Urban Exploration for Small Town Girls (and Women)
When you don't live in the city you can call yourself a rural explorer.
Chances are you already know the first place you want to explore. There's something that catches your eye on the way home from work every day, each time you drive to visit your Mother, when you go on the backroad into the next town... There's a place out there which you'd like to stop and get a look at, if only you dared. Let's not say you need to find the time. The time is there. It's not easy to stop the car, get out with your camera and make that first step into being an urban explorer.
Or, a rural explorer, as I see it. I don't live in the city. I've lived in the city, in a small city and a range of towns around Ontario. I started exploring abandoned farm houses with my Mother and my Aunt, before I ever knew other people were doing the same thing. I didn't go looking for antiques, old hardware or anything like that. I wasn't hoping to see a ghost or wanting to get creeped out. I wanted to see a relic from the past, the old woodwork, the way the bricks had weathered and whatever mysteries might be lost, forgotten and buried under dust, debris and wild plants. The best thing I found myself was an old iron key. I still have it in my jewelry box.
The first time I explored on my own was years later. Right after I got my first digital camera. No co-incedence there. The digital camera is a wonder for anyone into exploring. Now you can take all the photos you want and not think twice about the cost of getting them developed or how many rolls of film you had packed into your purse.
The photo in this introduction is the very first house I explored, alone. Just my digital camera and me. That was the year 2006.
Don't Pass up a Great Chance to Explore
I bought this book just after the author died. Not from falling off a building or any kind of exploring accident. I met his wife when I bought the book, at a zine fair in downtown Toronto, Ontario. I still have Access All Areas, even though I have not visited all the places he did. Mostly because I live farther north now. The book is a guide to taking a chance, some risks and visiting places mostly unknown, unseen or where you may not be welcome. I hope people continue to buy Access All Areas for all the same reasons I did years ago.
Photo taken in 2007. This house is now gone. Burned down by vandals, then demolished.
The Real Dangers of Urban Exploration
You may expect the top danger for explorers to be people. It's not!
I've been exploring, often alone, and the biggest danger I've found is from wild animals. Not that I have been attacked by wolves, raccoons, rabid squirrels... no. I've been threatened by birds and attacked by bees. I've had toads and frogs scare the pee out of me - I still think I stepped on one poor toad when I was walking through very long grass and couldn't see where my feet were stepping.
Birds can be territorial and may dive bomb you. The only solution is to tolerate it or hide. I've yet to have one actually strike me. But, the closest to do so were blackbirds (those smaller versions of crows) and hummingbirds. Don't laugh!
Bees are pretty self explanatory. Rule number 1: don't step in between the flight path of two beehives. Just don't do it. If you really must, duck down low and make sure your hair is covered. There is nothing like having a bee lost in your long, curly hair - near enough to your ear so you know you're in danger of being stung and you're not really keen on finding it with your fingers.
People will sometimes ask you what you are doing. In all but one case I have never had any trouble at all with people. They are curious. If they know something about the history of the house/ bulding/ location they will usually tell you about it. Volunteering all kinds of historical information. Which is great. I do like to hear it. Sometimes people want to talk more than I want to keep listening, but I do appreciate their time, their interest in the place I'm looking at and... the fact that I'm a woman and they are likely telling me all this because I don't seem like someone who would be getting into trouble, or making trouble.
Only once, I had a woman who was suspicious. But, it turned out she was the owner of the house I was photographing - it was a ruin but not abandoned. In that case I liked it for the ruined look. But, there are cases where you will find out (later hopefuly) that the abandoned house your're photographing isn't actually abandoned after all. It's kind of funny, later.
Getting back to animals... watch for animal holes. You might hurt your leg if you step into one. It is a good idea not to go alone just in case you do get hurt and need help. I do not explore inside the houses, hardly ever actually. I will go inside if I'm with a group, or at least one other person. Safety in numbers, when it comes to injury or... getting caught as a tresspasser.
This has not happened to me. But, it is on my mind each time I stop and get out of the car at a location I want to explore. I feel I am keeping myself out of trouble by not entering the premises. If I just walk around outside taking my photos I'm not breaking into the property. Also, I just don't feel right about entering a home this way. Most often they are pretty gutted by other explorers or people looking for hardware and such to steal and sell as vintage. So, in theory, I feel I am not tresspassing, or really missing much.
I was asked to leave one location by the security people. This was a time I was not alone so that was nice for me. I had already taken the photos I wanted too. I think they left me alone to wander around for awhile before they finally approached me. But, I'm sure they would have come on the run if I had been trying to do more than take outside photos.
