Lukasz Palka: Shooting from Rooftops in Tokyo

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All images by Lukasz Palka. Used with permission.

Photographer Lukasz Palka is based in Tokyo, Japan. Originally from Poland, he’s always loved rooftops and he sees himself as an urban explorer.

“My viewers online have also suggested that some of the photos evoke Blade Runner, or Mirror’s Edge, and other works of science fiction.” says Lukasz. “I cannot deny that such works inspire me and I take pleasure in knowing that my photos stir my viewer’s imaginations and fit into those worlds somehow.”

On the rooftops, he experiences a feeling of serenity, and he tries to evoke that through his images.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Lukasz: As long as I can remember I’ve been into art, writing, film, and so on. This included photography. But it wasn’t until I came to Japan in 2008 that I shed all those other pursuits and really honed in on photography. I found myself writing in the Tokyo guesthouse at which I was staying, and felt disappointed that I had come to a faraway land just to spend my time in the house. So I got a ‘serious’ camera and got out in the streets. Over the last 7 years it became my passion. I dream about making photographs.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into Urban Exploring?

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Lukasz: I think it was simply an evolution of my original motivation: leverage photography as a way to see and experience the city. I think urbex, and specifically my preoccupation with rooftops, is an extension of that. After a few years on sidewalks, in back alleys, on trains, you can’t help but wonder what lies above. Then you see an inviting staircase one night and without thinking you take the first step. At this point, I like being in places few people visit. I enjoy the atmosphere, and I guess I’m simply very curious.

Phoblographer: Work like this obviously requires you to be sneaky at times but it also requires split second decisions as far as creative thought processes go. So as you’re urbexing, what’s usually going through your mind as far as getting the shot goes?

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Lukasz: Well, the main thing is not getting caught. The repercussions are not so bad I think—most times people just politely, yet firmly, ask me to leave—but getting caught usually means I don’t get to see everything, or that the spot will be inaccessible next time. Other times I see people and smile, and they see my camera and think I’m a harmless tourist. As far as the shots themselves, I play it by ear. On occasion I have a specific mission and hunt for a spot with a certain view, but generally I go up and see what I come across. It’s a bit like street photography, which I also love; a major factor is serendipity.

Phoblographer: Have you ever went out urbexing and didn’t find anything worth shooting? How often does that happen?

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Lukasz: It certainly happens. I get to the 10th story just to see the bare façade of the building across the street, but this is rare. Typically, there is a shot to be made. I often like to shoot straight down, or use the cladding of a building as a reflective surface as these angles result in interesting geometries. Usually, such a shot is to be found almost anywhere, but it takes a bit of experimenting. I have to work the scene as I would with a more terrestrial subject. There are lots of options up on the roofs and on staircases.

Phoblographer: Tell us the story of the most scary moment you’ve had doing this type of stuff?

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Lukasz: One moment stands out well above all the rest in terms of scariness. One night, in the early hours, I was about 10 floors up on large roof, and from here there was a ladder, say another 3 stories, to the top of a square-shaped tower or mast type thing. I climbed up, sat on the lip and peered in. I couldn’t see the floor well, but I figured it is night, it’s dark. I threw one leg over and straddled the ledge, fishing for the floor. As I did, I must have knocked some pebbles or dust off the ledge on which I was perched. I could hear the faint echoes the stones made as they fell into the void. It realized then I was sitting on the edge of an unusually shaped chimney. It was likely a 13 floor drop into a water boiler or ventilation system.

I climbed straight back down with my heart in my throat. I don’t think I was in much danger, or not much more than I had been in some other situations. More than that, I was struck by the sudden realization that the abyss was completely unknown to me. Thoughts of what would have happened had I been more brazen and hopped off the ledge left quite an impact on me.

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In some alternate universe, another Lukasz explored his last roof, and I am much more careful these days.

Phoblographer: For you, what’s exactly the goal here? How do you make money off of this type of work?

Lukasz: Directly from my work, I do make some money via print sales on my website, but this is really a small sum. As my main source of income I running a photography workshop business with a partner. We call it EYExploreTokyo and we have been in business since 2014. We don’t really do urbex too much on the workshops but we teach fundamentals of composition, street photography techniques, long exposures, and other urban photography to people who are visiting Tokyo and want to see the city while also learning about the craft of photography. This is now my full time job, and I am very grateful for that.

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Phoblographer: Tell us about the first time that you went urbexing to get images like these. Were you scared?

Lukasz: I am to this day a little bit scared of heights. I am not a daredevil or adrenaline junky by any stretch of the imagination. Despite that, the very first time I don’t remember being scared of anything in particular. I was hanging out with a friend one night in my neighborhood—we saw a staircase, and we just sort of went for it. I took a few photos and we sat up on top of a water tank talking about life and the universe for a few hours.

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Up there I felt wonder and awe at the city around me. There is a sweet spot somewhere between the 5th floor and the 15th where you are not quite above the city like a bird in flight, but rather like a bat perched in the canopy of the concrete jungle. At this altitude the air is quiet, but you can make out the distant sounds of the streets below mixed with the muffled humming of ventilation machinery. This atmosphere struck me immediately the first time I went up onto the rooftops and left a lasting impression.

Later, after looking at the photos (which failed to convey the mood I experienced), I wanted more. As soon as I could I looked for other locations with the specific purpose of making photographs.

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Phoblographer: What gear do you use and why?

Lukasz: I shoot with a Nikon D3 which I picked up used years ago at a good price. I admit it’s time for an upgrade, but this camera is a very reliable workhorse and gives me access to the fantastic Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 which is my main lens for the rooftops. I like using ultra-wide angle focal lengths to enhance the feeling of vertigo one gets from looking down into the void. For my street photography work I also shoot with a Voigtländer 40mm f/2.0, which is a fun and capable manual focus pancake lens.

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Phoblographer: So where do you see yourself as a photographer one year from now and how do you plan on getting there?

Lukasz: Well, since I run a business related to photography, that’s certainly a big focus. However, simply speaking of myself as a photographer, I want to do two things: one is to eventually create a book with a collection of rooftop photographs. The second is to continue to hone my photography, in particular street. Street photography is a great challenge, and my skill in general is not world class. I need to keep learning and keep challenging myself.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.