Skip to content

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 AbandonmentIt 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.

Urban Exploration

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. 9_BallSocketMany 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.

Camera Gear

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 abandon11_BallSocketed 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.

Exposures

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 serio10_Monsourusly. 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!

Additional Equipment

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 ch1_SeasideAsylumanged 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, 3_Seasideso 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.

Urbex Ethics

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—4_KingsParkand 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!

Email: robert@digital-infrared.com

Blog: www.infraredrobert.wordpress.com

Website: www.digital-infrared.com

My book: http://inadifferentlightbook.wordpress.com

most_dorky

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.

101 Comments
  1. I love photographs of old abandoned buildings. The problem in the UK is that as soon as a building becomes empty, security fencing goes up and you just can’t get in to get your pictures. You can of course request access but it’s nearly always denied on the grounds of health and safety, even with a disclaimer. When I was a child things were very different and abandoned buildings were brilliant places to explore. Not really a place for kids of course and I’m sure this is the reason for all the fencing. I bet they get in anyway. There always seems to be lots of grafitti. More difficult for a photographer who can’t run.. 😉

    November 7, 2014
    • Certainly the newer the abandonment, the more closely the site will be watched – give it time and always try around back. The asylums I have been to are usually located well outside the city/town center – because putting the mentally ill out of sight and out of our thoughts was just what used to be done.

      November 7, 2014
  2. This is one of my favorite things to photograph – urban decay as I call it. I usually take my 50 and 100mm lens and have yet to use my flash. So far I haven’t had the nerve nor the opportunity to go inside any of them as most of the places I’ve discovered have no safe access to the inside but I’ve shot through holes in walls and windows. Great post and tips!

    November 7, 2014
    • I hope when the opportunity arises for you to go inside, my tips will get you in and out safely. I too have taken my fair share of images through holes in the wall and broken windows – you gotta play the hand you are dealt.

      November 7, 2014
      • Very true and I will most definitely keep your tips in mind when I explore again. I will be posting some shots from an abandoned factory next week I hope you will stop by to see them.

        November 7, 2014
      • Will do – good luck!

        November 7, 2014
  3. Very different and interesting! I especially like the window one with outside climbing plants!
    (Our local mall may soon close and will likely become a skeleton of its former self!)

    November 7, 2014
  4. Love the shot where the blue chair stands out down the hallway! This is an extraordinary display of abandonment, always an interesting subject.

    November 7, 2014
    • Thank you – just a note about the location you mentioned…this medical center (built circa 1960) has only been abandoned for about 6 years and was in a the worst state of decay of any of the places i have been to. Some of the other spots featured here have been abandoned since the late 1990s – and were constructed in the 1930s – so much for modern building techniques.

      November 7, 2014
  5. Stunning! Thanks for sharing this with us.

    November 7, 2014
  6. Excellent article.

    November 7, 2014
  7. I am fascinated by photos of abandoned buildings. I have enjoyed others work; I’ve never taken any photos myself. After reading this I am certain I will continue to enjoy the photos of others but I will not attempt it. Thank you for sharing this!

    November 7, 2014
  8. Thank you for this excellent article and beautiful pictures – I have also seen the blog of Robert !!
    Thank you to you –

    November 7, 2014
  9. lensaddiction #

    Wow that was really interesting and sounds pretty hard core. Sadly we dont really have any old buildings in the same way you do over in the US, and in CHCH we have even less because so many of them were damaged in our earthquakes and either collapsed or have been/will be demolished.

    November 7, 2014
  10. Nelson #

    Personally I prefer to wear safety boots with a carbon fiber or steel sole, nails in a abandoned building could be a problem and hiking boots do not protect enough.

    November 7, 2014
    • Good tip – most floors I am on are concrete the nails are found more in the walls and door jams. When there is debris on the floors it is usually a powdery mix of paint, plaster and plant life.

      November 7, 2014
  11. Thanks for this article, Robert. It was very interesting to learn about your techniques, and about your dedication to leaving the scenes exactly the way you found them.

    November 7, 2014
    • You are very welcome – glad you enjoyed hearing about how I get my images. I know you have the same set of ethics when you shoot too.

      November 7, 2014
      • Yes, I do. Several years ago, I worked on a project that involved photographing roadside crosses. I determined early on that I wouldn’t move anything to make a “better” photograph. No one who has seen the photos would know the difference either way, but it mattered to me anyway.

