Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How To Photograph Abandoned Buildings - 10 Tips For Better Urban Exploration Photography

Do you like to photograph abandoned buildings? Do you like urban exploration, but find that your photographs are not all that great or are lacking something? Below are 10 tips to help you improve your urbex photography.

Keep It Simple
Fruit Cup - Tehachapi, California
A common mistake in photography is to include too much in the frame. Only the minimum necessary to convey the point of the message should be included. Less is more.

Often this means getting close and refining the composition. Look carefully at the background. Look carefully at the edges of the frame. Look for anything that doesn't belong and rework the subject until those distractions are gone.

Often photographs are improved by subtraction and rarely by addition. In many cases, the more that is stripped away from the composition the better the photograph will be. Make it obvious to the viewer what the photograph is about by taking away everything possible that does not convey the massage.

Find The Light
On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Photography is painting with light. Without light there is no photograph, and without great light there is no great photograph.

While great light can be found at any time of the day or night if one looks hard enough for it (or if they create it themselves), the most obvious great light is found around sunrise and sunset. Photographing around this time is an easy way to immediately improve one's images.

The pursuit of great photographs is really the pursuit of great light. The sooner you understand that the better.

Have Photographic Vision
Old Cup of Coffee - Mojave, California
There are some things in photography that are more important to understand than others. At the very top of the list is photographic vision. All great photographs began with photographic vision. It is the one prerequisite to creating exceptional images.

I define photographic vision as "a vivid and imaginative conception." In addition to that definition, photographic vision includes the process of turning the conception into a tangible photograph. Vision means nothing if it never becomes something real--it's nothing more than a dream.

Vision starts with a concept--the idea in your mind. The photographer must refine the concept until it becomes vivid--the idea must be clear if the photographer has any hope of executing it. It must also be creative, because no one is interested in boring photographs. The photographer must then take that and make an actual photograph out of it, otherwise it's nothing more than an idea in your mind. That is what vision is.

Use Contrast
The Sound of Silence - Mojave, California
Contrast is what will draw the viewer into an image. There are two basic types of contrast in photography: light and color.

Light contrast are areas within an image where light and dark areas touch. Color contrast are areas within an image where colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel touch (such as red and green). Anytime you have light contrast or color contrast, that is where the viewer will look first. You want to use this contrast to draw the viewer's eyes to where you want them to look in an image. You must be careful that light or color contrast doesn't take the viewer to some place that you don't want them to go.

Lines Shapes And Forms
Tumbledown Window - Mojave, California
Lines, shapes and forms within a photograph can be used as guides. After using contrast to draw the viewer in, you must then guide the viewer through the rest of the image.

Perhaps you have a "punchline" in the image that you want the viewer to see, but it is not likely they'd notice without being guided. Lines, shapes and forms can be used to take the viewer's eyes there.

Lines protruding from the edges of the frame will take the viewer's eyes out of the photograph (and onto the next image). Lines from the corners will draw the viewer's attention in to wherever the line leads.

Change Your Angle
Copy Machine - Mojave, California
Sometimes changing your angle can make a big difference to the outcome of an image. Move a few inches left or right, up or down, and the image might be much stronger. Sometimes a few feet is what you need. Sometimes you might want to get low, very low. Perhaps you may want to get higher.

One common mistake in photography is to capture the scene at standing eye level. That perspective may be appropriate for some photographs, but it is far from appropriate for all or even most of your images. Change your perspective and see if it creates a stronger photograph. Be sure to move around.

Be Contextual
The Old Boron Housing - Boron, California
It's great to see photographs of abandoned locations, but sometimes it's difficult to picture just how that scene fits into the larger environment. What is the place surrounded by? What does the neighborhood look like? What else is nearby to give context to the scene?

Sometimes you will find that showing what else is around adds very little value to the images, but other times it will be a critical element. Consider how you might show the abandoned site in context and whether or not you can create a strong image by doing so.

Get Close
Monochrome Bolt - Atolia, California
"If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." --Robert Capa
Robert Capa's famous quote has been repeated over and over. I've heard it myself probably a hundred times. And while he was most likely speaking specifically about war photographs, I think his principal can be applied to all genres of photography, including urban exploration, and it is every bit as relevant today as it was the moment it was first uttered.

The quote is simple enough. It could be summarized with two words: get closer. But I think we could look at it a little deeper.

Photography has a lot in common with sculpting. A sculptor chisels away everything that doesn't belong until all that is left is the finished sculpture. It's about subtraction. Remove everything that doesn't belong to reveal what was hiding there all along, which no one had noticed except the artist.

Photography is about subtraction, too. You must take everything out of the frame that doesn't belong until the finished composition is all that's left. Less is more. Reveal what no one else noticed because of all the unnecessary clutter that got in the way.

The best way to chisel away the unnecessary clutter and get to that composition that is art is to get closer. Your feet are photographic tools. Use them to move closer so as to subtract all that doesn't belong.

The closer you get your lens to the subject the better your photographs will be. They'll be cleaner, simpler and clearer. So, if you are not happy with your images, move in a little closer to refine your compositions.

Be Creative
Circular Abstract - Atolia, California
Creativity is an essential element of photographic vision, but it is worth mentioning on its own. You should look at a scene differently than others. You should think about a scene differently than others. You have your own unique perspective and ideas, and if you can channel that you will create photographs that are uniquely yours.

Don't think that you are a creative person? Well, thankfully creativity is something that can be learned and fostered. It's something that you can get better at with practice. Each time you are out photographing, consider how you can capture the scene in a unique way.

Tell A Story
Lake Front Property - Rosamond, California
Photography is a form of nonverbal communication. One can speak to people through photographs. It is said that a photograph is worth a thousand words. Sometimes it is worth only one word or maybe 10,000 words. What is important is that the image spoke something to the viewer.

Because photography is communication it can be used to tell a story. It can be used to speak to the viewer in a way that verbal words would have a difficult time stating. Photography can be powerful in this way.

Use your photography to say something. Don't just snap pictures. Instead, convey some kind of message that the viewer can take with them long after they've seen your photograph.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Your Style Is More Important Than Your Gear

Keep Out The Sun - Tehachapi, California
On my website I have an urbex portfolio, and something stood out to me. My photographs look like my photographs (my family calls them "Ritchie Pictures"), no matter what gear was used to capture them.

Having your own unique style, which I call photographic vision, is much more important than gear. If you have your own unique style, no matter what gear you use your images are going to look like your images.

How do you develop your own unique style? It takes time and practice, but most importantly it requires vision. If you develop your vision you will simultaneously develop your own unique photographic style.

The photograph at the top, which is found in my portfolio, was captured using a Nokia Lumia 1020. Yes, a cell phone! It doesn't matter what gear you use. It could be cheap or expensive, old or new. If you have vision your photographs are going to look like your photographs no matter what.

Worry more about what's important in photography and less about what's not. Don't have camera envy. Use what you have to the best of your ability and you'll realize that cameras don't matter nearly as much as you've been told.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Abandoned Neighborhood - Mojave, California

Dilapidated Desert Home - Mojave, California
Just outside of Mojave at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains among tall wind turbines sits a vacant neighborhood. In the desert, right along with cactus and creosote, are over 50 abandoned houses.

The reason that these homes are abandoned--at least one of the reasons--is that the wind farms have been expanding. As the wind farms expand the homeowners get bought out (or, if they hold out, their house might get bulldozed while they're away). The wind farms only demolish the homes if they are in the way of construction. Otherwise they sit, waiting for the desert to slowly consume them.

Some of the houses are newer, some are older. Some are in pretty descent shape, others are dilapidated. Some are full of furniture and junk, others are completely empty.
Abandoned Home Front - Mojave, California
The homes are on acreage, so they're pretty spread out. You don't notice all of the houses at once. When you find one, you can see a few others here and there. But as you move along you find more and more and more. I've only made it through a half dozen of them myself.

There are a few homes that are still occupied. Most are empty and abandoned, but a few people continue to live among the wind turbines. The wind farm itself is also quite active with lots of commotion and construction.

Going north out of Mojave on Business Route 58, turn west onto Arroyo Avenue and cross the railroad tracks. Continue straight west even as the road becomes dirt. You'll start seeing the houses past the aqueduct. There are a number of roads to explore and it's easy to get lost, so GPS is quite helpful. A four-wheel-drive high-clearance vehicle is necessary for some of the roads. As always, be safe. As the saying goes, take only photos, leave only footprints.
The Comfortable Chair - Mojave, California
Remnants of Warmth - Mojave, California
Shower Curtains - Mojave, California
Junk House - Mojave, California
Old Broken Television - Mojave, California
Seat Unused - Mojave, California
Abandoned McQueen - Mojave, California
On The Moon - Mojave, California
Broken Heart Mug - Mojave, California
The Patio - Mojave, California
Didn't Work Out - Mojave, California
Kitchen Faucet Handle - Mojave, California
Bathroom Essentials - Mojave, California
Deserted Desert Adobe - Mojave, California
Corrosion Compound Chemical Company - Mojave, California
Old Cabinet - Mojave, California
Abandoned Outhouse - Mojave, California
Jumping Cholla House - Mojave, California
Light Through The Rafters - Mojave, California
View Unknown - Mojave, California
Velmar - Mojave, California
Outdoor Light Fixture - Mojave, California
From The Hopeless Kitchen - Mojave, California
Unwanted VHS Tapes - Mojave, California

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Photography Work Flow

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
When you've captured 1,000 images in a short period of time, the only way to get through the post-processing is with a solid work flow. Otherwise, you'll just get bogged down and everything just backs up.

First, be a harsh critic. If an image doesn't grab you right away, delete it. If an image doesn't look good as a thumbnail, it probably won't look good large, so don't waste your time with it. That may be extreme, but you can't post-process all 1,000 images, so you have to draw the line somewhere.

Side point: don't carelessly snap away. Don't waste your time by opening the shutter too often. Put a little more thought into each image, and you'll have fewer to delete later.

Second, prioritize which images should be post-processed first. If someone is paying you or if you will earn money from a photograph, that's where you should start. Save the other images for when you have some extra free time.

Side point: organize your images in a logical way. Don't store them all in one folder. Don't forget to back everything up in case the unthinkable happens (because at some point it will happen).

Third, post-process quickly. I'm not a fan of batch editing, because each image deserves it's own unique adjustments. Batch editing does speed up the process, though, and can help you if you need to be done yesterday. If you have a lot of post-processing to do, this is not the time to experiment with software--stick to what you know works. Clean up the photographs, but don't attempt to reinvent the images.

Side point: if you get the images correct in the field, you'll have less to do in post-processing. Make sure all of the settings are as you want them. A few seconds of extra effort before opening the shutter can save a few minutes in front of a computer later.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Cropping

Old Life, New Life - Victorville, California
I cropped this image a little.
Photography is nonverbal communication. One major key to creating successful photographs is to communicate with the viewer as clearly as possible. If the photograph is stating unnecessary words or seems to be communicating more than one theme, it may leave the viewer confused and unimpressed.

Often the simplest photographs are the best photographs. That's because the message of the image is stated as clearly as possible, with nothing unnecessary included. Generally (but not always) that is the best approach to photography: simple, straight-forward images.

You want to, as much as possible, crop your photographs before pushing the shutter release button. In the field, carefully consider how you want the final print to look. If there is something in the frame that does not make the image stronger, then remove it from the frame before opening the shutter. Move a little left or right, up or down, step forward, step back--remove it somehow. It is better to get the photograph the way you want it when you take it than to try and fix it later with computer software.

After the image has been captured, there are three general reasons to crop a photograph.
Tumbledown Window - Mojave, California
I cropped this image slightly so that the slanted roof lines would come out of the top corners.
First, you might not have noticed something when you were in the field that is very obvious to you now as you look at the image on your computer screen. This happens when you are in a hurry--sometimes you have to be in a hurry, especially with quickly changing environments or fast-moving objects. These distractions are typically found at the edges of the frame.

When you find things in your images that you didn't expect and don't want, crop them out! Get rid of them and make your photographs stronger. Take a close look around the perimeter of the frame for distractions.
Retro Living - Johannesburg, California
I cropped this image slightly to shape it like Polaroid 55 film.
The second reason to crop is to shape the image. Print shapes are not always the same shapes as camera sensors. Decide what shape the images will be printed. I consider this when I'm in the field taking photographs, so that I can compose the images in such a way that they can be cropped to that shape without losing anything important.

Once you've decided what shape the print will be, crop the image to that shape so that you have complete control of how the photograph will look. Don't leave it up to the lab to do the cropping, because four out of five times they will get it wrong.

