Embrace the Grime: How to Photograph Abandoned Places

Learn how Kameron Sears photographs abandoned places. Relying on natural light, graffiti, depth, and a moment lens he shares his tips for these abandoned spots.

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I love exploring abandoned locations. They provide a unique creative challenge. Capturing the magic of a place without knowing fully its history can be challenging. Also, these spaces are often so vast that I don’t even know where to start shooting, and the fact that most of them are dark and grimy makes it difficult to provide contrast in the photos.

These are a few of the problems I’ll approach in suggesting how to shoot abandoned places. Just remember the number one rule with urban exploration: be safe.

Here's my method for shooting these spaces:

1. Look for good light.

This tip applies to photography in general, but when you’re in an abandoned place, usually the only source of light is natural sun light. Try to keep an eye out for windows, doorways, or even tiny cracks that are letting in light. Maybe try placing a subject in the light. Since abandoned places are usually dark, the lit area can add a lot of drama and mood to the shot.

2. Include graffiti

A large majority of abandoned spots are more than likely covered in graffiti. Some spots like the Detroit prison are an exception, but for the most part, a lot of them are essentially giant canvases for graffiti artists. Including their work in the frame of your shot can once again add to the feel/mood of the shot but is also a great way to add a pop of color to an otherwise muted and bland space. Some may even add to the story that you’re trying to tell, like the “DETROIT” graffiti in the below photo.

3. Include a subject or object

Most of the time an abandoned spot is usually just an empty space, and it can be tricky to get a sense of scale across in a photo. Putting a subject or object into the space can definitely achieve scale and also builds a better story. Or if you see any cool objects that have been left behind in the space, try to get a different perspective on them by getting really close, and focusing just on the object. The Moment wide lens allows you to do this and also includes a decent amount of the space in the background.

For instance, in the abandoned Detroit church, the space was small and mostly destroyed. But when I went up to the altar, I noticed some old piano keys on the ground. I crouched down and just focused on the keys. This gave a sense of history and scale. You can see that example on the Detroit piece.

4. Show depth

As mentioned above, most abandoned places are large, empty spaces. While this doesn’t give you many options for photo subjects, it’s an enormous opportunity to explore “vanishing point” perspectives.

A vanishing point is the point where, in the distance, parallel lines seem to intersect. Compositions can have one, two, or multiple vanishing points. The single point is a very easy, popular way to show depth within a photograph. Look for long, rectangular shaped rooms to showcase this skill.

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