An Introduction to Urban Exploration

An Introduction to Urban Exploration

A Guest post by Neil Ta.

Urban exploration is the act of accessing locations that are typically restricted to the general public.  It’s also known as UE or urbex in some circles, but is often mistaken as simply the discovery of “urban decay” or “abandonment” properties. However, the broader definition also includes the exploration of rooftops, drains, sewers, construction sites, or any other location that may have restricted access. 

Urban exploration and photography are mutually exclusive activities, though most explorers have cameras on hand to capture their adventures.  I’ve been fascinated by this form of photography over the last year and have learned a great deal about this art form from a number of far more experienced people in the urbex community.  To become an urban explorer is easier than you might think, but I caution, it isn’t for everybody.

There Will Be a Light

Who We Are

Explorers are not criminals.  We have a great deal of respect for each location we visit, often doing a great deal of research on the historical significance and role the location once played in the community.  We don’t spray paint graffiti, we don’t steal, and we don’t break down doors, or smash through windows to gain entry.  We’re there to take pictures.  We “take only pictures and leave only footprints”.

Man in the Middle


The first question a beginner getting into UE will have is inevitably: “how did you get in there?”  Well, there’s a number of online forums relating to urban exploration that can help you answer that and more; the main one being Urban Exploration Resource.  This is a good starting point if you want to get a feel of what it’s all about.  It will allow you to browse through the beginner’s forum, organize or meet up with explorers in your area, and to research some locations.  Your area may also have its own local websites relating to urban exploration too. 

Flickr is another good resource for researching potential urbex locations.  If you type in a search for your city followed by “urban exploration”, “urban decay”, or “urbex” as keywords, you’re bound to find some recent images from locations in your area.  Newspapers can also offer hints on locations being demolished, renovated, or preserved.

Go for a Swim


Every location will have some sort of hazard, be it unsafe flooring, fall risks, flash flooding risks, asbestos, or even irate squatters.  It is up to you to do the research and prepare yourself for every possible situation.  For example, if there’s rain in the forecast, DO NOT venture into any drains; if there’s asbestos in an old building, wear a respirator that filters it.  Generally, be smart and take all the precautions you need to be safe.  That is priority #1. Never explore on your own.  Ever.

Also know what to bring in addition to your camera gear! Water, first aid kit, flashlight, and other safety equipment are just a short list of items you may want to carry with you.

Pho, Phishfish, and Phun


The best way to learn about urbex is to make friends with others who share the same interest.  You can organize local meets through a number of online forums and photography websites, and once you meet a core group of explorers, you’re pretty much set! Be open to what they have to say and soak in as much information as you can. Most of them are very willing to share their experiences and to pay it forward to the next generation of explorers. 

The Horror

Legal Risks

Urbex is not without some potential legal drawbacks.  Depending on the location you are trying to access, urbex may be considered illegal activity (trespassing or mischief).  Know the legalities of what you’re doing and always prepare for a worse case scenario.  Many times abandoned locations are patrolled by third party security companies or even local police.  Though arrests are rare (fines are more likely), it is still best to know all of the potential risks involved.  If you are exploring with only good intentions (we’re just taking photos!), many times they will simply ask you to leave the premises.  There may also be legal implications after you’ve shared your pictures online, so it is wise to look into all angles of this activity as well.

This is the Shot

Exercise Patience

When you first get involved with UE, you are filled with excitement! You’ll likely want to tear down the doors and go bonkers with your camera! The reality is far less glamorous. You will need to exercise great patience and show restraint once you’re on site. You will need to wait for the perfect time to access the area, which can take a number of hours in some instances. Just be aware that it takes a lot of patience to get these stunning images!

How to Light a Chapel

Have Fun!

In the end, all of the extra risks and precautions you take will be worth it. Urban exploration allows you to see and experience locations very few people ever have. It gives you a greater appreciation of the local history, and you feel an increased affinity with each location and its surrounding community. I’ve been lucky enough to escape all of my adventures with stunning sets of photographs and many memorable moments. Urban exploration has introduced me to a number of great people and amazingly talented photographers. It has truly transformed my lifestyle and the way I see my city.

