the sink or pulling some amazing body angles right next to it. It shows that not only do creative people see the world differently but that ugly is a completely subjective term. The whole place was not what I expected from a prison and I can just imagine it creating some beautiful fashion and portrait imagery, whereas others wouldn’t see this until they saw some final images much like the hardware store situation.
A lot of people ask how to work with an ugly background. There is no one answer at all as everybody has different views on what an ugly background is and how to make it beautiful. People have different eyes for composition and angles. But I do have a few small tips I can pass on. I love to match the styling with the background sometimes. Keep it all to a similar colour palette. So you can see this run down doorway and wall in the image above has white and brown tones, and the model then has similar colours within her outfit. It’s a way of working with the ugly background that not many people would think of as most people want to hide any ugliness surrounding a person/model. The same goes for the image below, you have brown and reddy tones within the outfit and the location and it’s not about hiding the location but working with it to create the final image. Sometimes an ugly location can add interest to a photo, such as the photo below. The Underground (especially particular lines of the underground) is known for being a bit run down, old, outdated and not exactly modern and fresh. But it can have potential if you compose your image well and it also helps to place the person within the photograph if you show off a bit of the location. It means the viewer has a bit more of a connection to the final photograph if they can place where that location is or know a bit about it also.
Another tip when it comes to styling is to juxtapose it completely! Yep, combine something ‘ugly’ with something really ‘pretty’ or ‘glamorous’.
I did a photoshoot in a bar in London and the toilets were really interesting because they were black tiles but had been scribbled all over by people. Text and graffiti covered these black tiles floor to ceiling and I saw it as something so beautiful so we decided to photograph an evening look within this bathroom, and particularly a toilet cubicle. I framed it so you couldn’t see the toilet of course. I ideally wanted a shot sitting on the toilet but there was no lid and we didn’t want the dress to actually fall into the toilet water…
So sometimes a location won’t allow you to get the shot you are envisioning in your head but you can definitely go out there and try to create something! Push the boundaries of what is a photogenic location and get creative with your work to produce something unique and magical.
It’s now also a popular hashtag so do search #UglyLocationChallenge on instagram and twitter and you can see what others are creating for inspiration. It’s also great to have a look and to see what others deem as ugly and how they work with it. I love looking through the hashtag to try and see the world through other creatives eyes. But also to see what others are considering ugly as I am sometimes stuck with ideas when it comes to what is deemed an ugly location. Like I said I tend to view locations differently and don’t often deem something as ugly, which is why looking at others for inspiration can be refreshing and interesting and then flood with you with ideas. If you don’t like the word ugly then consider areas that are unconventional for portraits to be taken in instead!
If you didn’t want to showcase a whole location, you can use just a small part of it. Not everything within a particular landscape can be deemed as ugly. I found this amazing hedge corner attached to a really ‘ugly’ industrial estate section and I used that for some portraits. The hedge was nothing spectacular in itself as it was just green, no flowers or anything, so I used a low aperture to blur it out so that you just get the texture of the hedge in the background of the portraits and nobody will ever know either that the hedge was attached to an industrial estate. You don’t have to use a whole landscape within your photos, sometimes even a small part of a landscape you are viewing can have huge potential. It’s all about finding the beauty within what your eyes are seeing, or the potential for a shot whether it be a full body shot or a closer portrait. I did a mix of full body and head shots within this hedge corner and I much preferred the head shots personally, but the full body shots still didn’t showcase the fact it was attached to an industrial estate!
You can also use a low aperture to try and blur out the ugly location too so that the focus is more on the subject. This works really well when they are head shot style portraits and it separates your subject from whatever the ugly background may be. It means the viewer can’t really see what the location is and so it becomes a disconnect from the location and the focus is more on the portrait or the composition of the portrait. Basically the location becomes an afterthought as it isn’t in focus and so isn’t in anyone’s attention.
So, to sum all this up really I think the main point is to go out and play! Get creative with your work and your portraits and use some unconventional and ‘ugly’ locations that maybe you never even thought twice about before. I find ugly is incredibly subjective so I like to describe it as unconventional locations, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it like the Ugly Location Challenge does. Unconventional Location Challenge… not quite as flowing…
Don’t forget to hashtag any shots you take on social media with #uglylocationchallenge and I may end up seeing your work around when I next look! Go and turn some location trash into photo treasure!
(Please remember though that some places will be private property and will require permission before you try and do a full on photo shoot, so do ask if you attempt something in your local hardware store or supermarket).