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.
Timing: 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.