When most people think of architecture photography, images of towering skyscrapers, iconic art museums, and palatial homes come to mind. But it’s more challenging—and rewarding—to find the haunting beauty in abandoned places.
Empty train stations, disused warehouses, and boarded-up schools show what the world might look like if humans disappeared. They also pull at strings of nostalgia, hinting at memories lost. Discover how to capture this eerie, evocative imagery for yourself.
You may not drive by a deserted theater every day, but there’s a whole community of urban exploration photographers creating art in abandoned places. If you don’t have anywhere in mind, online forums can be a great resource.
Here are a few places to start:
You can also do a quick Google search for abandoned buildings in the area you’re exploring, or ask other photographers. Chances are, they’ll know a derelict asylum or vacant barn you can shoot.
A wide-angle lens (with a 35mm equivalent focal range of 14-28mm) makes your subject more commanding. It can also help put your audience in the scene. This adds drama, inciting a sense of emptiness and isolation. Wide shots are especially helpful if you’re in a confined space and want to project vastness.
Very few abandoned buildings have electricity or natural light, so you’ll have to create your own. Bring a flashlight and manually set your camera’s sensitivity, or ISO, above 800. You can use the flashlight to illuminate the whole scene, or make certain areas pop by adjusting the movement and placement of the light.
You’ll also want to use a longer shutter speed to keep lighting even and pick up on all the textures of the space. Tripods can go a long way, but if you’re shooting handheld, you’ll need a camera with a built-in image-stabilizing camera so there’s no camera movement to cause blur in your photos.
Pro tip: Abandoned spaces are a perfect opportunity to get creative with filters, like black and white or vintage. Try using a camera with built-in filters so you can preview the shot before you take it.
They might be a bit spooky, but the good thing about shooting in derelict spaces is that your subject (hopefully!) won’t move. So, it’s a great time to play with angles and perspectives. Think about symmetry and challenge perspective rules. To heighten the chaotic character of the building and take advantage of its leading lines, get your camera low to the ground or take a shot from deep in the corner.
Imposing shots are great, but you can tell another side of the story by focusing on small details. Within each room, hallway, and entrance you’ll find crumbling floors, peeling paint, and items left behind. Make a chair, sign, or telephone from the past the star of your photo.
These shots can also highlight how the spaces have been used in their “afterlife,” picking up on graffiti, old beer bottles, or bits and pieces left by scrappers.
A note on legality & safety
Capturing abandoned places doesn’t have to mean trespassing (which is illegal, FYI). If there’s any security or owner information onsite, don’t be shy about asking for permission. You can even offer to sign a legal waiver that would release them of responsibility over any injuries or trouble you may encounter on the property. There’s often structural damage, rusty nails, broken glass, even harmful chemicals in these old structures. You can also check with regional camera dealers for advice in the location you’re visiting.
You never know who or what you might find at an abandoned site. While exciting, this also requires some precaution. Be aware of your surroundings and protect yourself with closed-toe shoes and layers of clothing. And always tell someone where you’re going. Better yet, bring them along. There’s safety in numbers.
Abandoned locations are one the most rare and interesting subjects to photograph…even if it does feel a little like you’re stepping into a horror film.