Urban Exploration, or Urbex, involves clandestine adventures in abandoned buildings, and urbexers who like their photography try to capture the essence of decay on camera while they are there.

As it’s not easy to get a great photograph whilst wading through stagnant waters and pigeon poo, often in the dark and sometimes trespassing on security patrolled private land, we thought we would ask Ant Freeman of FortythreePhotography just how he goes about capturing the beauty of urban decay.

So what came first – the exploration or the camera?

Erm, the camera I suppose. I was interested in taking pictures before I got into exploring seriously. I used to take pictures on an old film camera, then as I got more into photography, I decided that a DSLR was the way forward. I wanted to find more things to take pictures of, and I got into exploring abandoned buildings almost as a by-product. But when I was younger and growing up, before my enthusiasm for photography, me and my mates would make ramps and ride bmxs in abandoned warehouses, exploring those, so I suppose I’ve always been interested in abandoned buildings.

How has your interest in decay influenced your photography?

I like to capture the buildings as they are, uncared for by humans & how nature eventually takes over. Urban exploration has become a habit, a need to fulfil the thrill of the explore is one part, but taking the pictures and documenting the beauty in a crumbling old building is the other part. I tend to find photographing anything else a little boring now.

What have been your favourite locations so far?

Severalls Mental Hospital in Essex, it has been abandoned for a good 15 years, so it is quite decayed, and it was one of my first explores. It is really big, so you can spend hours in there and not see it all. As it is old, the architecture is nice too – a lot to see and a lot to capture on camera.
A secret underground bunker (that I won’t name) that I chanced upon, and managed to enter after a few visits was great for the fact that a only limited number of people had ever been since it was abandoned, and it was only possible to access once or twice before it was sealed up again – it was exciting, scary, and although the pictures that I got weren’t my best, the experience and thrill of the explore completely made up for it.
Pyestock. We got in really early morning, and as the sun rose over the massive machinery and huge open spaces, combined with the strong oily smell of abandoned industry, well, it all amounted to a pretty exciting explore with optimal “golden hour” light for photography.

I understand you are a fan of film as well as digital photography, what cameras do you take with you and do you have a favourite?

My favourite would be my Zenit EM Olympic Special - made in 1979 - because it is solid, chunky, dependable, and you can chuck it in your bag without worrying about it breaking. It is simple, creates nice looking pictures, and using it is a great break from processing RAW digital pictures. It has an untrustworthy light meter, which adds to the simplicity & fun of using it. The resulting images also seem to look aged and old, in keeping with the aesthetic of decaying buildings. I always take a digital camera too, unless it is somewhere I have been lots before.

And what other must-have accessories must you have as an avid fan of urban exploration?

  • Tripod

  • A good torch

  • Bottle of water

  • Sandwiches

  • Some people wear gloves, other people take it a bit further and wear balaclavas, army trousers, and gas masks, but I don’t go that far.

What is the best time to take pictures that capture the decay of a building?

As most photographers know, Golden Hour is a good time for anything; if you are inside somewhere, it is good to have bright sunlight streaming inside windows and doorways. I also like going places at night and doing light painting with a torch.

Do you have a preferred angle and a favourite way of lighting a shot?

I don’t really consciously think about it – I just look through the lens, and take the picture – it depends on the essence of the building and going with that – I don’t have a plan of what I want to get, I just go in, explore what is there and take the pictures. I will often know straight away if what I see will make a nice photograph (in my opinion) by the feeling I get when looking through the lens. If I like what I see I get inspired to take photos of it, I never have a specific plan of attack in terms of angles / shots, unless I have a preconceived image I want to make. I suppose a lot of my pictures have a basis around windows and doors letting light in, but it’s not a conscious decision.

What about processing?

I take all my pictures in RAW to keep the quality of the picture, and it means you can adjust the image a lot more after. I like to tweak contrast and saturation and things like that a little bit in Lightroom.

What photographic advice can you give someone trying to take emotive pictures of urban decay?

A difficult question! Just go there for the explore of a place and when you see bits that you really like the look of and make you feel something, try and capture that - how it looks to you, how it feels to you. When you get back and start processing, try and get that image to look and feel how you saw it or felt at the time.

What essential survival advice should they need heed too?

Watch out for security guards, spiky fences, barbed wire, creaky floorboards, warning signs about guard dogs, holes in roofs. If it looks like the ceiling is about to fall in, think carefully about deciding to wander in.

You see more images on Flickr of ant_43 and on his website fortythreephotography.co.uk

Please remember – Exploring abandoned buildings can be dangerous, and trespass in the UK is a civil offence, depending on where you are trespassing. Use your common sense and exercise caution at all times!

June 15th, 2012
Love it - @fueast could join the club!
June 15th, 2012
My friend does this brilliantly as well - go check his website after checking Ant's. :)

I'm in awe of his "Power Station 17" photos: http://www.darkenedstudio.com/images/main.php?g2_itemId=4841
June 15th, 2012
I love urbex!! I have a few in my project and and hankering to do some more, but time to my self is scarce. Your photos are amazing, thank you for sharing!
@joa thank you for sharing that jahanna, brilliant shots :)
June 15th, 2012
I have done some urbex in my time though it has tended to be tunnels involving a wade along the river/stream to get there.

When time allows must go and venture into a few more.

Interested in looking at buildings just prefer not to adventure into them alone.
June 16th, 2012
These photos are amazing :) great post!
June 17th, 2012
beautiful samples ....
June 17th, 2012
Amazing shots
June 17th, 2012
I've always seen beauty in urban dereliction and this kind of photography is gettng really popular. Some amazing images
June 17th, 2012
@joa The Power Station is BRILLIANT
June 18th, 2012
I love these photos and this advice, thank you.
June 18th, 2012
@mummarazzii Aren't they? :) The guy's a natural talent and his work always inspires me. So I'm happy to share, because honestly, I think more people should know of him. :)
@jannykoster It is, I know! :) I've heard dozens of stories about how he did the series and how he was inspired by a game world to do the shoot. The last time he went there for finishing shots, he almost got arrested, though. He's a rebel! :D And I can't even imagine all the lighting and such he's had to set up in there, because he shoots at night...
June 20th, 2012
thanks for the article and pictures. this kind of photography can take your breath away (in more ways than one sometimes). to the list of dangers, i would add squatters trying to protect "their" home and/or junkies.....just be alert out there!
May 31st, 2013
good article. I had the oppurtunity to go into an old house and it was interesting. The place hadn't been touched for a long while.
August 23rd, 2014
I love finding abandoned places but my favorites have both been demolished. Like Jenny, I worry about encountering squatters and junkies and wish I had a photographer friend to go with me. Or at least a dog. Somehow I don't think my cats would be much help.
October 26th, 2015
I'm a huge fan of shooting Urbex. Something about the emotion it draws up in me. If it looks worn, forgotten, desolate, dark and/or moody then I can't help myself. There is currently a building near me that I want to explore so badly but I have to figure out 1. How to bypass the barbed fence and 2. How to avoid the traffic of the street. Hmmmm.....
April 27th, 2016
Urbex is my favourite photography topic.I have and will keep posting urbex photos in my 365 project
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