What Lies Beneath - An Interview With Travel Photographer Tomas Sentpetery

Nikon photographer Tomas Sentpetery has been busy exploring the hidden underground worlds beneath some of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. Step inside his fascinating ‘Look Deeper’ project…

What was your motivations behind the project?
As a travel photographer, I’m always aspiring to adventure into the unknown in search of new experiences. However, as the world gets smaller and travel is far more accessible, it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce unique travel photography. The ‘Look Deeper’ project came about through a collaboration with Nikon Europe to highlight that there are plenty of new discoveries still to be made in popular European travel destinations - if you know where to look! I travelled to five countries, capturing locations both above and below the ground from new perspectives. I wanted my image series to reveal the contrasting worlds that can be found in these locations and to encourage fellow travel photographers to go out and discover hidden worlds everywhere.

Parisian city views stand above Paris Musées’ Les Catacombes de Paris

Parisian city views stand above Paris Musées’ Les Catacombes de Paris

Paris’ underground ossuaries hold the remains of several million people

Paris’ underground ossuaries hold the remains of several million people

What techniques and camera equipment did you use on the shoots?
For the underground shots I used the Nikon D850 combined with three lenses – the AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and the AF-S Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G ED. The low-light performance and versatility of this kit is exceptional and the D850’s ISO range also meant I was able to capture colour and detail when little natural light was available, while still delivering crisp, sharp images.

When shooting above ground, I chose to shoot with the Nikon D7500 as it is lightweight and easy to carry - something I was really grateful for during long days on my feet. I particularly enjoyed using it with the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR because of its focal reach and compactness. However, I also used the AF-S DX Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED and AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E VR as they are both great travel lenses.

The tilting touchscreen monitor on the D7500 allowed me to focus and shoot from any angle. This was particularly useful when shooting St Mary’s Basilica in Krakow. In order to capture the reflection of the basilica in the puddles as well as the basilica itself in one shot, I had to get very low to the ground, so having the tilted screen meant I could be certain I’d found the best position.

Contrasting Krakow’s above ground buildings with the underground expanse of the Wieliczka salt mines, located near the city

Contrasting Krakow’s above ground buildings with the underground expanse of the Wieliczka salt mines, located near the city

Contrasting Krakow’s above ground buildings with the underground expanse of the Wieliczka salt mines, located near the city

Contrasting Krakow’s above ground buildings with the underground expanse of the Wieliczka salt mines, located near the city

What were the biggest challenges you faced during the project and how did you overcome these?
I encountered a number of challenges during the project, both technical and physical. On the technical front, working with limited space and low light were the biggest drawbacks of shooting underground, so I had to be really creative with my lighting and positioning. The use of a tripod and a fast lens was essential when shooting in dark conditions. In confined spaces that didn’t allow for a tripod, the Nikon D850 was excellent at handling low-light situations, so I could go to a high ISO of 4000-5000 and still get really good results, particular when combined with the AF-S Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G ED.

On various locations I used an off-camera flash or two. I also used a headtorch when shooting in the Mail Rail tunnels below London to heighten the eerie atmosphere and create an almost supernatural light. This allowed me to capture striking imagery from, what seemed at first glance, a very plain canvas. Having the right kit was also crucial in enabling me to make the most of the light that was available.

The historic Renaissance Hotel sits above London Postal Museum's disused Rail Mail, both located near Kings Cross

The historic Renaissance Hotel sits above London Postal Museum's disused Rail Mail, both located near Kings Cross

The historic Renaissance Hotel sits above London Postal Museum's disused Rail Mail, both located near Kings Cross

The historic Renaissance Hotel sits above London Postal Museum's disused Rail Mail, both located near Kings Cross

However, for other physical challenges, I had to rely on my stamina and forward planning to ensure I captured the best shots. As a landscape and travel photographer, I am constantly encountering these types of challenges so made sure to draw on my past experiences to anticipate and prepare for every eventuality. Throughout the project, I woke up early to capture the sunrise and then make sure I was positioned correctly for sunset to maximise the optimal light conditions. I found using an app to make sure I knew the correct local times for sunrise and sunset was invaluable.

Having plenty of food and water to hand was key to keeping up my energy when walking between multiple shoot locations. I’d be on my feet all day at several destinations from sunrise to sunset which was very tiring! Waiting for the perfect weather conditions to clear to allow me to capture the perfect shots was both emotionally and physically testing. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t something anyone can control and can be incredibly frustrating when it’s not playing ball. A lot of patience and perseverance was crucial.

What were the main highlights from the project?
The Wieliczka Salt Mines, which were continuously mined from the 13th century until 2007, were an absolute highlight for me. I loved the look and atmosphere of the interior and the feeling of walking through hundreds of years of history - the best way to describe it is like an underground town. The grand rooms and strange statues carved out of the salt rock create a magical quality, which you can’t quite believe was created from human hands. Out of all the places I visited during the project, it had the biggest impact on me and looks incredible in photos.

The Barrio de Cuevas (or the Neighbourhood of Caves) in Guadix in Spain also had a profound effect on me, especially meeting the people who still make the caves their homes to this day. Above ground, I would have to say Amalfi was my favourite location. You can’t help but be drawn in by its stunning beauty. I even revisited it because I loved it so much.

The expanse of Barrio de Cuevas in Guadix, Spain, houses the largest cave complex in Europe, inhabited by 3,000 people

The expanse of Barrio de Cuevas in Guadix, Spain, houses the largest cave complex in Europe, inhabited by 3,000 people

The expanse of Barrio de Cuevas in Guadix, Spain, houses the largest cave complex in Europe, inhabited by 3,000 people

The expanse of Barrio de Cuevas in Guadix, Spain, houses the largest cave complex in Europe, inhabited by 3,000 people

What has working on this project taught you and how can other travel photographers learn from your experience?
The main takeaway from this project for me is not to overlook what lies under the surface. Often these places offer the most to discover. The project has certainly encouraged me to continue to discover the hidden depths of popular tourist destinations and explore the unique perspective that the contrast between the above and subterranean worlds can provide.

I hope the image series will encourage travel photographers to think differently about how they can photograph typical travel destinations. Anyone who has been inspired by my journey can find out more info on the ‘Look Deeper’ webpage here.

The ancient underground Bourbon Tunnels wind beneath the picturesque region of Naples

The ancient underground Bourbon Tunnels wind beneath the picturesque region of Naples

The ancient underground Bourbon Tunnels wind beneath the picturesque region of Naples

The ancient underground Bourbon Tunnels wind beneath the picturesque region of Naples

Tomas Sentpetery is a Slovakian-born, London-based wedding and portrait photographer with a penchant for travel and adventure. See more of his work here.