A Photographer’s Guide to Modern Urbexing

A Photographer’s Guide to Modern Urbexing

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.

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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.

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 for Urbex Photography

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 With You When Urbex Shooting

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 a tripod if it is a lightweight portable model. I love using the MeFoto line since they fold up tiny and will support the 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

Urbex Photography 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

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Jamie MacDonald is a nature and stock photographer and social influencer living in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. A husband and the father of two boys who are widely featured in his work, he describes his love of photography as one that is “rooted in the desire to move people to see the world around them in new ways.”

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5 Comments

  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.

    Reply
  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!!

    Reply
  3. Sadly, as much as I agree with the content of your article, it also saddens me to see how mainstream exploring abandoned places has become. Over my years exploring and shooting them, I saw it go from being a relatively quiet hobby, to nearly a staple for anyone with a camera and a sense of adventure. Sadly, that also led to many ofy favorite places seeing huge increases in traffic, vandalism, arson, impenetrable defenses, and even demo, as the liability of such places became a huge issue…there are now countless “urbex” websites, many of which blatantly offer up precise directions and access points to these old buildings. The good old days of figuring it out on your own and being sensible enough to know it was illegal kept many places relatively unknown to the masses. All this attention has endangered them a million-fold, for all the reasons I listed above. And the attitude seems to be one of casual disregard to the fact that many, if not most of these sites are privately owned historic places, and openly sharing them for the world typically helps bring in trouble. I know it’s an incredible experience, but when you’ve seen your favorite places go up in flames, or get destroyed by urban miners, or become havens for dope addicts and vandals, it’s not cool at all. Anyway, you’ve posted some beautiful images and great advice for what to use. Just figured I would bring up the unfortunate other side to sharing it all with anyone and everyone.

    Reply
    • I can appreciate your opinion on this but have to disagree with some of it. I don’t think the “mainstreaming” of urbex photography leads to locations becoming dope houses, or locations for arsonists strike. And at least in Detroit (where I’ve done the bulk of my urbexing) the photographers haven’t lead the scrappers to the buildings, but vice versa. I think you, like me, feel a bit of a sting from losing our niche to the masses. It’s a bummer for sure, but we’ll find new places to explore and new adventures to share. I have since moved on from my urbex adventures and now like doing what I call “rurex”. Exploring abandoned houses in the countryside. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing you thoughts and experiences 🙂

      Reply

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