6 top tips for taking photos of lost places

There’s something alluring about shooting abandoned places. For photographers on the lookout for locations unique and rich in creative opportunities it’s hard to beat a deserted house or a derelict factory for capturing traces of forgotten lives and unusual objects. Here are some of our top tips to get you started … 

1 Choose your angle

Brave new world. Photo by Nicola Bertellotti - f/14 | ISO 100 | 5s

It's always wise to take a wide selection of lenses with you on a shoot to a location you have never visited before, though whether you’re photographing the exterior or interior of an abandoned building it's likely that you'll need a relatively wide-angle lens. That way you’ll get as much of a room in as possible in one shot and, besides, you can always crop-in later.

However, not only do 14mm lenses typically introduce distortion around the edges of the composition that need to be straightened later, but they’re typically fixed lenses so lack versatility. If you would rather not change your lens too often, or at all, during your time on location then go for a 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens, which should cover most of the shots you’re going to want to take. 

Author tip: When in long, empty rooms it can be tempting to take a centred, symmetrical shot, but moving slightly to the left or right breaks the dull-looking symmetry as well as allowing any windows to the sides to feature more prominently. Avoid taking shots at head-height, which lazily portrays a person’s eye view. Instead get your camera as low as you can to the ground, which is instantly a more intriguing point of view. Or as high up as possible. Take shots looking up at crumbling staircases and experiment with views of the interior from the outside looking through broken windows. 

2 Coping with low light

Urbex Interior. Photo by Gabor Monori - f/3.5 | ISO 100 | 6s

Abandoned buildings can often be dingy places to work in. Whereas most landscape photography is best done around dawn and dusk, that’s not true of photographing abandoned buildings. You can maximise the light you have to play with by going on clear, sunny days, which will give you one effect – perhaps rays of sunlight breaking through broken ceilings and floors or streaming through windows – but arrive in any other conditions and you should expect low light levels. Compensate by using long exposures with your camera on a tripod, bumping-up to about ISO 800 or by using flashes and LED lights to illuminate a scene. 

Author tip: There are various ways of capturing more light. Increasing your ISO is an easy way of capturing more light, as are long exposures and bracketing. For the latter you’ll need at least a small tabletop tripod, though a travel tripod is the best choice. The latter will be essential if you’re shooting at night or close to dusk or dawn. Moonlight can help illuminate buildings at night. 

3 Get permission and do a recce

Sunset / Landscape. Photo by Glenn Poplin - ISO 100 | 1/6s

If there’s a fence around an abandoned building then presume it’s private property. If you enter you could be trespassing. If in doubt, get written permission first. With that in hand, take a walk around the entire abandoned site looking for potential angles and compositions. Take a note of where the Sun is, which will have a huge effect on which parts of the building are illuminated, both inside and out.

For exterior shots and any compositions looking out of windows take a note of the sky. With the exception of the uniform look of overcast skies, clouds are great for landscape scenes. Wispy clouds can be made to look as if they’re framing a building while clumpy cumulus clouds create patches of sunlight and shadow that can act as nature’s spotlight. While you stake out the area keep an eye out for any discarded and rotting vehicles, which can be as interesting as the buildings themselves.

Author tip: If you have permission and it’s possible to be on site at night then you can try a few more creative shots, such as using steel wool, doing some night-scape photography or illuminating a room with a soft LED lamp or flashlight. 

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4 Think about colour

Post Office Mural in Chernobyl. Photo by Roman Robroek - f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/60s

Abandoned buildings can look great in black and white. Not just because of the contrast and simplicity, but because it can make a building look old without even trying. However, shooting an abandoned building in black and white can also create a melancholy feeling. That might work perfectly for you, but also consider the exact opposite.

Creating a blaze of colour in a place that nobody lives is more of a surprise. A technique to consider here is High Dynamic Range (HDR), which can be achieved by using the exposure bracketing technique. Capture three (or more) different exposures of the same scene – while using a tripod – and combine them later in post-processing. The result is more dynamic range, which tends to reveal more colour. Just don’t oversaturate it! 

Author tip: A simpler alternative is to blend two exposures, which can work well when shooting through a window when you need to expose for both the interior of the building and for the sky outside. 

5 Don’t forget details

Abandoned factory facade abstract. Photo by John Greim - f/9.5 | ISO 200 | 1/350s

As you do a recce around an abandoned building you’ll likely see dramatic-looking fallen ceilings, rubbish-strewn floors and broken windows. However, take a closer look and you will start to see smaller and more interesting details. For example, old electronics lying around – from old phones and furniture to rusting electricity metres and photos on the wall – can tell a lot about when the building was deserted.

Another favourite subject you'll find plenty of abandoned buildings is graffiti. From colourful designs across the walls to initials and dates scratched into plaster, graffiti can tell a lot about when the building was abandoned and for how long it's been frequented by occasional visitors. Great subjects for close-ups include rusting door knobs, cracks in walls and broken glass in windows. 

Author tip: Try close-ups of objects and details you find, resisting the temptation to capture them in their environment by including, say, a broken window behind. Let them dominate your composition and speak for themselves. 

6 Safety first

Light at the end of the tunnel. Photo by Johan Lennartsson - f/10 | ISO 100 | 1s

Abandoned buildings can be dangerous places to work in. Consider why the building was left to rot in the first place. Was it a fire? If so there’s likely to be structural damage that could mean ceilings and walls toppling. Ditto for anything left unmaintained for decades. Wear boots and avoid bare skin because as well as glass and rusty nails on the floor, other sharp debris, loose cables and rough surfaces will be everywhere. Watch out for stairs that may appear safe, but contain rotten steps and don’t walk on surfaces that look dodgy, particularly if you’re up a level. Dark, dank areas can also be home to rats and other unexpected wildlife (birds are a common sight in abandoned buildings). 

Author tip: When going to an abandoned building, particularly at night, it’s good practice to go with a fellow photographer or two. Not only can you watch each other’s backs with regard to dangers around the site, but if someone does get injured you can have someone get help while someone stays with the victim. You’ll also feel safer in what can feel like a lawless environment. After all, your camera gear alone makes you a target … and you may not be alone.