Urban Exploration Photography – Urbex

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Urban Exploration Photography

Dark halls, narrow wet cold rooms, rusted metal, chains hanging from the ceiling – it`s like you`re moving through a horror movie setting. It appears to be a pictorial journey through a strange world – a nightmarish world of shadows and darkness as after an asteroid impact.

01 black door explorerviews

Lost places, abandoned buildings and infrastructure are my favourite locations to take pictures. “Urban Exploration” also known as “Urbex” is the exploring of urban, (mostly) abandoned structures.

In this article I will tell you how I became an urban explorer, and show you how you can take pictures like my urban exploration photos on my website. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to go outside to find more of those lost areas.

02 abandoned industry bretange

STEP ONE – FINDIN A LOCATION

The first step is to know the location of such abandoned places. When I got started with this hobby there was nothing on the internet about urbex or lost places. I had to search the locations for my pictures myself. But since then, a few things have changed. If you have a quick look on pages like Google Earth or FlickR you will soon find some adequate places to go. Of course you can also find them by walking attentively through the town you live in.

Ok, you have found some interesting places, and you are the owner of a DSLR or a camera to adjust exposure and aperture – now let’s get started!

03 dinner

SHOOTING

For most of my urbex photos I take more than just one picture of the same scene with different camera settings to create an HDR later, so it’s important to use a tripod. With this you can set your camera’s f-number (aperture value) to a higher level around f/8 or f/16. This affects the depth of field. Using a tripod makes it possible to take shots from exactly the same spot, important for the HDR in the post-processing.

You can manage the brightness of the exposure with the shutter speed. It’s easy and the result is a much sharper picture. For example your camera settings might look like this:

  • Aperture: f/14
  • ISO: 50/100
  • Shutter speed: variable, of course

Now you can take six or more shots with various exposure times. Sometimes three is enough, sometimes you need more than six. This depends on the differences of brightness (from shadows to highlights) in the certain situation.

The exposure time is a variable value which can not be set in a tutorial. But let me give you an example:

04 carparkingspace ben schreck

To take this indoor scene of the Car Parking Space image you see above, I took 8 different shots; the brightest one was 10 seconds (to get shadow detail) to the darkest one at 1/30th second (to get the details in the windows).

POST-PROCESSING

After the “outdoor work” is done you can start the post-processing. I take my shots in RAW Format, so I start editing in the Raw Converter. However, that is another tutorial. For the HDR I use PhotoMatix to edit the pictures.

Here you have to try different settings. I usually create a tone mapped image and save the result as a TIF file. After this I start Photoshop and the creative work begins…

In PS I work with different layers, contrast and tone correction, color changing etc. Here you have to be creative and find your own style to make your picture a unique one.

05 industry

ADDING LIGHT

To take photos in bunkers like my series of the Maginot Line, you need to bring all the light to the place by yourself. The technique is nearly the same as in a “normal” abandoned place. You will just need additional flashlights and lamps in your bag to create the lightning you want. The trick is to set up the lamps and flashlights so they do not shine directly (flares!) back toward the camera, while still brightening the space evenly.

06 maginot tunnel

07 shadow kitchen

SUMMARY

The most important part of the process is shooting at the location. That is where your photo comes into existence. You will need a little operating experience to figure out how it works. It’s all about continuing to practice and experimenting.

I hope I was able to bring you a bit closer to my way of working . More inspiration you can find on my website.

08 castle


Editor’s Note

Do have any Urbex places you’ve discovered that you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below.

Need more information on doing HDR – check out these resources:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ben Schreck comes from Germany and lives in France. He's been taking photos for over ten years now. His interests, among other things, are history and landscape, which is also reflected in his photos. Everything begun with exploring abandoned places, in time other topics like nature and landscape were added. Now in his portfolio are a lot of landscape photos beside the urban art images.

  • WillMonson

    I would LOVE to get into this type of photography. The only problem is that I have no idea where to find any worthy locations.

    I’d like to see a crowd-sourced website that maps out abandoned locations like these. Has anyone ever seen something like that?

  • Dustin Grau

    You won’t find many maps like that, and if you do you may find those places picked over. The unfortunate truth is that a public database of locations only leads to their destruction from taggers (graffiti), scrappers (metal thieves), and other criminals. UER is a good place to get started in gaining trust with the UrbEx community, which may give you access to what you need. Of course nothing beats looking around for yourself–you may be surprised in what you find.

