Bring a Flashlight
The single most important tip I can provide anyone planning on visiting an abandoned building is to bring a flashlight. Most of these locations are without electricity and will have limited natural light. As such, you’ll need a flashlight to help navigate the dark rooms and corridors that you will encounter.
Beyond its more obvious application, a flashlight can also provide an interesting source of off-camera lighting. I have a small LED flashlight that I carry on my camera bag and it is often used to light up an area of a room during a long exposure shot. While a strobe can certainly be effective for many of these situations, a flashlight allows for a high degree of precision with the light. You can directly control exactly what is lit and for how long. A flashlight can also add an element of movement to the lighting that will result in an unusual combination of shadows that a flash otherwise may not.
It takes some practice to get a feel for how much light is enough, but with some work the results can be very satisfying.
Tripod not Optional
Because of the aforementioned lighting conditions, it goes without saying that you will need a tripod. More than half of the photos I take at these locales are shot on a tripod with a long exposure of anywhere from a couple of seconds to as much as 20 or 30 seconds.
For those instances when I don’t have my camera on a tripod, image stabilization and fast lenses help as well. My favorite lens is a 17-50mm f/2.8 paired with my camera’s in-body stabilized sensor. Wide open, I can usually get a relatively sharp image at 1/10th of a second. More often than not though, the best results will come from shooting on a tripod.
Control the Exposure
I am not one who believes all serious photographers should shoot in manual 100% of the time. There are plenty of instances where I am confident that the camera will properly meter the lighting and autopilot mode is fine. Unfortunately, that tactic will not work in most abandoned buildings.
Because of the extreme lighting conditions of these spaces, you’ll need to control all aspects of the shot. In the photo shown here, for example, I needed to control the aperture (I wanted this fairly sharp from front to back) and I needed to control the shutter speed to ensure proper lighting. So, in this case I shot for 30 seconds at f/8. This particular image is also another example of the flashlight technique described above… I used it to highlight and bring attention to the chairs while leaving the walls to be lit by the little bit of light coming from the window.
A wide angle lens can really add to the sense of emptiness and foreboding in these buildings. The photo shown below was taken by a friend of mine with a 10-22mm lens at 10mm. Having something that can go wide in the small areas you’ll be photographing can be a huge benefit.
Emphasize the Mood
Use creative angles and perspectives to play up the natural character of the buildings. Get your camera low to the ground and shoot upwards to emphasize the vastness of a room, or shoot an angle to heighten the sense of disorientation. As a photographer you are telling the story of the place you are in and even a subtle shift of the camera’s perspective can make a huge impact on the mood of the photo.
Focus on the Details
While it is easy to get caught up in the architecture, try to also pay attention to the discarded items and details in the area as well. Chairs, books, phones and other remnants from days gone by can provide a powerful centerpiece to the image. Focusing on a single object can also act as an anchor in an otherwise chaotic environment.
My final tip is for you to be careful while exploring these buildings. No photograph is worth endangering yourself, so take extreme precaution whenever you enter an unfamiliar location. Be safe and happy shooting!