Urban Exploration guide for Photographers

This post is not specifically related the the Canon 5dMRkII. I wrote it as a complement to a blog post on the DPS about urban exploration. This is a collection of all the tips/tricks I have learned during my various explorations. I tried to regroup the ideas by subject as much as I could. Hope you enjoy this. And yes, next time I visit a plant, I will shoot some clips!

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What to bring

When going out for an urban exploration run, I try to be as light as possible. You never know when you will have to squeeze in a small hole in a wall or climb over an obstacle. So, the less gear you have, the easier these task will be.

With the exception of the tripod, all of my gear fits in my Lowepro Slingshot 200.

Exploration gear

Shoes: most urban explorer recommend to use construction boots for protection but I prefer to use running shoes. They are lighter and make it easier if I have to climb. Just make sure you dont step on a nail…

Head lamp: a must have item! Pick one with LED lights and make sure your batteries are good. I am a big fan of the Petzl E49P

LED lantern with mechanical recharge swivel: it does not lit much, but knowing that I will never run out of light is a big security blanket. I use a Dynamo 15-LED Lantern

15 feet of 5mm static rope and 2 carabiners. The rope is strong enough to hold a single person and can be used for any general tasks.

Water bottle and snack: you might end up in the building for a few hours, so better have something to eat.

Wear dirty cloths and leave spare ones (and shoes) in the car

If you have to go through a wet spot, I highly recommend a dry bag such as the Watershed dry bag for you camera.

This list is very basic and I can add stuff to it depending of what I am planning to do. Example of supplemental gear: climbing rope/harness/nuts, water boots, air filter, etc…

Photography gear

This is the bare minimum. I tried for a while to use the 24-70mm f/2.8L and found out that most of the shots I did were bellow 35mm. Also, since you will be shooting around f5.6 to f11, the wider aperture is useless.

Because switching lens in the middle of a dusty room is asking for trouble and you don’t have much control over your point of view, zooms are better than prime.

If I had an item to add to the list that I never carried with me and always had remorse about it, it would be a reflector. I would use it to carry the light from a lit room to a dark hallway for example. It could also be used to diffuse the harsh light coming in from a window.

If I did not already have so much Canon gear, I think I would go with the Pentax K-7. It is good camera that does video and, most importantly, it is weather sealed and dust proof. Something my 5DMrkII cant really brag about.

Security

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At the risk of sounding obvious, I think it is worth saying that no pictures is worth risking your life for. Always assess potential dangers when going in a building and make sure you do everything you can to mitigate them.

First, never go alone. Going in with a partner has to be the first security measure you can take. If something happens to one of you, the other can help out or reach for help. It is also useful to have someone else to assist you when taking pictures (more on this below). While keeping each others in line of sight, dont stand next to each others. This will reduce the weight on the ground, air movement and provide better lighting.

Carry a cell phone. If you are stuck and can’t get out, at least you can call a friend to bring a ladder, rope, etc. I have seen a guy stuck in a building while the maintenance crew was repairing the windows he used to get in. Not a comfortable situation to be in!

Once inside the building, try to touch as few things as possible. First, it will keep you clean and it will protect you against diseases from mineral or animal sources.

What you can trust

Depending of the age of the building you are exploring, there are very few things you can trust. As a rule of thumb, I only trust concrete and steel (if it is stuck in concrete). The concrete used in industrial buildings is made to last at least 30 years (in very bad weather) before losing its integrity. And we are talking about concrete here, so unless it is loose, it will be strong enough to hold your weight.

I trust steel simply for the fact that H beams are so big and heavy that adding 200 pounds on top of them does not change anything. Then again, if they are not loose! And yes, I cross the room in the picture above by walking on the H beam.

What you can’t trust

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On the top of the list: stairs and ramps. No matter how secure they look, don’t trust them. They are made from too many wielded pieces of metals that are very susceptible to rust and can often break without warning (more so if made in cast iron). Learn to recognize the various kind of metals used in old building and the type of wielding used to connect the parts. It is of great help when trying to figure out it a stair is “safe” or not.

Unless you clearly see the concrete under your feet, don’t trust the ground. Try not to walk on any ground trash since you don’t know what is under.

