Tucked away in Ontario’s backcountry are remnants of some of the province’s abandoned and forgotten communities known as ghost towns. While not all of these locales fit the strictest definition of a ghost town, which has no occupants, they still have a similar allure and atmosphere. Unfortunately, most of these once inhabited and functional dwellings, stores, mills and mines have rotted away and collapsed or have been torn down within the past few decades. Nevertheless, when a ghost town or abandoned structure is found that is mostly intact there exists a wonderful opportunity for photographic exploration.
Some of these ghost towns have wonderful character and charm. Apart from the wind in the trees or a chance bird song, there is an eerie silence that often accompanies these ghost towns. With some structures still in almost liveable condition, it seems as though the people have just vanished; to not hear people working and chatting with one another is a strange sensation. At any moment you are expecting someone to part the window curtains or walk out of the rustic barn behind you. One can only wonder about the lives these people lived and the joys and sorrows they may have experienced.
Finding these gems often involves lengthy road trips and good navigational skills. There are some well informed websites devoted to ghost towns. However, an ongoing challenge for these websites is maintaining accurate information as each year more of these ghost town relics disappear. Basic internet research will provide a good starting point. It would be wise to verify against one or two other sources that your desired ghost towns are still standing, in whole or in part, before beginning your road trip. Half of the experience and reward of photographing ghost towns is finding them in the first place so take the time to enjoy the research and route planning aspects of your endeavour.
Ghost towns typically contain an abundance of texture, subtle colour and detail. Be prepared to spend a few hours to a half day photographing each location and, as usual with outdoor photography, try to anticipate the weather conditions. I suggest trying as many focal lengths and compositions as possible. Wide angle images encompassing entire structures and the surrounding environment work as does shooting close-ups of the magnificent details. Some of my favourite features include roofless wooden cabins, doors without handles and crooked windows with broken panes of glass still trying to protect the faded and deteriorating curtains from the elements. Ghost towns are great locations for telling stories with your photographs and if portrayed well can be as enchanting as the ghost towns themselves. Additionally, with proper storage, future generations will be able to appreciate a part of Ontario’s history that is constantly moving towards becoming a mere memory.
As you photograph ghost towns you will likely encounter tricky exposure situations due to the contrast of shadows in the structures against the light outside. This is the perfect situation to utilize HDR (high dynamic range) or multiple exposure blending. While there are slight differences between these two techniques, they are essentially the same. The concept is to bracket two or three exposures by two stops and then either blend them in your HDR software or blend the exposures in your chosen image editing application. These techniques will work well whether shooting film or digital, but digital will give you more flexibility and precision when aligning and fine tuning your images. To get the best results from these techniques, shoot in your camera’s RAW mode (if shooting digital and available on your model of camera) and use a tripod (which is practical since you will often be photographing within close proximity to a car). There is one aspect of HDR/exposure blending that requires special attention, and that is ensuring that the final image looks natural. For example, objects under a shaded porch will usually be darker than objects under a sunny or overcast sky so don’t try to make them the same brightness. The perfect HDR/exposure blend is one that isn’t obvious; the idea is to be subtle and preserve detail you could not have done with a single exposure. There are many good resources on the internet should you wish to learn more about HDR/exposure blending.
Care should be taken when walking around these sites as there are often rusted pieces of metal, various bits of clutter and unstable foundations. Wearing good boots and long pants is strongly recommended, especially when exploring in and around the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake’s territory. The endangered Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake whose range includes the Bruce Peninsula, the eastern side of Georgian Bay and a small portion of the Niagara Peninsula. Although not aggressive and a fairly rare sight, there may be some nice hiding places for these snakes in some ghost town locations.
Please respect any “No Trespassing” signs that may be posted and use common sense and courtesy when in the area. Don’t speed on the back roads and be sure to ask respective land owners for permission to access their properties should you not be able to adequately photograph from the road. It also goes without saying that you should not modify or deface anything to get a better photo. Be respectful of the sensitivity of these places for their own sake and toward fellow photographers.
Ghost towns provide the photographer a wealth of photo opportunities. Locating the remaining ghost towns and abandoned structures of Ontario is an enjoyable and rewarding experience that can be shared with the whole family. How long these ghost towns will continue to exist is anyone’s guess, so whether you are planning a fun day out or a serious multi-day road trip, there’s no time like the present to get started.