Photographers can find shipwrecks, forgotten houses and castles, and even downed aircraft in the most unlikely of places. In photographs, these abandoned locations hint at a forgotten time and a rich history where people once laughed, loved, or worked. So many are fascinated with these locations, and this interest is testimony to our shared obsession with our past. From ghost towns to long-forgotten farmhouses and churches, the world’s landscapes are rich with fantastic abandoned photography spots.

Abandoned Place Photography

Abandoned place photography has become a new category of photography. An offshoot of UrbEx (short for Urban Exploration) abandoned place photography has grown in popularity thanks to the rise of Instagram and other photo-sharing sites and apps. In this article, we will share some of our top tips for photographing forgotten relics, how to find them, and what legal and safety considerations must be adhered to when shooting them.

Eastern State Penitentiary by Dan Fleury
Eastern State Penitentiary by Dan Fleury

Secrecy of Abandoned Places

Typically the location of abandoned places has been either shared exclusively in private social media groups or is a closely guarded secret among a select few photographers. This secrecy is mostly because photographers are rightly concerned about these hidden gems being damaged or overrun by social media influencers and selfie-obsessed Instagramers. Also, entering and exploring most abandoned locations is illegal, and enforcement of these laws is likely to increase as more and more people know where an abandoned spot is.

Utopia Grist Mill by Shawn M Kent
Utopia Grist Mill by Shawn M Kent

We tend to agree with this sentiment. Photographers should never enter abandoned locations or private property to get their photos. Not only are there tremendous safety concerns, but also these locations are incredibly fragile. Without care, inattentive visitors can expedite the destruction and eventual collapse of these photogenic marvels. Furthermore, in most cases, these locations are most beautiful from the exterior, and there is rarely a reason to enter an abandoned site. For that reason, when we share abandoned photo spot submissions from our collection, we are careful with the info we share. We attempt to vet them to determine if they are dangerous, avoid those requiring entering private property to shoot (although often hard to verify), and are photogenic enough to be photographed from the outside alone.

Leave No Trace Principles

Leave No Trace Canada Website

Critical to abandoned place photography philosophies is the principle of “Leave No Trace.” Photographers should adhere to this principle in every shooting situation. Just as you would never destroy natural elements when taking a landscape, you must leave no impact on any abandoned place you discover. This philosophy means leaving no trash, not damaging existing structures, and taking care not to impact the environment and surroundings. If you wish to contribute and help protect the environment, we recommend supporting charities like Leave No Trace Canada.

Finding Abandoned Photo Spots

Because of the secrecy surrounding these locations, they can often be hard to find. As a result, most photographers drive aimlessly on backroads to locate them or rely on word of mouth in their photography circles. Some even join online communities such as Urbex Playground, where like-minded photographers swap the best locations in their region.

District 34 Abandoned Schoolhouse by Lane Pearman
District 34 Abandoned Schoolhouse by Lane Pearman

In addition to the tips we share in our How I Find Photo Spots Near Me article, we recommend a few more specific to abandoned place photography.

Use the PIXEO Map: Of course, we recommend exploring our exclusive Anadoned Photo Spots Map where we share the location of all the abandoned spots on our website (there are even more in the PIXEO App). We’ve created a map of just the abandoned places, and you can check and see what locations are near you. 

Explore Rural and Urban Areas in Decline: In any area, research parts of the region have historical relevance or industry that has fallen into decline. For example, one of the former vital commercial routes in Ottawa is the Rideau Canal. Searching satellite maps reveal small communities that once supported this historical transportation and logistic route through Ontario. Exploring these tiny communities invariably leads to discovering hidden gems like this former Carriage factory south of Ottawa along the canal’s route. 

John Watts & Sons Carriage Factory - Photo by Shawn M. Kent
John Watts & Sons Carriage Factory - Photo by Shawn M. Kent

Use Advanced Google Searches on Abandoned Location Sites: One of the better techniques for locating abandoned places near you is to leverage some of the advanced search capabilities of Google. As an example, Abandoned Places America is a site that features several Abandoned locations in the United States. By using Google, you can narrow down their collection of spots by creating a search string that looks like this:

site:abandonedamerica.us Detroit

This search results in a long list of articles, but switching to Google Image Search will help narrow down to the most visually appealing locations. 

Tips for Photographing Abandoned Places

Photographing abandoned locations is a true pleasure. But to get the most out of your abandoned photography adventure, a bit of planning is recommended. The following tips can help in preparing to go out and shoot.

Dress for the Adventure: As abandoned sites are rarely maintained, getting the right angle to photograph them sometimes requires a bit of “off-roading.” So it is essential to dress for the weather and wear solid boots that can withstand getting into creeks or streams up to your calves. In addition, these locations are overrun with poison ivy and oak in certain parts of the world, so long pants and gloves are an absolute must. Finally, be careful and wear boots that can withstand an errant rusty nail or other sharp metal that can ruin your trip. 

Pack a Tripod: We cannot stress this enough, the tripod forces you to slow down and compose your shot. Abandoned locations also often lend themselves well to long exposures, and for this, a tripod is a must. Finally, a good tripod can prove invaluable in getting angles that you might not otherwise. 

Polarizing and Neutral Density Filters: The sky is often one of the most dramatic elements in a photo of an abandoned place. Getting dramatic clouds or even a deep dark blue sky requires tools like polarizers and ND filters (really just a different kind of polarizer). Polarizers also minimize reflections which can ruin a shot if a window or other glass reflects the sun straight into your lens. A graduated ND filter can also be a bonus, but be careful that the graduation does not impact the photo’s main subject. We prefer to use graduated exposure filtering in our edits to mask our photos’ abandoned subject selectively. However, we still apply a polarizing filter to the whole image for the reasons mentioned above.

 

Black and White and Duotone Images: Abandoned photo spots often look best in Black and White or with just two tones like you would find in old-timey sepia-toned photos. Even when in full colour, muting the saturation is a good idea when doing your post-processing edit. Often photographers can overdo it (in our opinion) with texture filters, contrast, or sharpening, so try to find a happy medium. Whenever doing an edit, our general rule of thumb is to apply an adjustment until you see the effect and then pull it back a little bit. At a minimum, however, a quick check to see how your photo looks in black and white is always a good idea; you may be amazed at the results. 

Dr. W.B. Jones Abandoned House by Lane Pearman
Dr. W.B. Jones Abandoned House by Lane Pearman

Legal and Safety Considerations

We’ve already mentioned this before, but we want to harp on it again. When shooting any abandoned location, you are taking responsibility for your actions. It is on you to ensure that you are not breaking any laws or putting yourself at risk. It is always good to use the buddy system and not adventure alone.

St. John the Baptist Anglican Church by Shawn Kent
St. John the Baptist Anglican Church by Shawn Kent

It is also critical to be respectful of the people who live around the location. One of the best afternoons we’ve ever had was shooting an abandoned church cemetery and chatting with the self-appointed caretaker who lived next door. People are generally friendly, and if you are respectful, you will be amazed to discover the rich history that surrounds us all around the world. The people who live near and love these abandoned places are often just as interesting as the places themselves. It is important to remember they are protective of them and, justifiably so. So be respectful, be careful, and enjoy shooting the stunning abandoned photo spots you can find around the world.

More Abandoned Photo Spots

Check out more of our collection of abandoned places below and download the Free PIXEO App to discover even more abandoned photo spots.