Tuesday, 6 August 2013

How to Photograph Abandoned Places and Buildings – Urban Exploration

urban exploration
Photo by: Michael Kotter

Ruined structures pertaining to the Roman Empire, Greece, Mexico, Italy etc. that bear markings left by several centuries, locations in the Middle East where Jesus walked and preached, numerous Indian palaces and temples, Machu Picchu of South America, Buddhist temples from Gautama Buddha spread throughout Asia; the list is endless!  When history remains frozen in these ruined structures; they have a thousand stories to tell; we photographers are duty bound to present their stories before the world. 

Temples, historical sites, old architectural marvels which stood as the wonders of the beholder for centuries lie in shambles; they are mere scattered stones that have nothing but a glorious past. One need not wander to Egypt or Rome to find them; they may be in his on town; unwept and unsung. No doubt that they are decayed (beautifully decayed may be more apt). Paying a visit, studying their history and bringing out images exposing their uniqueness are no mean things.    

Urban Exploration

Photo by: Scallop Holden

It is a general feeling that old and dilapidated structures and places contain nothing of any value; and people view with suspicion to those who visit such places; they are unaware of what actually these structures are and what they hide in them. Photographers can do a great service to history by unraveling those treasures hidden in them to the outside world. Such a visit can be called ‘urban exploration’; it can be made a hobby that can both enrich the mind and create value to your works.

It would be better to consider these matters before taking ‘Urban Exploration’ as a serious thing.

1. Abandoned Places and Buildings Are Dangerous.

photographing abandoned places
Photo by: Michael Kotter

Abandoned places, especially buildings are generally very dangerous, years of neglect and the play of nature’s elements would have made everything in such a location in varying degree of decay. Much care is required to work safely. Some of the hazards may be noted below;

Concrete Decay

With passage of time, concrete decays (called ‘concrete cancer’); the steel used in them rusts and this combination makes the entire structure highly unstable; using of parapet or staircases must be done at one’s own risk. A slight fault can cause damage either to the structure or to the person.


Abandoned structures like elevator shaft, service vents, wooden planks etc. can cause a fall in to a bottomless pit; without anybody nearby for a rescue.

Slippage and Allergies

abandoned places photography
Photo by: Lotus Carroll

Most abandoned buildings are covered with a thick layer of dust, moss, fungus and other pollutants, these can cause slippery surfaces and exposure to toxic substances like asbestos fibers could cause serious health hazards.

Wild Animals and People

Abandoned places and buildings can be favorite hide outs for wild animals, pack of stray dogs, poisonous snakes etc. These places or buildings are generally frequented by criminals, druggies, etc. most of them fiercely territorial and aggressive; take care against mugging or theft of valuable equipment. 

2. Entering Abandoned Buildings is Illegal.

abandoned building photography
Photo by: Jonas Ginter

The mere act of entering an abandoned building is illegal and if caught will have trouble of clearing the charges of trespassing or violation of the law just for being there. Such a thing if it happens in a foreign nation may be taken for espionage; no one will be there for a bail. So before setting out you should be prepared with all credentials to convince the officers and seek an early escape!

Urban exploration is a dangerous hobby that can either cause physical injuries or get accused with some serious charges by a court of law. So to summarize it could be done with collaboration from those who have necessary contacts to get bail out!

After hearing all these; still ready for a rendezvous? Ok being a photographer; it is hard to resist a temptation. There is a very special kind of beauty in long abandoned and ruined buildings and that combined with the thrill of doing something risky, the adrenalin flow when you take risks never knowing what’s going to happen next, and prospects of getting some really amazing photographs all makes it irresistible.

Certain Must Have Accessories for Urban Exploration

tips for photographing abandoned buildings
Photo by: Michael Kotter

Words of caution before we begin, never vandalize, steal, or damage anything; Leave everything just as you found it. Leave only foot prints and take back only photographs and memories.

