1. Photo & Video
  2. Shooting

An In-Depth Guide to Effectively Capturing Dereliction and Decay

Scroll to top
Read Time: 5 min

Sometimes as a photographer I get overwhelmed by the thought of the amount of subject matter that is out there for me to capture. There are always new sites and exciting people to photography, but for me, there is just as much interest in capturing what has been left behind. New subject matter is exactly that, new, it’s not had time to develop, grow, gain context and a history.

What’s the Attraction

You may well be asking at this point, why on earth would you want to drag yourself around a crumbling and decaying wasteland. To some extent, you’ve got a point. It’s not the most glamourous of locations to work in.

However, there’s a lot to be said that as photographers, it’s up to us to document the world around us. In the case of dereliction, it’s important that we capture it while it is still there, to preserve it in time. In the majority of cases, the location will have seen much better days, so in that case, the point of interest is in how and why it has ended up this way.

Photo by Kalart97

Finding Locations

Finding suitable locations when working on this type of project can be tricky. It’s often hard to tell what you’re going to find behind crumbling walls. There may be buildings such as old churches, factories, mills or warehouses that you pass each day on the way to work that might have just been left to waste away.

You might be able to gain access to a local historian you might know of interesting buildings and locations in the area that have a long and varied history, but have now been deserted. Take your time and do some research before you start exploring. You’ll have a better chance of finding somewhere suitable for your shoot.

Photo by Peter Castleton


Before we get to the photography bit, there are a few points that I want to make from the start. It’s of paramount important that you don’t trespass on private property just to get a photo.

If you’re unsure about the location and whether you have access and the right to be there, please check. In writing this article, I am encouraging you to go exploring derelict buildings, but only if you have permission from the landowner!

Photo by Paul Tomlin

Safety First

Derelict buildings can be treacherous places and it’s essential that you don’t enter into any dangerous situations or put yourself or anyone else at risk. If you can, explore during daylight hours to avoid any mishaps in the dark.

Ideally, take someone with you so you can look out for each other during your visit. If not, ensure that you tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. A torch, even during daylight hours, as you never know the dark depths you might find. A pair of strong boots is also advised.

Photo by Kalart97

Getting Kitted Up

For this sort of trip, there isn’t any requirement to have a particular type of camera, simply something that you are happy using and preferably has manual controls. You don’t want to be carrying around vast amounts of gear, but I would recommend taking both a flashgun and a tripod.

A flashgun can be particularly useful as old buildings can often be quite dark and dingy without much natural light and very little chance of any electricity for artificial light. A tripod is always useful when working with larger scale shots and will enable you to open up the shutter for that much longer if need be.

Photo by Robbieredball

Know the History & Tell the Story

It’s important that before embarking on your trip, you understand the location and it’s context. It will certainly have a history, which may be interesting, or may be very dull. Either way, know what the building was used for and why it was left as it has will inform the photographs that you take.

Having that context and background aids your creative process and allows you to construct the story of the place using your photographs in order to portray the location in the way you want.

Photo by Kalart97

Capturing the Main Attractions

So now we get on to actually taking some photos. Like with any architectural or landscape style shoot, it’s important that you get some wide angle establishing shots. These will help paint the scene for the viewer and put everything in context, allowing them to gauge the atmosphere of the place before delving deeper.

Ensure that you pay attention to any particular features, for example, a mill may have a large water wheel, which will be important to make a point of.

Photo by Blinkingidiot

Detail Shots

Once you’ve put everything in context with your large scale shots, it’s important to remember the details that make the place what it is and give it the character that it possesses.

Aspects such as flecks of ancient dried paint, chipped woodwork window frames, cracks in the glass, that moss or lichen growing up the wall, all make for very engaging close up shots. Keep your eyes peeled as you explore. Details that one might usually ignore can make for great decay shots.

Photo by Windy

Get Creative

When on your visit, it’s important to take your time. The inclination is to get excited and rush into the shoot, but I find it far more fruitful to enjoy exploring at a slow pace, taking it all in.

It’s likely that all this subject matter is new to you and you’re seeing it for the first time, so not only will there be a lot to take in, but you’ll have that fresh enthusiasm which will aid your photographic creativity.

Don’t be afraid to try some more experimental photographic techniques, working with angles and vantage points, but also long exposures and HDR, it all depends upon the context.

Photo by Robbieredball

Now It’s Your Turn

Getting the opportunities to photograph derelict buildings can be difficult, but once you get the chance, it can be an extremely rewarding project to undertake.

The ability to turn something old and forgotten into something artistic and give it new life should be relished. There may be opportunities to undertake projects if a particular building or area is celebrating an anniversary.

You may even be able to gather together people who worked or lived there to photograph them alongside the derelict buildings and tell the story of years gone by.

Photo by Mike McSharry
Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Photo & Video tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.