Photographing Abandoned Buildings

Photographing abandoned buildings is one of those opportunities that can present itself unexpectedly. When travelling in Ireland these opportunities abound. This short article shares a small selection of photographs and discusses some of the things that can be considered when photographing abandoned buildings.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-400

The most common approach when photographing abandoned buildings is to make them the ‘hero’ of our composition. All of the typical considerations we would normally think about apply. Things like eye flow, leading lines, reveals etc.

In the photograph above you can see that I used some boulders in the left hand corner to act as a corner anchor for the composition. The green grass forms a subtle leading line which is accentuated by the pinching angles of the boulder and the pinkish building on the right hand side. All of these elements guide our eye to the small, white building in centre frame which serves as the focal point of this photograph. You’ll notice it is the only structure in the image with both a roof and a door. This makes it different and special.

There is one other small detail worth noting. On the right hand side of the photograph you’ll see a rusting metal frame. I chose to position this in such a way that a 3-D effect was created by the window frame directly behind it, and with the angle of the wall of theĀ  pinkish building. This adds depth to the image.

If I would have aligned that rusting metal frame directly over the right edge of the window frame it would have lessened the 3-D effect. It may have even created some visual confusion in the composition by making a viewer’s eye want to move vertically at that point, rather than horizontally towards the small white building.

Positioning the rusting metal frame directly along the top of the wall of the pinkish building would have caused visual confusion and hurt the right to left eye flow of the image, by pushing the viewer’s eye downward.

If you examine how the rusting metal frame is positioned you’ll see that I used equidistant composition technique. In this case, with the top edge of the pinkish wall and the right hand edge of the window frame. This also helps to create some balance in the photograph.

It can also be important to create colour balance in your composition. I could have physically moved in tighter to the small white building and eliminated the rusting metal frame completely. This would have hurt the colour balance of the image. There would have been nothing on the right hand side of the composition to complement the colour of the small white building’s door. Use your piece of paper to cover up the rusting metal frame to see how the colour balance in the image is impacted.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-400

Our next photograph uses the abandoned building as a major element in a composition that is part architectural and part landscape in nature. When creating compositions of this type there are a few things to keep in mind.

The first is to consider the angle of the building in your image. You can see that the abandoned building above has a number of fairly strong horizontal lines that help guide a viewer’s eye out towards the horizon. These are accentuated by the pathway.

We’ve also used the ‘rule of triples’ in this image in terms of incorporating three rectangular shapes that are all lined up nicely… i.e. the two window frames and the wide door frame. Using an odd number of similar elements usually creates a more pleasing composition.

Another important factor was the use of equidistant composition technique with the window frame on the right hand side of the photograph. Looking at the top right corner of that window, you’ll notice how there is roughly an equal amount of wall framing the right side and top of the corner. This allows a reader’s eye to flow past the window and into the centre of the image.

If you get a piece of paper and line it up on the right hand side of the image, then move it slowly to the left, you will quickly notice how the balance of the image is thrown off. Once the right hand edge of that window is cut off, our eye flow is seriously interrupted as our eye wants to go inside the abandoned building and not flow past it.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO-400

Many times abandoned buildings will have doorways and windows that are little more than a brick or cement outline. These can be effectively used as framing elements in a composition. This shifts the emphasis away from an architectural image to a landscape oriented one.

For these types of images it can be very important to remember to shoot using a wide angle focal length and to get in close to the doorway or window frame. This helps create deep depth-of-field.

When doing this type of composition you may have to adjust the height of your camera and the angle of its focal plane to limit the effects of wide angle lens distortion. To do this we often need to compose from the rear screen of our camera, and have it tilted so we can view it properly. Even then, you still may have to use perspective control adjustments in post.

In this case, I left some sky across the top of the composition to form a left to right triangular shape. This helps direct a viewer’s eye to the larger of the two doorways. Overall the photograph has a decidedly left to right flow.

If you try to focus on the horizon using the left hand door frame you’ll discover that it takes more effort as your eye feels pulled naturally to the right. It is far less visually stressful to look towards the horizon using the right hand doorway.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-400

Always watch for dramatic angles when photographing abandoned buildings. Sometimes they can help emphasize the building itself, or in the case of the image above, can serve as a dramatic foreground element for a landscape photograph.

You’ll see in the image above that I purposely had the two horizontal cement beams exiting at the top corners of the composition. I also did not leave very much sky showing above these beams. This was done purposely to force the viewer’s eye downward and into the landscape portion of the photograph. If I had left blue sky across the top of the composition it would have drawn a viewer’s gaze upward. The result would have created some visual confusion in this particular image.

The single pillar is positioned in centre frame to create balance. This also promotes eye flow past the pillar and off into the distance.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-400

Our final composition incorporates a few simple techniques to create nice balance and eye flow. First, you’ll notice that ‘rule of thirds’ composition was used to position the single post about 1/3 of the way into the image.

If you look at the bottom of the post and along its right side you can see that I used equidistant composition technique. This helps create balance in the image. If you position a piece of paper along the bottom of the image (and move it up) or along its right hand side (and move it to the left) you’ll see how the balance of the image is thrown off.

There are a pair of ‘pinching angles’ formed by the walkway and the cement beam in the top left corner. These help direct a viewer’s eye towards the single post, then out towards the horizon.

Photographing abandoned buildings does require some caution as well. We need to respect “No Trespassing” signage. Depending on the part of the world that we are exploring, we also need to remember that abandoned buildings can often house native animals, some of which can be venomous or present other dangers.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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8 thoughts on “Photographing Abandoned Buildings”

  1. Another interesting and educational post. I really appreciate the explanations you give on how you compose these shots.


  2. dear Tom:
    Thanks a lot for sharing these pictures.
    I am enclosed over 2 months now for the quarantine, but I have Tuesdays as a free 4 hours to go shopping for family needs at the supermarket.
    So far I haven’t seen any abandoned building, but I have seen so many people abandoned their luck if it exists. Next Tuesday I will try to get a picture of them, even I am so bad photographer, You can edit the pictures I will try to sent you.
    It is a very sad sight as you can see people like me and others buying food no matter we get in debt with the bank. But that people don’t have anything but their hands to ask you to spare a dime. It is so breaking hearth to see the people that have no jobs, and those guys and families that flee Venezuela with the illusion they will get a better life. But as there and anywhere else people are so hard in their hearts.
    Believe my only dilution is to be someday on Africa helping those people that are dying to survive. I hope to be there someday. and I will share those [idtures with you cause I know you able to reach a lot of people like me who have money to expend on cameras and lenses. I don’t have anything against it since we all worked to have it and we maybe deserve it.

    Sorry, Tom if you don’t want there is no need to reply I am going true a very bad quarantine day. Sorry.

    1. Hi Oscar,

      There are no easy answers to the pain and suffering that is all around us. Like countless millions of people around the world, you are doing your part by self-isolating to help stop the spread of COVID-19. As the days, weeks and months go by, the burden of this personal commitment weighs heavily. No one knows when this will all end. But, we do know that millions of people like you are doing their best to be part of the solution. Thank you for your courage, and your concern for others that you are demonstrating.


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