Photographing the Beauty in Urban Decay

Man-made structures that are falling apart or have been abandoned a long time ago seem to captivate and enthrall us, whether we are photographers or not. Maybe it is because we are pulled to their beauty even in the face of dilapidation. Or perhaps there is something about the way these crumbling buildings look that resonates within us; that even strong foundations can collapse, that over time people can deface it with graffiti, or that nature will always try to take back her territory.

Taking photographs of urban decay can take you on an adventure into places that are little visited or have been forgotten by most people. They may be large in scale such as ruins of buildings, or something up close such broken doorknobs or corroded window frames. The following are some tips that will help you make the most of urban decay photography:

Do a little research – although you might come across a lot of urban decay as you travel your city streets, you might be surprised that after doing some research, there are many more that you didn’t know about. Also, try to know a bit more about the area you will photograph before visiting the place. They often have some interesting history behind them, and how they ended up like that can give you insights on how to approach your composition. For example, if you are going to photograph a broken down house, knowing that it had previously caught fire will give you an idea of the meaning of those blackened patterns on the walls. These places have stories to tell, it’s up to you to listen and make use of them in your photographs.

Bring a flashlight – if you’re planning to shoot indoors, a flashlight would come in handy since most likely the place won’t have any working electricity. Even in the daytime, the space might be dark and gloomy, especially if the windows are all covered in grime. That is, if there are still any windows intact. It will also illuminate possible debris that is strewn around the room. Small rusty nails, splintered wood, and broken glass can be dangerous and wound you if you step on them.

Request permission – although many abandoned locations have long been forgotten, there are those for which you might still need permission to access and take photos of. Just because no one is using the structure anymore doesn’t mean you won’t have to worry about trespassing.

Shoot at different times in the day – the environment where your subject is located can be drastically different at different hours in the day, especially if it is situated in a very public area. If you want little distractions, a short time after dawn is a good hour to shoot. Most of the people are still asleep or in their homes so if you are taking pictures of urban decay in a populated setting, there will be fewer distractions from people passing by and obstructing your lens. The lighting will be great since the morning sun will still be at the horizon, giving off diffused light. This same location, however, might appear entirely different during rush hour. For example if your structure is a rundown building, crowds of people might be passing it by, oblivious to it being there. Street children might be playing hide and seek in it or someone might be tacking an advertisement on its wall. The impact may come out different from your early morning shoot but may still be just as powerful.

Play with details – there are times when you can capture the essence of a decrepit structure by focusing on only a portion. Instead of trying to include the entire building in your shot, try to concentrate on only the stairs, for example, or the door. This makes the viewer see much more details such as the textures of rusty metal or chipped paint, the faded wallpaper design, or the lush green vines that are wrapped around a banister.

Travel light – don’t take gear that is more than you can comfortably carry. You will be moving around a lot as you look for strategic positions to take your picture and the last thing you would want to feel is weighed down by excess gear. Your camera, a tripod, and if you have a DSLR, an extra lens such as a wide-angle lens should be enough.

Use the surroundings – the area around your subject can place it within context and can provide more drama to your shot. If your decaying structure is smack dab in the middle of a busy commercial area, you can tell a story by including the bright and shiny establishment that stands right beside it. People can also provide context by how they react to or ignore your subject. Observe what is going on in the scene, there are usually a lot of photo opportunities to be had as long as you are prepared.



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