Visiting Chernobyl with the Leica M9 by Ivan Holmedal

I have always seen the beauty in abandonment, buildings with a soul. It’s like you step into another time, as if time is standing still. With that said, I have for a long time seen Chernobyl as an ultimate goal to photograph abandonment. It was also unreachable, in my head that is, for a long time. With the unseen danger of radiation I thought it was impossible to walk among the empty torn buildings. Adding to that, was the lack of knowledge of how people react to radiation. Last year, in a hut in the highlands of Iceland, at a photography workshop, some of us discussed the possibility to make a photo-trip to Chernobyl. There were some beers involved and nothing came out of it, until in February one of us had taken the initiative to check local travel agencies and prices for plane tickets. One thing led to another and soon we had booked plane tickets, a hotel and a guide in Chernobyl.

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So what could I expect from this trip and Chernobyl? Many thoughts went though my mind and I tried to picture in my head what to expect. What kind of pictures I wanted to make. The pictures had to be something else, something different, not like all the other Chernobyl pictures that are out there on the web. I wanted them black and white, and quite dark. Something that could creep inside the skin of the viewer. What I didn’t expect was a lot of colors, like wall paintings, graffiti, beautiful green forests and a nice warm sun. So the creepiness I wanted, was more difficult than I thought.

In the last few weeks before the trip I thought a lot about which camera and lenses to bring. I wanted to travel light, but without compromise. The Leica M9 and M6 would be perfect to bring. But what about the lenses? I left out my Summarit 35mm, Elmar 135mm and the Summarit 90mm. The two lenses I brought with me was the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f1.2 and Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f1.5. No Leica lenses. The the 35 f1.2 would be great inside dark buildings, and stopped down a bit, it’s as sharp as the Leica lenses. The Sonnar is also nice, where you get that “glow” at 1.5, but it’s also sharp when you stop it down a bit (around f2). I did not need the sharpest lenses on this trip, as I wanted the pictures to show some feelings. The 35 went on the M9, and the 50 on the M6. Great combo! Oh, and I also brought my Olympus PEN E-PL2 at the last-minute. Used this for snapshots here and there, with the black and white filter, straight to jpeg files. I did travel light 🙂

Chernobyl came closer and closer. We took the plane from Olso to Kiev, and I could almost smell the excitement in amongst us. After a night in Kiev, we were picked up and the 2 hour drive to Chernobyl went by fast. A couple of checkpoints later we were there. The radiation signs by the road reminded me were I was. You better not drift out in the woods here!

The catastrophic nuclear accident occurred on 26 April 1986 (01:23) in reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The reactor suffered a power increase which lead to explosions in its core. This dispersed large quantities of radioactive particles in the air, carried by the smoke. A blue light from the radiation could actually be seen from the nearby town Prypiat ( Pryp’yat ). The 43,000 residents of Prypiat did not knew the extent of the accident at reactor 4, and it wasn’t until thirty-six hours after the initial explosion that the residents were evacuated. By then the radiation level was over 60,000 higher than normal. They were given 2 hours to gather their most important belongings. The whole evacuation took 3,5 hours, using 1,100 buses from Kiev. They where initially told they would be evacuated for three days.

However, to this day, the town is uninhabitable.

We had almost two days in Prypiat. We stayed at a local hotel (if you can call it that) approx 8km south of reactor 4 and Prypiat. All of the 4000 workers live there when they are not working at the site of reactor 4 and nearby sites. We could not go out after 20:00 as it was dangerous for tourists to wander the streets or visit the local pub. It was better for us to stay inside, check our pictures and talk over a few beers.

The rest of the pictures are from inside Prypiat. Abandoned buildings, overgrown vegetation, eerie feelings and a lot of mosquitos! I’ll let the rest of the pictures talk for themselves. All pictures are from the M9, as I still working on the M6 pictures. I hope you enjoy this little article and that it could inspire to travel to Ukraine and Chernobyl. If you have any questions about the pictures, the trip or Chernobyl itself, I’ll be happy to answer!

Best regards Ivan Holmedal

PS: I will publish a gallery with pictures from Chernobyl on my website, you can follow the updates on Facebook or my website. Cheers!

