How to get access to unique places for your photography

First published:
October 25, 2023
November 3, 2023

How to get access to unique places for your photography

First published:
October 25, 2023
November 3, 2023

All photos by Philip Mowbray

Do you want to take photos in hard-to-access & unusual places but need help with how to do so? It can be simpler than you think. Focus editor Philip shows you how, with an example from a trip to an extraordinary train…

In this guide:

- What's the attraction of unusual and unique places for photography?

- What types of locations might be considered unique or special for photography?

- Why is it essential to get permission before visiting specific locations?

- What are the benefits of asking permission?

- How do I obtain permission?

- How I organised a recent visit to a “special” place for photography

Step 1: Contact the relevant people
Step 2: Confirm the time and date
Step 3: Get the paperwork
Step 4: Plan the journey to the location
Step 5: Make yourself known once on-site

- My time while on-site at the Blue Train

- Final thoughts

What's the attraction of unusual and unique places for photography?

As a photographer, there’s something gratifying about feeling that you’ve ventured into an undiscovered, unique place for taking pictures. Or that you’ve managed to get behind the scenes somewhere and accessed a site where others normally wouldn’t. Not only is it pretty cool, but it can do wonders for your photography work…

Photographing somewhere unusual or unique can bring you new followers, give your practice a unique perspective that can attract potential customers, and even give your work wider media attention.

But what constitutes a special or unique place, and how do you access them? In this guide, I will discuss some of these places and demonstrate how you can access them. Along with how to do it ethically and, most importantly, legally. With this in mind, I will detail a recent trip to an exceptional train to give you a real-life case study example.

Accessing special or unique places for photography is nothing new, and you'll have undoubtedly seen many photographers doing the same on their social media accounts or elsewhere online, particularly with the popularity of the “Urbex” movement (urban exploration). However, you should always gain the necessary permissions beforehand. Otherwise, you could run into complications or even legal problems when taking pictures.

So, without further ado, let's dive in…

A disused locomotive in a railway depot in Belgrade, Serbia

What types of locations might be considered unique or special for photography?

It depends on your style and what you like to photograph — what constitutes a special place depends on individual tastes.

Saying that, there are places relevant to lots of types of photography that make fantastic subjects, but also require a bit of planning to get access to them.

These include:

Special locations for photography with additional access requirements:

- Abandoned buildings and structures
- Railway infrastructure (heritage or contemporary)
- "Hidden" areas of everyday buildings and structures
- Factories
- Power plants
- Unique infrastructure like bridges and tunnels
- Airports and ports
- Subterranean systems like subways
- Government or municipal buildings

The places listed above are just a handful of what constitutes a unique or special place. But the above are popular with photographers, especially for urban, street, outdoor, interior and transport photography.

Getting behind the scenes access to certain places can yield some fantastic photo opportunities

Why is it essential to get permission before visiting specific locations?

If you want to photograph private property — a place like a train depot, factory, port or station, or even somewhere seemingly disused and abandoned — you should always go through the proper channels and seek permission. Even if somewhere seems empty or derelict, it is more than likely owned or managed by a company or individual.

Visiting locations to photograph them and “sneaking in” without permission can amount to trespassing, and you could soon find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Plus, you’ll have difficulty selling those images or doing much else with them, as you didn’t have the necessary permissions when initially taking the images.

What are the benefits of asking permission?

It is far better to receive permission as it means you’ll more than likely have better access to places. You may well identify other spots you didn’t know about, you can take your time with your photography on location, and you won’t feel stressed about getting caught or ending up in trouble. Plus, you’ll be surprised by how accommodating people can be!

You may have seen videos and posts of photographers breaking into places to get these seemingly epic shots, or participating in “Urbex” exploration. The results may seem incredible, but it’s also very risky and dangerous. Always get permission for your peace of mind, and the peace of mind of others.

Getting advance permission to visit certain places means you'll get far more out of your visit and, most importantly, will help you stay out of trouble

How do I obtain permission to visit places for photography?

Simply put, reach out to the place you want to visit. Many sites and buildings now have some form of contact point online through their website or email, where you can ask about photography.

All you need to do is send them a short inquiry explaining your situation and stating that you would like to visit the site and take some images. If you don't hear anything back, don't give up. Follow up with them in a few weeks, or make a quick telephone call to try and reach the right person.

