URBEX: How to Photograph Abandoned Places


If you read my 5-star award-winning book Growing Up With Ghosts, you probably understand why I'm fascinated with archaeology. I spent my childhood digging up relics from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War and beyond on the Civil War Hospital estate I grew up in. 

Since then, I've always been obsessed with the history of objects and locations and with my psychometry (psychic ability to touch objects and know about others who touched them) skills, being able to read a place gains me insight into history and understanding.

Two books I wrote and Julie Ferguson photographed were psychic reads on abandoned places - 

Abandoned Places: Abandoned Memories (Desert Edition)

Abandoned Places: Abandoned Memories (Appalachian Edition)

Urban exploration, or URBEX, as we affectionally call it, is the practice of exploring and photographing/videoing abandoned sites. 

Some precautions I want to mention- 

Get your tetanus shot.
Don't go alone.
Heed "No Trespassing" signs unless you want arrest or even shooting.
Be certain building isn't housing any squatters, meth cooks, or animals.
Structures can be quite weak, so move cautiously.
Wear a mask - most of these have asbestos.
Gloves and sturdy shoes as there are exposed nails in floorboards often times and lots of rusted metal sharp edges.

Finding such places isn't too difficult as an online search for photos of abandoned places in your area is pretty standard and a lots of people reveal the location.

Look for mining towns, agricultural, and other industry towns that may be having a recession. Also, a quick check on Ghost Towns site can find ones in your state.

I utilized Google Earth for a good deal of places I go to. From there, I can often times get a street view, see exactly where it's located and if there are any signs of life. One thing Google Earth doesn't show you, unless it's street view, is if a location is fenced off.

When Julie and I do our URBEX road treks, we don't give ourselves a schedule. We look on the map the route we're taking (taking extra effort to find small towns along the way) and we head out. When there is a small town, just off the main street you often found derelict homes of residents who found there wasn't enough industry to remain. In agricultural areas, you find buildings on the periphery of town. Rural routes have lots of possibilities you can see right from the road. We let ourselves take time and follow instincts on streets that look like they might house the forgotten. Old highways that were diverted provide regular Bates Motel places left to time. 

Photographically, I rely on the lighting that is present and no flash. Flash flattens the rooms out and they look stark and not very creepy, but filtered light does miracles for mood.

I highly recommend this camera!!!

I have had this camera (above) for about 8 years and I have to say it truly is shockproof and waterproof. You can go underwater with it, it can get rained on, and I accidently dropped mine out my car window when I was reaching out to take a pic. It bounced on the asphalt and no problems (well, over the years many times it hit the pavement!) The 300 pixel resolution photos are amazing. Can take video too. Really, with this baby you are set URBEX'ing and you can tuck it into your pocket and not worry about if it gets banged up or dusty.

When photographing, I have found that photos of a building straight on are a total bore. That's vacation pics, like when you take a shot of a historic building to show you were there. This is not that kind of photography. This is about mystery. Show a piece of something and let people fill in the setting for that item/focus.

Find a detail, an item, a corner, a wallpaper and focus on that. In the photo above, if I had focused on the whole room, you wouldn't know what you are supposed to take note of. In this shot, you see this lonely chair in the corner in a dank room and you wonder - why? what? how? 

Also, be sure to take advantage of aging - whether it's cracked paint, rusted hinges, or vines taking over the building. 

Wishing everyone a happy and safe exploration!