Exploring Urban Landscapes

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In this lesson, David Cross explores areas in his region that tend to go unnoticed by the locals. One of his goals in this lesson was to use an overlooked location as a backdrop to create artistic photos.

In Part One of this series, David led us to a giant mural of Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted onto a fence. This time he takes us to an abandoned Army base near Monterey, California.

Another goal was to stage an activity on site that made use of the environment in an unusual way. As you’ll see, David’s concept veers “outside the box” right from the start with his choice of formally dressed dancers wearing masquerade masks. There were numerous challenges along the way, and this lesson takes you through the process, step-by-step.

Topics Covered:

  • The Concept
  • The Location
  • Equipment Overview
  • Set Up
  • Changing Things Up
  • Final Shots


  • Olympus E-5
  • Olympus 12-60mm
  • LowePro Pro Trekker AW II

The Concept

This lesson is David Cross’s second in a continuing series about exploring urban landscapes. Here, David chose an abandoned building on a decommissioned Army base to stage a dance sequence between models wearing masquerade masks.

What do dancers in masquerade outfits have to do with an abandoned Army base? Absolutely nothing. And that’s what makes the elements so challenging to assemble and photograph. Juxtaposing unlikely elements is a great way to get some creative energy flowing.

David’s concept was the first part of the project. As most commercial photographers know, it’s the preparation for a project like this that’s essential to getting great results. Getting models, props, outfits, makeup, and permission to use the facility took more time than the actual shooting session. David spent about 7 hours in preparation and 4 hours for shooting.

Here are some snaps of everyone involved.

The Location

Driving along Highway 1 just north of Monterey, CA, you can see Fort Ord Army Base stretch for miles on both sides of the road. The base covers over 2,000 acres of land and housed over 50,000 troops at the end of WWII. Much of the site is abandoned now and has become splattered with paint ball ammunition and overgrown with weeds. It was perfect for our needs. More details about the history and access to the site can be found at the end of this lesson.

In the photo below Maggie, Stuart and Theresa carry their outfits and props into the building where we decided to shoot.

Equipment Overview

All of the gear for this project, including 3 camera bodies and 4 lenses, fit into a Photoflex® Digital Media TransPac case and a Photoflex® Gig Bag. It wasn’t a lot of gear for a full-length shoot, but since there was no electricity, we couldn’t use studio strobes with big lighting modifiers.

Additionally, the floors of the abandoned buildings were littered with broken glass and other debris. As you’ll see, the StarFire® flash units were just right for the kind of mobility we needed for the lighting. And in fact, we found that we were actually over-prepared since we didn’t end up using everything we brought. (figures 3 & 4)

Equipment List

5 – StarFire™ wireless trigger sets (used only 3)
1 – TritonFlash™ lithium battery powered strobe
6 – FlashFire™ battery powered strobes (used only 3)
1 – OctoDome®: small
2 – LiteStand LS-B2214
1 – TransPac® Digital Media Case
1 – TransPac®Gigbag
3 – Adjustable ShoeMount Bracket
2 – Basic Connector
2 – OctoConnector®
4 – MultiClamp Swivel (used only 2)
2 – LiteDome®: extra small
1 – OctoDome®: extra small
1 – LiteReach™

The Setup

David’s concept called for strong and sharp foreshadows from the subjects, which required bare flash back lighting. He also wanted directional front lighting onto the couple for the first set of shots. For this effect, we used three StarFire™ units: One in a small OctoDome® to the right of the camera and two bare units above and behind the subjects. All flash units were rigged with FlashFire™ wireless receivers.

The room chosen for these shots measured about 20×40 feet, with a smaller adjoining room separated by a wall with six small archways. We placed the two bare flashes just out of the frame in the adjoining room and put the OctoDome® at a height of 8 feet at a distance of 12 feet from the subjects.

This image from the principle camera shows the first test shot.

Three changes were made:

  • 1- It was decided that the couple needed more frontal light
  • 2- The image could be more powerful if one of the backlights was eliminated.
  • 3- The strong foreshadow that we’d planned on was not happening because the light beam from the bare flash was being cut off by the top of the archway. To fix that, I (Jeff) lowered the strobe on the left. Dave directed the models to move back towards the wall where the light would be stronger.

David continued shooting as Theresa coached the couple into a technically correct dance pose. This pose only occurs for a fleeting moment if the dancers are actually performing, but for our purposes, they were required to hold position to achieve the optimum composition. This is a stress pose, so David and I were only able to get a few shots before they had to relax for a few minutes.

The next set of shots was done in a small room where graffiti artists had been practicing.

In the setup shot below, you can see David holding the small OctoDome® with his free hand (set on 1/2 power) and Maggie holding a bare FlashFire set on 1/2 power. This spontaneous setup shows the convenience of lightweight battery powered strobes.