More photos from Ivan during his trip to Chernobyl


  1. Hello, Ivan! First of all, I have to say few words of safety before the moment you’ll end up with conclusion you’re speaking with another forum troll or angry bonehead. Nope. I’m Ukrainian and I respect swedes and norwegians more than anyone else mostly for incredible culture coming out from nordlands. I study both swedish and norwegian, listen to music of Ketil Bjørnstad, Tord Gustavsen, Tore Brunborg, Esbjörn Svensson — to name a few. And of course, I am deeply interested in vision by some of the best nordic photographers in existence. There are so many amazing pictures on your website but I didn’t impressed by what you’ve shot here in Pripyat’, sorry. In fact, almost all pictures from “the most scary place in the world” are roughly the same: empty classrooms, forgotten toys and views on broken walls and windows and the classical view of the 4th energic block. Is this the result of your long-awaited trip? Maybe from your point of view this is the proper image of tragedy, but it isn’t. I welcome you to visit Donbass (my homeland) and you’ll see many dying villages where people live in utter hopelessness.

    But you know what? Even Chernobyl (pretty typical place of iconic Ukrainian nature) doesn’t bring so much fear to everyone as this does city of Karabash in Russia. Just google it and you’ll forever deny to visit any abandoned place in the world.

  2. Hi Ivan
    You must be a brave guy. I dont think i would have tried the radiation out there
    As for the pics.all the upper coloured ones are truely boring. Before leaving the article
    i scrolld down and saw your b\w pics which are truely fascinating and interesting.
    You get the filling of what happend there ‘ and i felt i wanted to see more of these

    • Thanks for comment, Dan.
      Well, there are many tourists per year, so I dont see myself as brave 🙂

      Its quite all right that you dont like the color ones 🙂
      There will be more pictures on my website.


  3. Did your camera get any radiation after the trip was over and how do you make sure there is no remaing radiation on the camera? I always wondered if you had to get rid of shoes and what not after going.

    • Don’t think so, we were checked for radiation, all green for all of us.
      I left my shoes just to be sure, but the shoes was tested severeal times turing those two days 🙂

      Thanks for comment!

  4. Certainly an exciting location to picture! Everybody has to calculate his own risks! All the photos wouldn’t look different though being taken with fast Nikon or Canon lenses. For my taste I would rather try to accomplish utmost realism for BW by using a tripod and small apertures. But of course good and interesting work!

    • Thanks Franz 🙂

      Well I don’t care or think about other cameras, I know my tool and what it can do for me. Every lens have different characteristics, renders different. I’ve tried fast canon lenses as I owned a 5D for 6 years! In my experienceis that there IS a differense. Just as there is difference between Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses for the M mount.

      As for tripod, we did not have the time to use that.
      And I know, every photographer would do his pictures different from another 🙂


  5. To me your pictures are to “narrow” and not showing “the whole picture” of this area. Details are fine, but there’re need to be put into some context. For example – a pool picture, would be great to see a bottom of the pool, empty, with trashes lying around. The Pripec no.5 picture – use 24mm, get back few steps, show the “Kompleks” (this is what it says) in the whole. Or try to get as much as you can from the detail left low of the table. Daily things after 25yrs being not used….

    Cheers and keep up good job

    • Hello!

      Thanks for comment and critique 🙂

      About narrow and not showing “the whole picture”, I had to concetrate on the details most of the time, try to single out the most interesting details. I also have pictures that show that whole scene and some that I’m not allowed to publish.
      About use of another lens, I dont have a 24mm. And I wouldnt not risk lens-changes in Prypiat 🙂

      We also met farmers and people who live inside the exclusion zone, those pictures will be published on my site. I hope I can show more of Chernobyl there, with more pictures and text.

      Thanks again for comment and critique! Cheers 🙂

  6. Ivan!! Really great story, and really nice photographs!! Glad to know the M9 was your choice of camera for your trip! I have also wanted to go to Chernobyl, but was concerned about the radiation…thanks for your comments above about that…sounds like a terrific trip. Steve, let me know when you go there….would love to join you! Cheers!!

    • Hey Scotty and thanks for comment!
      Glad you like the pictures and the little story.

      As I have sold my DSLR gear, the M9 and M6 was my only choice, but it was all I needed 🙂


  7. As one who lived through the Cold War, Thank God we’re ALL not living in nuclear ghost towns. And God Rest those brave souls who fought this terrible radiation casualty in the first days of this totally preventable tragedy.

    Of course this also points out one other advantage of digital The radiation won’t fog a memory card. Hell of a deal to use your Tri-X as a dosimeter !