        November 11, 2014
  12. Very useful and inspiring! Thanks for sharing this great article, Leanne. 🙂

    November 7, 2014
  13. I’d just like to add a caution about diseases such as Hantvirus that are caused by mouse droppings in abandoned buildings. New Mexico has had 84 ceases in the last 21 years and I’d feel safe almost half those people have died from it. I tend to stay out of them for this reason. The buildings make for great photography, as your photos show, however. 🙂

    November 7, 2014
    • Yes another reason to be cautious – at my Ball & Socket location a colony of raccoons had made a home in this building and their “residue” was everywhere. Thanks!

      November 7, 2014
  14. I haven’t had a lot of opportunity but this is, by far, my favorite photographic subject. Thanks for showcasing it!

    November 7, 2014
  15. I have Robert’s book and I love his photography. He is an intrepid explorer!! Thank you Leanne!

    November 7, 2014
  16. very intriguing photography!!!

    November 7, 2014
  17. gaiainaction #

    Urban decay used to depress me, I once saw a holiday home where I had stayed as a 9 year old totally reduced to a skeleton with only some frayed curtains blowing in the breeze, it filled me with a dread, but having said that, is can be very interesting to photograph these remains of yesteryear. Here you mainly find ruined cottages, half reclaimed by nature, sometimes whole villages, or old battered castles.

    November 7, 2014
    • I try to look beyond any sadness to the beauty that is there and the potential for resurrection and reuse. I do understand it is different when you have a personal connection – which is why I respect the places I visit.

      November 7, 2014
  18. Great blog and stunning photos! There is a run down building nearby that I am bursting to photography and I have to admit after reading this that I have not put anywhere near enough thought into safety gear. Thank you for a wise and timely remind. Again, Love the photos.

    November 7, 2014
    • Thank you – if my article does anything I hope it makes people who wish to go exploring take whatever safety precautions they can and come back alive and well with great photographs – good luck!

      November 7, 2014
  19. I love abandoned buildings. They always seem to tell such a sad story!

    November 7, 2014
  20. Wonderful article on Robert, I love his work. Here is an interview I did with him in September.
    (http://featuredemagazine.com/2014/09/01/robert-marsala-in-a-different-light/)

    November 7, 2014
  21. Jennifer L Thorpe #

    Robert, thanks for sharing your passion, some very important information and keeping the respect for these forgotten dwellings. Keep up the amazing work!

    November 7, 2014
  22. Amazing photographs and a thoroughly interesting article. Thank you, Robert and Leanne. I’ve enjoyed taking photos of abandoned buildings over the years but have only done so in more rural locations since adulthood precisely because I’m too anxious about the safety and security issues you outline. Even as a kid, however, I was respectful of the property and did not take, add or move anything. I would like to think that all photographers, amateur or professional, would subscribe to that same code of ethics.

    November 7, 2014
    • Thanks – typically it is not explorers or photographers who add to the destruction – but it is good to put the ethics issue out there anyway.

      November 7, 2014
  23. Reblogged this on In Lee's Shoes and commented:
    Stunning WOW

    November 7, 2014
  24. Stunning

    November 7, 2014
  25. I would Love to take pictures of abandoned buildings but its hard living in the centre of London, when traveling is a difficulty

    November 7, 2014
    • I understand getting to these spots can be difficult – gotta love America and its car culture – “Four hours to get to a location?…No Problem!” 🙂

      November 7, 2014
  26. Great images. I am also fascinated by old structures. Thanks for sharing your tips

    November 8, 2014
    • My pleasure – I hope you got some useful tips.

      November 8, 2014
      • Always learning. So thanks foe the tips

        November 8, 2014
  27. Wow, beautiful shots. Never really realised the dangers inherent in taking such enlightening pics.
    Makes me appreciate them more, thanks for the photo education.

    November 8, 2014
  28. Well done for showcasing Robert’s work – I have long been an admirer of his stunning photographs!

    November 8, 2014
  29. Reblogged this on Tangent.

    November 8, 2014
  30. What a great post! Thank you both. I’m too much of a wimp to do this .. Bet you get to see all sorts of interesting things! Best of luck ..

    November 8, 2014
    • Thank you – you have got to know your limits!

      November 12, 2014
  31. I really enjoyed this post, I honestly had not thought about how dangerous it could be, glad for the info, glad you take care

    November 8, 2014
    • Knowledge is power – I see so many Urbex people posting shots in these places with no protective gear on them at all!

      November 12, 2014
  32. I really like his taking safety precautions into hand. He is absolutely right in everything that he does here. There are very real hazards when doing Urbex.

