Robert C. Marsala is a Connecticut-based freelance photographer who enjoys abandoned places and shooting photos in hopes to capture them before they completely decay and are gone forever. To make his photography more unique, he shoots many of his photos using infrared techniques. He has now published a book to showcase some of those photos.
Shooting pictures in abandoned buildings can be dangerous but worth the effort. “There is an inherent beauty in these buildings . . . many of these places have been taken over by nature in their own way.” Some of his photo shoots include old, abandoned factories, mental institutions, hospitals, game farms and abandoned trolley cars just to name a few. He has been shooting photos and using infrared photography techniques for over 30 years now.
Shooting in abandoned buildings is dangerous and is not for the faint-hearted. I always let someone know where I will be and what time to expect me back to check in. I wear heavy boots and clothes (even in the heat of summer). In addition, I use a half-mask P100 respirator, full-finger climbing gloves and a military-surplus Kevlar vest. I always operate with the mind-set: “If in doubt, don’t”.
Robert writes, “All abandoned spaces are inherently dangerous – in most locations you have to contend with mold, lead and asbestos – which is why I wear a P100 respirator. The places are usually pretty dark and it is easy to get lost because most of the hospitals and psychiatric facilities are designed to look the same floor to floor and can turn into mazes should you lose track of where you are – which is why I use the chemical shake and snap glow sticks. I activate these and drop them off at junctions or other key points so that I can find my way back out. Yes, I do collect these as I leave.”
“Even with a good headlamp and flashlight there are always bits of metal sticking out all over as I explore – so I always wear motor-cross shin guards, a military surplus flak vest and heavy boots. Some buildings are structurally unsound but I use the mindset of “when in doubt, don’t [go in]” and I always let people know where I am and when to expect to hear from me. If I find a place to explore that I was not expecting, I take a quick shot of the exterior with my iPhone and then email the picture (with G.P.S. coordinates embedded) to my wife.”
“If it’s abandoned and in a state of decay, I consider it fair game for my shooting.”
Recently, Robert has been shooting abandoned trolley cars. “My recent shots of two trolley car graveyards were a couple of days of enjoyable shooting. Usually, abandoned spots have been visited long before I find them and as a result, there is quite a bit of tagging and vandalism. These two sites were so far off the main highways that the trolley cars were pretty much undisturbed. I had free access to all the trolleys and with so much available light coming into the interiors there was plenty of natural light to allow me to get quite a bit of detail in these great old coaches. “
His first shoot just happened accidentally while on a road trip with his wife. He was driving in New York and happened to come across a beautiful, architectural gem on a hillside. This was an abandoned health spa. He began photographing inside the spa since it was completely open. He was hooked.
Robert, what is your typical day like?
Shooting abandoned locations gets me started very early in the day. The sweet time is to get to my location just at sunrise on Sundays. Most places are very quiet at this time and I have a chance to walk around and assess the buildings, possible points of entry and how the sun is going to track throughout my day of shooting pretty much undisturbed. I usually get inside to shoot interiors when the sun is still low on the horizon and is streaming in through the windows. Later in the day, is when I shoot my infrared exteriors. Really the best time of the day for infrared is when the sun is directly overhead and very unflattering for conventional imaging.
How did you get interested in photography?
My dad did amateur photography as a youth and then when I was about 10 years old he started back up shooting with a 35mm and developing in a home darkroom. I showed some interest and was given an old Kodak Duaflex camera to try my hand at shooting and processing. It was a very primitive setup, but I learned shooting and developing. In 1969, I got my first 35mm camera – a Mamiya/Sekor DTL500 – which I wore out and still have.
For those of us who do not know, what is infrared photography?
Light radiation extends beyond what we can see with our unaided eyes – the visible spectrum runs from about 350 to 750nm (nm or nanometers = one billionth of a meter). Infrared imaging captures light radiation above the 750nm point. I shoot in the near infrared portion of the spectrum with images wavelengths between 750 to 1400nm. One important concept here is that near infrared light, images are rendered only from reflected wavelengths – not radiated wavelengths, so I cannot shoot in total darkness.
Can you describe your techniques for capturing and producing a quality photo?
Regardless of whether I’m shooting in conventional or infrared, everything begins with the scene composition. If you fail at this first step, there is no technique or effect you can use to save the image. With the abandoned interiors, I try to give the viewer a feeling of actually being at the location so I am constantly looking at a scene for an interesting angle and ways to get the lights and shadows to work together in order to establish a mood. For my infrared shots, I like to have different elements in the scene that will render quite differently in the final image. This is especially true with mixing natural and man-made objects in a scene.
I shoot in camera RAW format and bring my images into Photoshop v6 through Adobe Camera Raw. All images require some amount of post processing especially those shot with my dedicated infrared camera. Post processing is done with layers and by using selective manipulation with layer masks in Photoshop.
“Remember, no amount of equipment or post processing will compensate for a bad shot – therefore, think before you shoot.”
You have a book available on Amazon called In a Different Light. Can you tell us what went into making the book?
One of the first decisions I needed to make after deciding to do the book was to choose a page size. I have a mixture of horizontal and vertical images and often a size that was good for one, did not work for the other. After settling on the overall size, the next thing was to decide how to integrate conventional images with my infrared shots. Then, the most difficult task of all, was going through my images and choosing which ones would be in the book. I have been shooting abandoned locations since the mid-1980s, so I had a lot of images to consider. I did the entire book in Adobe InDesign and uploaded PDF files to create space for printing.
What other projects are you working on now?
I’m always on the lookout for new (abandoned) locations; this is a subject that I never get tired of shooting. Currently I am working to get some galleries to exhibit my work and for additional venues to sell my prints.
What would you tell someone who is interested in infrared and professional photography?
For getting started in infrared photography, try to find a used converted digital camera – digital infrared is so much easier than shooting infrared film. Then just start shooting. You will be surprised at how quickly you will begin to “see” in infrared. Be prepared to do a lot of post processing work as the images straight from the camera are pretty flat and lifeless. To any potential professional photographers: Keep shooting and refining your skills, go with what pleases you and be willing to explain how and why you worked an image in a particular way. Successful photography is part art and part technique – you need to be completely comfortable with your equipment. Your gear needs to become an extension of yourself. Not something you are constantly fighting with. Experiment and take chances and by all means, learn from your mistakes.
Thanks, Robert, for this fine interview. You can visit Robert’s social media sites below. His book is now available on Amazon.
Robert C. Marsala is a freelance photographer living in Connecticut. He enjoys the outdoors and specializes in infrared photography.
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