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A Comprehensive Guide to Photographing Churches, Cathedrals and Castles

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So many of our towns and cities have been built up around a rich and eventful past. This history defines the places we live and visit. Evidence of this is preserved in the beautiful cathedrals, churches and castles that have been incredibly preserved over the years for future generations to enjoy. So whether it's just down the road or something you'll come across on holiday, now's your chance to capture history!

Where To Visit

First up, you'll need to find a location. If you don't live in an area with many historical buildings, you might need to do some Googling or ask around to find suitable subject matter. You could even plan a trip around some visits to churches and castles. Once you've found your subject, it's important to remember that every building is different, do some research into the history of the building. Take your time and try to avoid cliché compositions. Think about how you can capture the building's character, status and history in your work.


Photo by bluestardrop

Keeping an Eye Out

Upon visiting the building, don't just start snapping away, have a good look around before you get your camera out. Use the knowledge from your research and look for details and features. Again, take your time and be sure not to just approach everything at eye level.

In places like a cathedrals, you will be surrounded by interesting articles, grave stones beneath your feet, monuments and artifacts on display and intricate details covering the walls, pillars and ceilings. Take note of anything of particular interest and be sure to come back to it after you've had a good look around.


Photo by spigoo

Know the Rules

I know this will sound a bit boring, but be sure to stick to the photographic guidelines set by each institution. They often have very specific guidelines on where visitors can and can't walk, so don't go crossing the barriers just to get that extra shot you want. It's also likely that they won't want you to use your flash indoors so as not to damage fabrics and artworks through exposure to excessive light.

If you're not sure, it's best to ask and be polite. If there are restrictions, they'll be there for a reason, not just to annoy photographers! It's also important to remember that churches and cathedrals are places of worship and to respect the practices of those who work there. For example, some cathedrals have an hourly prayer when those in the attendance will be asked for a moment of silence.


Photo by gapster

Interior Shots

At most historical buildings that I've visited, there are always a multitude of points of interest to shoot on the interior. As I mentioned before, it's important to keep your eyes peeled for little details, carvings, engravings, patterns, symmetry and stonework that may make for great macro subject matter.

In churches and cathedrals, it's also likely that there will be artifacts and statues displayed, as well as paintings and wall hangings. There may also be a display on the alter with candles and a bible. Be sure to take advantage of these preset displays, as lots of the compositional work is being done for you!


Photo by Naf

Light

Unless interior lighting has been installed, it's likely to be fairly dimly lit within the building, so you'll need to work carefully with your exposure settings to ensure you get the best shots. I always find it best just to knock up the ISO to 800 or 1600 to ensure you're getting a good exposure.

As I mention earlier, it may not be possible to use your flash, so you'll need to try and work with the light available to enhance your shots. Look out for light bleeding through windows or cracks that may highlight certain features. You may have to be patient and wait for the sunlight to be shining just where you want it, but sometimes waiting those extra few minutes can make all the difference.


Photo by apeofjungle

Exterior Shots

For me, this is the most fun way to capture a historical building: trying to encapsulate its history and grandeur in one shot. It's vital that you take the building into consideration in it's own right, thinking about it's character and stature.

Don't forget the usual guidelines for architectural shots. De sure to consider framing your work and use walls, doors, archways or windows to add to the symmetry if possible. Consider carefully what time of day you want to capture the building. Would you prefer to shoot on a bright clear day, at dusk as the sunlight falls side-on, or in the evening as the building is lit up by artificial lamps and lights?


Photo by marcp_dmoz

Seasons

As with any shoot location, it's important to do return visits at different times of year. You never quite know how the change in conditions will affect the shot. The changing of the seasons makes a huge impact upon the surroundings and atmosphere within a landscape shot. For example, a layer of snow or some thick fog will really add an air of mysticism and intrigue to the shot. Alternatively, you may want to return in the middle of summer to get a bright clear shot, and then wait until the sun is setting as it casts a warm glow on your subject.


Photo by neilsingapore

Stained Glass Windows

Along with the amazing architectural detail in the stone work, the majority of churches and cathedrals have beautiful stained glass windows that make for wonderful photographic subject matter. Photographing windows can be very hard, especially in dark buildings like old churches. It is easy to overexpose the window and underexpose the surrounding walls.

Chances are you won't be allowed to use flash to highlight the walls, so depending on the light available, you'll need to experiment with exposure settings. Start with something like f4.0 at 1/4 sec on ISO 200 and vary it from there. For exposure lengths like that, you'll need a tripod to get the best results. Try to center the window in your frame and shoot face on, so you're getting an even spread of light through the window.


Photo by kvsankar

Modern Buildings & Churches

Although the majority of cathedrals and churches were built hundreds of years ago, there are a few modern buildings that are worth exploring. Like their older counterparts, due to their purpose and the spiritual element of their use, they are often extremely interesting architecturally.

This often makes them far more intriguing than modern commercial buildings, and therefore there should be many points of interest to photograph. From the exterior, try to exploit any architectural points of interest: strong shapes and angles. On the interior, explore for key features such as windows, the altar, candles and the organ (and pipes) to exploit photographically.


Photo by archer10

Get out and try it!

Now all that's left is for you to go out and give it a try for yourself. Find a free day in your calendar, fix up a visit to a local historical building and go capture history! Each and every building has it's own stories to tell, individual character and charm.

There are a vast array of photographic opportunities available, from architectural shots, to detail macro work all of which require working with the available light. Start out by visiting a local church to get a feel for what is required on a shoot and then you'll be ready to venture out to the cathedrals and castles!


Photo by ajoh198

Have you already explored some historic buildings? Post links to your images in the comments. Also, feel free to share any tips or tricks you have for photographing this awe-inspriring subject.

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