    November 9, 2014
  33. I’ve always really enjoyed following your blog and it was really interesting getting an insight into how you operate. I have a morbid fascination with abandoned objects/buildings too, but don’t have the time/money/equipment to pursue these things like you do. So I guess the next best thing is to let you do it and marvel at your photos.

    November 10, 2014
    • Well, it is mostly time…I go in with a very old D80.

      November 12, 2014
      • When I said money and equipment, I mostly meant the (super important) safety gear. Good on you for gearing up, by the way!

        November 12, 2014
  34. Jen #

    Stunning photographs, Robert! I love photographing abandoned places myself, but never go inside due to health and personal safety concerns (my health already being a bit shaky), to say nothing of legal ones. I know of quite a few places where the owners are fully prepared to prosecute trespassers—for the latter’s safety, mostly. That said, I’m glad to see you take so many precautions for your own safety, especially when it comes to potential occupants of the buildings. A native of Detroit’s suburbs, I’ve had to avoid photographing the ruins of the once-grand and much-maligned city I love so much for precisely the reasons you hint at here. There are certainly some locations where photographers are much, much better off going in pairs…if not groups.

    You are right, Robert, about leaving things be, shooting them as they are. No one would ever know that we moved things about for “the perfect shot”, but it simply wouldn’t feel right…and you don’t end up with an honest photograph.

    November 11, 2014
    • Glad you liked my article – as I have stated to others…you have got to know your limits…perhaps you could look for some “sanctioned” Urbex adventures – there are a few here in the Northeastern US, that would be a way to do it without the fear of trespassing or undesirable encounters – the price here per shoot is about $125 – $200 here – so do a search and see what is available. Happy shooting!

      November 12, 2014
  35. I am glad that I found this article and I read this with most interest. Your explaining style and experience made this trully yours , Robert. If you allow I would like to use your images for a discussion at the art school. I will make a reference to it. Let me know and if not , i respect . cheers Bart

    November 17, 2014
    • Hello Bart,
      Sorry for the delay – of course you may use this for any type of education/teaching purpose.

      regards!

      December 6, 2014
      • hello robert , thank you, as I will do ,

        December 6, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Up for Discussion with Leanne Cole (2014) | infraredrobert
  2. Blue Kitchen (2014) | infraredrobert
  3. The Doors of Blue Kitchen (2014) | infraredrobert
  4. Natural Lite (2014) | infraredrobert
  5. Finding the Fantastic in Fallen Places - My Writer's Cramp
  6. Looking Back (2014) | infraredrobert
  7. Sun Porch (2014) | infraredrobert
  8. Yellow There (2014) | infraredrobert
  9. Window Art (2014) | infraredrobert
  10. In a Dark Place (2014) | infraredrobert
  11. Down to the Blue Bathroom (2014) | infraredrobert
  12. My Blue Period (2014) | infraredrobert
  13. Somebody Call the Decorator (2014) | infraredrobert
  14. Back Down (2014) | infraredrobert
  15. The Yellow Kitchen (2014) | infraredrobert
  16. Looking Up | Images by T.Dashfield
  17. Blue Plate Special (2014) | infraredrobert
  18. The Other Side (2014) | infraredrobert
  19. Got Mold? (2014) | infraredrobert
  20. Untidy Bowl (2014) | infraredrobert
  21. Filtered Sunporch (2014) | infraredrobert
  22. Remember When (2014) | infraredrobert
  23. Seven (2014) | infraredrobert
  24. Downstairs Beckons (2014) | infraredrobert
  25. No More Blue (2014) | infraredrobert
  26. Ivy Covered Cottage (2014) | infraredrobert
  27. Super Hearth (2014) | infraredrobert
  28. No Getting Out This Way (2014) | infraredrobert
  29. Blinded (2014) | infraredrobert
  30. Arch Rivals (2014) | infraredrobert
  31. Pantry (2014) | infraredrobert
  32. The Reality of the Situation (2014) | infraredrobert
  33. Another Reality (2014) | infraredrobert
  34. Cramped (2014) | infraredrobert
  35. “Too Rare to be Normal” (2014) | infraredrobert
  36. Diamond Pane and Finials (2014) | infraredrobert
  37. A-Mazed (2014) | infraredrobert
  38. Getting it All In (2014) | infraredrobert
  39. Shower Scene (2014) | infraredrobert
  40. What Happened? (2014) | infraredrobert
  41. You Cannot Afford This View (2014) | infraredrobert
  42. Along the Road (2014) | infraredrobert

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: