Capturing Urban Decay


Rarely do cities come more alive then when they are dying – or at least, that’s what the rather distinctive Urban Decay sub-genre of urban exploration photography is trying to prove.

Graffiti, buildings falling apart, and Mother Nature reclaiming what was once rightfully hers all have a place in my heart – so it was pretty awesome that Roy Barker decided to approach me with an idea for an article on the topic – without further ado, Roy Barker’s guide to photographing urban decay… 


Fallen Arches
Above: Fallen Arches (cc) by iboy_daniel on Flickr

Some of the most telling photos come from the stark reality of street shots of the buildings and people living in urban decay. And, as a photographer, you either need to be up early or late to catch the true essence of life on the streets.

Getting good photos of urban decay is not necessarily hard; it is more a matter of patience and understanding of the subject. So what is it that can help you become a better urban landscape photographer? Here are 10 tips for great urban photos:

1 – Get Up Early.

Early morning is one of the best times on the streets as the light is diffused and the sky is like a giant light filter that gives amazing results. Also the street cleaners are out and there are not many people around.

2 – Get it into Perspective.

When shooting urban shots the buildings should alter the way you use them to frame your photos. Make sure there is always some background behind buildings to give the viewer some perspective and appreciation of its form. Square buildings look their best when the photos are taken from a 40 to 60 degree angle.

3 – Get Permission

Go Ahead, Open it!It may be that you need permission to take photographs in some public places. In some cases, this can mean the difference between you owning the images or not (i.e. if you have climbed over a wall or trespassed, you may find yourself in court with no rights to your own photos)

Right: Go Ahead, Open it (cc) by stephcarter on Flickr

4 – Photograph Buildings as they Grow – and as they Fall

Take photos of urban landscapes as they are built as well as the finished product, shots of construction can make for some interesting urban shots, but it doesn’t really matter if they’re putting the buildings together or taking them apart.

5 – Attack from Different Angles

Look at buildings through a different perspective. Look for shapes, patterns, textures, angles and reflections that make your work completely unique.

6 – What Lenses to Use

Garbage in Madrid: Lost in Lensbabyland

Take a wide angle and a zoom lens that is up to 300 mm. This will give you the flexibility you need to capture any angle. Be aware though, a zoom lens is great for capturing street scene details but can flatten your photo if you are not careful.

A wide lens gives a bigger depth of field to your photos in an urban landscape as they can capture the whole picture – and urban stuff is particularly well suited to Lensbaby photography, too…

Garbage in Madrid: Lost in Lensbabyland © Photocritic on Flickr

7 – What else to take on Location

This obviously depends on your individual style and budget but you might also want to take a tripod for night photography on the streets, UV and polarizing filters, an external flash, and a camera bag that sits over your shoulders with easy access to everything you need.

8 – Do your Research

While most people think that great urban shots come from being in the right place at the right time, this is not generally the case. It takes good research and planning to get those spectacular photos.

You will be amazed how the one spot in a street can change and be completely different depending on the time of day. How much the dynamics and contrasts change with the light and the ever-changing activities of daily life.

Lights Out (cc) by B Rosen on Flickr

9 – Plan your Photos as Themes

Urban landscapes are full of diversity but there are always common themes that run through them. For example, a series of shots about where people live – park benches, a warehouse, a modern penthouse to a period home or an old people’s home or hostel. These can be incredibly powerful when displayed side-by-side.

10 – Capture the Night Life

Bright RustUrban landscapes become a completely new landscape at night. Everything changes. A city that is featureless and dull in sunlight can be an exciting, vibrant scene full of character that presents good opportunities to an urban photographer.

Right: Bright Rust (cc) by tanakawho on Flickr

The twilight zone is also a great time to shoot in the city streets as the city street lights reflect into the sky as the sun goes down.

The great thing about digital photography it easy to experiment and delete what does not work. Now get out there and try these tips for yourself – you will surprise yourself with the results.

Guest writer Roy Barker provides further information you can read on his site about the subject of photography.

And now… It’s your turn

As always, I’m curious to see your photographs – Why not share your finest urban decay photos with me and my readers? Add a comment with your link below!

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