A Photographer’s Guide to Modern Urbexing

A Photographer’s Guide to Modern Urbexing

Jamie MacDonald is an Olympus Trailblazer who shoots nature and wildlife in the Mid-Michigan area exclusively with the Olympus Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds camera systems. He is also a contributor for Small Camera Big Picture. As a nature and landscape photographer he enjoys exploring new areas that have often been abandoned. Learn the tools of the trade to modern “urbexing” in the article written below by Jamie MacDonald. He has also been featured on our blog discussing a new light painting tool to create a successful light painted photo

A Guide to Urban Exploration:

By: Jamie MacDonald

Urban exploration, or as it is more commonly known, “urbexing”, is the act of exploring properties that have been either abandoned or forgotten by the general public. Places that are often explored are abandoned factories, hospitals, housing complexes, and even old theme parks.


For photographers, urbexing is not just about the exploration, it is often about capturing scenes full of complex detail and light, photographing scenes of decay and destruction in a way that many find hauntingly beautiful.

In the following article I will discuss many of the things you will need to have a successful urbex trip. And as always, there are some rules to be followed, and a nice big disclaimer too.

Disclaimer: Urbexing quite often can involve being on private property. And though many of the locations that are popular for urbexing look like no one owns them, they just may be. So by entering into any building or onto any property be aware that you may be trespassing. I take no responsibility for that. Now that we have the disclaimer out of the way let’s get prepared to explore!

Location Scouting

I will often scout for locations in person if my urbex trip is at a local spot. If it will be an out of town trip my first resource is obviously the web. I start by Google searching with the target city and the word urbex as my keywords. When doing this I am looking for results that link me to forums where people are discussing locations. Next I start getting directions via Google Maps, I use Street View to scout the neighborhood to get feel for the “safety level”and finally I take to Flickr to search for these locations to get an idea of what to expect from my location. The street view can be incredibly valuable for scouting. No one wants to get to a location to find that there is no where to park or to find out it is a super sketchy neighborhood.

Google Street View of St. Agnes Church Detroit

What to bring:

So once the location has been found,mapped, and researched it’s time to decide what gear to bring. I decide based up a few things. First let’s talk about items you MUST bring.

You should always bring a flashlight, a dust mask(the cheap paper ones from the local home improvement store are fine), light gloves ,water, and a multi-tool like a Leatherman. I know it sound a bit much but we ARE exploring and being prepared is simply a must. I always try to wear hiking boots and pants if possible as well. Nothing worse than scraping your leg on some rusty metal.

Now for camera gear I am really particular about how I pack. I seem to always have a look I want to achieve when I head out and that influences how I pack. But some must have items are a wide angle lens. The wider the better! Do you own a fisheye? If so BRING IT! Often you will be indoors and you want to see as much as possible in an image so go wide!

© Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1 & Rokinon 7.5mm Fisheye

© Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1 & Rokinon 7.5mm Fisheye

I also suggest bringing your fastest lenses as well. F/2 and faster will be welcomed inside these places that are often pretty dark even in the middle of the day. The available light is often how you will be shooting. And speaking of shooting in low light…Bring your tripod if it is a lightweight portable model. I love using the MeFoto line since they fold up tiny and will support my Olympus OM-D cameras very easily.

©Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1& Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

©Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1& Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

Bring something that allows for close focusing or a macro lens. There are always these little details everywhere when you are exploring. Textures, forgotten items, even little slices of nature trying to reclaim the land on which these old building sit. All of which would be well suited for a close up.

©Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1& Olympus 25mm f/1.8

©Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1& Olympus 25mm f/1.8

Etiquette and Common sense:

In closing I would like to mention a few unwritten “rules”of urbex. I think this is a pretty important part of what we do and I would hope that everyone understands why we do it.

First, do not take anything from these urbex locations. I do not condone stealing. After all we are on someone else’s property. So leave everything there. If you arrived at what was supposed to be this awesome urbex spot and found that everything had been looted it would kinda be a bummer, wouldn’t it? So please don’t take anything from the urbex locations.

Second, do not break in to any place. I do not go in any place that isn’t already open. If someone went through the effort to secure a location then they must really not want you there. All the locations I have been to were wide open and people came and went freely. Then again, I was in what is probably the urbex capitol of the US: Detroit.

The last bit of advice I can offer is to be safe. Never go alone. Always make sure your phone is charged and that someone who is not with you knows where you are going. When you are in the locations always be aware of your surroundings. Test your footing before charging ahead. Often times wooden floors can be rotted, or stairs may be weak. Just be careful and proceed slowly. You will want to move slow anyways since you are there to shoot photos. So just go slow and have fun!

©Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1 & Olympus 25 mm f/1.8

©Jamie MacDonald: Shot with E-M1 & Olympus 25 mm f/1.8

Special thanks to Jamie MacDonald for these tips. To read more about why Jamie shoots with Olympus, see his Benefits of Shooting Olympus and Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds.If you have any direct questions for Jamie feel free to reach out to him at info@jmacdonaldphoto.com 


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Katie Hayes

Social Media & Affiliate Marketing Intern at BorrowLenses
Katie Hayes is a recent graduate pursuing her passion for photography and marketing while interning with BorrowLenses.
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  1. Jamie, great write up…. Only one thing I would add is, bring and wear a hard hat. When shooting you never look up. Ceiling tiles, light fixtures and other things can fall.

  2. Dan,

    I would have never event thought of that! But you are absolutely right! St. Agnes church had little bits of ceiling falling the whole time I was there. Granted they were pretty much dust particles, but still….A larger chunk could have just as easily come down!
    Thank you for sharing a great safety tip!!



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