Saturday, November 21, 2009

Photographing Abandoned Sites

There are a choice few of us out there who see an abandoned place and have to stop everything and rush in to view it. For many, abandoned buildings and objects are nothing more than ugly litter, dirty harbors, and rat-infested, nasty-smelling, indigent nests. If you’re one of those, this post is not for you.

Moving on to the audience who finds abandoned things fascinating, I’d like to talk to you about how to go about photographing an abandoned site. They make the most striking and emotional pictures you will ever take. I'd like to teach you the few helpful hints I've learned from documenting such places the past decade.

Note: I won’t treat you like children, but I will mention, because it’s worth reminders…beware! You should not go in if there are posted signs not to trespass. You also do not want to go in if you suspect someone might be living within. You do not want to go in alone—ever! Always have lookouts for you while you get lost photographing. Someone has to see if people are arriving or if a stairwell isn’t secure. It’s really commonsense. It’s entirely possible that you could be caught in an abandoned building and be fined or warned and even arrested. I’ve found with a camera in hand and no signs against trespassing, you usually can get off with a “scat!” from the officer and be the stupid tourist with camera in hand climbing back into his car and rushing away. As someone in the medical field too, I’ll advise you to be sure your tetanus is updated.

Go from 7 am to 10 am or go from 3 pm to 5 pm. Should it be summertime, you can stretch it 7 pm. Generally, you want the sun to be around 45 degrees in the sky and not overhead. You want the shadows.

Honor the weatherworn: Broken windows? Peeling paint? Faded signs? These are all extremely beautiful things to capture. One thing you’ll noticed right away about abandoned places is the weather-worn quality to them from peeling faded chipping paint and wood to dusty windows and texture. Sometimes, I spend a good 50 pictures just doing close-ups of the bubbling paint and the array of leaves on the floor for good stock texture pictures. These are very inspiring for an artist or craftsperson. While sizing it up, note if the building is tall or fat and squat. These perspectives can be accentuated by coming up under the eaves and taking a shot upwards to elongate a tall building or going down on your belly on the ground and getting the wide squat house in a more horizontal shot.

Passages: The doorway and windows greet you, so take advantage of shots into the building (use your flash, the contrast from the brightness outside and darkness inside will make it impossible to see the indoors) or take a shot from the inside looking out the window, especially if an ugly indoors clashes with a scenic outdoors.

Nature: Look for contrasts. Nature taking over a building; from moss to vines to bird’s nests inside. Find those spots where the setting is taking over the building in a natural tug-of-war.

Less is more: A lot of abandoned sites are littered with so much debris, it’s mind boggling. Whenever I’ve taken shots of this mess, it’s come out as just that. Too much stimulation and it isn’t beautiful, it’s simply a trash bin. The beauty in the discarded is in its loneliness within the site. A single chair (like the photo above) can have a gut-punch reaction to the belly, just filled with emotion. Imagine that person that sat in that chair before that sliver of sunlight, wishing to be free of that prison? That’s what the photo says to me. The photo was from an asylum. Remembering the original location helps to inspire these kinds of shots with emotion.

Don’t forget yourself:
I photographed sites for years before I realized, I have no pictures of me in these beautiful places and yet I feel so very peaceful in them. So, I started using my timer and get a shot that shows the mood of the place. In one completely empty old hotel, I leaned against a window frame and crossed my arms, looking out as if awaiting a visitor. I came out as nothing more than a dark silhouette, but with the light around me, it showed how empty and bleak the room was. I’ve taken shots of my feet on the cracking floorboards with a rain-soaked magazine nearby and my sneakers caked in mud. I’ve gotten shots of me lying on a cot like a dead person, hands crossed over my chest, dead weed flower in my hand.

Ultimately, let your own tastes lead the way. When you walk into the place, what is it that fascinates you? The leftover belongings? The chipped paint? The light and dark? The emptiness? Accent these things—that’s where real art comes out; when it’s something that moves you specifically. Later, when you show them to others, they will invariably say “Oh my gosh! That looks so bleak.” (Just the mood you felt there).

Should you get any great pic's, please share. I hope to do one soon posting some of my favorite shots I've taken over the years.


  1. A very well written Post! I agree with what you have said, and it all makes sense. I have been to a number of different places that are now abandoned and pretty much follow what you've stated.

    Upon entering a site like these, I'm always aware of what could be in there. You never know what you'll run into, so I take allot of "common sense" in with me. I never really go into a abandoned area without being armed. This is why I bring my .45 cal. with me, just in case . . . hoping, of course, that I never have to use it.

    I know all about the "trespass" signs. I've gotten thrown off a property once, but that was because I never saw the sign. You can read about it on my Blog entry of "Dreamland Park."

    I have been into old farmhouse's that are in the area, and old barns. Places like this are rotted away and I must be careful just where I walk. Floors can give way in an instant! So, like you said, "Beware of what your doing," but enjoy the past and wonder what used to be.


  2. Hey Les;
    I'm thrilled that you enjoy photographing these places too. I especially get excited when I find ones that look like people just up and left in a rush and the tables are still set and such. Those are really chilling and uncomfortable. It feels as though we can sense the human element hasn't been there and our bodies react.

  3. I don't know that I've ever given it much though, but seeing old abandoned places can be intriguing. I think it may appeal to a deep seated desire some people have to survive into a post-apocalyptic era where the world has changed, and the survivors are able to set up new lives for themselves without the troubles and limitations they may have faced prior to the apocalypse. I guess seeing an abandoned site makes you think of seeing an abandoned city, where you can go in and set it up the way you want it to be without someone stopping you or finances limiting you.

    Or maybe I'm just reading way to much into this. :)

  4. I meant to say much "thought", not much "though" in my previous comment.

  5. Hey Jeff;
    The draw of abandoned places differs for people. For me, it began at a young age. We'd seal up our summer home on the Chesapeake and head back to DC for the rest of the year. At our estate in the DC area, we had cottages and a barn. We'd store furnishings in the barn for the people in the cottages to use (we rented to George Mason University students). I remember as a kid loving to play with old furniture. Mom would take me to antique stores up and down the East Coast and I loved the musty smell and touching old objects (obviously). Collecting relics made me fascinated with things left behind and aged by weather. When we'd go back to the summer house and open it up, it'd be dusty and musty and we'd uncover the furnishings and remove a few dead birds that came down the chimney, and wander off to places that were forgotten and crumbling to explore. There's something as a psychic that attracts me to things with a leftover residue. But, visually as an artist, I am absolute gah-gah over chipped paint, rusted metal, and the weird story a place leaves behind. Like the abandoned trailer park my son and I found, it tells a story and when you look at the parts in a kind of "CSI" way, it's a really strange story of how it got to be the way it is. I love a good tale!

  6. I have mentioned before that I am very drawn to abandoned places -so I really appreciate this great post!! there is definitely an art involved with taking the pictures of these fascinating places!! all the best to you my friend and thanks for your hard work-btw i loved the image at the top of the post!!

  7. Awesome post. Love the tips. I like to try to capture whatever mood I feel at the time too, and I'm still learning how to do that. I think Jeff might be onto something though, as I think some explorers do fantasize about what it would be like if the abandoned place was a microcosm of reality.

  8. Hey Heather;
    Glad you liked it. I hope you get some amazing pic's. I hope to start hitting some places now that weather in AZ is finally cooled off enough and rattlers are hiding. :-)

  9. I too love the idea of visiting abandon places, although I don't get to do that much.
    I love to romantize the past, even though there may have been tough times.