    Thanks, Ivan, for touching photos of this dreadful moonscape, and a reminder of just how piss-poor the Russian people fared under the Soviet Union.

    • Hello Joey!

      Well there are several documentaries that tells what the soldiers, firefighters and workers had to get through. Mindblowing..
      You know, to this day electrical devices dont work inside the reactor. They cant monitor the reactor from the inside with cameras. Only radiation and temperature are 24hours monitored.

      After the explosion helicopters dumped led and concrete over the reactor. Where the copters landed to refill, there are hotspots of high level of radiation! Thats just crazy…

      Pictures that was deveoped howed clare signs of radioactive, as I think they came out highly sepia toned’ish 🙂

  8. Fantastic series and great photos! Especially the B&W ones….in my opinion.

    I remember I was 6 years old, living in Gdansk, Poland at the time when the “black cloud” supposedly went over my city. The nurses at school made us all drink iodine. It was disgusting!!!!! They told us it was Coca Cola. LOL!

  9. Amazing photos! Chernobyl has always been a place I wanted to visit since years ago. Probably gonna be a long time coming, as I am only 18 and live in SouthEast Asia, but I just cant help but be intrigued in exploring what is the closest thing we have to a radioactive wasteland.

    I really do hope they don’t clean up the place by picking up all the dolls and masks, as I think that those things add up to the atmosphere of that place, and honestly, leaving it in that state makes it a better memorial than anything else, a reminder to all of us of the mistakes we once made.

    • Thanks for the comment, Harry!
      I think if you have someone to travel with it could be easier than you think? Good planing ahead.
      Check out Solo East Travel:

      I think they dont gonna clean up, but there are people that like to trash things and move objects around… unfortunately.

  10. Tragic, Intriguing and Beautiful all to different degrees in the different images. Thanks for sharing!

  11. is there any military protecting the place? do you need a special permission to get there?
    how much is the whole tour?


    • Hello Denis 🙂

      Since I’m from Norway I did not need Visa. But, we had a guide and a driver with us, from Solo East Travel. You can check out their website here:

      You have to get permission to get in, and Solo East got that for us. We had to show our passports at one of two checkpoints. If your not on their list, you dont get in. So a certain level of security. Not sure if they were from the military.

      You can check the guiding prices on their webside 🙂


  12. Very interesting article from many points of view; the history, subject matter for photography, equipment chosen and your experience there.

    Found you on Flickr and dropped you a line there, thanks for sharing!

  13. looks like it is a very interesting place to visit, I always enjoy when people go out of their way to travel to places that are not vacation destinations and photograph them, the results are so much more interesting. Thanks for taking those precious vacation days and not vacationing.

  14. A gas mask without dust, a broken plastic doll without stains, an open book without any wrackage.
    Stranges things happening in this remoted part of former USSR…

    • I can see dust on the gas mask and signs of weathering on the doll– the book pages look fresh. Are you implying Ivan staged the photographs? I don’t think he stated he wouldn’t use props. If it matters, maybe if you ask him he’ll tell us rather than having to create innuendo.

      • To both JB Arvil and Gary 🙂

        As there are a lot of tourists (to some degree) things get moved around, unfortunately..
        A lot of thrashing, and we also did see beer bottles and other junk. But some places are more hidden and authentic, if you know what I mean.
        We did see many staged dolls, and other items. The book is probably opened in recent time. I did not touch anything of the items in these pictures.
        BUT I staged one picturen (not shown here), when I moved one of many children chairs with my boot.

        So, yes, things move around.. But there are boulding that are more authentic. And you can still see items that are not tampered with.

        Hope that clears it up! 🙂

    • Hey Dan 🙂

      Yeah, that must be the swimmingpool, cool 🙂
      But I dont see any taggings and they maybe cleaned it up a bit?

      Thanks for the comment and really cool that you like the pictures.


  15. Great shots and story! Will check out your homepage too.

    Looking at some of the shots in color and some i black and white it got me thinking that while b/w is good the color shots make one think how how “recent” the meltdown happeneded (maybe because It makes me remember when hearing about it back in 1986). And a little more eerie. More scary. To me, anyway.

    • Thanks! And really great that you like the pictures.
      It was so green and the paintings on buildings still stands out. You just must think that Prypiat was a really nice city! But behind it all there is the sorrow.

      Cheers 🙂

    • Hello Igor!

