Shooting Spine-Chilling Spots:Q&A With Thomas Windisch

BOO! Did we scare you? No? Well, we have something else to get you in the Halloween mood.

We’re talking about the extremely eerie photos of abandoned buildings taken by urban explorer, Thomas Windisch.

We spoke with Thomas and learned his tips for finding and photographing what he calls “beauty in decay.”

Read on for our Q&A with Thomas! (You may wanna keep the lights on…)

Who is Thomas?

Thomas Windisch
lives in Graz, Austria. A self-taught photographer for only three years, Windisch has a great passion for urban exploration, cosplay, and insects.

To get his fill of urban exploration photography, he spends around 5 weeks a year visiting over one hundred locations in 8 different countries across Europe. That’s about 12,500 miles on the road. Woah…

We asked him just how he takes such wonderfully scary shots.

Finding Spooky Spots

Q: How do you scout out creepy, abandoned locations?

A: Part of the process is doing research on the web, though I also find amazing spots while driving or just walking around. In time you develop an eye for these kinds of places.

I also happen to get tips from locals!

A Brave Face

Q: Ever get the chills when you’re photographing a spooky place by yourself?

A: Rarely, because I’m never alone on location. I always have at least one mate by my side, but there are, let’s say, “risky” situations when I meet people I don’t want to meet. For example, copper thieves or former inmates in an abandoned prison.

Keeping Alert

Q: Any advice for staying brave while exploring abandoned, ominous settings? Do you listen to music, think of kittens?

A: No music and no kittens. It’s really important to stay focused and rely on your senses and gut instincts, because many of the locations are dangerous in their own way. These dangers can be anything from buildings liable to collapse, toxic substances, and dubious people like the ones I mentioned before.

Pretty Creepy 

Q:  Your photos of abandoned places are not only eerie but really gorgeous. How is this balance possible?

A: It’s what we call beauty in decay. On the one hand they look scary and unhomey. But if you take a closer look you can imagine what they looked like in the past. This is especially true for places with great architecture. They can be really beautiful.

Natural Lighting, Still Frightening

Creepy things are usually associated with darkness, but light plays a huge role in your photos. Any tips on using lots of natural light without losing the fright factor?

A: Usually abandoned places are really dark because there’s no electricity, so the only available light source is window light. And window light is perfect light, whether you’re photographing lost places or beautiful women in lingerie.

Of course you can use a flash or flashlights to brighten dark areas, but it’s really important that you keep the mood of light in your shots.

Decaying Details

Q: Your photos are full of stark textures (peeling wall paper, dirt on the floors). Any tips for shooting/editing your shots to really bring out those details?

A: A great way to bring out those textures is adding some contrast and clarity in post-processing. Just not too much!

Sometimes I also experiment with different software filters and flip control spools to find out what the photo could look like, then I go from there.

Do Not Touch

Q: Do you ever touch or move the creepy objects and artifacts you find, or do you always shoot the scene exactly as you found it?

A: I always shoot the scene like I found it. I never add anything or move things around. I do, however, sometimes remove stuff like dumped garbage or empty beer cans. It’s better to remove them on location before the shot so I don’t have to retouch anything later.

Taking It All In

Q: You shoot a lot of really stunning wide angle shots that fully encapsulate the setting. What kind of lens (or lenses) do you use?

A: My standard lens selection for urban exploration is the EF 16-35mm f/4 L and the 100mm L Macro lens from Canon. So one lens for wide angles and one for details.

Sometimes I use the new 11mm lens from Canon (which costs a small fortune, so I borrow it from a friend). But 11mm shots only work for very few locations, usually big halls or churches. So it’s not a standard setup.

The Right Angles

Q: Any advice for shooting such awesome wide angle shots?

A: It always depends on the scene itself and the very limited space you often have on location. I always try to find a special point of view for the shot. Sometimes a straight shot works best, other times a corner shot is just right.

Recently I started to include a door frame or work 2cm above the ground with a table-top tripod.

Looking In, Looking Out

Q: How do you capture both the interior space and the imagery outside the windows without over/underexposing the shot?

A: In such cases I take an AEB with 7 images (1 is properly exposed and each 3 are under / overexposed) and merge them together to one single HDR image in post processing.

This is because the human eye has a much higher dynamic range than a camera sensor has. With that technique I can create pictures which come very close to how I see the scene on location.