Sometimes, it can be tricky to find the right contact; if this is the case, doing some research online is always worthwhile. You can also see if other photographers have visited the location before, and you can ask them how they got access. Sometimes photographers will be willing to share that information, or you can have a look and see if anyone has written about it in a blog or an article.

It can be particularly tricky with derelict sites, but as I mentioned before, often you'll find that a site isn't as abandoned as it might appear. There's usually some sort of management company or an owner of the site, and you should contact them to ask about accessing it. This is where other photographers, or doing some thorough research, can help you. Keep going, you'll eventually find a place that will welcome you to come on-site with your camera.

Even if somewhere is a perceived public space, the same rules apply: always seek consent first. It is crucial in sensitive places where taking pictures, such as in government or municipal buildings, may have significant security implications. Usually, with some of the more prominent sites, they'll have a policy on photography and usually someone you can contact concerning taking pictures.

If it turns out that a specific location isn’t accessible, that’s fine; there will be plenty of others around. Don’t be tempted to try and break in somewhere or turn up with your camera gear unannounced, as it could land you in hot water.

Below, you’ll see my case study on a trip to a special place for my own photography work, and I hope you will find it helpful in planning your own expedition somewhere.

How I organised a recent visit to a “special” place for photography

For an upcoming trip to Serbia, I had been researching exciting locations for photography. I learned that one could access the private, opulent Blue Train that belonged to Tito, Yugoslavia’s former leader. I admit I’m a bit of a train enthusiast, and I knew this would be right up my alley for my photography. But I also saw it wasn’t easy to access as it is locked away from public view in a railway depot south of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.

Once I decided I must visit Tito’s Blue Train and determined that it would be a fantastic opportunity to get some unique pictures, I researched more to see how others accessed it and read several blog posts and travelogues. It seemed doable, but several steps were needed first; it wasn’t just a case of turning up at the depot and walking up to the train.

Self portrait inside Tito's Blue Train

Step 1: Contact the relevant people

First, I learned I needed to contact the marketing department for Serbian Railways, which manages the commercial aspects of the train (like visiting it, or renting it out). Reading online, emailing them first would help me secure a visit in advance. I did a quick Google and found an email address that looked legitimate. I asked them simply that I would like to visit the Blue Train when I am in the country; I also added a Serbian translation of the message in my email.

I was surprised when I received an email just a day later, stating that I could indeed visit the train, along with when it could be available to see and how to get the necessary paperwork (I needed to go to the central train station to buy a ticket).

That was the first step done and out of the way, which was to engage the relevant people to know that I was interested in visiting.

Step 2: Confirm the time and date

The marketing department of Serbian Railways had asked me to confirm a time and date for when I wanted to visit so they could check that it was indeed available.

With this in mind, I planned the rest of my trip and decided on a firm day and to visit the train. Once I had planned the whole trip, (which is essential when working out a good photography schedule), I replied to the email with the date and time I wanted to visit the train. I did have to follow up once, but shortly after chasing up, I got an email confirming the time and date—October 10th at 10 a.m.

Step 3: Get the paperwork (i.e. buy the ticket at the station)

Getting the actual paperwork (ticket) to access the site was slightly trickier as I encountered some language issues. But as the saying goes, if you don't succeed at first, try again.

I travelled to Beograd Centar railway station, where I received instructions to get a ticket for the Plavi Voz (Blue Train) ticket. When I approached the cashier and asked for the Plavi Vos ticket, I was met with a bemused look, a shake of the head and a simple “No.” I tried once again, and all I got was a shrug. I tried not to be concerned and thought of another action plan… I noticed a Serbian Railways office with a slightly ajar door, so I knocked on the door. With my handy translation app, I typed in that I was looking for a ticket to the Blue train, but luckily, I encountered someone who could speak English.

He soon understood that I wanted a ticket to visit the Blue Train. He asked if I had emailed the marketing department (I'm so pleased I did this in advance) so I could show him the email.

Once he looked at the email, he nodded in acknowledgement and said, “Ah sure, I will speak to my colleague in the ticket office”, which he swiftly did. So I reapproached the counter, and the person behind the window knew precisely what I wanted. They confirmed the date and issued me the ticket (the paperwork) for 300 Dinars (roughly £2.50!). Job done! 

Step 4: Plan the journey to the location

I made sure that I stuck to the time that I had mentioned in my email, as I was aware someone would be expecting me then, and I didn't want to turn up at a different time and lose my chance to visit, not to mention all the effort I'd already gone to.

