I have great affinity for old things and buildings, especially those in a state of decay. The rustic surfaces, fading colors and dark shadows bring about an eerie atmosphere, as if you have entered a strange yet familiar world. Their dilapidated condition also serves as testimony to how much things has changed, and reminds us that everything will decline and come to an end eventually. Some of these places are preserved or maintained by the authority as part of historical heritage programs, and they are generally safe to enter and explore. Other places, on the other hand, are either private properties or are closed to public for a reason. Entering without permission not only is illegal, but could be dangerous as well.
When photographing in dilapidated buildings, safety should always the your priority even if the place is maintained and opened to public. If an area is marked off for traffic, avoid entering that area unless you can secure permission to enter. Also, since older buildings are typically cramped and not well-lit, be extra careful when you are inside the buildings. If possible, bring a flashlight with you to help navigate through the buildings and to light up the scene for photos in case if the ambient light is not enough.
Camera Setting and Post Editing
Because these places usually are limited in light sources, you will need to adjust your camera’s ISO setting to compensate for the poor lighting. I would avoid using flash because flash tend to light up the whole scene, and that would ruin the atmosphere created by ambient light. By adjusting the ISO, you can utilize the ambient light to its fullest potential and create the right atmosphere you want in your photos. I rarely shoot with ISO set to 1,600 because of the noise that came with it, but when shooting in old buildings I often found myself going straight to 1,600. I believe that a little bit of graininess resulted from high ISO could enhance the rustic feel of your subject, and make the photos seem more authentic because they resemble old photos from early days of photography. Alternatively, you can use flashlight to light up just the subject you are photographing without affecting the ambient light and the overall atmosphere.
Aside from setting the ISO high, I also edit all my photos in post to bring out the right atmosphere. Depending on the circumstances, I would enhance the shadow, brighten up the lighted area, increase contrast or tune up the exposure to achieve the result I want. The purpose of these changes is to make the surface texture more visible and focus viewers’ attention on certain areas. If you have the know-how and the software to do HDR photography, you should try to touch up photos of old buildings with HDR. HDR brings out the surface texture really well and will make your photos more interesting than you could with other means.
Like any other types of photography, when photographing at old buildings, the subjects you select will significantly impact how the photos turn out. You should pick something unusual and has a story of its own to pique people’s interest. Look for old chairs, broken light fixtures, opened books or old clocks that have stopped. These are perfect subjects to tell the stories of these places. Another way to photograph old places is to focus on the textures and patterns at the scene instead of picking just one or two subjects. In this case, look for walls with paints peeling off, exposed beams in opened floors, rustic stairs or railings. Just apply composition and carefully work ambient light into your design, and the photos will tell the stories to the viewers.