And even if you have no intention of printing the image, often one shape will create a stronger photograph over another shape. The only correct shape for a photograph is the one that is the strongest. Sometimes that shape is a square, other times a rectangle, and other times a long rectangle.
Knob - Mojave, California
I cropped to "zoom" since I didn't have a macro lens.
The final reason to crop is to zoom. Sometimes you will not have a telephoto lens that is long enough or a macro lens that will focus close enough to capture the image you want. Other times you simply didn't choose the best focal length, which typically happens when you are in a hurry.

If cropping the image (removing unnecessary parts) makes the photograph stronger, do not hesitate to crop. There is no shame in cropping. Photographers have been cropping images for well over 100 years.

In conclusion, keep your photographs as simple as possible to communicate as clearly as possible. Crop out whatever is unnecessary. It's best to do that in the field before opening the shutter, but by all means do so in post-processing if you didn't get it correct when you pressed the shutter release button.

Simple is better, but don't make your photographs uninteresting. Making complexity out of simplicity is very difficult. You have to find a way to inject thought and emotion into that simple subject.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Snapshots Is Capturing, Photographing Is Interpreting

It Was A Lonely Life - Atolia, California
A lot of people who have a camera in their hands attempt to capture what is around them: the pretty scene, the silly child, the playful dog, the abandoned warehouse, etc. They want to show their friends and family what they saw as a way of sharing their experience. However, almost all of those pictures fail to relay the experience successfully. One often hears, "You really had to be there."

Photography is a form of nonverbal communication. The images themselves speak to the viewer. Understanding photography means understanding communication. What are you trying to say? Is the viewer getting that message?

With verbal communication, if the person you are talking to didn't understand what you said or didn't understand what you said in the way you intended, then the communication failed. You either walk away with misunderstandings, confusion, and perhaps frustrations, or you state whatever you are trying to say in a different way so that the person might better understand.
Copy Machine - Mojave, California
With photography, if the viewer doesn't understand what you are nonverbally stating through your image or doesn't understands it in the way you intend (perhaps they think they understand, but it could be much different than what you are actually trying to say), then your image failed. The viewer is left confused, bored, maybe frustrated--certainly not moved, inspired or awed.

With a photograph, the nonverbal communication you make is permanent. Unlike verbal communication, you cannot restate whatever you are trying to convey without making an entirely new image. Whatever your photograph says cannot be changed. So it is important to nonverbally make as clear of a statement as possible.

If you are simply capturing the scene or moment that is in front of you, then you are a snapshooter, and your images will look like snapshots. Snapshots rarely communicate anything meaningful, because little or no thought is put into them. A thoughtful image will at least communicate somethingIf you don't place thought and care into the photograph, it will show. And if you do place thought and care into the photograph, it will show.
Lake Front Property - Rosamond, California
The way to successfully nonverbally communicate through photography is to interpret what you see. Yes, you must first interpret the scene or moment in your mind before you can do so on film or digital capture. You have to ask, "What about this or that?" You have to dive a little deeper and understand what made you want to photograph it in the first place. What about the pretty scene? What about the silly child? What about the playful dog? What about the abandoned warehouse?

If you don't even know what you are trying to say or are unsure of what you want to say, how is the viewer supposed to understand it? If you speak nonsense or gibberish, you will never successfully communicate to the listener, and if your photograph is nonsense or gibberish, the viewer will only see nonsense and gibberish.

It is only after you know exactly what you want to photograph and why that you can go about composing an image that best speaks whatever it is you want to say. It is strong communication that makes are a strong photograph.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

My Urbex Photos For Sale

Old Yield Sign - Boron, California
I've been asked a few times if any of my urban exploration photographs are available for purchase. I don't sell a whole lot of urbex images--most of the photographs that I've sold are landscapes. But sometimes people want something just a little more dark and grungy on their walls. Sometimes a beautiful scene just won't do.

I do have many urban exploration photographs available for purchase. You can buy prints--including canvas and metal--as well as digital downloads of my best urbex images. Simply click this link (right here) and you'll be transported to the webstore on my website where you'll find bunches of urban exploration photographs.

The webstore is first-class and the photo processing is through Bay Labs, so you know it's high-quality stuff. If you're looking for something different for your home or office decor, my urbex photography might be just be the thing for you.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Urban Exploration and Weirdness

When I tell people that I like to photograph abandoned buildings, one of the top responses I get is, "What's the weirdest thing you've seen?"

