Settled within the creative community of Barcelona, Urth’s newest ambassador Carla Step focuses her photographic attention on ethical brands and local artists. Here, we discuss how her self-taught perspective provides endless creative freedom as she draws inspiration from her city.
Born and raised in Barcelona, Carla Step’s photography is indebted to the city’s earthy colours, dynamic seaside atmosphere and vibrant creative culture. As a child, it was dancing and painting that excited her most as she was encouraged by her arts-loving parents. But having discovered photography just before she finished high school, Carla believes her previous artistic interests helped her quickly define her photographic gaze.
“When I was in my last year of school, one of my best friends created a photo book of herself to give to modelling agencies – I was fascinated to see professional photos of my friend. One day we decided to play with a digital camera as if we were photographers, and I realised that it was very intuitive for me,” says Step.
Despite Carla’s casual introduction to photography, it didn’t take long for her to decide it was something she wanted to pursue as a career. But with the cost of studying photography at university in Barcelona prohibitively expensive, she honed her skills using online tutorials and asking friends for advice. Carla says this self-directed approach felt incredibly natural, as she could learn new skills and experiment on her own time.
“I see lots of people go to university for photography, but when they finish they aren’t sure how to start working because although they learn a lot, they don’t have much real experience,” says Step. “On the other hand, it’s true that I lack some technical knowledge… It’s not that I think university is unhelpful, but I think there are other possible ways to learn. You just have to find what works for you.”
Carla’s emergence as a sought-after commercial photographer was also a rather organic process. She began her career by shooting portraits and products for people in her immediate circle, with word of mouth drawing more like-minded creatives into her sphere. With much of her client-based work involving ethical fashion designers, jewellers and furniture makers, Carla decided to study graphic design to complement her photographic skills.
“For me, the best thing I learned during my studies was how to develop a project. I was taught the process behind having an idea, contextualising it and creating a mood board. This is a really good way to think about what you’re trying to say,” explains Step.
“It’s not that I think university is unhelpful, but I think there are other possible ways to learn.”
With graphic design qualifications under her belt, but no formal photographic education to fall back on, Carla initially taught herself a wide range of techniques by shooting in black and white. The style’s simplicity in terms of light and focus made it particularly useful for mastering different skill sets. But with the Mediterranean’s soft colours and ambience such a clear influence on her life, Carla always intended to reflect this vibrancy, alongside her own identity, within her work.
“I feel very lucky to have grown up in Barcelona and be inspired by the city and all the artists we have here,” says Step. “I also believe a photographer’s work shows a lot of their personality. I’m a quite nervous person inside… I normally need to be surrounded by calm colours, sound and people to find my balance. I believe the style of my photography shows a lot of this.”
Carla shoots commercial work for both brands and agencies, but she prefers to work alongside local businesses that let her truly express her creative ideas. However, the brand’s ethics need to align with her own, as she seeks out those with progressive approaches to sustainability. Carla also continues to shoot compelling portraits, with actresses, artists and writers frequently joining her in the studio.
Outside of these commissions, Carla’s travels are when she spends time on her personal work. Although you won’t find her shooting in the same locations as everyone else. Instead, Carla describes her preferred spots as desolate and uninviting spaces that combine “immensity and minimalism”, rather than the standard selection of landmarks that you’d find on most must-visit lists.
“I normally need to be surrounded by calm colours, sound and people to find my balance.”
“Normally people tell me about beautiful places to visit, but I don’t really find much inspiration there. Most of my favourite pictures are taken in random places. One example of this is from my trip to Japan. I was there for a week but the best pictures I took were from around the port where you take the ferry to Naoshima Island.”
For this trip, Carla’s guide had pointed out several undoubtedly impressive, but conventional places in Tokyo and Kyoto that failed to provoke much creativity. It wasn’t until she decided to stop planning altogether that she found the obscured shapes and colours in the landscape. Titled ‘Unexpected Japan’, Carla’s favourite images from this series were captured in the backstreets of Uno Port. “I had some spare time during golden hour so I decided to go for a walk. There, I found some beautiful, empty corners with the most amazing light,” says Step.
Many photographers view personal and commercial projects as two separate sides of their work, but Carla considers them largely one and the same. Although she’s “not the kind of photographer who takes their camera everywhere,” Carla finds that catching up on personal work during her travels or at home with friends keeps her feeling excited to use her camera.
“I love commercial work when it’s a project that inspires me. I don’t really feel there’s much of a difference between personal and commercial work because I usually work on projects that give me lots of freedom,” explains Step.
This sense of creative independence is reflected in Carla’s ability to approach her projects using either analogue or digital. While she still uses film for some projects, Carla says the convenience of digital ultimately helps her produce images that fully realise her creative vision. “I’m not someone who thinks analogue is better than digital or whatever. I feel like it’s comparing a pen to a pencil – they are just different ways to create,” says Step.
As Carla describes, shooting analogue for commercial projects relies on being incredibly comfortable with numerous techniques that don’t always pan out. Plus, the strictly limited number of shots on a roll of film creates undue issues when shooting for clients. Despite Carla recognising that digital photography’s infinite nature isn’t always a good thing, she believes her grainy style strikes an appealing middle ground.
“When I started shooting digital, I didn’t know how to get beautiful colours so I became very frustrated. But now, it’s amazing how flexible it is to work in RAW format. Most people can’t tell which pictures of mine are analogue or digital – I really like that.”
Using a Sony a7 III for her commercial shoots, Carla has also recently added some of Urth’s accessories to her kit. In particular, the CPL Filter Plus+ has become a fixture on her lens, whether she’s shooting in Barcelona or travelling overseas. “It’s helped me a lot when shooting vivid colours or when I need to keep the sky looking really blue,” explains Step. “I also love the plant-based cleaning spray – it’s one of the things that I always carry in my bag.”
In 2021, Carla is looking forward to getting back to shooting like normal. But as her dreamy, sun-drenched images suggest, she’s keeping her expectations low-key as she waits to see how the year develops. “I don’t usually plan things – and this past year has made me do it less than ever,” says Step. “For the moment, I’m just letting myself be surprised.”