Guide to Legal Urbex Photography

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Guide to Legal Urbex Photography

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted. 

Urbex photo of an abandoned car with a crumbling interior, cracked glass, and falling, tattered cloth shows the decay of forgotten places.


Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Urban exploration photography, or urbex photography, involves venturing into abandoned or off-limits buildings or spaces to capture stunning and eerie pictures of decaying architecture. It’s a unique way of capturing moments in time and telling stories of forgotten places. Urban explorers often seek out derelict factories, hospitals, asylums, and other abandoned spaces to document the beauty of decay and sometimes uncover the mysteries of the past. Urbex photography is about capturing aesthetically pleasing images and exploring unseen worlds and the history of places that have been forgotten for years. As a result, Urbex photography is often challenging; it involves some element of danger, as the photographer must navigate abandoned buildings and spaces with an appreciation for their unique environment while respecting the hazards of venturing to such places.

Techniques for capturing URban Decay

Shoot in RAW format for maximum flexibility in post-processing.

Shooting allows for greater flexibility in post-processing and editing, providing the ability to recover highlights and shadows, adjust color balance, and make other adjustments without compromising image quality. Additionally, urbex locations often have challenging lighting conditions, and shooting in RAW gives you more options to control exposure and minimize noise.

Use black-and-white processing for a timeless and moody effect.

Black and white urbex photograph captures the beauty in decay, showcasing a view through a broken window into a deteriorating building.

Editing in black and white can help simplify an image, stripping away distracting colors and emphasizing the subject’s lines, shapes, and textures. This can be especially useful in urbex photography, where the complex and often chaotic nature of abandoned buildings can be overwhelming.

Use HDR processing to balance exposure in challenging lighting conditions.

HDR processing allows for a wider dynamic range and better exposure of highlights and shadows in a photograph, leading to greater detail and truer-to-life representations of a scene. This can produce more striking and visually appealing images, particularly for landscapes or architectural photography.

Incorporate nature into your compositions.

Overgrown vines take over an abandoned and rusted tin building, juxtaposing nature and decay in this Urbex photograph.

Incorporating nature into compositions adds depth and interest to urbex photography, as it showcases how nature is reclaiming spaces once inhabited by humans, allowing viewers to witness the passage of time. Additionally, the juxtaposition of natural and human-made elements creates striking visual contrasts, highlighting the beauty and resilience of nature in the face of neglect and decay.

Bring a wide-angle lens to capture the grandeur of the location.

A wide-angle lens is essential for this type of photography as it can capture a larger area, including more details and elements that contribute to the overall atmosphere and mood of the location. With a wide-angle lens, you can emphasize the scale of the space, capture intricate details and patterns in the architecture, and create a dramatic perspective that highlights the beauty of decay and abandonment.

Experiment with different angles and viewpoints to create unique perspectives. 

By changing your viewpoint, you can discover new angles and compositions that add context or uniqueness to a particular subject. Angles and perspectives significantly affect an image’s mood, tone, and composition. For instance, low angles usually create a sense of power and grandeur, high angles are perfect for highlighting patterns and lines, while tilted angles can convey a sense of motion or disorientation. Experimenting with different angles and viewpoints can add depth, interest, and distinction to your urbex photography.

Use light and shadow to add depth and texture to your shots

Look for unique light sources, such as sunlight filtering through a broken window, to create interesting shadows and highlights in your shots. Use these shadows and highlights to add depth and texture to your images, drawing the viewer’s eye to different parts of the frame. Be mindful of how different angles and positions affect the light, and experiment with other techniques to see what works best for your style and subject.

Incorporate interesting details into your compositions.

Abstract close-up of a cracked glass pane creating a jagged, fractured pattern.

Whether it’s peeling wallpaper or old furniture, these details can add character and depth to your composition. Think about how the elements contribute to the story or mood you want to convey. Pay attention to textures, patterns, and colors and how they interact in the scene.

Legal Considerations For Urban Explorers

Obtaining permission to enter locations and take photographs is crucial for legal reasons. Trespassing can lead to criminal charges, and violating property rights can result in civil lawsuits. In such cases, the consequences can include paying damages to the property owner, legal fees, and in some cases, imprisonment.
Additionally, some locations may be off-limits due to national security, privacy, or safety concerns. Entering such areas without permission can result in severe legal consequences, including fines or imprisonment.

Legal Ways to Visit Abandoned Places 

Exploring legal and safe places eliminates the risks of accidents, arrests, or trespassing on someone else’s property. Legal considerations when exploring include:

  • Obtaining permission from the property owner.
  • Respecting no-trespassing signs.
  • Avoiding any destruction or damage to the properties.
  • Not sharing any information that could put the location’s security or preservation at risk.

While it may sound like urbex photography is impossible, there are numerous ways to safely explore lost places without breaking any laws.