Empty structures no longer wanted by society are naturally creepy. A quiet building covered in dust, cobwebs and darkness needs nothing more to feel weird. But occasionally I do run across something that is just a little more unusual than what I typical find.

Abandonment - Victorville, California
This is the only building I've had such a weird feeling about that I did not enter.
A few years back I explored and photographed the old George Air Force Base housing. I was standing in front of a two-story building that may have been offices of some sort. I wanted to go inside of it, but I something didn't feel right.

I can't explain the feeling other than it was strong and it was clear: stay out. I have no idea why. I've never had that feeling anywhere else, and even that day I entered over 20 abandoned structures and didn't have any strange feelings suggesting that I stay clear. This is the only one that gave me the creeps.

Later when I post-processed the photographs from that trip, the building that gave me the weird feeling had little white specks in the images that I captured of it (through open windows). I have not found this in any of my other exposures ever, and I didn't use a flash.

Alien - Mojave, California
Strange graffiti covers the few standing walls at a strange place.
Out in the desert near Mojave, California are the remnants of an unusual set of structures. I'm not really sure what they may have been used for. What remains are a large rock fireplace and chimney, two small stucco structures with wire windows, a bunch of foundations and a large basement. From what I can gather, the structure may have been two-stories tall at some parts and one-story at others.

My best guess is that this may have been a commune or compound of some sort. Strange people have settled in the vast emptiness of the Mojave Desert for a long time. The need to be a long ways from one's neighbors can be easily achieved.

I tried to find some information on the internet to explain exactly what this place may have been--when it was built, when it was abandoned and what its purpose was, but I didn't turn up a single thing. The only clues are what's left in the desert, but decades of decay and vandalism have left very little to be found.

Purple Beretta - Tehachapi, California
It's best not to enter this site because of how gross it is.
In the hills outside of Tehachapi, California among the wind turbines sits an abandoned mobile home. Whoever had lived there left (it seems) everything behind, including dirty dishes in the sink and old food in the cupboards.

You expect in abandoned structures to find some level of filth: dust, cobwebs, bugs, maybe even some mouse and bird droppings. This place, however, was completely disgusting! There were literally piles of decades-old dog crap throughout the place. It was so nasty that I avoided the inside of the structure. 

There was an old travel trailer on the property piled about knee-high with old junk, yet it appeared as though someone had lived in it. There was just a ton of nastiness all around. Whoever last lived on this property didn't value cleanliness whatsoever.

Abandoned Monkey Onesie - Rosamond, California
A little boy tried to stay warm at night in this outfit.
Most abandoned places have a sad story to tell. Something bad happened. Someone died. Someone went to jail. Someone went bankrupt. There are many reasons that a place might be abandoned, and very few are positive stories.

I could write a long post of the different sad stories I've encountered, but one stands out as saddest. There's a small old home near Rosamond, California that had caught fire (I think a decade or more ago). Most of the building was destroyed, but the outside walls and some of the roof survived. The inside was charred, and all of the interior walls are completely gone. Sometime after the fire had destroyed the home, someone moved in and lived in the place. They swept out some of the burnt debris with a broken broom. They made a bed in a corner. They brought in a ripped chair. And they had a baby.

I was shocked when I discovered this. Someone had been raising a little baby boy in this crumbling, burnt house! Whoever it was had long since departed. It looked like this stuff had been sitting unused for awhile. I hope that their situation somehow improved. It's heartbreaking to think that this was their home.

Abandoned Boles-Aero Trailer - Mojave, California
You never know what might be hiding inside of an old building.
Out in the desert outside of Mojave, California I found an unusual two-story-sized structure that was abandoned. It appeared as though this was once a ranch and, at the very least, there were once horses on the property.

Inside of the building I discovered a vintage Boles-Aero travel trailer. Someone had been using it as a home inside of the structure. When you enter abandoned buildings you never know what you'll find. Sometimes the surprise find is small. Other times, well, it's a large trailer.

Interestingly, not long after I photographed the building I noticed that the trailer had been removed. If whoever removed it had plans to restore it, it wasn't in great shape and that would be some project! But I'm not sure why else someone would move it. Whatever the case, I'm just glad that I photographed it when I did or else I would have missed it entirely.