  • Kirk Chantraine

    I haven’t seen anything great, but with a quick google search I found these maps:
    https://maps.google.ca/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=207904729128377067468.0004d94603215532fb9a1&dg=feature

    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=201861339139025813454.0004b7fe5236cadcb3fe0&dg=feature

    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&t=h&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=106000006212379134669.00049687b842ec202bf26&dg=feature

    So depending on where you are, these could be quite good! Everything I’ve heard for cities I’m in has been word of mouth.

  • WillMonson

    Thank you!

  • WillMonson

    Thanks!

  • Jamie

    Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is awesome for this type of photography!! http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamieb1024/sets/72157631715830424/

  • Can you provide some clarity on how Google Earth or Flickr can be used to find places to explore for this type of photography? It isn’t readily apparent to me how these tools are used for this.

  • Looks like I’d have to drive a few hours to find somewhere suitable on these maps.

  • ccting

    excellent..

  • Dustin Grau

    A simple search in flickr of “yourcity urbex” will likely give results. I put in “atlanta urbex” and immediately got photos from the old prison farm. I know that’s what it is because people tagged it as such in their albums. Start with that and you’ll probably find photos that have publicly tagged locations (though it’s highly discouraged). Google Earth has a timeline feature that lets you see imagery from years past. In some cases you can watch a building crumble by looking at it change over the years.

  • A Kelly

    Interesting article. I have to wonder why you didn’t touch on gaining access permissions to properties. Are releases not necessary for abandoned structures?

  • arcanum urbex

    I foudn an abandoned pharmacautical company in Berlin, Germany. Check out the photos here: http://arcanumphoto.blogspot.de/2013/12/the-laboratory-abandoned-pharmaceutical.html

  • Federico Buchbinder

    I agree with A Kelly’s comment below. The KEY thing about urban/rural exploration is deciding what side of the law you’re going to be on. To be on the right side, research the trespassing laws of your state/province and make sure you understand them and ABIDE BY THEM. Trespassing might be cool in certain circles, but it’s also illegal everywhere and might cost you money, time behind bars, or maybe a shot in the back of the head.

    But there is more to urbex/rurex, and I’m surprised the author of the article didn’t even touch on these aspects of it. Abandoned places are, essentially, non-maintained places. Both the exterior and the interior of these buildings are usually at the mercy of the elements, so collapsing ceilings and floors – or even holes – are frequently found. To make matters worse, these places are sometimes dark or not well lit by the available natural light, so these hazards are not always apparent. In brief: IT’S DANGEROUS. Adding to the hazards, you never know what type of characters you might run into when exploring abandoned places – they might be the cool type, but also the aggressive type. The moral of this thick paragraph: NEVER ENTER AN ABANDONED BUILDING ALONE, and make sure your phone is working and to carry a flashlight.

    Wearing a dust mask (or even better: a respirator) is not a bad idea (asbestos, hantavirus, etcetera).

    Urban/rural exploration is extremely fun – just do your research before joining in the fun.

  • Thank you.

  • ccting

    with my full respect to Schreck, not only for his excellent photos, but also for his brave to explore abandone places, which may full with criminals & other weird objects…

  • Ben

    It is obvious when one enters a foreign land, that it may come to conflicts. For my part I can say that I partly had the permission of the owner. But it is not always possible to find the owner and ask him.
    Criminal law, trespassing, is eg. not followed in Luxembourg in such a decommissioned plants. In german we says it´s like a “legal gray zone”. This is different in other countries.
    M. Buchbinder has also right. Urbex can be dangerous in differnt ways. In this article I want write about the photograhy part of Urbex and not only about Urban Exploration. There exists a lot of articles of the problems of this hobby. This article should be an inspiration for photographers.

  • Why so much HDR? I do urbex in Japan and my biggest regret is to have used HDR too much during my first year. Of course I could get back the originals but I don’t have them (yes… I know…). I now favor using the available light instead to give a dreamier feeling to those places.

    I would like to share my favorite spot, Gunkanjima. There is a summary of my articles about it here: http://www.totorotimes.com/urban-exploration/the-gunkanjima-odyssey/. Switch the website to french and you will get a little more. I also have a website about urbex in Japan called Haikyo: http://www.haikyo.org. Please have peek, and you will noticed there the change of style through the years.

  • Dustin Grau

    I would mildly disagree, and emphasize that most UrbEx’ers help those who help themselves. Looking at one of the photos you found in that search shows tags were included. Searching Google for “kirkbride nj mental hospital” got me this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greystone_Park_Psychiatric_Hospital

    From that you could begin looking for other photos, Google maps, and other information that would slowly point you towards the location. This is not secret information: the clues are there but you have to put them together.