If you see white dust on the ground, stay away, it might be asbestos. This is the one thing you don’t want to mess with unless you have the required gear and even then, it freaks me out! So just take another path or exit the building. Asbestos was used to insulate tubing (for air or fluid transport), so if you see dust on the ground but no tubes around, it might not be asbestos but just ‘normal’ dust. Then again, recently a lot of abandoned places have been wrecked by metal scrap harvesters. So be careful!

Regarding wooden floor, they have to be assessed on a case per case basis. If you have to walk over an old floor, try to walk over the beams (if you see them) or/and walk with your arms wide open on each side of your body. This way, if your feet pierce the floor your arms will be able to grab on the support beams. I use the same technique to climb stairs. I never had anything breaking under me, but better safe than sorry!

How to find a location

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Urban explorers are a secretive bunch. We don’t like to share locations not because we want to keep the place for ourselves, but to protect them from vandals. So it leaves you with two choices: either join a forum like uer.ca or try to locate them on your own.

I won’t go into much details regarding this, but some research on Flickr in your area should give you enough material to start with. With the geotagging features, even my mother could find something to explore!

How to get in

Once you have found a place to explore, you have to get in! First, don’t park your car in front of the place! It might sound obvious but I have seen it done. More than once.

If there is an obvious entrance, go for it. There are two philosophies here: you can try to sneak in while no one is looking (hard to do) or just walk in like you have business there. Rarely will people call the cops on you if you look like a pro photographer. So dont be afraid to show your tripod.

The problem is when there are no obvious entrances. This is the place where I should be giving you advices on how to open doors, silently break windows, etc… I won’t. I won’t because I am against these kinds of actions. I let others do it before me, which limit my legal troubles if I ever get caught by an over zealous cop. If there are no openings, then just pass by the next week. Patience is the key. I have been trying to get in a specific building for almost two years now without success.

I think now would be a good place to talk about law and how urban exploration relates to it. Let me make it clear: visiting most exploration sites is trespassing which is a crime. Fortunately, I have never heard anyone getting into trouble for it as long as they were photographers and did not steal/break anything. If you ever get caught by a cop, don’t run. Just politely explain that you are taking pictures of the building for art sake and even show them the pictures. Since you did not damage the property, you only expose yourself to minor legal troubles if the cop really wants to move forward.

Of course, I am not a lawyer, I am just reporting what I have seen/heard from fellow explorers. So do all of the above at your own risk.

Dealing with the locals

Abandoned buildings are surprisingly popular. On top of the other urban explorers, rats, raccoons and animal corpses you might find on your way, you can also encounter squatters, scrap harvesters and stupid kids.

Use common sense when dealing with them and you should be fine. I never had any issue but at the same time my exploration partner is tall, big and muscular (happy James?). Contrary to what you might believe, the most dangerous people are not the squatters (they just want to be left alone) but the scrap harvesters. By stealing insulated copper pipes, they remove the asbestos which then goes into the air (and around the building). In all my adventures, I have never encounter anything else than other explorers and kids. Seems like even the homeless are being picky and don’t like old factories!

When to go shooting

If you want to take exterior pictures, go by night when the sky is clear. You would be surprised by how much light you can get with a 30 second exposure with only the moon.

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For interior shots, you better go during the day to have at least some light leaking in. Also, using a flashlight at  night might attract some unwanted attention.

How to take good pictures

Most buildings will offer you three kinds of light:

  • total darkness
  • total brightness
  • dark room with spots of light (exposure nightmare!)

In pitch dark rooms, use a long exposure and walk around with your lantern to lit the place evenly. You can also use a flash light but I find the light from the lantern to be softer. That is also why you brought a friend with you: have him run walk around with the lantern.

If there is too much light, adjust exposure. Nothing more to say. Since your picture is probably going to be flat,  position the camera to grab foreground objects to give more depth to the image.

The third situation is the worst since there can be a huge exposure difference between the dark and the lit area. In these cases, I usually do heavy bracketing (like 7 shots with a difference of at least 1 stop) and do some manual composing in Photoshop.

As a rule of thumb, I always under expose if there are a lot of colors/metal in the frame and over expose otherwise. I use manual mode with an aperture around f8-f11 at ISO 100.