Fresh Prince of Linseed

Neil Ta is a Toronto based Photographer, Urban Explorer, Traveler, and Gentle Lover. See more from him on his website and blog.

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Some Older Comments

  • Neil May 19, 2012 01:54 pm

    An update!!!

    I have completed an "Urban Exploration Photography" eBook that you can download for FREE:



  • Lu May 18, 2012 11:55 pm

    I didn't realize there were other people like me that liked this type of stuff. Just found some videos on You Tube one day. That is how I learned others were doing it too. It was good to finid this out. I'm not so strange after all....haha. The reason why I wanted to post is say to the writer of this blog - I don't think it always involves a camera. I was an explorer long before I cared to involve a camera. I remember my first time. I was driving in the car coming home from my sisters and found myself on the wrong road. Up ahead loomed an old looking abandoned school. A gate surrounded it. I could tell it was not going to be easy to get in. What was worse is I had my baby in the car, so I had to come back. I saw some kid skateboarding pass it heading my way. So I stopped him to ask him about the place. He gave me a good amount of details and where to be careful walking. He also told me how to get in and explained it was scheduled to be torn down soon so I better move fast. And that is what started it for me. I wanted to KNOW about the place. How old was it? How did it look inside? Why was it abandoned? So many questions....and the need to seek them out myself. But it does not stop there. If I'm working in old buildings I want to go explore their basements and sub basements. It was a joy to finally find on the internet there are others out there that do this too....

  • Raul Ondera July 28, 2011 05:12 am

    I think it's a great article, I was going to write a similar blog concerning this topic, you beat me to it. You did a nice job! Thanks and I well add your RSS to our blogs. Thanks so much

  • Neil December 7, 2010 11:30 am

    Dina -- I think that most definitely counts. As you can see, some countries allow this sort of exploring, so it isn't necessarily "restricted" or "forbidden", but in my opinion, it counts :) Make sure to share your shots!

  • Dina December 7, 2010 01:46 am

    I've always found the idea of urban exploration interesting. There's a monument that has stairs that I'm dying to try to climb...

    Just a question. Can you literally start exploring in your backyard? We have a room there that would look like gorgeous urban decay and since we own the property no trespassing rights. But would that "count"?

  • Neil December 6, 2010 01:03 pm

    Thanks for the heads up Jeremy, I've never seen this film before!

  • Jeremy December 5, 2010 01:56 am

    You should check out the "Urban Explorers" documentary by Melody Gilbert - amazing stuff. The film's website is here:
    and you can also find it on Netflix
    and iTunes

  • amy December 4, 2010 11:24 am

    nice article Mr. Ta the comments are interesting as well....that's all for now, a scrabble game is beckoning

  • December 4, 2010 06:50 am

    Nice but global article about what we do.
    But you only exprience the real thrill while doing it :-)

  • Neil December 4, 2010 04:43 am

    NeQo -- should I move to Belgium? I absolutely love your Flickr stream. Some amazing photos. Can't wait to see more from you.

  • NeQo December 4, 2010 03:17 am

    Seems to be a difference between country laws.
    No problems here.
    Where i live they can't give you a fine for trespassing.

    That little back-gate in the law makes it a very interesting game ...

  • Doc Holliday December 4, 2010 02:53 am

    Great article. Out here in the west, we are about 100 years behind the east coast in building, and there never has been much heavy manufacturing, so there are not as many buildings like those shown to visit. And, particularly, in CA, the penalties for inadvertent trespassing can be draconian. Everybody is worried-no rabid-about lawsuits.

    I shoot ghost towns, which were built in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Fast disappearing, these remnants of another way of life allow a direct connection with history.

