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How to Photograph Decay - Finding Beauty Where None Should be

Updated on July 8, 2015
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.

(CC BY 2.0)
(CC BY 2.0) | Source

Decay can be found anywhre

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CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Look for unusual subjects

(CC BY-SA 2.0
(CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Look for subject in nature too

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CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

How to look for decay

Decay is not one of the more favorites words or subjects. The colors and aromas produced by anything in decay can be overwhelming.

But there are certain occasions and subjects that can render good photographs. The photographer must be able to find beauty where there is apparently none.

It doesn't matter where you find your samples; a derelict building an over looked or forgotten alley, a fading and run down factory. Images of decay are everywhere. Dilapidated old structures all are parts of a city which sit in stark contrast to the glitz of the modern world.

When photographing decay we are concentrating on photographing surfaces that have begun to show the effects of time, such as building facades, old wooden surfaces, structures and such artifacts. Decay is plentiful in nature too.

Autumn brings forth a bounty of decay; leaves can be found almost anywhere at various stages of decay. Photograph them individually or in a group, match them against greens or yellows for a better effect. Fungus laden tree trunks both offer a glimpse of decay as well as the emergence of new life.

Urban decay can also offer many opportunities; Cars in various stages of abandonment can be found at junk yards or on many country farm steads. Carefully compose images to focus on details and include their surroundings.

The insides of abandoned buildings of all sorts present many images of decay too. There is always some interesting image that can be captured with careful observation, and keen eye is often all it takes. Peeling paint, graffiti covered walls, and rust can be photographed in ways which tell a story; one of neglect, no longer needed.

Rusted surfaces and their reddish coloration can make powerful images by themselves. Look for rusting metal items which still retain some of their original color to contrast with the reddish brown of rust. Industrial sites also have many instances of decay; from steel works, mill works to brick works, time and the elements do not stand still and will provide vast samples of decay, especially tools and equipment, old locks and chains, old printed material, chairs, broken windows and desks, the list is endless.

Shoot structural examples in subtle light and use shadows to your advantage. It is better to always carry at least one good flash unit. Although you need to work with the available light you will find many instances where this light is completely unusable to a photographer. If you find that your flash unit might be too powerful and will overpower the scene, then lower its intensity or shoot from a distance with a telephoto lens.

If detail within a scene is interesting but the overall image does not lend itself due to drab or muted colors, then isolate the detail by going in close.

Where texture commands attention but color is not that apparent, then consider black and white film or convert your digital image to monochrome.

With out any upkeep many of these structures will soon fade from existence, and a keen photographer can capture their presence in an otherwise mundane environment.

Although color is the medium of choice for this theme and for many other themes in photography, decay is better shown in black and white in certain instances, such as when texture or intricate detail make for an interesting image.

Monochromatic film has the ability to show texture better than color, and due to this very absence of color, the eye will not find distractions but will gravitate towards the suppleness of the subject's texture, shape and detail.

Photographs don't have to show the subject in its entirety, macro or close ups can also be used, but be judicious and do macros if the detail or pattern is strong enough to stand alone without the help of color.

The message usually derived from these images is one of nature's triumph over man, in nature the message is one tied to the cycle of life. Many of these structural images can lead to mystery; who lived there?, why did this business fail?, or how was it before the collapse? Don't miss an opportunity to tell a story.

The human element comes into focus and we put life into perspective, we suddenly realize that at one point in our lives we shall too decay, just like all objects. One tends to feel compassionate or apprehensive for even the smallest of things once one realizes the inevitable and perhaps this realization is what drives many to appreciate images of decay.

As far as profiting from this theme, many photographers have their work displayed in art galleries, and these images are also used in motivational and religious literary works. Political applications and political agendas for these images can also be added to the list of recipients as well as the book publishing industry.

Create your own web site to use to display your images. Many photographers use this method sufficiently well to make a living from it. Be aware though, that any time that you put any image of on the Internet, it will sooner or later be indexed by search engines, and most images can be downloaded to use in articles such as this one so long as they are used in a critical review or to highlight a point.

This is not always bad as articles or other uses will act as free publicity for your site and has the potential to drive traffic and sales to you. However, if you do not want to have your images downloaded, then the use of a watermark is strongly suggested as is the incorporation in the images of a copyright logo.

Abandoned houses are great if you know what to look for

Public Domain
Public Domain | Source

Some good tips video

Artistic decay photography

As mentioned before, although photographing decay is not a very popular theme, you should approach it from an artistic perspective.

Once you have gathered enough samples, carefully select those that stand out and are technically sound.

Research the industry towards which you feel can use your work. Contact the responsible individuals that can make the decision to purchase your work and submit copies of your best samples.

Consider letting smaller publishers or art galleries showcase or use your work free of charge on or consignment.

The key is to get your work shown and begin to garnish a reputation. If your work does not prove to be profitable, at least think of the challenges that went into making it, think of the new experiences and skills which you gained and of the new perspective and way of looking at things which perhaps you would not have thought off before.

Often these experiences will make you grow as a photographer, that is seldom surpassed by anything else.

Many more photography articles, with ideas, tips and projects!

Abandoned man made structures often fall into disrepair

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(CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

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Metal works make great subjects

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© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 4 years ago from Miami, Florida

      rhysatwork: You are welcome

    • profile image

      rhysatwork 4 years ago

      Thanks for using and attributing my pic. Nice article.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Lynn: Thanks dear Ms. Stalk...sorry

      You know I couldn't resist.

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 6 years ago

      I stalk er...follow you enough I can't believe I missed this one. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. You never know what treasures lurk in the trash.

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      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      My father worked at a butcher shop many yrs. The building stood abandoned for 20+ yrs and every time I drove by would point it out to my son's saying "Your granddad worked there" One day as I drove pass I stopped and took some photos. A few months later the building was torn down. Good thing I have pictures.

    • Radioguy profile image

      Radioguy 6 years ago from Maine

      So much beauty in birth and death! May and October!!!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Thank you Ken, just have fun and try to understand all elements of your new Canon, also experiment with new settings and modes.

    • Ken Barton profile image

      Ken Barton 6 years ago

      A very good hub I will try to remember as I go out to take photo's. With our new Canon camera in hand I appreciate any idea and tip I can find. Thank you, voted up, useful, awesome, and beautiful!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Justom: have you ever noticed how with practice,experience and some creativity you can find subjects that make great shots almost anywhere? I know that when I first started if you would have asked me to photograph decay, all I would have done is to photograph some rotten fruits. Time and practice have led me to see things differently.

      BTW don't forget to send me a photo of that church, I'm anxious to see it.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Thanks Rosie, nice to hear from you

    • Rosie2010 profile image

      Rosie Rose 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Hiya Luis, what a strange subject "decay" but you made so interesting and I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end. I also love all the photos you included. Voted up and awesome.

      Have a nice day,


    • justom profile image

      justom 6 years ago from 41042

      Luis, you knocked this one out of the park. If you remember that church I mentioned in one of your hubs it was in a whole area of the city that was doomed to destruction. My friend John and I went down there at least once a week for months and shot roll after roll of B&W film. It just may have been my favorite project and the stuff we got was amazing. The shadows and available light made for some very dramatic shots from both inside the buildings and out. I even took time to set up a few shots of things like old shoes and suitcases next to empty wine bottles. You've excited me about that stuff again, my scanner is on the fritz but the next time I go to my son's house I'm going to have him scan some of those shots and do a hub. I actually have prints of a lot of them. Great hub!! Tom***Just thought about this but John used a shot I did for a class he was taking at the time. His theme was inside out and I shot him in a reflection of a mirror inside using outside light and his teacher loved it.