Digital cameras, with their high ISO settings and automatic focus, make this one-handed style of fast shooting possible. The power and portability of today’s Photoflex® LiteStand, FlashFire® and small Octodome® is less than nine pounds!

Some of us may remember the old days when a medium format film camera and a heavy battery strobe mounted in a large metal reflector would have slowed this process to a crawl.

In the final shot below, you can see how the rim light being held by Maggie adds depth and drama to the portrait.

David shot with an Olympus E-5 and a Zuiko 12-60mm lens set at 30mm. His settings were as follows:

  • ISO 200
  • Aperture f/5.6
  • Shutter speed: 1/125th of a second

Changing Things Up

In the next series of shots, we dispensed with the masks and had the models change their outfits. Theresa let Maggie’s hair down and made her make-up a little more dramatic.

While the models were being prepped, Dave and I did some exposure tests in the hallway. The result was one of the best portraits of David I’ve seen, and if no one removes it from this lesson, it will be a real source of pride for me.

The lighting was actually pretty good in the alcove where David was standing, but we wanted the background to be darker with some spooky lighting behind the models. I set up a couple of FlashFire™ strobes on 1/2 power in the open doorways down the hall.

Here, you can see a lighting test with the strobes firing. Speeding up the shutter to 1/50th of a second and closing the aperture another 2/3rds of a stop eliminated most of the ambient light and made the background more mysterious looking.

In this final shot of the set in the hallway, the elimination of the ambient light made the scene look like nighttime. The two strobes behind the models did an excellent job providing a separation light for Maggie’s hair.

Note that the strobe on the right was placed onto a LiteStand and aimed at Maggie so the highlight would fall between Stuart and her. The key light is accomplished with a TritonFlash® in a small OctoDome® at a height of 7 feet just to the left of the camera.

We maintained our camera settings, changing only our focal length to 21mm and our aperture to f/7.

Final Shots

Our last set of photos was taken in a small classroom with theater style seating. After viewing a test shot, below, Theresa and David decided to ad eye make-up to Stuart and change his outfit for this last session. With all of our planned shots in the can, we changed gears for a completely different feel on this last set.

Stuart gets his eye make-up applied. Maggie also changed into a different dress and had her eye make-up darkened for the final shots.

The setup shot shows the position of the three lights we used for Maggie’s portrait. We continued to use two bare FlashFire™ strobes, one on each side of her, but we added a TritonFlash™ in a small OctoDome® as the key light.

The TritonFlash™ was set at 1/8 power. The FlashFire™ strobes were set at 1/2 power. Dave adjusted his focal length to 35mm and changed his exposure to f/5 at 1/100th of a second.

There’s a case to be made for the benefits of natural lighting, but commercial, fashion and advertising photographers typically look for ways to create images that stand out from the result casual shooters can take with no control at all.

The shot of Maggie shown below shows how much depth and drama the strobe lighting adds to the scene in comparison to the soft ambient light of the room.

Afterward, Stuart stepped into the same lighting setup, but was positioned a bit closer to the camera and the key light (TritonFlash™) to achieve a stronger contrast ratio.

Note how the contrast ratio on Stuart’s face becomes lower when he’s positioned further away from the key light and closer to the two StarFire™ strobes. This is a good example of how different effects can be achieved through posing, and not necessarily through moving the lights.

The setup shot below shows the position of the model and lighting for Stuart’s portrait. Note how the two StarFire™ strobes on LiteStands were lowered from their earlier positions used for the standing portraits of Maggie.

In each case, the strobes were kept at about 1 foot above the eye level of the model to achieve the longest possible rim light effect. Both LiteStands with the strobes were leaned against the wall to move the rim light on Stuart’s face as far back as possible.

In the photo below, taken through the broken window, we see the last shots of the day being taken in the abandoned building that was our “studio”.

We hope this lesson has been helpful and that it may inspire you to explore the urban landscapes in your area.

Photographed by David Cross. Written by Jeffery Luhn.

History of Fort Ord:

During the years from 1947 through it’s closing in 1994, Fort Ord continued to be used for the basic training of new recruits and the advanced training of artillery personnel. Many commissioned officers lived on base with their families. It was not uncommon to see dozens of surfboards leaning against the walls of the many housing units during the days when the base was fully occupied.

Although the quarters consisted of simply designed wood and cement block buildings, no one complained because the grounds and surrounding environments are spectacular. The Army base goes right to the golden sand beaches of the Monterey Bay in one direction and large open game reserves in the other direction.

Access: About 80,000 cars pass the decommissioned facility every day, but few locals have ever visited the facility. The California State University of Monterey controls much of the site where the living quarters were and they worked to give us permission during our photography project. In other areas of the base there are buildings that have fallen into disrepair and are used by paintball gamers, graffiti artists, urban explorers and stray animals. We got permission to shoot in one of the ‘trashed buildings’, which are slated for demolition.

Outdoor Portraits,

Indoor Portraits,


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