Urban exploration is a very exciting and thrill seeking area of photography. Here, you visit and capture abandoned buildings are areas in all their glory.
For all the tips and techniques, read on. There are things you’ll want to know about before you start jumping fences.
What is Urban Exploration?
‘Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints’
Urban exploration, or as it is more commonly known, “urbex”, is the act of exploring empty properties.
Places that are often explored include abandoned factories, hospitals, housing complexes, and even old theme parks.
The nature of this activity presents various risks. Both physical danger and, if done illegally without permission, the possibility of arrest and punishment.
Meeting other people on these expeditions is a possibility. The best person you can come across is a security guard.
They might ask you to leave, but they might even help you with information on the owner.
Asking for permission is a legal way to get in. Some urbexers believe in ‘asking for forgiveness rather than permission’ as going about it legally can be a waste of time.
Others believe that the only way is the legal way. This ensures a good rapport and possibilities for repeat business.
Research as much as you can before going in. Looking at its location and possible entry points by using google maps is a great advantage.
In terms of safety, never go it alone. Make sure you have a full battery on your phone and the right clothing. Don’t do anything silly, and keep your wits about you.
Last, but not least, know the legality of the issue. Trespassing can get you arrested
Be smart, go about it the right way, and you will have one hell of a time exploring.
Your camera is the most important tool in capturing your urban exploration photography.
Since you might be trekking to get to your desired location, you might find a lighter camera more beneficial.
A DSLR or mirrorless system such as the Fujifilm XPro 1 is a perfect choice. It offers high-quality images while being lightweight. It’s added bonus is that it is purely silent.
The best camera is the one you are most likely to photograph with. So, if a smaller camera is more comfortable, use that instead of your Canon 5D Mark IV.
That is one camera you don’t want to drop, damage or have covered in some strange chemical.
Read here on why the Fujifilm XPro1 is a great camera for urban exploration photography.
As urban exploration photography requires other gear, you want your camera gear to be as condensed as possible. A tripod is a must item that you don’t want to leave behind.
A tripod can offer you many things. Not only does it provide stability for your long exposures in low light conditions, it has other uses.
It will protect your camera while you are looking around an area. You can hold it up for a higher perspective shot. You can even use it to push debris out of the way.
Read here on other camera equipment you and your urban exploration photography will benefit from.
What you put on your camera is arguably more important than the camera itself. The lens determines the sharpness, and thus quality, of your images.
It also lets you photograph with a low aperture, necessary for low light situations. A low aperture, such as an f/2, will also give you a differential focus.
We recommend having a few lenses, as different lenses offer different perspectives. A wide-angle lens will let you capture as much of the scene as possible.
Read here for all our lens recommendations.
The 16-35mm lens is a great addition for many reasons. As it is a zoom lens, it will offer you many different shooting ranges. You can use anything from 16mm to 35mm.
It is the equivalent of taking with you a wide angle lens and a standard portrait lens. Two lenses for the weight of one means a lighter kit, keeping you happier for longer.
The lens offers you an angle of 107°. Its Vibration Reduction enables sharper pictures while shooting at slower shutter speeds. Up to four stops slower!
This is a great piece of glass, and your urban exploration photography will benefit from it greatly.
There are many backpacks that you can use for urban exploration photography. Literally, anything is great, if you can separate it into different areas.
Rugged wear, waterproof and big enough to store everything are things you need to consider. The organization is important, and a place to house a laptop or tablet.
We recommend the Peak Design Everyday Back Pack because it doesn’t look like a camera bag. This one fact takes the heat off you a little and helps to protect our gear.
The other feature we love is that it works like a sling, both sides giving you access to the same area. There are many other cool design features. Read here for more info.
Think about your location. Where you are going will determine what you will need. Tunnels will have no light, so a flashlight and headlamp are musts. Take extra batteries.
If you think that the abandoned area will be a little more challenging, then gloves and tough clothing is important. No shorts or flip-flops.
The two most important things that you shouldn’t leave without are water and a fully charged phone. The phone will get help if necessary, the water, well, is for drinking and cleaning
For more recommendations on the gear you should take with you, read this article here.
Footwear is one of the most, if not THE most important piece of gear you can have. They will make sure you stay comfortable and protect you from all kinds of things.
The happier you are, the more likely you are in staying out and exploring. You should look for boots that are waterproof, breathable and heavy duty.
They won’t stop you from exploring, and will probably help you sneak around.
When traversing the unknown, better to equip yourself. A mask or respirator is great at protecting your lungs from asbestos and other dusty chemicals.
