9 Tips for Perfect Urban Decay Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

9 Tips for Perfect Urban Decay Photography

by David Peterson 1 comment

When you think of urban photography, what photographs come to mind? You may think of towering skyscrapers or maybe speeding cabs come to mind. There is also street photography which captures the reality of everyday life in your particular urban space, but there is another type of photography centered on urban areas which features abandoned buildings. For us, as photographers, they offer a strange and wonderful look into our urban past. Photographing these buildings and other similar urban landscapes is called urban decay photography. Here are nine tips to capture this crumbling metropolitan beauty.

1 Safety first

Urban decay photography is inherently dangerous. Most of the time the buildings you are exploring haven’t been inhabited for some time and normal upkeep goes by the wayside. It’s not uncommon to be stalking around buildings with structural damage or abandoned lots full of potentially hazardous materials. Tread lightly and look before you leap or even step. If possible, avoid going alone. If you can’t trick anyone into going with you, make sure you have your phone to call someone if you get yourself into trouble. Dress appropriately. Wearing long sleeves and long pants will help you avoid scratches and cuts. Boots with ample traction will protect you from glass shards, broken boards, and rusty nails. You might also just want to make sure your tetanus shot is up to date, just in case. Finally ask permission. Trespassing could land you a hefty fine and/or a little bit of jail time.

2 Shoot and focus in manual

Urban decay photography is often in a situation with low light, which requires very specific approach. Shadows, bright spots of light, and difficult angles mean you need to be able to control all the variables and the only way to really do that is to shoot in manual mode.
Likewise, whenever the light is low, the camera’s autofocus system will struggle because nothing stands out enough for the lens to lock on. Even if it does lock on, it will probably lack true definition and be slightly blurry, especially in the shadows. Manually focusing guarantees the focus will be sharp every time.

3 Create light where needed

Abandoned buildings rarely have power. I always bring a small maglite flashlight, an off camera flash, and a collapsible reflector to help me harness and alter my lighting situations.

4 Photograph morning, noon, and night

If photographers know anything it’s that light changes everything. A building that is encased in unsightly shadows could, just hours later, be an amazing landscape when the light from the sun reaches through the windows to grace each abandoned item. I always love doing a diptych of the same room that shows its multiple personalities. Shooting a space at different times in different lighting situations allows you to embrace its subtleties. The best time of day to shoot depends on the scene you wish your photograph to create.

I usually plan to spend part of my morning, afternoon, and early evening inside to uncover the unique way light moves in a particular building. If you don’t have an entire day to use, I recommend going in the morning when the light is soft and on the side of the building, it’s more likely to be streaming through the windows. In the late morning and early afternoon the sun will be directly over the building, shrouding the interior in shadows.

5 Carefully compose

Ninety-nine percent of the time you will be wandering these buildings alone or, if you are wise, with a friend who is equally as interested in urban decay as you are. Because you aren’t photographing finicky children or fast moving sports stars you have ample time to compose your shot. Think about leading lines, shapes, light, and points of interest before you start taking your photos. Visualize your finished product and then figure out what you need to do and where you need to be to actualize it.

6 Seek stability

I never leave home for an urban decay shoot without a way to properly stabilize my camera. When you shoot in low light, there is a heightened possibility for undesired motion blur because your shutter needs to be open longer to let in the meager available light. I usually pack a lightweight tripod but you could also pack a monopod.

If you are truly packing light, survey the rooms for flat surfaces such as counters or abandoned furniture to place you camera on to stabilize it and minimize movement. However relying on this stabilization method can limit your compositional options.

7 Don’t forget the details

Often what makes these urban decay photos interesting is the lives these buildings led before they were abandoned. Take time to catalog the items within that separate them from other buildings that have met the same fate. Capture what is lacking, what was there, and what has been added since the building was abandoned. Some interesting items to keep an eye out for are artifacts left from the former inhabitants such as toys, dishes and furniture. Broken windows, graffiti and items left by squatters tell the tale of the building’s life after death.

8 Go wide

If you have a wide angle lens, get a wide shot that encompasses the vastness of a building devoid of the things we associate with habitation. If you don’t have a wide angle lens or you can’t change you lens, zoom out to the widest point to get as much of the room or building into your shot as you can.

9 High Dynamic Range and Black and White

Personally, I’m not a fan of most high dynamic range (HDR) photographs because I feel they strip photographs of the reality that makes them accessible to the viewer. That being said, some photographers feel that urban decay photography is an awesome opportunity to utilize it, so if you are interested in HDR, consider it an option for these abandoned building forays. HDR photos are usually created by taking a series (at least three) of identical photographs with greatly varying shutter speeds and thus varying exposures. Those photos are then stacked on top of each other in post-production software. The result is a photo that encompasses a wide range of highlights, mid-tones, and shadows not found in a regular photograph.
Black and white conversions are something I can get behind. Sometimes, black and white photographs create a more desolate landscape that can’t be achieved using colors. Black and white also removes the obviousness of distractions that could pull focus from your intended subject. If you love a photograph, but don’t love all the elements, try converting it into black and white.

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  1. Dallas says:

    Great idea's to follow. You generally need to get in older towns to find the right buildings.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.