From gold mine boomtowns to WWII relics, abandoned buildings are a favourite among photographers - here are some of the best places to visit
Is there anything more intriguing than a ghost town? Images of derelict buildings instantly tell stories, and if you can photograph artefacts from a bygone age, such as signage, vehicles and personal belongings you can time-travel with the click of your shutter button. You may get to wander alone through ghost towns and into derelict buildings, but it’s likely they have been photographed many times before, so look for unique images and try to visit at different times of day.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started …
1 Kolmanskop, southern Namibia
We’ve all seen the photos of sand dunes inside the bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms of Kolmanskop, a once wealthy diamond town that has been abandoned to the surrounding desert since the 1950s. Located close to Luderitz in southern Namibia, about 35,000 tourists visit each year, but tours are conducted in mid-morning, leaving plenty of time for photographers to explore the streets, houses and school earlier in the day. Get here when the site opens before sunrise before the delicate sand dunes inside the buildings get covered in other photographers’ footprints. You can get easy access to dozens of small rooms; bring a wide-angle lens to capture them and the sand dunes rolling in through windows and doors.
You’ll need a photography permit to photograph Kolmanskopp, which you can get the day before from Luderitz Safari and Tours in nearby Luderitz. It costs N$230 (US$17.00/UK£13.50) and the price also includes a guided tour. They’re not on sale on the day. With that permit you can get in before sunrise, but do take a torch because it’s very dark … and you may come across hyenas and snakes. Always enter abandoned buildings with others, take a lot of care and don’t take risks.
2 Oradour-sur-Glane, France
Ghost towns often get put on lists of ‘dark tourism’ locations, and none more so than the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, close to Limoges in central France. It was the site of a massacre of its 642 villagers by a unit of the German Waffen SS on June 10, 1944, who then set fire to the entire village. Key sites include the church, cemetery and post office, though there are also plenty of shops, cafes and homes where you can photograph everything from the husks of old cars to sewing machines. It’s a big site so give yourself plenty of time, but you can’t just walk in. The Centre de la mémoire d'Oradour, which opened in 1999, is a small museum about the massacre to explore before you eventually get to stroll around the only village in Europe that remains largely as it was at the end of WWII.
Where it’s possible try to photograph ghost towns in the ‘golden hour’ after sunrise, when you’ll get a shaft of light illuminating buildings and details. It's a good idea to have a look for any vegetation inside buildings or coming through windows, which would not usually be there if the town or site was inhabited.
3 Great Train Cemetery, southern Bolivia
Not strictly a ghost town, but with a very similar vibe, is the Great Train Cemetery in Bolivia. It’s on the outskirts of Uyuni, a town very close to the Salar de Uyuni better known as the Bolivian Salt Flats. The chief attraction of this area are those salt flats (a magical place for photography!), but the Great Train Cemetery is almost as famous. It’s full of rusting steam locomotives, many of them British and some of them little more than skeletons. They’re in an advanced state of decay and covered in graffiti and sit exactly where they were when the area was abandoned as the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s. You can wander over to the tracks and walk between the trains for about half a mile. It looks like the site of a terrible accident or a war.
The Great Train Graveyard is best visited before dusk when the high altitude makes it easy to see the beautiful pink ‘Belt of Venus’ in the east behind the trains. You can stay past darkness so landscape astrophotography is an option, but you’ll need your own transport for that; your tour group won’t linger here that long.
4 Bodie, California
The Wild West is alive and well if you know where to find it. East of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Mono County, California, Bodie is an old gold mining town that’s been empty since the mid-20th century. It was founded in 1859 when gold was discovered. A boomtown until the 1880s, Bodie State Historic Park has existed since 1962 and maintains the buildings just as they were found. Expect an aged and weathered 1880s appearance to its brothels, saloons and shops. Bodie gets about 200,000 visitors each year despite not being on the way to anywhere; it’s on a 13 mile long road off State Highway 395.
If you’re capturing old derelict buildings that speak of another time long forgotten then consider shooting in black and white, or perhaps even sepia. As well as suggesting the age of the buildings, black and white photos intrinsically have more contrast. Of course, you don’t have to actually shoot in black and white – you can add that effect later in post-production – but it pays to think about it while you shoot.
5 Battleship (Hashima) Island, Japan
A bizarre concrete island in the bay of Nagasaki in southern Japan, this location found fame after being used as a bad guy’s lair in the James Bond film Skyfall in 2012. In the years since organised tours have sprung up to visit what was a densely populated Mitsubishi coal mining site with a macabre history. Though you won’t hear much about it on the tour, the island – also called Gunkanjima – was the site of an estimated 5,259 miners, many of them allegedly forced labour from Korea. The mine closed in 1974. The crumbling apartments and shops are particularly precarious, but it’s a wonder it’s survived uninhabited for 50 years despite annual typhoons. It’s called ‘Battleship Island’ (Hashima in Japanese) because its elongated silhouette, as seen from certain points of view as you sail around it, looks like a warship.
Battleship Island can be visited by ferry from the harbour at Nagasaki. It costs about ¥4,000. It’s a popular trip and there are not many places to land, so expect to have only a short time and a lot of restrictions on where you can go. For that reason a long lens is a good idea to pick out details from afar, both on land and as you tour around the island by boat for a closer look at the northern end. Don’t expect to be inside the buildings, which are by now incredibly fragile and dangerous. You won’t have time to erect or use a tripod.
6 Shaniko, Oregon
Once the ‘Wool Capital of the World’, Shaniko in Oregon was an important railroad stop until 1911, when new tracks were opened. In 1966 it became cut-off and by 1982 it was virtually empty. ‘Ghost town tourists’ flock here to photograph its ageing wooden water tower, city hall, jail, school and post office. However, it’s not completely deserted and it is gradually being upgraded; there are a few shops on the Main Street – Shaniko Row – and a small museum open from April to September.
Shaniko also happens to be one of the closest places to stay if you’re visiting the Painted Hills, a unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument that’s famous for its yellow, gold and red colours.
Concentrate on detail. Avoid taking too many shots of entire buildings and instead concentrate on things like old signs, rusting door handles and broken light switches. Sure, a collapsed staircase or a fallen ceiling looks dramatic, but so can a broken plate on a kitchen table. Try to make a place look not just deserted, but quickly abandoned, and you’ll find that your photos won’t just look great. They’ll also tell stories and throw questions.