Photographer Adam Jacobs has been shooting Abandoned Spaces for almost ten years creating fine-art large-format immersive photographs of these forgotten places. His work has been displayed globally and sold into prestigious photographic collections including the “Sir Elton John Collection”. Here he talks us through some tips to make the most of your experience when photographing an abandoned building.
Photographing abandoned buildings has become increasingly popular over the last decade, as urban exploration has carved a niche for itself in the photographic world. Therefore, in this article I want to talk about the art of finding, exploring and photographing old, dilapidated buildings that provide an eerie, mysterious look into urban pasts and offer some tips about how to best enjoy the experience. If done correctly, you can find beauty in the decay and reveal through photography the glorious patterns, textures, lines, details and architecture that lie behind their crumbling facades. Below, I am going to outline some tips for responsibly and safely exploring and shooting abandoned spaces that is not going to put ones life in danger nor break the law.
There is a fine line regarding the legality of urban exploration; much of the time photographing abandoned sites involves trespassing. Many people will break and enter buildings. This is not for me. I am a photographer as opposed to a vandal. All of the photographs that you will see in this article have been taken by entering buildings without breaking anything, leaving just footprints and only taking photographs. In fact, many of the buildings I have entered have been guarded by security – I often explain to them what I am doing and they are kind enough to let me in as long as I stay within certain areas – you don’t know unless you ask.
Therefore, my advice is to always ask permission, stay sensible and do your research before entering any abandoned site. I have also been fortunate enough that as my reputation has increased within the genre of urban photography, I have been increasingly asked by those who own these dilapidated buildings to photograph them for historical, artistic and posterity sake.
When photographing an abandoned building, firstly do your research. Look online and see if other people have been into the building. Look at other photographs of it. Make sure it is safe and easy to enter as well as walk around; you do not want to be wondering into a structure that could potentially crumble under your feet or cave in on top of you! Also, make sure you wear suitable clothing. There could well be structural damage, rusty nails, piping, glass, loose scrap and other potentially hazardous things that could scratch, cut or hurt you – there is a reason these building are abandoned! I always wear big boots and long layers to minimize the risk of any of this happening. When entering the building also be vigilant and have a quick scope around before beginning to take photographs; always be aware of your surroundings.
Further, I would never go alone. You do not know what or who is possibly inside and do not want to risk potentially getting into a dangerous situation. Go with some friends or find some fellow photographers who are also keen to explore the spaces. Being in a larger group will provide some peace of mind so that you don’t jump every time you hear a little noise coming from somewhere in the building and leave you to focus on making the best pictures. It is also much more fun to go in a group and leave with a shared experience to reflect on once you’re done shooting. I also always bring a torch (or use my phone) in case I get stuck in a dark place and leave valuables behind at home.
Bring a tripod
Most abandoned spaces have no electricity and are extremely poorly lit. This means that you are going to have a difficult time taking many photographs handheld. Therefore, be sure to bring a sturdy tripod; it is essential to use long shutter speeds to capture evenly lit exposures and bring out all the hidden, magical and mysterious gems that these spaces have to offer. I try to carry as lightweight and compact tripod as possible. This is because when wondering around an abandoned space you will often have to creep through small nooks, clamber up or down tiny staircases and do quite a bit of walking. Therefore, the smaller and less obstructive tripod I take the better. I always joke that it can always double up as my weapon of choice if anyone ever confronted me and tried to steal my camera gear…luckily in all the abandoned buildings I’ve photographed (which is many!) I’ve only ever had to use my tripod to take photos.
My preference is to start by shooting the entire space from a few different angles and perspectives and aim to make the shots feel immersive. Very few people get to see these abandoned spaces and I want to show their vastness, former grandeur and make people feel like they are right there with me. Thus, a wide-angle lens is essential as I often do not have the freedom to move around – the wider I shoot, the bigger the space appears and the more dramatic the interior feels. Also, you will usually have time to think about composition without people getting in the way of your photo. Therefore, take time to ensure your camera is level to cut back on lens distortion and make sure lines look right. Also, I usually find that many of these spaces have great leading lines to play with that can strengthen the power of the final shots which I always try to take advantage of. These are usually accentuated by shooting low especially when shooting with a wide angle as with this example in an abandoned car factory.
Don’t forget details
Much of the history of a space’s past whether it once was a factory, school, hospital, theatre or something else can be found in the details of what has been left behind. I think it’s important to chronicle these as they paint a picture of the building as a whole and help to create an interesting portfolio. I also find it equally interesting to shoot how these places have now been re-appropriated in their “life after death”, whether for graffiti, paintballing, art installation or random bits and bobs left behind by scrappers. When you photograph tight and close up, you will also inevitably find some really interesting textures and patterns that can create some interesting abstract photographs. This could be paint peeling off walls, decay in the floors, signs, shattered glass or the isolation of certain features.
Don’t be afraid to bracket
Where there are windows with bright daylight streaming in and a very dimly lit room, it presents incredibly tricky lighting situations for the camera when shooting abandoned buildings. Therefore, always shoot in RAW and as most of the time you will be shooting with a tripod, I would recommend bracketing exposures to ensure that you can capture the full dynamic range of the scene; I usually shoot five different frames at separate exposures. However, this can change dependent on the how extreme the contrast of the scene is. By having a number of bracketed frames, you will then have the option to blend various photos together manually in Photoshop afterwards to create an even exposure. Alternatively, you can use a program such as Photomatix to generate a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image and be as creative as your taste dictates with how much you want to push the HDR as I have done here with this photograph of a derelict electrical factory.
To see more of Adam’s Abandoned Spaces work, click here.