Up for Discussion – Photographing Abandoned Buildings
Robert, most of us know him as Infraredrobert, is known for photographing abandoned buildings in infrared and normally, if that is the right way of putting it. This year Robert produced a book, In a Different Light: Photographs of Abandonment. It is a great book and it is a collection of the images he has taken in abandoned buildings. He was interviewed on television and he sent me a link to the interview, here is the link, Abandoned Connecticut. I was watching the interview and he started talking about some of the precautions he takes when photographing these buildings. I realised that so many of us like to photograph old abandoned places, and I know I hadn’t thought about precautions and I wondered how many others are the same, so I asked Robert if he would write us an Up for Discussion post on this.
Take a look around any city, or drive into the countryside, and if you look hard enough you will see forgotten buildings…beautiful, grand structures in devolving states of entropy that have been abandoned and left to decay. Some people view these buildings as eyesores and blights on their community; other people just look past them and don’t see them at all. However, a few people, like myself, see a beauty in their return to a natural state of orderly chaos. Many of those who view the crumbling structures in this light are part of a growing number of like-minded people worldwide who, as modern adventurers, engage in a form of recreational trespassing called urban exploration (Urbex). Like any good explorer, we document our exploits with photography and share our discoveries over the Internet.
This extreme location photography is what I will discuss in this article, but first I need to stress two very important issues with regard to Urbex work:
It can be very dangerous and it can be illegal. Therefore, I do not condone or encourage anyone to attempt this activity. Let me take the chances so you don’t have to. Always listen to your inner voice about safety, and when in doubt, don’t. However, if you are determined to give Urbex photography a try, perhaps my experiences will give you some solid guidelines for best outcomes in the safest way possible. Here is how I go about it.
I’m going to assume that you know how to use your equipment for regular shooting situations, but with Urbex photography, there are a few unique challenges you will encounter. First, be prepared to have your gear take a few hits. Even the most cautious shooter will sustain some collateral damage to their equipment. Therefore, always have a lens shade and UV filter on your lens. Because most Urbex shooting takes place in interiors, lighting is usually very limited, so a sturdy tripod is a must, along with a cable or remote release for long, wobble-free exposures. As abandoned location interiors can sometimes be a bit cramped, a wide-angle lens is another essential item to have. On my DX camera, I regularly have on a 12-24mm and when shooting with an FX camera, my go-to lens is a 20mm. I usually bring along my 60mm macro, as detail shots at abandoned locations can be quite interesting. Whatever lens with which you shoot, it is essential to know how to use your camera. An abandoned building is no place to be trying to figure out how to work your equipment.
Because the lighting conditions are so extreme, I would suggest shooting three to five bracketed exposures per shot. I don’t go wild with exposure spreads — I shoot a series with +/- two-thirds of a stop for each image. While this method does allow for High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging in post-processing, I rarely use HDR. For me, the HDR images lose the feeling of being inside an abandoned space. You want to have some areas of blown-out highlights and no-detail shadows in order to retain the visual reality of the site. I always shoot in aperture priority mode at ISO 100, typically at f11 with exposures ranging from 1/10th to three seconds. However, some images have been as long as three minutes. With DSLR cameras, remember to cover the eyepiece when taking long exposures as light will enter the camera (when your head isn’t in the way) at the rear of the pentaprism and fog the image.
Personal Protective Gear
Most abandoned sites have an airborne mix of three toxins—mold, lead, and asbestos—and you must take precautious before entering. I use a half-mask P-100 respirator to protect against these airborne toxins. A word of caution: A simple dust mask is not effective at filtering out any of these hazards, so don’t kid yourself. The toxins are real, and must be taken seriously. For added protection, I wear a military surplus Kevlar flak vest, not to stop bullets (flak vests are for fragmentation protection only) but to avoid punctures when traversing dark spaces. Motocross shin guards, heavy hiking boots, thick outerwear, a hat, and rock climbing gloves complete my exploration gear. It may sound like a lot, but I can’t say this enough: Safety always!
