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Photographing old barns and relics

Written by Charles Knowles

Old barns and relics are like time capsules that slowly fold into the land soon to disappear. The days are numbered to photograph them before they are gone forever.

Paint is patchy at best: windblown, water stained and sun bleached. Abandoned relics of the past: barns, sheds, field racks and plows. They have been forgotten by time, continually being torn down by gravity. ART in the rough! Photograph old barns before they are gone.

A favorite passion of mine is photographing the past. I agree with the saying that when you click the shutter and make an image you are preserving a moment in time.

I am talking about old weathered barns, out buildings, abandon trucks and farm equipment. When I come across an old homestead forgotten by time I can’t wait to take pictures. For me, it’s about making ART, something I’d be proud to hang on my wall.

Finding locations of barns & relics

Keep your eyes open when traveling to find something you want to photograph. Also ask around. You’ll be surprised how many people in your community know someone who has an old barn or abandoned truck rusting in a field somewhere.

Do searches in Google Earth or Google Maps. Turn on the images and see pictures taken by others. If you find something you like, go there and take your own shots. Add something special that makes images uniquely yours.

Best times to photograph barns & relics

A lot of the old barns and relics lack color. No problem if you plan to make black and white photos. But even black and white can benefit from good lighting conditions.

The Magic Hour

There is a special time of day called the Magic Hour, also known as the Golden Hour, when the angle of light is low and the sun gives off a warm glow. It occurs one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset.

There is a huge payoff for getting up early or staying out late with your camera. It’s incredible what the warm golden light of the Magic Hour does when mixed with faded weathered wood, or rusty abandoned equipment.

Right after a storm

Taking photographs when a storm is clearing can add a lot of drama to your pictures. Many times after the rain stops and just before the sun goes down, the sun shines through the rain clouds. It can produce a warm and incredible yellow light. Sometimes you can even catch a rainbow.

Add elements to the composition

I always preach adding elements to your image. It can change a picture of just a barn to a picture of a barn in the country in the spring after a storm. Your picture needs to tell a story. And since we are taking pictures of barns and relics including some of the surroundings tells more of the story.

Let’s say we are going to photograph a barn, the elements could be anything from a tuft of grass, to a barbed wire fence; maybe some dramatic clouds, the moon, a cow, an old truck, even a person; a little color here, a sharp edge there, a leading line in the center.

Including elements not only help tell the story of the subject but can improve composition. It is up to you how you choose to use elements but they really do add to a scene.

Weather and Seasons

Weather can be a friend and a foe. Wait a foe can be your friend too. Make the best of whatever the conditions.

For instance, if you go for a sunrise shot and it starts raining, try and get some of the first drops of rain on your subject, maybe a little FOG in the back ground. Inclement weather can really add a unique mood.

If you have a favorite spot, return to it again and again. Shoot all four seasons. Photos will be especially nice if there are some trees you can use as elements. Shoot first morning light and last light of the day, as well as rain and snow. Go back at least every couple of years. When your subject has returned to mother earth, you will have chronicled time past like no other.


Lens: Wide or telephoto? Use both!

I use focal length to control the size of the objects I use as elements in the background. You can dramatically increase the size of the moon and mountain ranges in relation to the main subject by using a telephoto. Back up from your main subject so its size is what you desire.

Use a wide angle like 10mm to 24mm to hide objects you do not want to see such as roads, houses or power lines. Wide angle allows you to get up close and create a very dramatic feel. Don’t forget to include some elements in the foreground and the sky especially if there are clouds.


I use a tripod 90% of the time and a cable release to trigger the shutter. One reason is that it slows me down and makes me think before taking a shot. It allows me to compose without losing my starting point if I move. Using a tripod allows me to control my depth of field without having to worry about shutter speed. It also helps make images crisp and clear.

Polarizing filter

A polarizing filter is a must if there are blue skies. I actually leave a polarizer on my camera all the time as it helps enhance color.

Capture bits of the past before they disappear

We are surrounded by bits of the past. They are like time capsules that are slowly being folded into the land soon to disappear for good. The days are numbered to photograph these before they are gone forever.

About the author

Charles Knowles

Charles Knowles has been photographing landscapes since he was in high school. The son of a geologist in Idaho, Charles grew to love the way the sun illuminates magnificent granite monoliths of the Idaho Batholiths.

In his senior year of high school, Charles and his best friend set off to Carmel, California to meet their idol in photography, Ansel Adams. Mr. Adams welcomed them into his house and gave them the tour of a lifetime. Mr. Adams brought his images, that had previously only been seen in books, to life. He shared the art of visualization and reminded them that a picture is three dimensional until you capture the image on film. Charles continues to feel his teachings every time he waits for a drifting cloud to arrive.

After attempting a career in photography and finding that it was not a good way to support a family, Charles put his large format cameras and darkroom supplies in storage. Now more than 20 years later, his dark room is a computer that overlooks the Boise Mountain front in Boise, Idaho. He uses a Nikon D80 given to him by his wife as a Christmas present in 2007.

Charles spends his weekends taking photos throughout Idaho, often driving many miles for hours in quest of a subject. In his pictures the subject is only secondary to the sky and light. His desire is to capture and share the emotion he feels when presented with the right moment in time when Light, Sky, and Mother Earth come together in perfect harmony.