Tips and tricks

If the sun is low in the horizon and enter by window, a nice “ray of light” effect can be created by throwing flour or dust in the air. The same effect can be created in a dark room with a snooted remote flash. In the picture below, simply moving stuff around created enough dust for me to capture the light ray.

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Old buildings offer a lot of interesting textures, play with them and move around to see how they are affected by light.

Shooting in low light is very time consuming. You might only be able to take 1 or 2 shots per minutes. It can be a real pain when you have a whole building to explore. My trick is to shoot at the camera highest ISO or widest aperture to minimize shutter speed and once I have found the desired exposure, I return to my “good” settings by moving the dial wheels in opposite directions of the same number of clicks. Once you get used to this it can be done in a few seconds and can save you a bunch of time, especially if you realize that the composition is not as good as what you hoped.

Always put the lens cap on when moving from one room to the next and use a lens hood to minimize dust spot on the front element. Always use the same hand to put the lens cap and store it in the same pocket.

It is always better to do a quick exploration of the building before setting the tripod on the ground. It will help you  manage your shooting time and spend your energy at the right spots.

For added stability, you can use the mirror lock up mode, but as a bare minimum, you should use a remote trigger (cable or wireless). If you can’t, use the self timer.

Dress like a ninja (wear dark clothing). This way, if you happen to pass in front of the camera (ex: when lighting a scene with a lantern) you won’t be exposed.

Conclusion

Exploring old building is an incredible way to learn about photography and history. Just remember to be safe! If you guys have any good shots or building in your area, please link to them in the comments!

About Tommy

Photography allows me to be what I want to be, to be where I want to be, and to do what I want to do ... I'm not professional photographer and I don't need a title, I love to take photographs and that is what I do, I love to learn and I always try to do it better ...
  • http://controleman.ca controleman

    I did liked it when urban exploration was an underground phenomena. It now feels like no one gives a siht about all the rest but photos.

    *An explorer who’s trying to get rid of that tag

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason Collin Photography

    Great tips. In Japan urban exploring is called haikyo. I wish I would have used more long exposures there to add variety to my various other methods, which included off camera flash.

    The idea of kicking up dust to catch the light is great.

    Now that I’m back in the U.S. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of haikyo can be found here.

  • admin

    @Controlman: if anyone but you said something like this I would think ‘ya right’, but with your background, I know what you mean. You are a legend!

    Of all the people who visit these buildings, I think photographers have to be the ones who are the most interested about the history. At least, from my personal experience.

  • http://www.outofruins.org Michael John Grist

    Great tip on stirring up dust- never thought of that, will have to try it. Just be sure it`s not asbestos!

    You say you shoot on highest ISO- something I do myself if I`m going hand-held, but if I`m making the effort to go on a tripod, then why not get the best quality possible. Even in a very dark space, with a flashlight to fill in spaces it doesn`t take more than 30 seconds, which I think is acceptable.

    Also good tips about what metal to rely on. Often stairs I find are still sturdy, so reachign the top I`ve put some of my weight on the railing, to discover that it was totally loose. One scary moment in particular I nearly fell about 50 feet. Ach. Never trust railings! And going up steps, stand at the edges, not in the middle. The edge is the strongest point.

    Cheers for great post.

    • admin

      @michael: I think my high ISO trick wasn’t that clear… I do my test shots at high ISO (to keep shutter speed low) then, once I have found the desired ISO-shutter-aperture combo, I invert the ISO and shutter speed and put the camera on a tripod (if it was not already on) and do the final composition adjustments. This way, I can do 10-20 test shots in a minute with the same exposure as I would have gotten with a 20-30 seconds exposure.

      Hope it is clear now! I always shoot at ISO 100-200 max, even with the 5dMarkII.

  • Andyincvb

    My hint is to put some glow in the dark stickers on your tripod. I dont know how many times I have be “painting” with the torch in pitch black with a long exposure only to want to return behind the camera and have no idea where it is. Of course you can not point the light to the camera, but the glow in the dark stickers certainly stop you tripping over your tripod and stuffing up your day & week.

  • Derelict-UK

    Good write up, very informative.

    for pictures of my explores please visit the following websites;

    http://www.photoaddiction.co.uk
    http://www.fotoarc.co.uk

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