  • Federico Buchbinder

    Ben, with all due respect, the very nice article that you wrote is about HDR photography, not about urbex photography. Ninety-five percent of my images are urbex (or rurex, to be exact), and none of them are HDR.

    Your article assumes that the reader is aware of the many perils associated with urbex, and that is not the case, especially considering that this is Digital Photography School – a sizable number of the people reading the article probably never heard of the concept of urban exploration before. Case in point: when I took my first photo in an abandoned house in 2009, I thought I was blazing a new path. Then I learned that urbex/rurex had existed for some time.

    Like I said, this is a very nice article. It’s just that the title is misleading and that you made some assumptions about your readers that are unfortunately incorrect. Since this is an activity that can be very dangerous (and potentially illegal if not done right), I thought it was important to bring this up.

  • Ben

    I agree with you. I assumed that urbex is popular and the most people know about that. If not so, via the first link in the text, you can read a lot more on the topic urbex.
    In this article I wrote about my urbex photography as inspiration for other photographers. I did not want to say urbex photography is HDR photography, absolutly no. It´s just a variant. And I have also a lot of non HDR photos on my portfolio.

  • Snarkasaurus

    There are loads of abandoned places in Trenton, just drive around and look for them. That’s what we had to do before a lot of these locations were put on the ‘net.

    If you want to be hand-held through the entire process you should probably find something else to do…

  • The article starts off by saying find a location. I asked how. I was told to search flickr using certain “urbex” tags. I did. I used “trenton, nj urbex”. I got a four images. I click each one looking for location information. I looked at the tags and then the EXIF info. Turns out only one image had any location info and I missed it in the mess of tags.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/scottfrederickphotography/8302555530/meta/

    I’m not looking to be handheld through anything. I am familiar with the amount of crime in Trenton and before I go exploring I want to make sure I’m not going to end up on the 6’o clock news.

  • I point you to the comment above by another urbex photographer:

    https://digital-photography-school.com/urban-exploration-photography-urbex#comment-1221727102

    “…considering that this is Digital Photography School – a sizable number of the people reading the article probably never heard of the concept of urban exploration before.”

  • you wrote in your original response :

    “….. you’ll probably find photos that have publicly tagged locations (though it’s highly discouraged).”

  • Dustin Grau

    True, there are some mixed comments resulting from the original article. Buried beneath the catchy headline IS a discussion of how to bracket your shots for this type of photography, though most of the comments have been of the nature “how do I find locations like this”. Set foot in any forum (like UER.ca) and ask that question, and you’ll find most people will never respond to you (or at least not in a helpful manner). I have actually done a presentation for a local camera club that covered a lot more of the basics, risks, and techniques for UrbEx and UrbEx photography.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_gy3vfARcSqbk9mNDN6VFBOTWc/edit?usp=sharing

  • Thank you for your help. I really do appreciate it. I’ll check out that Canadian web site and the presentation. I think a local user community — some people I can tag along with — might help. @Federico has some good points about safety.

  • That presentation is excellent. loved your referemce to 500px. I found quite a few places using “urbex” keyword on 500px.

  • drdroad

    Check out this book by Brad Garrett:
    Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.
    I bought it on Amazon. Amazing.

  • nigel

    Nice article! Some places (like the set from a local disused mine http://blackandstripe.com/#!/down-the-mine/) need to be captured because they do get discovered by undesirables and then they’re gone from memory!

  • ThatGuy

    Sure it’s not super easy. You actually have to do some work and research to find this stuff. Drive around, walk, take the train, use google, whatever. Complaining it’s too tough to find places certainly won’t get you anywhere.

  • SuperDuperPooper

    Oh fantastic. I didn’t want to actually have to do any research or scouting so this is perfect! OMGEEEE. Thanks Soooo much!

  • Jethron

    I feel like I’m on /r/shittyHDR

  • Some great points about urban exploration here. I really like the atmosphere in the photos you show, particularly with the light and dust in some of the images. I often find on my own explorations that the weather influences the final shots quite a lot.

    A selection of my own haikyo adventures are here: http://gakuran.com/category/haikyo-ruins/

    Bright, sunny days are always great to shoot because of the colours, but many of my most memorable haikyo shoots are those done in less-than-stellar-weather because of the atmosphere they evoke. Often though, we’re rushed to fit 2 or 3 locations in per day, and we end up missing great shots because of it. So your points about creating good lighting and taking time to properly experiment in locations is key to taking home winning photographs.!

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