There are spectacular cathedrals, churches and abbeys in Europe and the United Kingdom that each provides a feast for both amateur and professional photographers. These places are not only amazing feats of architecture and engineering; they are filled with patterns, lines, light, frames, features, and details that will keep a photographer busy for hours.
No matter their architectural style, whether Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque, they are all phenomenal structures with cavernous interiors and a multitude of features that provide a range of opportunities for photographers. Wide-angle shots can capture the grandeur of the spaces, and close-ups can focus on the patterns and details. You can experiment with the full gamut of focal lengths as well as with colour and light.
The tremendous scope that these buildings offer as a photographic subject provides an opportunity for photographers to learn a lot about various aspects of photography while being creatively stimulated. But photographing cathedrals, churches or abbeys – especially the inside can be very tough due to low light. So here are some tips and tricks to help you when photographing these buildings.
Find out what the rules are
First up, you need to be mindful that you are potentially in a place of worship and need to respect the space, the people running the place, and its congregations, which means that before you take a single picture, you must check what is and isn’t allowed. For example, many cathedrals, churches and abbeys have artefacts that cannot be photographed with a flash and others that don’t allow you to take photographs at all. As they are buildings of religious significance, it is essential to be responsible and respect the rules no matter how badly you want to get that fantastic shot. Luckily, many cathedrals allow photographers, and once you have found one, you’ll be able to get your camera out and put your photography skills to the test.
Most people are naturally drawn to spend most of their time capturing shots of the outside of these buildings. These shots will be a lot more straightforward than those of the inside. For one there won’t be restrictions on tripods. You also won’t have opening and closing times to deal with either. So you can plan to take shots in the best light using a tripod for those wow factor images. The best way to ensure you capture great shots of the outside is to plan your shoot before you get there. Once on location have a scout around to see what the best angles are at different times of the day (factoring in the light). Also, be on the lookout for rooftop bars or lookout points that will offer a different perspective of the building.
Play with the light
Most old religious buildings were built before there was electricity and designed to maximize natural light. This design aspect can produce interesting photographs when the photographer uses this natural light to create unique compositions. Light glimmering through stained glass windows can create interesting reflections, which almost always make interesting photos. Look for interesting light and shadows to see if you can frame your shot accordingly.
One of the great things about these buildings is the incredible and often ornate details all around. So look up, down and all around you and capture everything from the paintings and statues to carvings and even patterns. Get up close to these details and let them fill the frame. You can even look for shots where you incorporate people into the shot. Whether it’s tourists looking around or worshipers, when you combine these types of shots with the grand overall images it will give you a much better portfolio of images.
How to photograph in low light
Even though cathedrals have many large windows to let in the natural light, there are still many dark areas that will be difficult to photograph. Often you will not be able to use artificial lighting or a flash and will have to tweak your camera settings to photograph in one of these darker spots. To be able to shoot handheld, usually, it will mean increasing your ISO as most cathedrals won’t allow tripods either.
But you also need to think creatively about how you may able to take shots and slower shutter speeds without raising your ISO too much. One of the best ways to do this is to find places to rest your camera on like ledges, benches or even the floor. You can even use your camera bag to prop up your camera. Most of these places won’t allow tripods but camera bags will be allowed.
The aperture setting also has an impact on the amount of light that is let into the image. The aperture is the opening in the lens, and its size determines the amount of light that is allowed in. The larger the aperture, the more light that enters. In cathedrals where light is low, your aperture will need to be larger to create a well-lit final image. The f/stop setting on your camera shows the size of the aperture. The smaller the f/number is, the larger the aperture. Unless you are looking to capture a grand scene of the building you can afford to select a wider aperture to help you have a faster shutter speed.
Use the architecture
These buildings are among some of the most impressive architectural designs in history. So you should try to work with the architecture in your composition. The first way you can do this is to take your time. Just sit and admire the building and its design but also think about how to can use things like leading lines to compose your image. You will find loads of lines and patterns in cathedrals, churches and abbeys that you can use. Lines are a vital element in a good photograph and can create a sense of scale or a focal point. The symmetry in a cathedral, the pews, the archways, and the windows all give photographers lots of focal points and opportunities to create outstanding photographs.
Use the aisle, the nave, the columns, and the arches to frame shots and lead the eye to an attractive focal point like a stained-glass window or golden chalice.
These historic buildings in effect, contain all the elements needed to create an exciting composition with all the lines, patterns, light, frames, and features. They indeed are an excellent place for photographers to indulge in experimentation and expand or stimulate their creativity and photographic skills. So, while there are no hard and fast rules on photographing a cathedral, church or abbey I hope that some of the ideas and information in this article will provide the inspiration you need to get out there and capture those stunning shots.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.