Don’t forget, some of these abandoned places have decomposed over decades. Asbestos was only banned in 1989, meaning less than 30 years ago. Best be safe.
Goggles might seem silly. But, when you face old factories and other abandoned places, protecting your eyes, is very important. You have no idea what you might encounter.
Better to have and not need, than to need and not have. Read here for more recommendations.
How To Start
Urban exploration is the act of entering premises with the idea of exploring and photographing.
Technically, it is trespassing, but the community tries to limit their footprints.
Some of these abandoned buildings or structures have been empty for decades.
Our curiosity for these hidden places has only grown since the first known urban explorers in the late 70s.
Infiltrating forgotten places such as these holds a value. We have already seen the whole world globally.
Now we turn our attention locally and check our own backyard.
Photographing these abandoned spaces is exciting, potentially dangerous, legally ambiguous, and a lot of fun. This trend has only grown in the last few decades.
As I said before, a lot of it is trespassing, as these structures or buildings are private property. Some areas you will find guarded and will need permission.
Urban exploration photography is well known to police and security guards, and most will ask you to leave without prosecution
This is only true if you don’t steal or damage anything on the property. Read our complete beginners guide here.
As you research more and more on urban exploration photography, you will start to see huge communities and forums on this topic.
One collaboration, based in the UK and called The London Consolidation Crew, have created a huge glossary of terms. These come in handy if you decide to join these groups.
These are also great keywords if you decide to share any of your images on social media. Read all the terms here, in our extensive article.
One way we can get useful information is to read about the experiences of one urbexer. James Kerwin is a renowned urban exploration photography genius, full of guidance.
His photography of these abandoned place has a lot of research and forethought go into it. They come out as fine art pieces of a former time and culture, wasting away.
Read here how he tackles his urban exploration photography, and what he looks for when researching. It might give you some insight.
Shooting Urban Exploration Photography
Some say it’s Urban Exploration, others say Urbex. The police may say we’re trespassing. but we say we are artists, documenters and explorers.
The number one tip we recommend isn’t even about photography, but about staying safe. This approach is paramount. Never Urbex alone.
In case anything were to happen, you need someone to help or get help. Abandoned places are full of other photographers, homeless people and worse.
They will also help keep an eye out, stop you from freaking out in some very creepy places. They could even tell you when to capture a good photograph.
Read the other four tips here, and start taking great Urbex photographs today.
There are many abandoned places throughout the world. In Berlin alone, I visited Devil’s Mountain (Teufelsberg), Krampnitz Military Base and the Iraqi Embassy.
There were many others, and you can research them all easily. I have heard of missile silos, empty governmental communist structures, and coal factories.
These places are becoming fewer and further in between. The number one rule for urbexing is to ‘take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints’.
Keep the atmosphere for the next group of people who come along. Otherwise, the next place you go to will be missing that creepy dentist’s chair.
You may even be desecrating a historic site. This could land you in hot water. The other six rules are here, in the article above.
A great urban explorer needs an open mindset and a great number of skillsets. Have a plan, but keep it loose. You have time to deviate from the road you wish to take.
It might end up being better than the location you first scouted. Be wary of others, and keep safety in your highest regard. You want to photograph for as long as possible.
The biggest tip we can give you is to master low light photography. Most abandoned places have their treasures indoors, and there will definitely be a lack of light.
Learn how to uprate your film, change your ISO and keep your camera still as much as you can. A tripod is great, or even string will help in a pinch.
The safest people you can meet in these abandoned places are probably the security guards. Empty urban areas such as these can house homeless people, metal scrappers and many random people.
You are hidden away, so it is dangerous as there is no obvious deterrent. This is why you always take someone with you. It is a good idea to have a quick scout around before photographing.
On top of the human threat, there are also harmful chemicals. Asbestos is one, as buildings before 1989 were still built using this material. No one has been in to deal with it, due to cost.
Read here on all the risks you could encounter, and plan accordingly.
Not only is urbexing illegal, it is also dangerous. Don’t run head first into it! You will really need to do a lot of research before you jump in your car, racing to the location.
Street smarts are the most important skill you can have in these environments. This will help you know how to handle the situation when the pooh hits the fan.
Are you in a physically fit state? Can you pull yourself up from a fallen floor, or steps that decided to give way? Have a clear head and your wits about you.
Read here for more dangers you can encounter and what you need to think about before you go traipsing.
A great place to start is by visiting abandoned sites legally. These will help you take those first images that will help you decide if this is an area worth your time.
