Tips For Safely Photographing Abandoned Houses

Have you ever wanted to take pictures of an abandoned house? Or, stick around until the sun sets to capture the twirling stars around its peak while listening to distant coyotes? How about walking the dark hallways alone during the witching hour while breathing life back into its dark corridors with a flashlight? As unnerving as it sounds, the experience is invigorating.

When asked the question to workshop participants “What made you sign up for this course?” the most common answer is people not wishing to shoot alone after dark. Understandably, there are many dangers that accompany abandonment. Uneven ground, wild animals, protruding metal objects, rotting wood, poor air quality and being miles away from the nearest help.

Tragically, a photographer passed away earlier this year after falling into a well that was hidden by snow. The well wasn’t even on the property but merely steps away from his vehicle. Our greatest fear has hit close to home. So what have we learned from this tragedy and how can we change our attitudes?

Photography has gained in popularity over the years due to social media. Locations are posted, shared and then visited by hordes of people in the hopes of getting that ‘shot’. There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, visiting the icons and getting the ‘shot’, however, photographers need to obey the law and their own moral compass.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Obey posted signs. If there is a NO TRESPASSING sign posted then that means the landowner is keeping you out for a reason. Things they may be protecting are their property, livestock and your safety.
  2. If there is no sign posted but fenced off, don’t enter. Again, treat it like a NO TRESPASSING sign.
  3. Visit the nearest house, farm or town. Do your due diligence and ask questions about the property, locate the owner and seek permission.
  4. Shoot the property from the side of the road and wait for the next vehicle to pass. Wave it down. There’s a good chance they’ll know who owns the property.
  5. If you attain permission always give them a courtesy call if you intend to return to the property.
  6. Do not share the location publicly on social media or with people messaging you personally saying they can be trusted.
  7. Never give out the landowner’s phone number. If a photographer wants to shoot the location bad enough let them do the work to find the owner’s contact information.
  8. Upon attaining permission, try not to shoot alone. Shooting with a friend can be less unnerving for obvious safety reasons. If this is not possible, text a trusted friend your GPS coordinates. Let them know when you arrive and when you leave.
  9. Do a thorough sweep of the area. Note where the well is. Listen for animals such as nesting birds, large heaps of dirt could mean a badger’s den and smell for skunks. If you are in the badlands area be cautious of rattlesnakes during the hot summer days.
  10. Do not remove anything from the property. Imagine if every photographer took old wood from the house to make a picture frame, we wouldn’t have any prairie icons to shoot. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying “Take nothing and leave only footprints”.

I understand the desire to have an abandoned house under the stars with a glowing orange light in the upstairs bedroom as part of a portfolio. But there’s too much groundwork that goes into it and the risk of shooting alone is too risky. Attending a workshop alleviates a large portion of the work. Locations have been scouted and permissions have been granted. For the most part, all you need to do is show up and the instructors will walk you through the process step by step in a safe environment. This is the safest and most effective way to achieve that iconic shot. In the long run, everyone involved is happy.

Of course, kneeling at the foot of these twisted prairie icons all alone in the starlight is invigorating. Many of the workshops I’ve still felt that same energy. The great thing about a workshop is that you get to share that energy. Today we need to change the way we practice photography. As responsible photographers, we need to recognize everyone involved. From the landowners to the law, this respect will render a more enjoyable photography experience.

To see more work by Robert Scott, check out his website here!

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