I checked well in advance the route and the buses and trams that I needed to take from my accommodation to the depot and made sure that I left at a suitable time. I also gave myself an extra half an hour just in case something rent was wrong with the transport (It almost did, so I’m glad I added some time). Nevertheless, I still arrived at the depot when I needed to be there.

Step 5: Make yourself known once on-site

Once at the location, I quickly tried to find someone on site, which I did. I approached them and showed them the ticket (a small piece of paper), and they immediately knew what I was there for. I was relieved when they told me to wait, and I was soon acquainted with a guide who I understood was to take me onto the train and show me around.

There were some language barriers here as almost all of this was in Serbian and some very broken English, but regardless, we managed to get by and within a few moments, I would be on the train...

Tito's Blue Train inside the railway depot in Belgrade

My time while on-site at the Blue Train:

It was interesting, to say the least!

Once I met my chaperone and they unlocked the train. I was then very quickly (pretty much all in Serbian) guided inside the train and shown very swiftly through the many different compartments and carriages of Tito's Blue Train.

With the speed of the tour, I had to get my photographer's mind switched on in an instant, as I realised that I would have to work very quickly to get some good pictures... The guide spoke speedily and showed me many different and fascinating things on the train. While engaging with him and listening to what he had to say (to the best of my ability), I also had my phone and mirrorless cameras turned on, in order to multitask and take pictures at the same time.

I dialled-in the best settings just before I got started, too. What I mean by this is that I set the camera's ISO settings, aperture and shutter speed settings in advance that were best for the setting. I knew I would be dealing with low-light in advance, so I used a high ISO, and the lowest shutter speed I could get away with while holding the camera, around 1/60s.

"With the speed of the tour, I had to get my photographer's mind switched on in an instant, as I realised that I would have to work very quickly to get some good pictures..."

I don't know what happened towards the end, but it felt like my chaperone needed to go somewhere... While I was swiftly guided through the whole train from front to back, once we reached the end I was then left in there. Rather confused, it did give me more time to go back around the different compartments to try and get a few more unique pictures. Once I decided it was a good idea to leave the train, I took photos of the wider depot, which I'm pleased with. These give quite a unique perspective on the location.

Below, are some of my favourite images from the expedition, and yes, as mentioned, I had to work very quickly to get these. Hence, they're not technically my best shots, and I wish I had more time. But as always, you just don't know how much time you’ll have with these things.

Lots of mid-century opulence abound!
The train regularly hosted foreign diplomats, celebrities, and royalty

While some may not be my best-ever work, I'm still pleased with my efforts and the images I got. Some that I will consider putting into a personal photo book or displaying around my home so I can enjoy the pictures I had taken and also remind myself about the trip and the time there.

While this image may not be my best, composition wise, I love the prominent green and blue colours in the image, so it's up there with my favourites from the shoot
Tito's private office
Tito's Phone at his desk
The kitchen of the Blue Train
Detail from the exterior of the Blue Train
One last image once exiting the train, I love the light coming through from the depot entrance

Also, a few of my favourite images from the site were of something other than the Blue Train... Some of them were actually from the other trains in the depot.

Once I finished visiting the actual Blue Train, I asked my guide if I could walk around the area and take some pictures of some of the other locomotives. He said it was fine, and I was left to my own devices to walk around and take pictures of the other fantastic on-site trains. This was a bonus of the trip.

As evidenced here, you just never know what you'll be able to get access to, and it can be a pleasant surprise when you can take pictures of some pretty cool stuff that you were otherwise not expecting.

Rusted locomotive #1
Detail from a rusted Yugoslavian Railways carriage
Rusted locomotive #2
Surface detail of a rusted locomotive
Rusted locomotive #3

Final thoughts:

I hope the above tips and the breakdown of my memorable trip to Tito's Blue Train give you just a little inspiration and some know-how to plan your own trip somewhere special and take some fantastic photos.

If you take anything away from this guide, thoroughly research locations beforehand and ensure you get permission anywhere you want to visit. If they say no, don't be tempted to try and go there anyway. Try again, or try somewhere different; you'll be far more rewarded going down the proper channels to access unique places than you would otherwise be breaking in somewhere. And, as I found a couple of times now, you'll be surprised at how accommodating and open some places can be to photographers!

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