Archaeological sites, ruins, and the remains of other decaying structures are by definition no longer complete. Interest in them arises principally from their historical significance and the picture of the past that they paint for us. Atmosphere is created by imagining what life was like before the structures were abandoned by their users or occupiers, and before they fell into decay.
History and understanding are vital in such circumstances. When seen in isolation, ruins may be little more than piles of stones. However, when we understand who built and used the structures, and what function they served, the site comes to life. We conjure up mental images of people living and walking among the ruins, and we may be able to understand how a particular chapter of history came to an end.
A principal objective for a photographer should be to capture atmosphere. Ask yourself how just being there makes you feel, and try to relate to those who worked or lived there in the past. The first time I visited Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites, was during the middle of the day. The experience was memorable but it was not until years later, when I returned and stayed overnight, that a dawn visit really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As the cloud lifted I could feel the presence of the Inca people walking in the narrow alleyways and imagine the early morning activities in the small stone houses. In that frame of mind it was much easier to be creative.