You can still get great shot, and help you practice for future urbexing in more precarious situations. By photographing the legal places, you won’t get hassled by security.
Jumping in the deep end can be beneficial for some areas of photography, but this isn’t one of these. Don’t ruin your confidence – work up to the big game.
A practice run will help you understand the dangers and further areas of planning needed.
One great place to start is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. There are specifically run tours, keeping you safe while allowing you to grab some really stunning images.
Google earth will be your main area of research. You can find maps from other urbexers as a pinpoint in google maps.
Even finding the name, then the address will show you its location.
Even then, google helps direct you there with tips on traffic and the best times to go. Its the perfect place to hone in on that place.
This is how I found Krampnitz Military Camp. Not only did it let me know the easiest place to enter, but it also showed me how abandoned it was.
Also, the sheer size is very apparent, meaning it was worth a full day of exploring.
By using the satellite image that google maps provided me with a site covered in vegetation.
You won’t get this level of detail from the basic map element.
Read here on why Google is your go-to tool for gaining valuable information.
Research, research, research. You can never have too much research. You have either stumbled across a location personally or found something online.
Your first step is to research about it. When did it close, do they run tours and is it guarded? are just a few of the questions you need to ask the internet.
You might be able to gain information from those who have been before. Valuable information on safety, when to gain access and even things not to miss.
Read our article here on how to conduct good research on your next (or first!) location.
As you come across abandoned places, you’ll want to record the locations so you can return easier. Google earth works best when you have the exact coordinates.
Some modern cameras have GPS built-in or at least an attachment that you can add to your system. The information is added straight into the EXIF data of your image.
One of the biggest questions I see concerning abandoned buildings and structures is ‘How do I get access?’. There are two ways about this.
Either you ‘ask for forgiveness rather than permission’. Or you make sure that every one of your actions is above board and legal.
This will be the choice for many photographers. Take it from me, having to look over your shoulder and creep around is not much fun.
Having permission means a stress-free shoot. You will also know which areas are safe, and will also allow yourself repeat business.
No trespassing equals no police, no dogs, no security and no prosecution.
As an example, owners and police might be on the active lookout for drug dealers and metal scrappers. You don’t want to be seen as either one of these
For all the help on gaining legal admittance, read our article here.
Trespassing is no big deal in some areas of the world. While visiting the Spreepark in Berlin, it was only the fourth and last time that four police officers found us and asked us to leave.
They knew it was a popular spot for photography, and they were patrolling. They were not there the previous 3 times. We didn’t break in per se as we damaged nothing.
All they said was that ‘we will know what will happen if we come back’ but they didn’t take our names or any information.
I don’t see people wasting time and money prosecuting for this. Of course, these rules and regulations are different in other countries.
In Ontario, for example, an abandoned building doesn’t even have to provide a sign for it to be trespassing.
Read here on the implications of what trespassing could mean to your location and country’s jurisdiction.
Identification is a tricky area in terms of urban exploration photography. Do you take a form of ID or not? Personally, I never take ID. with me as I would be afraid of losing it.
But the biggest problem for me is that your name and details will end up recorded. Not only for trespassing, which is a minor crime, but generally.
Possibly even placed on a watch list. If you don’t have identification, I doubt many security or police officers would go out of their way to get it.
They may just let you go with a warning. Although, some countries require you to have some form of identification on you at all times.
Not having this could even be a bigger problem than trespassing.
Research these conditions for the country you are photographing in. It might make the biggest difference.
From photographing low and high levels of light in the same scene, it is almost impossible to get a correct exposure.
HDR (High-Dynamic Range) is a great way to capture the scene showing detail in the highlights and shadowy areas.
The basic idea is that by taking a multiple of 3/5/7 or more images and stitching them together, you can create a great exposure.
Different images are of the exact same scene, but the exposures are all different. It is typical to take a base image of 0, then one at +2 and the last at -2.
For complete information on creating HDR images, read our article here.
For the step-by-step, read our article here.
You will find that many abandoned places have a lot of windows, great for the well-needed light.
One way you can make these more interesting is to capture the rays of light that fall through them.
Photoshop is your handy friend here, as we need to use filters and tools, namely the blur tool.
When you come to photograph indoors, you will find the windows are often blown out.
This is to say too much light comes through them, and it is difficult to match the exposure.
This is done by fusing together different photographs of varying exposures.
Creating light rays is just one way of adding interest to your image.
It also allows the light to lead your eyes into the frame and gives precedence to the indoor area.