On Sunday I noticed an abandoned building with an easy way in. On Monday I emailed a friend and asked her if she'd like to come with me as a model. On Tuesday we did the photos. I love it when a plan comes together.
Abandoned buildings are fun and scary. I spotted one with easy access from a bus ride, and thought it could make a good setting. A friend suggested that as sets go they've been done to death. I suppose they have - even I've used one before - but I wasn't looking to create something groundbreaking, just something interesting to me. "This is my photograph. There are many others like it but this one is mine," and all that.
There are some risks with abandoned buildings. They are dirty and possibly structurally unsound so you need to keep your wits about you. You never know if you're going to find squatters or other people in there. You're trespassing, which in the UK is a civil offence (ie. you're risking court, not an arrest). I am not a lawyer, or even an experienced trespasser, but I expect that if you're not causing any damage then if you do meet a security guard they'll ask you to leave, nothing more. I am paranoid so I left anything identifying in my wallet at home anyway.
When in the building itself, keep an eye out for broken glass, used needles, excrement, etc. Bring a torch even if it's a sunny day outside. Look for signs of human habitation - bedding, fresh rubbish, etc. If you do meet someone chances are they'll be friendly (or at least leave you alone), certainly if you explain that you're just looking around - but on the other hand you've probably got some expensive equipment with you. If you're going with someone else (which is a damn good idea) then take care of them too, especially if they're a model - tell them in advance so they can bring some rugged footwear and clothes. You may be fine in jeans and boots but if they're in ballet pumps and a floaty dress they might not be so lucky. Don't take unnecessary risks, and try to think before you move (especially if you're on an upper floor or looking at stairs). With wooden floors be aware of damp and flexing surfaces; with metal be aware of rust; with concrete be aware of cracked or broken surfaces. If you're going up stairs try to stay as close to the point of support as you can (generally close to the wall).
I don't have any go-to models in London at the moment so I asked a friend of mine, Lara, who seemed like she'd have the temperament for prancing around in front of a camera. I met Lara at jitsu lessons, and I figured that if we both knew some jitsu we stood a fighting chance against zombies, vampires, and anyone else unsavoury we encountered inside the building. (Lara's better than I am.) As usual I got her to sign a standard model release, and told her about the setting and the point of the shoot.
I wanted to try out some of the small-strobe lighting techniques recommended by Strobist. I was also interested to see how my cheap eBay flash held up. I was planning to borrow another, more powerful speedlite from a friend, but alas that didn't work out. I carried everything by bike - camera, tripod, light stand, umbrella. The umbrella got ball-bungeed to the stand, and the stand got ball-bungeed to the bike. It made riding ungainly, but not unbearably so. That said, I'd have been out of luck if I wanted two stands and I wouldn't make a habit of going by bike. I've decided the best accessory a photographer can have is an assistant. An assistant with a car.
We only had an evening after work to do it; I wanted to get in quickly before the hole was boarded up, so didn't want to wait until the weekend. We'd also be fighting fading ambient light in what was likely to be a fairly dingy setting anyway. With two lights this wouldn't be a problem as you can light both the subject and the background, but with just one low-powered strobe it was likely to be limiting. I brought a tripod along so I could use long exposures and a couple of lenses that open up to f/2 and f/1.8. The only mental image I had in my mind going in was of a pristine secretary in the ruined building, so I asked Lara to bring some office clothes with her.
On the whole, this was very much a "Wander around an abandoned building while taking some photos" rather than "A photoshoot that happens to be in an abandoned building."
We met a little later than planned, around 19:40. We walked to the building and went inside. It was a bit of a wreck. We looked on the first floor and found used needles, razor blades, and a condom wrapper. We tried the next floor up, which had less drug paraphernalia but more turds and rubbish. There was detritus everywhere. We decided to go down to the first floor instead of scouting further as the light was fading. I got Lara to change into her secretarial garb and grabbed some available light portraits. Even at this late stage I had to shoot at a high ISO rating, and pushed my luck too much with slow shutter speeds. I tried grabbing some wide-angle shots to try and get a broad view of the broken office with Lara in the centre, but these were prosaic due to boring lighting. Slightly better were the attempts to use a broken window as a framing device. I stuck a diffuser on the flash and placed it to camera left, bouncing it off the ceiling.
After that there was a quick outfit change to the green silk top, and a lighting change too. The light was coming from one silvered umbrella, wherein I valiantly attempted to avoid reflections in the windows behind Lara. I tried to get a nice exposure of the world outside to provide a little interest in the background. We did some against the pillar , and some standing in the open without the shirt, but again they turned out flat and lifeless. I could have made this better by asking Lara to do something more interesting than stand there.
We were rapidly losing the light and starting to freak out about when the occupants would return, so we packed up and left for the outside world. We did some more pictures outside which were my favourite images of the shoot. I slapped a couple of CTO gels onto the flash to bring the flash closer to the sodium streetlights, stuck a cereal-box snoot on it, and stuck it high up to camera left. I tried using a longer shutter speed than normal to get a blurry background and a little light trail while using the flash to freeze Lara. I used a similar setup for the doorway pictures, but the snooted light was closer this time and the ratio between the flash and ambient was lower.
It was starting to get late so we retired to a nearby coffee shop and had a couple of warm drinks (camomile tea for me, hot chocolate with marshmallows for her) and had a look at the pictures. Then we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
Lara is basically stunning, so I didn't have to do anything cosmetic. Everything was compensating for my own mistakes; I cropped down a bit more and tightened up the composition, cloned out some distracting spots and reflections from my light, and tweaked the colour balance to make the lighting a little less orange. I converted a couple of images to black and white, because the colour wasn't adding anything to the image and (in one case) because heavily-grainy images work better in black and white than in colour. I'm still not entirely happy with that one. I also lightened a shadow on Lara's face in one shot to stop it from being too distracting.
I ended up doing more processing than I like on these. Generally I'm a fan of Ansel Adams' idea of previsualising and getting things right in-camera, but I'm not going to beat myself up too heavily over these as it was dark and hard to see what's in the viewfinder (as well as the first shoot I've done for a long time).
- I don't care how dark it is, ISO 1600 is only for once-in-a-lifetime things like sporting events and assassinations. Break out the tripod instead or open up as wide as you can go and live with no depth-of-field. If you're shooting wide-angle it's not going to be too bad anyway.
- Some abandoned buildings are horrific. Pick ones far away from cities and transport hubs, they're less likely to be drug dens and flop houses.
- If you're having trouble with composing in the viewfinder, be sure to pay attention to it on the LCD. Don't just concentrate on the exposure.
- The best accessory a photographer can have is an assistant. An assistant with a car.
- The second-best accessory is a reflector. (This would have made my one-light setup more flexible and allowed me to provide some fill light).
- Asking the model to do something silly often results in a more interesting image.