It all starts by taking a photograph
After arriving to a location, abandoned building in most cases, I concentrate with full effort on taking photographs. For me, good photographs are the first priority, good video comes next.
Kimmo walks around more, with good photos in his mind as well, but usually he is already creating a story for the place or taking video. I move more slowly from room to room, taking pictures from different angles. My gear weighs over 20 kilograms and have to crawl, climb and jump with the gear. I have to be careful with them - I don’t want to break my expensive lenses.
We have photographed over 300 places, and all the pictures are saved to two 5 TB hard drive with backups. From every place, I have around 200 to 800 pictures, depending on the size of the place. If the light-conditions are challenging, I take multiple pictures from the same angle, because with the help of HDR-tool I can create better dynamics for the picture. Most of the time, I use a tripod and I shoot manually, although sometimes with full automatic mode just to be sure. In our line of work, the places can be gloomy or even dark, so the exposure times have to be long.
I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, soon I also have a Mark IV and then I’ll leave the older camera as a backup. It might be the case that I use two cameras side by side with different lenses, but let’s see. While inside a building, I use Sigma 12-24 Art or Canon 24-70 lenses. Sometimes if we spend a lot of time in one place, changing lenses can be tiresome, especially if the conditions include dust or the the temperature is well below zero.
The hard choice of which photo to edit
Decision about which photo I start editing can take from 30 minutes to an hour. Quite often I discard the picture after a full photo edit because it just doesn’t feel right. This happens maybe one out of five times, and then I might have wasted three hours completely.
The basis for my decision is my own feeling and the angle of the photograph. When looking at a photo, I might see technical deficiencies and I feel bad for not being thorough enough back then when the photo was taken. Still, I might start editing it because the final result can be acceptable. Taking a photograph requires attention and focusing, because many technical mistakes can be painstakingly difficult to fix. One example is a tilt - Fixing a tilt can reduce the area of the photo drastically and you end up losing something valuable in a photo.
Editing photos reminds me that I could always do a better job when pressing the shutter button. I see the end results back home from a computer, and by then we could be hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away from the place and might never return. This setting creates excitement but also pressure for me as a photographer. The more I do, the better I can cope with it.
What makes our photographs different? I think the most important thing is editing and manipulating the tones. For our photos, I try to create an impression of depth, and I would like to develop that more into a three-dimensional impression. Editing photos isn’t an exact science, so it depends on the photo in front of me.
Permission to be creative
Some of our pictures are actually composite photographs - the vegetation in front of a building could have been replaced into something more suitable. In most cases, I want to use elements from the same location, but sometimes I use elements from other places as well. This is one of the reasons why we see Abandoned Nordic more as an art project, than a documentary one. We have given ourselves a permission to be creative.
If we are photographing in sunny weather, I might change the sky to our final photograph. I aim for a mystical and exciting atmosphere, and that’s why I might add clouds or fog for example. We enjoy horror films, and that might be visible in our photos. We might even discuss about a possible horror movies scene based on one of our photos, if the place inspires us. Last time we imagined a ghost train swooping across the abandoned railway tunnel we were just visiting.
The first step after choosing a picture to edit, is making the basic adjustments with Camera Raw-software. I begin with adjusting the white-balance using middle-grade gray and then with my own approximation and continue to adjusting the exposure. After these I might adjust the saturation, contrast and sharpness. If the photograph is shot outside and the sky is too exposed, I use masks to make the result more dramatic. For the building or buildings, I adjust these separately. After all this, it is time to open the photograph in Photoshop.
In photoshop, I start with the tilt and use the Camera Raw-filter. The reason for this is that I can widen the photo area if necessary. This is the moment when many photos become discarded because they have been taken from too close and fixing the tilts crops the photo area too much. This is something that I have been getting better at all the time, and now I estimate the result while taking the photo. After adjusting the straight lines I might scale the picture if necessary.
Essential tool - A drawing tablet
After the basic photo editing is done, the use of a drawing tablet is required. For me, the tablet is an essential photo editing tool. With it I “brush” the photos quite a lot. Not getting into too much detail, I might spend a few hours testing how the photo develops. Besides editing the photos, I spend time learning new techniques from online tutorials quite a lot.
With the help of the drawing tablet, I clean the picture using spot cleaning brush, clone stamp tool and lasso tool with content aware fill on. This way I can get rid of unwanted spots and some graffities which can be visible on the walls of abandoned buildings. Roughness isn’t all unwanted, and I try to enhance the shadows of the building surfaces. If I see an interesting detail in front of the picture, I might enlarge it just a bit or fix the position of the element for symmetry and impression. For the example photo, I enlarged the pile of rocks in the front and changed the grass area also in front of the building from another photograph because the original was too neat to be used in this picture. The new element is edited as a separate photo layer so the light and colors correlates with main picture. Special attention is required for water and other natural elements, such as old trees.
For the impression of depth, I also use different kinds of Photoshop filters. With trial and error, I have learned various tricks. One trick works for one picture, but not for all. This is something that can be learned only by doing - I trust my own eyes, and my working glasses, which are quite handy.
The final touch
After all these phases, I can finetune the final colours. With this last touch, I can highlight the impression of depth by balancing the darkness of the hue. I might replace some colours or play with the properties of one particular colour. These might include saturation or the balance of darkness. Usually I want the impression of photograph as a whole to be cold and gloomy without tones of magenta or not too much yellow. With colours, I start from the wider colour scale and move onto smaller along the way. With the example picture the last colour edit was on the petals of the flowers - I am very meticulous. The photograph might still need some editing of contrast and sharpness. With Camera Raw filter I’ll do a final check, which might point out a need for fine-tuning of light balance.
Posting the photograph with a micro-story
After editing the photo with a computer is done, I’ll save the image to a cloud service and open it with my smartphone. Sometimes I’ll edit the photo with an app called Snapseed. I might add a touch of Instagram filters when I’m posting the photograph to Instagram into our feed. When I see the picture from my smartphone screen, I might go back to editing phase and do some minor adjustments.
With the example picture here, after posting it I returned twice to do some re-editing with a computer. What disturbed me, was that it didn’t fit well into our Instagram gallery. I worked with the tones little more and was quite happy with the result. I am very strict about what how my photos look like, and that our Instagram gallery creates a harmonic collection of good looking photographs.
At this point, Kimmo has spend some time creating a micro-story for the picture. He combines the atmosphere of the picture with a fictive storyline. Because the texts are so small, the plot has to be quite simple, and the story is always completed by the reader. Kimmo sends me the text and I’ll post the photograph to Instagram.