If you do enter any abandoned, derelict or ruined building you must know you are at risk. You can not be 100% sure about anything in that building. Even a place which does not look badly derelict can have structural damage. Don't be an idiot about exploring inside. Wear decent footwear, bring a flashlight (even in daylight). Have someone with you or at least make sure your phone is charged and with you so you can call for help.
Taken outside of Barrie, Ontario. 2011.
Shipwreck on Lake Ontario, 2007
How to Find Locations for Urban Exploring
I find places to explore by driving around and looking out the car window. These are the times it's important to have someone else driving the car. You can't navigate the car and have most of your attention focused on catching sight of weathered wood, boarded windows or a driveway overgrown with plants.
Another idea is to join Flickr. You can get a free account. Search for local groups with explorers who are already adding photos. Some of them will put directions and locations on the photos. Not everyone will. I tend to leave it ambiguous. I like to protect the places from vandals and people who just want to grab whatever they can sell. So, I am cautious about giving directions. But, that doesn't mean I hoard them all. If you can join the local group, get involved in a discussion, share any photos from old places you already have - you might find a place in the group. Try to attend when people plan an event - meeting at one site. It's a lot of fun plus you make real contacts and become someone they will share information with.
Flickr has a lot of local groups but it isn't the only source. Search online and see what you find.
Read local history. Read the news. See which buildings in your own town are historical and may be in danger of being demolished. Read about the history fo your area and see what has already been lost and what is still left.
Check real estate listings. Some places have been for sale for years, empty. Some of them are being sold due to fire or damage from something else. Some are being sold in order to be knocked down so the land can be farmed or have housing developments built over them.
On a busy road into the town, in 2008. A baby deer was also at the house when I began photographing.
Urban Exploration Photography Tips
My new (new 2 years ago) digital camera has a great feature for urban and rural explorers, zoom. I've got 10x zoom. This makes a big difference in what I can get into a photo without having to be physically closer. You can't always get close up when there are fences, animals, and etc in the way.
Frame your photo and use the rule of thirds. I like to photograph a foreground of weeds/ wildflowers in front of a house. Sometimes I scoot down to the ground so the house appears to be on a hill. (It helps if it actually is on a bit of a rise). I like to get trees on the sides of my photos. It gives the photo a real, living edge. Then I take a photo where the house fills the frame.
Be creative, try different angles, try getting high (the roof of another building, a tree?) then get down low for a different view. Using a tripod is nice, if you have one. I did buy one but I have yet to actually take it with me.
I do have a camera strap. I always keep it on my wrist when I am using the camera. It is so easy to have some little thing trip you up and next thing you drop the camera. If you have that strap over your wrist, your camera has a much better survival rate.
Focus on details. There will be little details you miss, You will notice them once you upload the photos from your camera. As you get practice you start noticing details easier, while you are still on the site. Train your mind to look for small things, the trimmings, the cracks. There will be details which especially appeal to you of course.
Don't be stingy with your photos. Take extra. You can delete any you don't need later. Or, you might find one of your extras just happened to catch the light and the angle just right.
Try different times of day, different seasons too. Sunset adds a glow to your photos outside. Winter makes everything look mysterious and silent. You should explore night photography too, what works for taking photos in darkness. Bring a flashlight, shine it on a window and get a photo of the beam inside the house.
From 2009. Car and house in the background. Ruined by fire.
Links to UE (Urban Exploration) Resources - Very small, brief list of links.
Huge site for urban explorers. Having an active membership gives you some prestige and access to extra features. Membership is free, but donations are accepted.
Historical site for urban explorers. Not as well updated these days. See "Access All Areas", the book posted above in this post.
Painting by Michelle Basic Hendry
Women Urban and Rural Explorers - I have met the women explorers on this list through my years of running the Flickr group: Ontario Rural Ruins.
If you are a woman urban or rural explorer send me a note and I will check your links and photos and add you to the list.
- Flickr: Female Urban Explorers
"This group is a place for UE girls to get together to talk about our explores and experiences and a place to share our images. Let's celebrate the fact that we are female Urban Explorers....and proud of it!"
Ontario urban and rural explorer. Lots of photos, not all locations in Ontario.
Ontario rural explorer. Not a lot of photos but very good photos.
- Lee-Ann Licini
Ontario rural and urban explorer. She also runs the Creepy Ontario group on Flickr.
- The Navigator
Ontario urban and rural explorer. I've actually met Carla, face to face once.
Ontario rural explorer and artist. Now moved away from Ontario and living in the US. Her paintings of rural ruins are available on her site.
Abandoned on a Lake, 2010
Take only photos; leave only footprints.