      Thanks 🙂

      No, we did not. I have astma and did not have any problems during or after the trip 🙂
      Inside the exclusion zone we had to protect our arms and legs (log legged jeens and sweater).


  16. Here’s some info:

    “The main danger is not in the radiation itself, but in particles of radioactive materials that may remain on your clothes or items.”

    It looks like radiation in Pripyat is a few microsieverts per hour or even less. When crossing the Atlantic to come to Europe you’ll receive at least 10-20 times of that, depending on flight levels and solar radiation.

    • I’m not an expert, but there is a few types of radiation. One are really bad, and one stops in the clothes. We were careful and had a great guide 🙂
      We were checked a few times, and none of us got contaminated.
      But I left my shoes 😉

  17. When we speak about radiations, 30 years is nothing…. I understand it can fascinates everybody to go there, but I would not go neither for 1 minute, even less 1 hour or 1 day. With all the places in the world worth to be visited, this one is the most polluted by radiations and it will be for many many years to come….

    Even more it seems to me a lack of respect for all the people died there cause they had to go there to help other or to try to fix the problem, to choose freely to go…. just to take some pics ? Come on guys…. is there really one who is naive enough to believe now pripjat is a safe place ?!?

    You cannot know in advance if your body could get sick even for just 1 day of exposure of radiation…. if it happens in the future after you went there, what will you think ? Who cares if I am sick, the most important thing, I have in my pc my own pics of pripjat ? Sometimes I do not really understand some people…..

    But yes, the pics are nice, they really shine….

    • I disagree and I am planning a trip there as well. Everyone has their own opinions on these types of things but thousands of people visit this place every year. I’d do it in a nano second. You may not understand those who would go but that is because you are not them. You are you.

      • Hi Steve!

        You are right that it would/will be an awesome location to shoot pictures of the Tschernobyl plant and Prypjat…BUT it IS dangerous, still 26 yrs later…and there is NO discussion like “but, we are walking on safe routes, have a local guide…”. There is simply NO way you can discuss this away.
        All this place is still covered by Cs-137 and Sr-90…both are still there about 50% that has been released during the explosion of plant 4 in 1986!

        You can’t trust the local authorities there…they have sent about 600.000 (!) young soldiers there way back after the incident in 1986 and did not care about a single life lost due to that work. And actually – there is NO WAY TO CLEAN UP RADIATION. You can clean leaves, branches, the whole land down to 2m around the Tschernobyl area…
        YES – there are thousands of people still working in that polluted area but they are just desperate of having no working place else and they are being paid by far higher for that risk, much higher then any other job available, better they won’t have any other job in that region cause there are none.

        You and anyone else should stay away from the death-zone…
        I, as a studied physicist would not walk around there without the best protection suits available…but as I don’t HAVE TO – I am not going near there nor would I have in mind walking around FUKUSHIMA.

    • I agree with Luca and i understand steve your passion for the city but stil there is radiation. maybe with speciale suit then yes you can go but without that, i wouldn’t recommend..

    • Hey Luca !

      First of all, thanks for comment and that you like the pictures 🙂

      You are quite right about the 30 years. It’s nothing. About the radiation, we were safe. But if we were not careful we could have been in trouble. Inside the buildings there were basically no radiation. Normal values. Outside there was a little radiation, AND some places (hot spots) a lot of radiation. As much as if you stood in the same spot for some hours you would be sick.
      We checked ourselves a few times, out from the checkpoints and before eating. You know, there are around 4000 workers working at the reactor 4 site and near sites. Human security are well taken care of. A lot of countries are funding the security work on the site. A big sarcophagus are being made to protect “us” from radiation and possible future accidents.
      You can read more about it here:

      But I can understand that you will not go there. I had the same thoughts myself, before I read about Chernobyl, talked to people who went there to do photography. I had respect for the place, for the people and for those who still lives inside the exclusion zone. We also met one old couple who moved back to years after the accident. The still live from the land and animals. They don’t care, they just want to live one their loving land.

      I cannot know in advance, for sure. It’s the same thing when I use my car. Will someone crash into me today? I just want to feel the place, make pictures that matters to me. If they matters to anyone else, that’s just great 🙂
      It’s my passion, and I get to know new people and places with it.

      Cheers Luca 🙂

      • Can’t argue with that, very good response. The one thing I want to comment on is the brief mention Luca made about the people that died there. I think documenting this modern tomb of our brief past is the best way to pay tribute to the people that lost their lives.