Shoot From the Street

One way to respect people’s property and not break the law is by shooting from the street or sidewalk. Observe the abandoned structure from a distance and look for interesting angles or compositions using a telephoto lens—experiment by moving up and down the street or sidewalk to capture the best view. Alternatively, try using a wide-angle lens to capture the entire scene from afar. Avoid trespassing, entering areas marked as off-limits, or ignoring “no photography” signs. 

New Mexico

The state has many abandoned buildings, ranging from old trading posts to abandoned mining towns and ghost towns. Some of the most notable abandoned places in New Mexico include the abandoned city of Mogollon and the ghost town of Organ.

This urbex photograph captures the desolate remains of an abandoned gas station in New Mexico

Hotel Ozona in Ozona, Texas

The broken windows and rusting fire escapes at the once-prominent Hotel Ozona are classic symbols of urban decay. At the same time, the overgrown vegetation adds a touch of eerie desolation.

Glenrio, Texas

Glenrio, Texas, offers abandoned buildings, retro signage, and an eerie atmosphere, which allow one to explore the forgotten remnants of a once-thriving town on the historic Route 66.

The Maunsell Sea Forts, England

Maunsell Sea Forts: abandoned WWII military structures off the coast of England. Eerie relics attracting urbex photographers. Rusting steel structures rise from the water, with bleak coastline visible. Overcast sky adds to ominous atmosphere, evoking a sense of adventure for explorers.
Photo by James Boreham on Unsplash

The Maunsell Sea Forts, located off the coast of England, offers a unique opportunity for urbex photographers to capture stunning shots of abandoned WWII-era structures surrounded by the natural beauty of the sea.

Historical Sites And Museums

Some historical sites are left in a state of preserved decay and disrepair, but that’s where their beauty lies. The peeling paint, crumbling walls, and rusted machinery offer a unique perspective on the ravages of time. They tell a hidden and often forgotten story, waiting for someone to capture it with their camera.
Not only are these sites a treasure trove for photographers, but they are also legal to explore and photograph. Many are designated as important historical landmarks and open to the public.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison in Philadelphia abandoned in 1971 and has since been repurposed as a tourist attraction. The crumbling walls, rusted iron bars, and abandoned cells make it a perfect location for urban exploration photographers.

Alcatraz Island

Due to its rich history and iconic reputation, Alcatraz Island is a fantastic urbex photography location. The abandoned prison, guard towers, and surrounding landscape offer endless opportunities to capture unique and eerie images. The decaying structures and remnants of life on the island offer a glimpse into the past and provide a haunting visual experience for photographers.

NYC Old City Hall

NYC Old City Hall has maintained many original architectural features like Corinthian pillars and a grand staircase. However, urban decay has taken over the building and created a fascinating juxtaposition of the past and present. 

General Store Tour At Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, Washington

Urbex photography captures an abandoned store at Wing Luke Museum—a desolate space with barren shelves and remnants of past inventory.

The general store at Seattle’s Asian American Museum is an intriguing history of its untouched state of abandonment. The store was closed and abandoned in the 1970s, but it has been preserved exactly how it was left. The faded signage, vintage advertisements, and old products on the shelves immerse visitors in a time long gone.

Bannack State Park

Bannack is a well-preserved ghost town that offers a glimpse into the American West of the 1800s, with its authentic structures, artifacts, and natural backdrop, allowing for haunting and evocative imagery.

The Catacomb, Paris

The Catacombs of Paris provides a unique and atmospheric setting for urbex photography. The catacombs are an impressive maze of tunnels that hold the remains of over six million people. The eerie and disturbing nature of the catacombs, combined with the intricate stonework and dim lighting, make for a striking and memorable photography location.

Vukovar Water Tower 

The Vukovar water tower is a hauntingly beautiful display of the scars of war still visible on its exterior.

Oradour-sur-Glane, France

Oradour-sur-Glane consists of the preserved ruins of a French village destroyed during World War 2. The abandoned buildings, twisted metal, and rusty machinery offer a haunting reminder of the atrocious violence that occurred there.

Presidio Modelo, Cuba

Presidio Modelo in Cuba is another prison that has been abandoned and left to decay. The prison’s architecture, including its cell blocks and guard towers, offers unique angles and opportunities for stunning compositions, while the abandoned artifacts inside the prison offer a glimpse into the lives of the people once incarcerated there.

Visit A Ghost Town

I highly recommend visiting ghost towns as these abandoned settlements, once bustling with life and activity, now offer a glimpse into a forgotten past. The decaying buildings, rusted vehicles, and overgrown plants provide a fascinating subject matter for photography.
Capturing these towns help preserve and document a part of history that may otherwise be forgotten or overlooked. Overall, ghost towns are a great way for urbex photographers to capture unique and haunting images that tell a story of the past.