I carry all of my equipment in a backpack. This keeps my hands free to climb, crawl, and probe inside dark areas. A headlamp is also handy for getting around in the dark and freeing up your hands to work your camera. I also carry a larger flashlight, lens dust brush, energy bar, water, cell phone, and glow-sticks. While the reasons for most of these supplies are self-evident, I want to elaborate a bit on why I carry the glow-sticks. Because glow-sticks generate light due to the combination of two chemicals, they require no batteries and are great if your flashlight fails. More importantly, I use them as markers to indicate where I have entered a building and which hallway I have traversed. In a dark space that is typically devoid of any natural markers, the glow-sticks allow you to retrace your steps inside buildings where it can easily become confusing.
Locating a Site
The Internet can provide a wealth of information about abandoned places. You will find that most of them have been visited before, so be open to learning from others about what to expect. Searching for “images” may also prove useful. Some urban explorers will give out location addresses; other will not. After I have found a location that interests me, I view the site in Google Satellite to assess the best spot to park my car and approach the building. The only time I withhold a specific location is if I have found a place that is free of vandalism. Remember, not everyone cruising the Internet has the best intentions. Ideally, if you can find the property owner, try to get permission to visit the site. However, abandoned property owners are often very difficult to track down as ownership may have changed hands over the years of abandonment.
Go For It
With a location selected, it is time to grab your gear and head out. Before you do, however, file a flight plan. In other words, let someone know exactly where you are going and when you expect to return. As with other precautions, a little planning goes a long way toward good safety practices.
My sweet time to arrive at a spot is early Sunday morning, just after dawn. Sundays work because most people are slow to rise, and security is a bit more lax after a busy Saturday night. I never attempt a frontal entry on the property. It is best to head around to the rear of the property, away from prying eyes of neighbors and security. Once on the site, walk around and assess not only the building(s) but also the grounds. Are there shopping carts around the perimeter? Drug paraphernalia, fresh cigarette butts, or empty liquor/beer bottles? These are sure signs that the homeless or gangs are using the location, so listen to your instincts. Be careful and watch where you walk. Metal thieves take drain covers and sell them for scrap, so many places have open drains that can cause serious falls or trip, leading to injury. As you go around the building, look for your way inside by checking all the doors.
Once inside, you can decide the best way to approach the documentation of the building. Note the surroundings of where you have entered and file this mental picture away for when you are ready to leave. Drop a glow-stick here—so that you know where you came in—and at any hallway junctions. Often, the ground floor windows have all been boarded up, and it will be very dark inside. Therefore, I suggest finding a staircase and heading up to higher floors where the windows will still be uncovered. If you go through any doors, be sure that there is something to keep the door from closing behind you and locking. Most of the time there is so much debris in the way that this isn’t an issue, but be mindful of not getting stuck inside a room. Remember, especially with mental hospitals, these places were designed to prevent easy egress. Therefore, don’t let yourself get trapped.
Dedicated urban explorers have a code of conduct, which states that when visiting a location, take only pictures and leave only footprints. This means not breaking, disturbing, marking, or leaving anything behind at a location. The next visitor should not be able to tell that you were there. Furthermore, my own personal code states that I will only enter a place—I will never break in—and the contents of any photograph I take are exactly as I find them. There is no rearranging or staging of items to make a “better” image.
Why I Do It
Each location is a challenge, and no two places are ever the same. I like the hunt for new spots as well as all the preplanning that goes into an Urbex excursion. There is an inherent beauty in the decay of these old structures that I find compelling. Each location has a different history and its own story to tell. It will unfold before you if you approach it with an open mind.
I’ll admit that Urbex photography is a passion of mine, bordering on addiction. My goal with imaging these locations is to illustrate to others the beauty of these structures, remember the people whose lives were spent here, and encourage a targeted repurposing and preservation of these building.
Thanks to Leanne Cole for offering this opportunity to give you some insight into how my images are produced. Please feel free to contact me directly via email for any questions you might have – and by all means, if you know of a good Urbex location here in the USA – tell me about it!
I would like to thank Robert for writing this great article on how to do Urban Exploration and I know it has made me more aware of what I should consider when photographing some places like this. Robert has provided all the links, so I hope you will go and check them out. I am going to leave you with a gallery now, it has larger images of the above and some extras.
Thank you Robert.