Grunge photography is a style where the final image looks dirty, distressed or distorted. To create grunge pictures a photographer uses in-camera technique and edgy post-processing.
Much like grunge music with its antsy lyrics and distorted chords, the best grunge photos will bring up disturbing emotions.
Here’s how to achieve that grunge photography look.
The Grunge Photoshoot
Choosing the right subject for your grunge pictures is important. You don’t want anything too happy or sunny.
Your aim is to manipulate dark feelings with your dark photography.
Old things make great subjects. Try photographing:
- Decades-old broken cars,
- Rusting old machinery,
- Dilapidated buildings,
- Winter trees and forests,
Urban exploration will often provide loads of great grunge photoshoot locations when you’re looking for them. You may not notice them so readily unless you have your mind fixed on creating edgy photos.
During the winter, the countryside is a great source of inspiration for edgy photos. You’ll easily find subjects and scenes to fit the theme of dark creative photography.
Lighting can work whether it’s gloomy and overcast or bright and sunny. Dark shadows on a summer’s day used the right way will add a real edgy feeling to the right subjects.
Capture a Diversity of Edgy Photos
Take wide, medium and close up photos. Build up a story about the location you are photographing to fit a narrative you are building in your head. Aim to tell a moving story with your edgy photos.
Change lenses. Don’t just always use your favorite zoom. Photograph closes-ups with your widest lens. Get some wide photos with a lens you normally use for portraits.
Choosing non-conventional means to make your photos will enhance the grungy feeling you want to evoke.
Find an elevated viewpoint. Look down on your subject. Drop down on the ground and point your camera up. What can you see that fits with the mood you want to create?
Most ‘normal’ photography is done standing up. When you choose alternative perspectives for photos it can help convey unsettling feelings.
Set Your Camera to Manual and Control Your Exposures
With your camera set to any of the auto or semi-auto modes, it’ll give you an exposure it’s programmed to. Your camera’s light meter is calibrated to respond to the average tone and return an even exposure.
Choosing to set your aperture, shutter speed and ISO you can radicalise your exposure. This will help you increase the intensity of feeling in your grunge photos.
You can use your camera’s spot meter or monitor to choose the part of your composition you want well exposed. Doing this in manual mode is easy.
Think about what the most important part of your composition is and set your camera to capture it well.
Concentrating on highlights in a brightly lit scene with lots of shadows will render the dark areas with little or no detail.
Having deep, black darkness will make your photos feel edgier.
Think in Multiple Layers
Grunge backgrounds are good to find and photograph. When you’re out on your grunge photoshoot look for distressed surfaces with good contrast.
You can use these as layers in Photoshop to enhance your edgy photos.
Virtually any surface can be used as a grunge photography background. The key is finding the right ones. Take lots of photos of grungy backgrounds to build up your collection of images you can use as additional layers during post-processing.
Having lots to choose from will ensure you better, more interesting results.
Use Film For More Unpredictable Grunge Photography
The very nature of grunge photography is to have it look somewhat low quality. Doing this with your modern digital camera is challenging without additional post-processing.
Using a pinhole or Lomo camera you can create organic, grunge photography in camera with no post-processing required.
No lens or plastic lenses are not going to give you the sharpest, clearest photos.
Using a regular 35mm film camera you can project more emotion into your images by manipulating your exposure.
Film has less dynamic range than modern digital sensors. It’s more likely to lose detail when it’s ‘incorrectly’ exposed.
Pushing or pulling the film when processing produces a different feel. This is when the film is left in the developer for a longer or shorter period than standard.
Doing this will alter contrast and grain, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Cross processing is a technique you can try with colour film. Developing a negative film with a process meant for positive (slide) film and vice versa generates unusual colour shifts.
The outcome varies from one variety of film to another and can be quite unpredictable.
Film is certainly more challenging because you cannot see the results as readily as you get to with digital.
Develop a Dark Feeling
Post-processing of digital images is the most common way to make grunge photography.
As with any post processing, there are always multiple techniques you can use to obtain the same or similar outcome.
Here are a few methods I use of adding a dark feeling to my photographs.
Adjust Contrast Levels to Extremes
Manipulate the controls for the shadows, blacks, and contrast. The Dehaze slider in Lightroom is also another, newer, excellent tool for adding darkness.
Don’t be concerned about losing the detail in the darkest areas of your photos. Deep, dark spaces will enhance the edgy mood of your photographs.
Typically I avoid pushing sliders in Lightroom to their extremes because this can cause images to break down.
When processing grunge styled photographs I am not so concerned about this. It can add to the look.
Experiment With Alternative Combinations of Tools
Step outside your comfort zone. Try using multiple sliders and tools you would not typically consider using in combination.
Shift the Hue of your photo. Adjusting to include more blue certainly will enhance a darker mood of your photo more than most other colours.
Drop the Vibrance. Suck the life out of the colour in your images. Not necessarily all the way to monotone.
Bringing down the vibrance and saturation levels to take the edge of bright colours will add gloominess to your photos.
Black and White Conversion For Grunge Photos
Use the Niks Silver Efex Pro plugin for Lightroom and Photoshop. This is about the easiest and most effective means of creative black and white grunge photography.
Choose the look you like from the many presets and then tweak it further. You can adjust the brightness, contrast, and structure levels.
There’s a drop down with a selection of film types allowing you to add grain to your photo.
Don’t be restrained to adding just one instance of one filter. If you’re not satisfied with the look of your first filter, go back to the plugin and add another, different one.
Stacking them in layers in Photoshop and experimenting with the Blend Modes gives you unlimited control of the outcome.
Brushes, Cross Processing, and Other Presets
Creative potential is massive for what you can do to make photographs look edgy. The grunge look is as broad as your imagination and the feeling you want to infuse your photos with.
Play with brushes in Photoshop. Add layers and customise brushes to specific parts of images.
Download some presets for Lightroom. There are some great cross process filters available.
These will render photos with alternative colour. Much like processing film in alternative chemicals will do.
Visualising the style of photograph you want from the outset will help you make more compelling grunge photography. Think about the look and feel of the photo as you are taking it.
Consider how you will post process and what digital techniques you will use.
Practice with post-processing in ways you don’t typically. Experiment, but keep in mind the mood you want to create.
Like the use of any filter, applied on your lens or on your computer, not every effect will enhance an image.