Gold King Mine and Ghost Town

This urbex photograph features an old, dilapidated schoolhouse in a state of ruin and decay.

 One of the most compelling features of the Gold King Mine & Ghost Town is the abundance of old vehicles and mining equipment scattered throughout the property. They’ve also preserved an old schoolhouse and a dentist’s office. This abandoned mining town offers many opportunities to capture the beauty of decay and abandonment.

Concrete City, Pensylvania

This abandoned village was deemed too expensive to demolish and too costly to repair, so it was abandoned in 1924. One of the main draws of Concrete City is the incredible graffiti that covers many of the buildings. The vibrant colors and intricate designs help to bring the abandoned buildings to life and add a layer of artistic expression to the scene.

Tahawus Ghost Town

Tahawus, NY offers a glimpse into the history of the area’s mining and ironmaking industries, with crumbling walls and rusted machinery providing the perfect backdrop for moody, atmospheric shots. The Tahawus Blast Furnace, abandoned since the 1850s, is a particularly striking site that demands to be photographed. The towering brick structure, intricate rusted ironwork, and crumbling archways are a testament to the area’s industrial past.

Saint Elmo, Colorado

Saint Elmo Ghost Town - a red rusted truck parked amongst a decaying row of wooden houses reveals a glimpse into the remote, forgotten past.
Photo by Niclas Boos on Unsplash

Saint Elmo is a small ghost town, frozen in time, with well-preserved buildings and artifacts from the late nineteenth century. The Towns many abandoned structures, including a general store, saloon, and hotel, provide photographers with various unique and interesting subjects to capture.

Bodie Ghost Town, California

Bodie Ghost Town was once a bustling gold mining town during the late 1800s. The town was abandoned in the early 20th century. The decaying buildings, rusted machinery, and forgotten personal possessions provide excellent subject matter for photographers seeking to capture the eerie beauty of abandoned sites.

Bombay Beach, California

Desolate, haunting scene at the abandoned Bombay Beach Drive-In, with rusted and decaying cars amidst a barren and dusty landscape.
Photo by Coco Horsager on Unsplash

Bombay Beach, California, features a decaying and surreal landscape filled with abandoned homes, boats, vehicles, and unique art installations, offering photographers endless opportunities to capture hauntingly beautiful imagery.

Take a Tour

Taking tours can lead urbex photographers to unique and exciting places because tour operators often have access to lesser-known or restricted locations that are usually off-limits to the public. These locations may include abandoned factories, hospitals, asylums, or military bases. Additionally, tour guides are knowledgeable about the history and architecture of the sites, providing valuable context for photographers to capture unique images.

Seattle’s Underground Tours

A worn, brick building with a faded sign reading "Teller's Cage"

Seattle’s underground passageways offer a rare glimpse into the city’s past, with abandoned storefronts, cobblestone streets, and remnants of the city’s early infrastructure. Photographers can capture stunning shots of decaying brick walls, exposed pipes, and other rusted elements. The lighting creates a moody, dramatic atmosphere, making it an ideal location for creative urban photography

Lake Shawnee Amusement Park

Decades ago, Lake Shawnee Amusement Park was built on a Native American burial site and turned. However, accidents and tragedies lead to the park’s abandonment. Today it’s a spooky reminder of the past, with rusted and weathered equipment and rides that have become overgrown with vegetation.

Waverly Hills Sanitarium

Waverly Hills Sanitarium is known for its paranormal activity. Although the experience can be unnerving, the thrill of capturing it makes Waverly Hills a top destination for urbex photographers. The history and architecture of the building provide endless opportunities for creative expression, making it an unforgettable experience for any photographer.

Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

The Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour explores the abandoned areas of the island. It provides access to unrestored buildings and areas otherwise off-limits to the public. Participants must pay attention to hazards, including broken glass, uneven walking surfaces, and loose fixtures. Despite the potential risks, the Hard Hat Tour provides an incomparable opportunity to explore a historic site in a way few people ever will.

Gunkanjima Island

Gunkanjima, also known as Battleship Island, is a deserted island located off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. It is a highly restricted area and a popular destination for urban explorers interested in the island’s decaying industrial buildings, dilapidated apartment blocks, and empty streets that tell the story of Japan’s industrial past.

Resources For Finding More Urbex Photography

While urbex photography can offer unique and captivating images of urban areas, it is essential to follow legal and ethical guidelines. Additionally, finding legal ways to shoot urbex photography is easy, you can find abandoned buildings anywhere from the streets of your city, small towns, museums, and even through guided tours. By following legal and ethical guidelines, photographers can create compelling images while respecting the locations they explore. With care and consideration, urbex photography can continue to offer an exciting glimpse into the lesser-seen areas of our urban landscapes.

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a Business Analyst by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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