        If we do not document then eventually we do not remember and in turn we do not learn the lesson we were meant to be taught.

        It’s obvious these photos are of the highest quality and do much more to educate then exploit.

      • I think most sensible and thinking people will understand your important reasons for visiting and photographing that site. I think photos like yours, which are both beautiful and haunting, make us realise, long after the tragedy, the utter horror of what happened and for me personally a profound sympathy for all the people who were innocently caught up in that terrible event. Those photos ought to help us all realise the urgent need to find an alternative clean source of energy for the future. The photos also reminded me of the incredible sacrifice that the hero workers made who went to clean that mess up as well as a deep and unrelenting anger towards the cynical Russian authorities who cared not one iota for their safety or wellbeing. A truly evil state system run by the worst kind of homosapiens. A true disgrace to our species.

        • Thanks for comment, Andy. The workers was sacrificed, yes, or the sacrificed themselves. I’m not going into the political stuff here.
          They are still working to clean the place up. 2000-4000 people works at the site today, making it safe.

    • The UN Chernobyl Conference in 2005 in the Ukraine determined 67 people died, including 11 children. There has been no large ongoing sickness from radiation, thanks to rapid iodine treatments.
      Wild figures of “thousands” fall over when activists are asked, “where are they buried?”, or, “where are their relatives?”, and no answers are forthcoming.

      Too many of course, and considering the dereliction of maintenance and duty in an ancient and, even then, grossly outdated reactor it could have been much worse.

      Interesting shots.

  18. Wow, great pictures ! The one in the gym is my favorite, wonderful mood and colors. I am struggeling exactly between the two lenses you used for my next one. Do you remember which lens, and which settings you used for this shot. Is it the 35mm/1.2 wide open ?

    • Thanks and great that you like it!

      Well, I just checked the picture in my Lightroom and here is the setting:
      1/2000s @ f1.7 ISO400. Nokton 35mm f1.2 (newest version)
      I’m not quite sure about the f1.7, cause Lightroom reads it as a Leica Summilux 35mm asf.
      So when I uses f1.2, I think it sets it to 1.7 OR 1.4 in Lightroom.

      But, I just love this lens. On my M9 it focuses dead on, no front focus. My Sonnar 50mm f1.5 front focuses when I uses it at its closest range (if you know what I mean). I have learned how much and also can focus dead on. A little practice.

      If there is something more, just ask! 🙂

      • Thank you Ivan, the problem with f1.7 in the exif is normal. Its just a guess from the M9, since there is no aperture coupling between the body and lens. That’s what the little sensor on the left side of the Leica Logo is for (if you have a leica logo, of course) . Sometimes the guess is OK, sometimes its way off, especially If you have your finger in front of the sensor, while shooting 😉
        Is your Sonnar optimized for f1.5 ? Because the first bunch of sonnars was optimized for f2.8, because this the best setting to minimize the focus shift over the whole aperture range, especially for film use. As a result it is frontfocussing when used at 1.5. I think Zeiss does optimize it for free.

        • Thanks for the updated info!

          My Sonnar front focuses at f1.5, at its closest range. It is not that much and I just have to tilt my upper body half an inch forward when shooting. If i’m not at its closest range, I dont see any focus-shift in the pictures, as the depth of field is a little larger. You know what I mean 🙂

          Mybe I’ll optimize it, but I’m so used to it and really dont have any problems. I think it is spot on when shooting with the M6. Maybe I’ll do a few testshots to see for sure 🙂


    • Thanks Jean-Paul!

      You know, it was a little hard to walk around in the kindergartens and think of all the children that played there..
      I shot the pictures with the Nokton 35mm f1.2. And used f1.2 in a lot of the pictures. Specially inside buildings.

  19. Wow, what an opportunity to shoot such an iconic place/event, well done on the shoot and resulting photos. I hope you’re safe following the visit, and that M9 is not glowing in the dark 🙂

    • Thanks John 🙂

      I thought it would be hard to get there, but the hardest was to get the pictures I wanted.
      I’m safe following the visit, yes, and my M9 is perfectible fine 🙂
      Thanks for comment!


  20. Beautiful pictures. They are both haunting and revealing. I think the last several B&Ws are just amazing.

    • Hello Jim,

      Tanks for nice comment and nice to read that you like the B&Ws. Most of the pictures are going B&W, but had to show some color also. Its a really colorful place.

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