    Peel-Why is it cops have to be threatening, on duty or off? Do you get off on that? I am pretty sue cops are not the only ones who know and appreciate the law. Neil plainly discussed the realities of trespass, but you feel the need to show up and threaten. Nothing is a 'misallocation' of public resources, that is your job. Sounds to me like you say 'misallocation' when you mean, "I'm too lazy to do my job."

  • Michael M. December 4, 2010 12:40 am

    I am yet to explored many areas of photography and this one is definitely in my to-do list. Thanks for the introduction!

  • Martin Soler Photography December 3, 2010 06:06 pm

    Nice article, I haven't been into urbex too much, I happened to be in an old castle in France where I took some shots, such as this one:
    or a worn down building, but still inhabited so I guess it doesn't qualify.

    But the subject is interesting and Paris definitely has some areas to explore.

  • tj December 3, 2010 04:19 pm

    hey...great article..... URBEX sounds interesting ... i learned sumthing new today... thanks :)

  • Angus December 3, 2010 03:41 pm

    As to the legality and permissions issue, I have had a lot of luck with talking to the property owner first and making this offer:

    1) I'll show you anything I want to publish before I do, and you have veto or edit rights.

    2) If I get hurt, I was trespassing. This seems to alleviate concerns about liability.

    3) If I see anything dangerous, I will let you know. If I see any taggers, I will let you know. However, I will not confront them.

    Most places, the owners are more worried about liability then anything else. If you remove that worry and then make it into a bonus for them (another set of eyes on the property), they are usually fairly cool with you going on site.

    Also, make sure you let the owners know who's going with you and when you are going. Openness and honesty is the key.

    @ the other wayne -- Buddy system. If you get hurt, they can go for help. Also, 2 or more are more impressive then one in case you come across others.

    @ Neil -- A few more things to add to your gear list: coloured tape (ether masking or marking as it helps with marking your way back out), bandanna (you can use it as a dust mask, or cover your camera to help keep dust of it), and a whistle.

  • -S December 3, 2010 01:58 pm

    > its a serious misallocation of resources when a constable is sent out only
    > to find a hapless “photographer” taking photos in a place they shouldn’t be in the first place

    Agreed. Please do not send a constable next time, we are doing just fine taking pictures and will be on our way in a bit. Thank you very much.

  • Neil December 3, 2010 01:12 pm

    @Pat -- wide angles are great for urbex, but there is something to be said about being able to shoot detail shots as well. I do love the fisheye, but sometimes think it is my "crutch

    @Neon -- glad it was useful for you.

    @NeQo -- please add me to Flickr so I can keep up with your streams!

    @ the other wayne -- good decision using your gut instinct. Better to be safe than sorry.

    @Bethany -- I will definitely look into a visit to Milwaukee if I am ever in the area!

  • Bethany December 3, 2010 09:37 am

    I just wanted to give a shout-out that Milwaukee, WI., is one of the best places I've seen for Urban Decay subject matter. It's got the old breweries, lofts, railroads, shut-down factories, alleys, gang lands, culture, waterfronts, architecture (Santiago Calatrava) and an amazing array of people. I only wish I had bought a camera while I still lived there.

  • the other Wayne December 3, 2010 08:32 am

    I was taking pics in an abandoned lime mine. It is aboveground. Lots of travertine "flow" over the red brick used for it's construction. I was by myself.Aqt one popint I ran across someones shelter. I got scarred thinking about my equipment and the possibility of harm. I decided to make a retreat and left. No harm, but I ended up way out of my comfort zone. A good lesson without repercussions.
    Thanks for the great post and pictures

  • NeQo December 3, 2010 07:55 am


    I really like your way of thinking and the how you treat these locations with respect.
    Lovely report. And indeed, i've also seen places were you otherwise would never be allowed.
    The world is our playground...

    Many regards from the Belgium/European front.
    Plz do check and comment my website!!

  • NeQo December 3, 2010 07:52 am


    I really like your way of thinking and the how you treat these locations with respect.
    Lovely report. And indeed, i've also seen places were you otherwise would never be allowed.
    The world is our playground...

    Many regards from the Belgium/European front.
    Plz do check and comment my website!!

