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Beginner’s guide to urban exploration with photography

May 17, 2017

Urban exploration is the art of exploring abandoned buildings or other locations. When you add in photography, you have the potential for a great work of art. These abandoned places can form a fantastic photographic project, as well as serving as the backdrop for model shoots with an interesting twist. Above all, it’s a lot of fun to go exploring – so if you have an adventurous nature, then urban exploration could be your new favourite thing.

Let’s get started with this beginner’s guide, which will tell you everything you need to know about urbex, urbanex, or whatever you may find it called in exploration circles!

A word of warning

Before we begin, a quick word of warning. What you may not realise is that, although urbex is a lot of fun, it isn’t always legal. In fact, in nearly all cases, you will have to trespass on private property in order to explore these buildings and locations.

Now, there may be places which are so out of the way that no one cares if you are trespassing. That’s fine, but you probably won’t really know if they are being monitored until you are there. It could be that they have been marked out as dangerous, and so they are being monitored to prevent anyone getting hurt. It could be that they have just been purchased by a company which wishes to redevelop the land, and so has set up surveillance. It could even be that you get unlucky and a member of the police or a concerned citizen spots you going inside. No matter what, you will always be taking a risk if you do not have explicit permission to enter.

You will obviously be in more trouble if you have to break into the property. If you do not cause any damage, and you walk in through an open door or gateway, then things will be a lot better for you. Be aware that if you do go into an abandoned property without permission, you could be breaking the law and may end up with a criminal record. You take that risk into your own hands!

You can try asking the owners or the security team at the location if it is alright for you to enter. They may so no, they may restrict your access, or they may let you in freely. It’s always a better idea to get permission.

If you don’t have permission, then the best advice is to be as quiet as possible, as quick as possible, and not to damage anything or leave anything behind.

Finding a location

With that warning out of the way, let’s go down to the important part of actually doing the urban exploration. You have to first find a location to try, and this can be quite easy to do.

There are lots of forums dedicated to urban exploration, both from a photography point of view and simply from the perspective of exploring. A lot of times people will keep the address secret, but you can email them and privately ask for the information. They don’t want the place getting found by police or overrun with explorers, especially if it is a good location. But, they might be kind enough to let you know where it is so that you can have a look for yourself.

If that doesn’t help, you can always try using Google to attempt to pin down a location. This will be even easier if you know the purpose of the building: for example, an abandoned asylum in a certain part of the country shouldn’t be hard to track down.

If you can’t find anything on a forum, try thinking about your local area. There are probably abandoned places that you drive by on a regular basis. These could range from pubs or shops that have been shut down for years; barns and other farm buildings that are no longer in use; relics from the first or second world wars which have not been upheld; or simply houses which aren’t in good enough shape for anyone to want to buy them.

Be safe

Before you set off to try your new location, you need to do a bit more research and ensure that you will be safe. First, search online for any articles or posts about the location. You might find that it has been closed down due to toxic spillage, or that someone died there recently, or that an increased security presence has been introduced. These are all signs that you should choose a new location. Always put safety first.

Don’t go alone when exploring – always have someone with you so that you have someone who can go and get help should something happen. It’s also best not to be alone in some of these places – they can be pretty scary, especially at night!

Bring a torch, even if you are visiting in daylight. Lack of electricity, boarded up windows, and overgrown foliage can make the interior very dark. Be prepared to provide your own light source. A flashgun can work for your photographs, but you need to be able to see where you are going as well, and a flash kept permanently on will drain the battery very quickly.

Tell other people where you are going. Imagine if you and your companion are both walking along a corridor, when the rotten floorboards give way and you fall through. If no one knows where you are, when will you be found? This is really important as a safety measure for the worst-case scenario.

Wear strong boots and a thick jacket. Broken glass, rusty nails, and other potential hazards can come up out of nowhere. You don’t want to cut your feet because your shoes are too thin, or have to rush to get a shot when a nail catches your skin. A hard hat could also be a good idea if the building is even slightly unstable. If you suffer from asthma or the location is dusty, you should bring a respirator (or not go at all).

A penknife is also a good accessory. If you get stuck on a nail, you might need to cut yourself loose. There could also be issues with vines growing over doors that you need to cut. In general, it’s a handy tool for explorers that can help in all kinds of ways.

Set up the shot

So, what kind of camera equipment will you need? You might want to rethink ideas of travelling light and invest in a backpack, because you could need a whole kit with you! One of the most essential things is a flashgun, as it will help to provide the light that you need in dark interiors. A tripod will also help because you will have the option of taking a longer exposure. With a model in the ruins, this could also create a really interesting ghostly effect.

Your lens should be wide-angle for interior shots, and a smaller portrait lens such as a 50mm or below for model shots. The reason for this is that you won’t have much room to work in. Be sure to bring spare batteries for your camera, your flashgun, and your torch so that you don’t run out of steam just as you are starting to have fun. A camera add-on battery pack could be a good idea for longer sessions.

Bring lens wipes so that you can keep your lens in good shape, and keep your camera stowed away in a bag if you are not currently using it. You will need to extra padding – it could easily bump against something or get caught, which could result in a broken lens. If you are working with a model, you will want to consider a reflector. You won’t be able to bring in lights and generators unless you have permission, as they are too bulky and will be more likely to be noticed from outside the building.

Getting started

When you arrive at your building, have a look around first. Don’t just barge straight in – look to see if there is an easier or safer entrance than what you first spot. Be careful to listen out. There may be squatters present, teenagers breaking in to find a place to drink, or even fellow urbex photographers. You don’t want to give each other a fright, or get into trouble by stumbling into something you’re not aware of. Be alert and present from the moment you arrive. Even if others have told you it is easy to get in, the situation may have changed.

Once inside, it’s time to set up your shots. You need to work with your settings to deal with the lighting conditions, as well as using the equipment we covered above. You may have to raise your ISO, lower your shutter speed, or widen your aperture, so make sure that you know how to cope with low light before you get in. You don’t want to have to stand and look up settings on your phone in the middle of an abandoned building!

The important thing is to keep your images stable. Having a lower shutter speed may mean that your camera is susceptible to motion blurs, so keep it on a tripod or a flat surface. You can also adopt a stance which brings your elbows in to your sides for greater stability. Overall, the best option will be using an off-camera flash.

Working with a model

There are extra concerns brought up when you are shooting with a model. In this case, the best recommendation is usually to scout the location out a few days before your scheduled shoot. This will allow you to think about where you will set up the shots, find hazards, and examine the situation before you begin.

On the day of the shoot, make sure that hair and make-up is taken care of before you head to the location as visibility will be poor. Keep the model protected in outer clothing when moving around the building, even if they have a specific outfit to wear underneath it all. If you are doing wardrobe changes, you will need to find a model who is comfortable with changing in front of you, as there are not usually private facilities available! You also need to keep them safe while they are changing. The best way to transport the wardrobe may be in a duffel bag or suitcase that can be lifted in the hand, so that it does not drag along the floor.

It’s easy to get caught up in the shoot, but always keep your model’s safety in mind. Don’t have them pose in dangerous positions, and make sure that bare flesh does not come into contact with sharp edges, rust, mould or fungus, or so on. Make sure that you also ask them to sign an agreement beforehand which excuses you from liability if they do get injured.

Urban exploration is a lot of fun, and it can be a fantastic way to build an interesting portfolio. So long as you follow these tips, you should be as safe as possible, as well as having access to the best shots. Have a lot of fun, see the most exciting buildings in your area, and – most importantly – don’t get caught!


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