A Torch or Flashlight

Never ever enter any abandoned building without a torch or a flashlight, they are dangerous places, they are almost always dimly lit and most definitely without electricity. A flashlight can become a weapon to scare away ‘troubles’ and can function as an aid for some ‘light painting’, or to reveal details in shadows to make your photographs all the more interesting.

Drinking Water

Urban explorations almost always takes more time and effort than you initially thought it will, be prepared for lots of walking, stair climbing and navigating some tight corners etc. take some potable water to keep you well hydrated.


Urban exploration is a trip to an unchartered territory; your ‘return trip’ can be ‘quite unceremonious’; It is advisable not to carry very expensive cameras and accessories, only carry a camera you are prepared to lose, break or get stolen.


Do not carry excessive amounts of money, some spare cash could help you get permissions, or get out of trouble if get caught, but carrying more cash can be a passport to trouble.

Urbex Tips - Exploring of Abandoned Places and Buildings

tips for photographing abandoned places
Photo by: Scallop Holden

Try to find out the authority that is in charge of the building and ask permission, often a nearby resident would be acting caretaker and will be more than willing to allow you inside or even escort you there.

Before actually entering the building, Scout the location, do some backgrounds research both online and offline and try to find out as much as possible so as to keep you away from trouble.

Never ever go alone to an abandoned location or building, try to coax someone to come along, try teaming up with photographers of similar interests, if you really need to go alone, make sure to inform someone who really cares about you about the location you plan to visit and when they could expect you to return.

Tips for Photographing Abandoned Places and Buildings

Find an abandoned building

In order to photograph it you should find one first, It doesn't matter how drab or plain it looks. It could be a long abandoned structure infested with weeds, climbers and all or a recently-abandoned one of some importance.

Pay Attention to Surroundings

Don't forget the area around the house. Grass, trees, scattered things like toys or broken furniture parts vessels, shoes etc. could all help you narrate a story with your photograph.

Shoot Wide

exploring abandoned places
Photo by: Sebastian Barre

A wide angle lens can really add to the sense of emptiness and foreboding in these buildings and it gives viewers a feeling of being very close to the objects.  

Emphasize the Mood

urbex photography
Photo by Scallop Holden

Explore the scene from different angles and try to use perspective to emphasize the natural character of the building. Consider shooting from low down or tilting the frame to emphasize the mood of the photograph.

Capture Abandonedness

photography urban exploration
Photo by: Michael Kotter

Try to find elements that scream “abandoned” and use it in context to bring focus to the emptiness or abandoned-ness.

Attention to Detail

Pay attention to details, the little things that often go unnoticed if used properly could add life to an otherwise dull photograph.


urban exploration photography
Photo by: Scallop Holden

Plan your composition carefully, the picture needs to tell a story, a story of neglect, one of decay, one of past glory, about people who once lived there etc. think ahead and find interesting subjects. Innovative shooting angles and unique compositions can effectively narrate your story to the viewer.


how to photograph abandoned buildings
Photo by: Daniel

Take up urban exploration as a hobby with some interest in the history of the places you explore.  Photographing abandoned buildings is a way of chronicling our past in pictures.

Mental Awareness

How to Photograph Abandoned Places
Photo by: Jonas Ginter

Just like in wildlife photography, urban exploration also calls for an awareness of your surroundings at all times, not only is it crucial for capturing amazing photographs but is also important due to the hazards posed by abandoned buildings.

Old is gold;

photographing abandoned buildings
Photo by: Scallop Holden

If a once sunken ship -seen by nobody- can make billions; you too can make a fortune out of dilapidated structures; in a la Titanic way. It needs some hard work; let the people of the locality talk freely; enquire who lived there; how they lived and died; details of their siblings etc. Then meet all possible siblings collect all the photographs available (of people as well as the building in its prime time).  Along with all these add your own version in photographs; some romance if any! If your story is a hit; a real jackpot; old may turn to gold! Have a fruitful rendezvous.

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