Personally, this has become one of my favorite subjects to photograph. While out shooting abandoned properties i started talking to other enthusiasts. From these conversations I have collected a few useful tips that I believe will help you get the most out of shooting in these environments.
Since the world we live in has been largely mapped and explored, we, as explorers turn our sights toward the old and the ruins of urban and rural life. If this is you, you’ll want to read on.
But Before You Go
See if you can get blue prints for any urban warehouse or factory ahead of time. It will prove extremely useful if you get stuck in a situation you don’t want to be in. You should know where the multiple exits are.
I am not condoning you break the law whatsoever. But if you are going into a building illegally, scout the location first for the presence of police and security. I would bet you would rather spend that $700 on a new lens rather than a trespassing violation and a criminal record.
If you see security, or think you may be getting busted, carry two memory cards. If you get caught they may make you wipe your memory card (they cannot legally do it, but they could intimidate you to do it in the situation.) Take one or two shots on a second memory card and then carry it with you. If security comes, do the ole switcheroo with the cards, and if you are made to delete the photos, you won’t lose your shots from the day.
Clothing and Safety Items
A long sleeved thick t-shirt or sweatshirt and a pair of tough jeans, not the flimsy designer clothes either. You will be getting dirty and rubbing up against some rusty surfaces; you want to make sure you are fully protected. A hard hat is also a good idea for places that look like they could be buckling, or where there is an obvious danger of falling objects.
Wear thick shoes or boots. I cannot stress the value of this. I have been in abandoned places many times and you nearly always see broken glass, rusty nails and discarded needles. Anything less than a thick boot is a bad idea.
Get a painters dust mask or better. Some buildings will have asbestos, or at least a LOT of mold. Wearing a dust mask will help protect your lungs. If you see a sign for asbestos, I recommend not going into the building. It’s not worth the risk of cancer.
The single most important tip I can provide anyone planning on visiting an abandoned building is to bring a flashlight and a buddy. Most of these locations are without electricity and will have limited natural light. As such, you’ll need a flashlight to help navigate the dark rooms and corridors that you will encounter. Abandoned buildings are also perfect locations for shelter for the homeless. Visiting these places with a partner will help ensure a safe outing.
A Tripod Is Really Not an Option
Because of the lighting conditions, it goes without saying that you will need a tripod. More than half of the photos I take at these locations are shot on a tripod with a long exposure of anywhere from a couple of seconds to as much as 20 or 30 seconds.
For those instances when I don’t have my camera on a tripod, image stabilization and fast lenses help. My favorite lenses to use are my wide angle lenses. Wide open, I can usually get a relatively sharp image at 1/10th of a second. More often than not though, the best results will come from shooting on a tripod.
Control the Exposure
I am not one who believes that all serious photographers should shoot in manual 100% of the time. There are plenty of times I am using aperture or shutter priority. Unfortunately in an abandoned building, that tactic will not work. The high contrast between light and dark will play havoc with your images. Because of the harsh lighting conditions of these spaces, you’ll need to control all aspects of the shot. Shadows will be dark, the light will be harsh, and the contrast unmanageable if you are not manipulating all aspects of how your camera is perceiving the scene.
Emphasize the Mood
Use creative angles and perspectives to play up the natural character of the buildings is what will separate your images from the others. Get your camera low to the ground or high up towards a ceiling and shoot to emphasize the vastness of a room, or shoot an angle to heighten the sense of disorientation. As a photographer you are telling the story of the place you are in and even a subtle shift of the camera’s perspective can make a huge impact on the mood of the photo.
A wide angle lens can really add to the sense of emptiness in these buildings. This lens will alter the perspective and allow you to capture more of a room. Real estate agents use wide angle lenses when taking photos of homes they are listing, so apply the same principal here.
Focus on the Details
While it is easy to get caught up in the architecture, try to also pay attention to the discarded items and details in the area as well. Chairs, books, phones, peeling paint or wallpaper and other remnants from days gone by can provide a powerful centerpiece to the image. Focusing on a single object can also act as an anchor in an otherwise busy environment.
Your abandoned photography experience shouldn’t stop in the camera. You should consider taking advantage of the different techniques offered to you by a myriad of software programs. Post processing can give you the possibility of getting different effects out of a single shot.
You can try an HDR technique which will provide you with intense colors and stunning details. HDR ( High Dynamic Range) consists of taking several different exposures of the same scene and then to merge them into one single photo in an editing software, in order to get details in the highlights as well as in the shadow areas. For a software program idea check out www.HDRsoft.com or look at NIK HDR’s capability.
You can also convert the photos to black and white to get more of an eerie and dark mood. Although, you can take the photos directly in black and white in the camera, my advice is to avoid that and to do the conversion in post processing. By converting the photos on your computer , you will have more control over the photo and on how each tone will be rendered in B&W. You will also maintain a color version of the photo in case you didn’t like the B&W effect after all. My personal preference is to do the RAW conversion in the RAW editor of Photoshop. This will offer you richer blacks than any other method I have found.
My final tip is for you to be careful while exploring these buildings. No photograph is worth endangering yourself or getting arrested for trespassing, so take care whenever you enter an unfamiliar location.
Be safe and happy shooting!