Urbex photography is a legally ambiguous niche but for sure offers a lot of thrill and adventure. This genre of photography is all about exploring. For regular people, an abandoned site is just another place in the city, but for an urbex photographer, hundreds of shooting-worthy things are inviting him to explore.
Being different from commonly practiced niches of photography, not many people know about Urban Exploration photography. Unfortunately, not even many enthusiast photographers are aware of the fun and opportunities this field offers.
This Urbex photography guide is designed to introduce all such people and beginners to this unique field.
What is Urbex Photography?
Urbex is short for Urban Exploration. It is a sub-genre of Urban Photography.
Urban exploration photography is shooting at lost places, abandoned buildings, and deserted infrastructures while exploring them.
Urbex photography focuses on the decay and abandonment of artificial structures. If you are exploring and shooting in a centuries-old building, but it is still under use by humans, your exploration won’t simply fall under the category of Urbex. The architecture must be derelict and deserted to fulfill the requirement of urbex.
Because of the nature of this genre, a few issues are associated with the thrills of urbex photography, mainly of legality and safety. Both are covered in detail in upcoming sections.
Are Urbex and Urban Photography the same thing?
No, these aren’t. These two niches are mainly confused because of their pretty much similar names.
Urban photography is a broader niche compared to Urbex. It is focused on all the elements and objects of an urban environment. There are many sub-niches of this niche, i.e., architectural photography, cityscapes photography, street photography, et cetera.
Urbex photography is one such niche. It usually involves exploring the abandoned habitat in an urban setting.
All Urbex photography is part of Urban photography, but not all Urban photography is Urbex. This is the least explored genre due to the risk and thrill factor that comes with it.
Legal issues associated with Urbex photography
Exploring this niche is all about fun. Before we go into the details of this niche, it is better to understand the legality of Urbex photography.
Urbex photography is primarily conducted in abandoned buildings and places, and most of the time, it involves trespassing. Besides that, these activities might include violation of local/regional law and invasion of privacy. In unfortunate circumstances, it can lead up to fines or severe legal proceedings.
There are specific ways you can avoid getting yourself into any such situation. Instead of trespassing, try reaching out to the building owner first and asking permission to shoot on their property. Asking local communities or guards onsite and the internet is the best way to locate property owners.
These vacant buildings usually have security guards or caretakers too. If you cannot find the owner, ask them for their permission to shoot inside the building. Do not try to sneak in without consent if there are guards outside.
Getting permission is ideal, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it is not easy to reach owners or caretakers of the property despite all efforts. In that case, at least search and go through the local laws regarding trespassing.
This is not unlikely to happen if you are shooting without permission, and some landowner or guard will turn up. In that case, politely explain why you are here, apologize, and leave the site immediately if they ask you to do so.
Getting into an argument can turn your simple adventure into aggravated trespassing leading to police involvement. Usually, when you explain to owners you are there to take a few photographs, they are cooperative and allow you to continue your adventure. Just be respectful of their authority.
Possible Urban Exploration Photography sites:
- Abandonments: These are the most common sites for Urbex. Depending on the area or your locality, these can be factories, power plants, amusement parks, shelters, asylums, schools, sanitariums, or hospitals.
- Restricted area: These areas can be old but active infrastructures. Gaining access to these restricted areas can lead to severe civil prosecution, so we do not recommend you explore these areas unless you can get official permission.
- Catacombs: These structures can be rarely found these days but have some serious stuff to offer for urbex photographers. Catacombs were declared illegal after world war II, but some still exist in Paris and Rome.
- Sewers/storm drains: Sewers are often explored by urbex adventurers, but these are dangerous sites. There is a risk of toxic gas poisoning, getting entrapped, being washed away during rainfalls et cetera. If you want to explore this site, go through all available guidelines. You can also contact concerned authorities in your locality to know the proper procedures to carry out your adventure safely.
- Utility Tunnels: Larger buildings usually have these tunnels for pipes of their central heating systems
- Transit Tunnels: These sites are abandoned subways or tunnels, but because these are public properties, you will rarely find any such place which is not guarded. These sites are popular, but some have a lot of legal risks.
Starting with Urbex Photography:
When an explorer is at the site, how and when to shoot solely depends upon the photographer’s instinct. But in Urbex photography, taking care of a few things before shooting is as important as shooting itself.
If you have decided to go on your Urbex Photography venture, you need to take care of three main things: location research, measures for your safety, and preparation.
The most crucial part of Urbex is perfect location hunting. This part is fun, like finding easter eggs if you like the research part, but to ensure all sorts of safety, one should be as much as possible through and careful during this step.
