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Mastering Urban Model Photography: Perspectives, Environments, and Color Harmony

At the beginning of February, I was shooting street photography around Gangnam for the first time in a long time. It was a refreshing change and a pleasant surprise after avoiding the area for so long due to it being too crowded.

But, I thought to myself, could that be one of its strengths when it comes to a model shoot? I stood up on a fire escape high above the streets and I saw the many tops of umbrellas dancing around each other and I envisioned one lone figure standing out amongst the hustle and bustle of Gangnam’s streets. So, I teamed up with Kevin Dockry for a shoot.

However, therein lies the challenge. How could I have the model be a focal point when so much else is going on?  That’s when colour comes into play. The road markings in the area are also unique, I have no idea what they mean and I’ve never seen them anywhere else. They are bright yellow, and the road once I’ve added my usual colour-grading to it will become blue tone. So I need colours to compliment or contrast. 

For this shoot I used split complimentary for my colour harmony, but more on that later. So for this location, I have a unique perspective (height), interesting characteristics (road markings), and colour harmony (split complimentary). Three strikes mean a great place to shoot. 

A colour wheel showing a split complementary harmony.

Let’s dive into each of these areas a little more.

Unique Perspective

Now this may not always be necessary, but if possible should always be implemented. Consider finding a location where your model is positioned above you. This setup enables a hero shot perspective, making the model appear authoritative and commanding attention. With their face tilted down and their eyes locked with the lens, the subject dominates the frame, ensuring they’re the focal point and hard to overlook. This perspective is used widely and it looks fantastic. You can use staircases, higher platforms, or even just crouch down and tilt your camera upwards.

The high-angle shot offers a unique and possibly more artistic perspective, partly because it’s less commonly used. You can achieve a sense of isolation much easier from this angle, particularly when the subject is made to stand out, a crucial element in any composition. However, when shooting from above, be aware that you could achieve all the opposite connotations of the hero shot’s authoritative effect. If the photographer is only slightly elevated, your image can suggest submissiveness or vulnerability in the model. However, when you are much higher than your model, these elements are avoided. 

Shooting straight-on communicates equality, honesty, connection, and confidence. This is why it is a favoured angle in advertisements where models showcase products. You can use straight-on angles to display symmetry, (think Wes Anderson), and avoid all the power dynamics that we get from higher and lower angles. 

Either way, when it comes to perspective a lot of fun can be had from just experimenting. You just have to keep in mind what you want to achieve from your shoot or who you are shooting for.

A man inside a car lit by neon red light.
The water droplets on the car window create a layered effect, with the darkness enhancing the depth further.

Interesting Characteristics

I often look for interesting characteristics in my environment or backdrop for urban portrait shoots as that is what sets them apart from studio shoots. Leaning into urban environments creates engaging compositions that can also complement the clothes that your model is wearing or showcase the environments they are best suited for–sportswear in outdoor sports areas, chich and modern outfits against contemporary architecture, techwear in cyberpunk settings, the list goes on.

Overall, your backdrop can’t be too distracting and the colours and themes should be in the same context as your model and their clothing. Backdrops must be harmonious with your composition and not fight to be the main attraction. 

So, what to look for when you’re trying to find a great spot to shoot? For direct wall shots, look for walls with textures or patterns that enhance the image. If the wall is plain, the colour should not dominate the scene (more on this later), and experiment with angles to avoid flat, one-dimensional shots. You can look for interesting layers, especially in modern architectural environments, which will help add depth to your image encouraging the viewer to spend more time with your work. Or you can play with scale, using the backdrop or environment to highlight or isolate them.

A man in a car with red light illuminating his face
The model is illuminated with warmer tones as cooler tones fill the backdrop.

Colour Harmony

In my opinion, this is the most important of the three. You can have an interesting perspective and a great environment, but then you choose the wrong outfit colour and your model is lost in the background and your viewer perceives the image as a scene rather than concentrating on the subject, losing impact. 

In the world of colour, there is something called Colour Weight, and that means some colours are heavier than others, heavier colours demand more attention. 

Think about the colour red, it’s extremely dominant and is used for warnings because it demands attention. Warmer colours also advance and cooler colours recede. If you look at the image below, the small red square appears to be above the blue box and vice versa for the other image. You can use this knowledge when working with colour and your models, dressing your model in warmer and more saturated colours will help them stand out against cooler and less saturated backgrounds. 

A red square with a smaller blue square inside.
A blue square with a smaller blue square inside.

The science of colour deserves a whole dedicated blog post, as there is a lot of depth to it and it can get quite complex. A great place to start is using a colour wheel and finding complementary colours, I use Adobe’s Colour Wheel all of the time. Quick fact, Sir Isaac Newton invented the colour wheel.

Important Considerations

Above all else, remember that your model is the main attraction of your composition, and by using the points above you can ensure that they are not dominated by surrounding colours and the environment. As always, experiment and have fun! I hear that advice all the time but it is true, you can spend forever creating Pinterest boards, but you’ll only really improve from creating.

If this blog post inspires you to start doing some portraiture work, please send me a DM with your results, I’d love to check them out. 

For this shoot, I was joined by model Kevin Dockry.

If you are travelling to Seoul and would like a neon portrait session, check out my Neon Portraits in Seoul package:


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