We humans love shiny things — but there’s no doubt that the opposite has some appeal to. There is something infinitely compelling about objects that have seen better days. Things that have fallen into disrepair, things that are rusty, things that are shells of their former selves—it’s natural to wonder at the history of such objects, and maybe even to feel a sense of loss for those things that were once useful and are now abandoned. So how can you capture those feelings in a photograph?
The great news about ruins and relics is that they almost always have qualities that make them easy to photograph. Decay and texture go hand in hand—while a brand new building might have mostly smooth surfaces, a building that is falling down will have crumbling textures in spades.
Where to find your subject
Most communities have well-known abandoned places — old houses or places of business, vacant lots or even local dumping sites, where people leave their old cars and other objects that they can’t (or won’t) take to the community dump. If you don’t know of any places like these, they’re easy enough to find — I like to just Google the name of my town and the word “abandoned” to see if any ideas pop up. In fact the first time I did this I discovered that there was an abandoned psychiatric hospital in my area, which was once the scene of a notorious murder. Who knew?
Just in case your search doesn’t turn up any abandoned murder-hospitals, try asking around or even searching Flickr to see what other photographers have done in your local area. You could even go for a drive on local backstreets, keeping an eye out for dirt roads and overgrown places.
car by Flickr user Wolfgang Staudt
Before you even consider going into any of these places, remember that what you’re doing is dangerous. Abandoned buildings are often structurally unsound and may contain hazardous materials such as asbestos. If there’s a “keep out” sign, then keep out. Don’t go inside unless you have permission from the building’s owner or the city, whatever the case may be. Remember that you can still get some great photos without trespassing, so shoot from the roadside if you have to. If you are permitted inside, wear close-toed shoes with good soles (broken glass, rusty metal and other hazards may be on the ground), long pants and long sleeves. Bring someone with you and have a fully-charged cellphone on hand in case there’s trouble. Doing this sort of thing alone is a very bad idea, so even if your friend isn’t interested in taking photos you should at least try to bribe him with an after-the-shoot beer or a couple of nice prints so that you have some support while you’re in these dangerous places.
Even abandoned cars, boats or other vehicles can be hazardous—rusty metal is an ugly problem especially if you get cut by it (make sure your tetanus shots are up to date) and some old structures and vehicles can harbor dangerous animals—you don’t want to encounter a rattlesnake or a fresh deer mouse infestation while you’re out taking pictures so be very aware of the potential hazards and be on the lookout for them.
Objects that are decaying or falling apart are generally interesting in isolation, but your photographs are going to have a lot more meaning if you think about what those objects represent, and whether or not you can tell a story with your photograph. An old shed out in the wilderness, for example, is going to be highly representative of nature reclaiming what humans built. We like to think that we have control over nature, but ultimately nature has more patience than we do—and when we don’t maintain an old building or other object then nature will inevitably reclaim that object. How can you best demonstrate this idea in a photograph? Try to include an element that shows the juxtaposition between the manmade and the natural—a root growing through the foundation or moss growing on a wall, for example.
What are some other ways that you can make decay compelling? Let’s say that your subject is an old rowboat that has been abandoned on the seashore. How can you hint at that boat’s story? Is there a name on the stern, or even the faded remnants of one? Is there any evidence of what that boat may have once been used for, such as bits of rope or a place to store fishing tackle? Is there anything in the distance, such as abandoned buildings or other symbols of decay? You don’t have to be concerned that your viewer will interpret the story exactly how you’ve imagined it—you just have to try to spark his imagination. And you do this by including details that leave certain questions in your viewer’s mind. From there, he can start to imagine the story behind the photograph.
Equipment and Settings
If you’re photographing the inside of abandoned buildings or if you’re shooting during the gloomy hours (when you’re likely to capture the right sort of mood for your subject), you have to be thinking about the light. Most abandoned buildings don’t have power, so when you’re in a dark part of the structure you won’t be able to switch on the lights if you’re finding it’s too dark for a hand-held shot. That’s why a tripod is really a necessity for this sort of image—you’re probably going to need slow shutter speeds, which means you’ll need some way to stabilize your camera.
In addition to a tripod it's also handy to use a remote release, since the simple act of touching your shutter button can be enough to introduce camera shake in a long-exposure image. If you don’t have a remote release (or are always misplacing yours, which is what I do) then you can use your camera’s self timer function instead (set it up to count down from about five seconds and that should be enough time for the vibrations to stop after you press the shutter button).
Another common problem with photographing the interiors of abandoned buildings is dynamic range. You’ll probably find that you get a lot of hot spots in your photos, especially when the light shines directly through a broken window and onto a surface that appears in the image. Because you are also going to find a lot of black shadows in those old, dark places, you may find that you have to underexpose quite a bit in order to compensate for those very bright areas of light, and the result may be a loss of detail in parts of the image where you were hoping to capture peeling paint and rubble.
One solution to this problem is to shoot in HDR. I’m not necessarily advocating creating those surreal, over-processed images that you often see of abandoned places, but shooting several versions of the same scene and combining them later in post-processing can help to maintain detail in areas where you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. If you think you’re going to have some hotpsots or too-black shadows in your photos, try shooting one image at the recommended settings, another about a stop underexposed and a third at about a stop overexposed. You can combine these images later into a single HDR file, and if you prefer you can choose subtle processing so that the images look much more natural.
Remember that you can also add light if you have to, especially during longer exposures. Try “painting in” shadow detail using a small flashlight—sometimes just a second or two with that additional light source can be enough to bring out important details and add a slightly surreal quality to the final image.
You may need to manually focus, too, especially in very low light when your autofocus system may have some difficulty latching on to your subject.
It can be tempting to imagine that these sort of images will just take themselves — after all these abandoned places are filled with all sorts of interesting objects and amazing textures. But if you don't take care how you compose your image, you may end up with a photograph that just contains too much information. A busy photograph is difficult to look at, regardless of how many cool and interesting elements are in it.
rusty by Flickr user amira_a
When you set up a shot of any abandoned structure or object, make sure you think about things like line, texture, and pattern. It may be that you need to zoom in on the object and fill the frame with that texture, even if it means that your viewer isn’t going to be able to identify the subject. Or it may mean that you need to back up a little and shoot the object in its entirety. It may mean that you need to focus on one particular part of a room, such as an abandoned stairwell, so that you can use line to give your viewer a sense of three dimensions. Whatever the answer to that question is, it is important to make sure you think it through. Blindly shooting isn't going to make the best of the situation, and the depending on where you are and how many strings you had to pull to get there, the chances are pretty good it's going to be hard for you to get a similar opportunity a second time.
Safety is a big deal, but so is your overall thought process. Remember that abandoned, decaying things always have some history, so try to incorporate as much of that history—real or imagined—as you can into your photos of those objects. The more you can make your viewer wonder and think about the subject of your photographs, the more successful they’re going to be—whether you’re shooting old cars, boats, or murder-scene hospitals.
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