The easiest way to find an urbex location near you is by exploring your locality on Google earth or google maps. These satellite engines will provide you with the complete satellite view, address, and lots of other information about your desired place. You can also use Google street view for a closer look at the structures. Wikimapia, Bing Maps, Flickr are also some valuable resources.
Another simple way to find your desired location is walking/driving attentively in the area. You will be surprised to find that there are multiple adequate buildings for urbex everywhere in urban setups.
On social media, there are urbex forums where people keep posting helpful information and updates. Sign-up on such local forums, and you can find several location suggestions and related information.
There are also very nifty dedicated urbex websites. These are very active and are almost updated every day. Besides that, you can also ask for direct suggestions or tips from fellow explorers. These websites are Oblivion State, Easy Ubex, Urbex Central, Location Index – Urban Exploration Resource.
Permission to enter the location
Once you find your perfect location, the next vital thing to seek permission from the person in charge of the site, details, and possible ways about this is covered in the legality section.
Once you have an idea in mind of what your location will be, prepare to shoot.
Keep all the gear that you are going to need for your shoot. Avoid packing any unnecessary tools. As you will be on the move and you have to carry around this stuff with you. Must keep lightning and backup batteries.
Next, prepare regarding personal safety. Prepare a complete backup with all the necessary items you might need, i.e., a first aid kit, flashlights, penknife. Keep masks, goggles, gloves, and helmets depending upon the nature of the location. Again, do not pack anything unnecessary as you will carry around this backpack all the time.
Walking out and going through stuff in abandoned buildings can lead to dangerous outcomes. Photographers must take measures before entering these sites to ensure their and photographic gear safety.
- Silent observation through your camera lens is a lot better than unnecessary interaction on site. First, it will allow the place to decay naturally and offer other urbex photographers the same shooting opportunities as you. Secondly, it will dramatically lower the possibility of an accident.
- Never go alone. Urbex sites are full of surprises. It’s always the best option to keep company with you. If no one is assisting you on your exploration, at least let people know where you are going.
- Carry a backpack with a first aid kit, snacks, emergency lights, water, additional camera batteries, facemasks, penknife. Also, keep a GPS/Internet device if possible.
- Choose footwear wisely. Wear tough but comfortable boots.
- Tread carefully, especially on bare wooden floors, floorboards, and rafters. These can appear suitable outside but can be rotten inside.
- Must wear a facemask/respirator all the time if there is a lot of dust or chemicals around.
- Wear a headlight.
- Leave the site immediately if anything feels wrong.
Equipment for Urban Exploration Photography:
Though you can shoot with any DSLR camera, those digital cameras with wide-angle lenses or support higher ISO settings work the best for urbex. Urbex sites are usually not well lit, so these two can help with getting good exposure in images.
Because of low exposure, urban exploration photography involves a lot of shooting in long-exposure settings. While using these settings, a photographer has to hold the camera longer than usual, which increases the risk of blurs and shakes. Using a tripod helps to get clear, shake-free images.
For urban exploration, you must keep extra batteries and storage cards.
If you have a company with you or it is easy to carry it, keep a lightning source. For hobbyists, simple ring lights can do the job. It is also very lightweight, so moving it isn’t challenging.
Wide-angle lenses can also enhance the results.
The more time you will spend in the preparation phase, the easier your shooting will be.
Always take more than one picture of the same scene, so you do not miss out on anything. Use a tripod while doing so.
Shoot in HDR and RAW. These formats have full image details, making it easier to experiment with pictures in post-production without losing image details and ruining image quality.
Urbex sites are usually not very well illuminated, so your shooting will involve lots and lots of higher exposure. If you are good with using manual settings, that would be a great help. Set your camera on your desired exposure using ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings. Auto-modes can also do the job, but results aren’t always the way you want.
Use of tripod will ensure camera steadiness and offer certain other things, i.e., doing bracketing.
No matter what niche of photography you are exploring, never shy away from post-production. It will only enhance your image. And in case if anything goes wrong, you still have the original image.
Shooting RAW will come in handy during this part of urban exploration photography. RAW format is a lot more forgiving than JPEG.
Go creative in this phase and work with different layers, contrast and tone correction, color changing. You can also perfect exposure of the image and add special effects, i.e., bokeh effect, in this phase.
Simple photo editors such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom will do the job for your Urban Exploration Photography’s post-production.
People who have experienced urbex photography know how addictive adventures of this niche can be! There are so many stories waiting to be explored in urban decay.
This guide is your fundamental insight into the world of Urban Exploration Photography. If you are an enthusiast photographer willing to take the risk, go on and explore Urbex Photography.
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