    N.[eimg url='' title='PUB-23.jpg'][eimg url='' title='P3299667.jpg']

  • Neon December 3, 2010 05:22 am

    Lately I've been fascinated in capturing urban decay and this has helped to answer some questions and also bring to light other things I didn't even consider. Thanks for the writeup!

  • Pat December 3, 2010 04:07 am

    Beirut, because of the frequent wars it had since the seventies, is a paradise for urban exploration.
    There are tons of buildings whose owners have left in a hurry to never come back or that got partially destroyed and the owner decided/could not repair them since.

    I recently went with a friend and got a few shots

    If I have an advice from my limited experience it this: Bring the widest angle lens you can get your hands on!

    Here are a couple of shots from my friend's 8mm


  • z0th December 3, 2010 03:27 am

    NeilT: Well written. See you 'round! ;-)

  • Peel Regional Constable J. Smith December 3, 2010 03:23 am

    What you call exploring, is called trespassing.

    We have laws in place for this - if you practice the same respect for these locations, you would respect the laws and not illegally trespass.

    We have had many calls from the public concerning these urban explorers over the years - its a serious misallocation of resources when a constable is sent out only to find a hapless "photographer" taking photos in a place they shouldn't be in the first place!

    Get the proper accreditation before going off to photograph places like these please!

  • Neil December 3, 2010 02:57 am

    Chris -- it is illegal in many cases, but so are many forms of street photography and taking pictures on private property (like a mall). The intention isn't to harm, it's to preserve, so I will have to politely disagree with you about giving photographers a bad name.

    Lucas -- I went to Detroit recently for a two day shoot and that is a city you really need to be careful in. Bring lots of insurance and always go with a local who knows the areas and locations.

    Happy shooting all!

  • Bryan Grant December 3, 2010 02:17 am

    great images and advice ive always wanted to do stuff like this

  • Lucas Zallio December 3, 2010 02:11 am

    In addition about what Wayne said, abandoned building usually are placed in low traffic areas which means low vigilance even outside the building. So take care of unknown places specially if you're traveling and you're not familiar with the city/country you're visiting.

  • -S December 3, 2010 01:50 am

    @chris: and who gives you permission? even if they do, how does it cover you? and why would a property owner risk his/her own liability to cover yours? It just doesn't happen (very often), especially in the US where litigation is such a mess.
    My urbex photos on Flickr:
    or blog:

  • Mark December 3, 2010 01:19 am

    great article. Something I been wanting to learn more about. This should put me on the right path. Thanks!

  • Wayne December 3, 2010 01:12 am

    I've never head this term used before, but it's what I love to do.

    To Chris's point, if you don't have permission, it is illegal and it can cost you time, $$, or worse, injury (I know a local photographer who was seriously hurt because he fell through a floor).

    I little common sense goes a long way. There is a KILLER abandoned building that needs to be photographed, but I'm 99% sure it's a drug house. Expensive camera gear and junkies do not go well together. I normally travel alone, so I won't take certain risks, mostly out of fear of injury by squatters or structural issues.

  • Chris Baldwin December 3, 2010 12:42 am

    If you can't get permission to be in the structure its the rest of us photographers a bad name

  • Neil December 3, 2010 12:30 am

    St. Louis Photographer: I typically don't scout for shots. A lot of what is "available" is dependent on timing and accessibility, both of which can change quite often. I started urban exploring mainly for the photography, but find that I am doing this more and more for other reasons. Photography is still a big part of it for me, but I am achieving a greater sense of balance.

    I know of some explorers who don't really care much for the photography -- they won't bring a camera at all, or may just use a cell phone camera!

  • St Louis Photographer December 3, 2010 12:18 am

    So, you were talking about urban exploration and photography being mutually exclusive. So you never are there scouting for a shoot, is that right?

  • Andrei December 2, 2010 11:28 pm

    Urban photography gives you the power to show the beauty or the filth of a city. The choice is yours! Nice article and great photos!