Something about abandoned cities speaks to us on a deep level, whether due to a sense of personal loneliness in large cities or the ostensible fragility of human existence. What happens when we're gone? Habitation abandonment is a mainstay of the visual arts, and today I'm going to go over the essentials of the technique. Whether you want to create surreal cityscapes, or just get rid of tourists in your photos of landmarks, this is an essential skill to have up your sleeve.
First up, scouting. I found my location when running errands one day and liked the look of it. You may want a particular building or street to make your composition work, or the light may come in just right in a particular place. So hunt down your shot, and then consider whether you can do this the easy way or the hard way.
The easy way (if you're a morning person) is to get there at 5-6am in the nice light. Even the tourist spots in London are quiet at this hour. Then, pop off a couple of 30 second to 4 minute exposures ten minutes apart, and you're pretty much done. The hard way is if you only have time to shoot at lunchtime, after work, or weekends, where the location is most likely packed with workers, tourists and/or commuters.
If you did skip down a few steps, I'm assuming you're doing it the hard way. So what equipment do you need other than your camera? Well, a tripod would be handy, as long as they're allowed where you're trying to shoot.
A nice strong ND filter would be good, too. In sunny weather, the ~5 stops I used with my variable ND just wasn't enough, so if you have a Big Stopper or similar, bring it. If not, it's not the end of the world. Also useful to avoid tedium is a timer remote which you can program with number of shots, interval length, and/or shutter time if you're using an ND for 30 second exposures.
Now it's time to shoot. Once you're on site and have your gear set up, try to spread out your shots as much as possible. Parking in city centers tends to be around 30 minutes to an hour, so try to stay for longer than that if you can.
If you have a strong ND filter, try to make sure your exposures are at least 30 seconds long. If you can only squeeze a couple of seconds out of your filter, it may actually be easier in post to just leave the filter off and keep the exposure times short, you'll see why later.
I'd estimate the ideal around ten exposures ten minutes apart, but not everyone will have the time available to make that work. Just use as much time as you can to capture as much of the background as possible while vehicles come and go.
Because you're trying to stay in one spot for a long time, try to shoot from a position that isn't going to attract too much suspicion. Sit outside a coffee shop for instance. The temperament of the authorities varies wildly across countries and continents, but you don't want to get moved on by the police after just a couple of shots.
With this example, I had to hang out on a street corner at lunchtime for my vantage point, so I just went with ten exposures ten seconds apart for each stack, which was to my undoing when it came to parked vehicles.
Of course, the color temperature of sunlight changes over the course of the day, so it's unlikely that it's the same color by the end as when you started. Because my shooting duration was so short, I left my white balance on auto, and as it happened the camera balanced the sunny and shaded images perfectly.
For longer durations, it may be better to include a grey card somewhere small in the scene where it can be cloned out later. If necessary, you can white balance from this in Camera Raw.
2. Back to the Lab: Processing
Load your raw images into Photoshop as a stack (File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack...), so you have them all aligned on top of each other.
I like to turn off all the layers except the bottom one by clicking on the top eye icon and dragging down through all the others, then turning them back on one by one up the stack, so I get a general feel for what's moving (and thus removable) and what's stationary across all frames. The longer the time span of your image sequence, the fewer stationary objects there should be.
Sometimes these can be cloned out, but often with complex architecture in the background, this isn't really possible. I like to pretend for the context of the scene that these objects have been abandoned by their owners as they fled the city!
You can see here why I said earlier to use either very long or very short exposure times. Middle-length times of a few seconds do allow the moving objects to blur, but not to such an extent that they don't really affect the background.
Here in this bright light I've only got exposure times of 1-2 seconds, and it's effectively made all the moving objects bigger, and effectively made them more difficult to remove. In a pinch, some localized dodging/burning and sharpening may recover a piece of background, but having had to do that before, it's not easy and I don't recommend it.
Returning to the top layer, I add a mask and start on the left side. Any cars or people there I brush through with a big soft 100%-opacity black brush. If there's anything underneath, I move to the next layer down, add a mask, and repeat the process until I find a clear image.
The more images you shoot, the more likely it is you'll have caught a moment when there weren't people standing or driving in a particular spot, but processing through many will of course be more time-consuming.
Some layers may seem completely useless and you can turn their visibility off, but don't delete any for now, because they may come back to being some use later on.
Unless your shooting angle is quite extreme (like from the top of a multistory car park), the vehicles and people should be largely constrained to within a single band across the image. This conveniently means that you can start at one side (I prefer the left) and work your way across in one dimension, masking through however many images are required for each individual "lump" of people or vehicles.
When you reach the other side, you may find that when you zoom back out, your masking and turning off layers has caused a problem further back across the image, so you must go back and fix that. I found at one point that turning off a layer that was unnecessary on the right side had put a car back in the middle, so I alt-clicked on the layer mask icon to create a 100% transparent (ie. all black) mask, then brushed in white the spot which needed fixing.
Once you have the hang of the masking process, it's really quite straightforward, just a case of grinding through it. Some images may be more complex than this one and require more fine brushwork, which I got lucky with.
3. Final Processing and Stylizing
If you're creating a panorama, which are always cool for urban landscapes (riverside views even more so), process each panel individually as above before exporting as 16-bit, single-layer, uncompressed TIFFs for the stitch. You need all that data for the final processing later on. Here I'm creating a 2x2 pano to capture a wider field of view than my 18mm lens can see.
Remember that with the changing light, this technique may be difficult unless you can shoot all panels at the same time; as you match the daylight balances, your shadow and artificial lighting colors may skew.
Fortunately this didn't affect me, since I was only shooting for a few minutes. To do this properly you would need a tripod head with accurate angle markings around it, so that you can shoot all two, three, four panels in one go at each interval and then the image sequences will align when stacked (and certainly check the Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images box).
If you're going for the abandoned or apocalyptic look, turn lights off in buildings and road signs, since the grid would most likely have gone down without maintenance. I used a combination of highlight and midtone burning, taking cues from off-lights to gauge where to put any shadows and sunlight diffusion, particularly in the traffic lights. For the crosswalk signs, I used the clone stamp from the non-illuminated side.
You could easily go further than I did and add cracks to sidewalks and buildings, plants growing through concrete and windows, rust to cars, perhaps even a fire or two in the background. In fact, I may yet take this example to that stage.
Once all this is done, you can work on the usual processing like grading, conversion, sharpening, etc.
What to Take Away from This
So now we've covered the whole process, from scouting and equipment considerations, through practicalities of shooting and how best to shoot for post-processing, to non-destructive processing techniques for removal of objects. This indispensable technique is used in many different areas of photography, from creating background plates for commercial photography to removing stepladders in levitation photography.
I also offered some ideas for next steps, which could also be used to hide any flaws arising from shooting. If you come up with your own, I'd like to see them!
I find the whole process really fun, so I hope you take the opportunity to get out and shoot your city like you've never seen it before! It's a strange feeling once you finish and see it empty.
Happy shooting! As ever, questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!
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