For anyone who loves architectural photography, the ornate architecture of churches and cathedrals is the ideal challenge. Because of the added intricacy, ecclesiastical photography often takes on a more complex form than general architecture, but this doesn’t make it more difficult to practice – in fact, quite the opposite. Chances are, wherever you live will be close enough to a church or cathedral for you to read our top tips, get out there and put your skills to the test!
A Brief History of Churches and Cathedrals
The oldest found church dates from around 33 to 70 AD and is located in Rihab, Jordan. Originally, churches were buildings for Christians to gather and talk about all things relating to their faith. Churches and cathedrals only became more widespread a few centuries later, and these buildings soon became regarded as one of the most important buildings in their town or city. In addition to being a place of worship, the buildings themselves were treated as a hub for residents, often hosting meetings, ceremonies and trade.
Did you know? The oldest cathedral in the world is located in the town of Echmiadzin, Armenia, and dates from 301 to 303 AD.
Be Mindful of House Rules
Naturally, a church or cathedral is (in the majority of cases) a practising religious building, meaning there will be some etiquette and guidelines for you to follow when planning your photography visit. Respect is the most important thing when dealing with a place of religious significance, so be sure to familiarise yourself with and adhere to any rules outlined. Some buildings prohibit photography altogether, and it’s important to remember this – however much you may want to get that special shot, it’s up to you to act responsibly and respectfully by complying with the rules. Fortunately, there are plenty of church buildings that are welcome to photographers, so once you’ve found a good one, make the most of your time there! Here are a few of our photography tips for churches and cathedrals.
Get Your Light Right
Old church buildings are often built in such a way that they have sufficient natural light. This not only produces interesting and unique lighting effects – such as glimmers of light through stained-glass windows – but it was also very practical in times gone by due to a lack of electrical light sources. Although there are often many large windows in a church, there are also many places where the natural light doesn’t reach. These darker spots are a bit harder to photograph. Using the flash isn’t recommended, both for the quality of the photos and to avoid disturbing others in the building, so we’d suggest using the following camera settings.
White balance is one of the best-known methods for taking lighter photos. This setting measures colour temperature and adjusts the number of Kelvin in the photo, making the light “brighter” or “weaker”. For instance, try comparing the light from a fluorescent strip light and a light bulb. Quite a difference, right? The type of lighting will often mean a different camera setting is needed, and here’s a useful guide to help you figure out the best white balance for your shot. Don’t forget that you can also easily edit this later – shoot in RAW mode to give you greater control of white balance in post-production.
The longer a camera keeps its shutter open, the more light is let into the sensor to form your image. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the shutter is open and the more light you’ll be able to let in, which is a useful tool to master in low-light settings. We’d always recommend using a tripod with a slower shutter speed too, as the image can be easily destabilised with a wobbly hand. Read more about shutter speed here.
Where to Practice Your Skills
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s is certainly one of the UK’s most iconic Christian buildings, thanks to its unique design and world-renowned dome. This Grade I listed building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the original cathedral building was all but destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The exterior building is of a beautiful Baroque style and on the inside, you’ll find all manner of opulent décor, including tall, gilded archways and elaborate paintings and mosaics. You only have to look up to be inspired! You can photograph inside St Paul’s, providing there isn’t a service going on, but they do ask that you don’t use flash when taking your pictures. There are a few areas where photography is prohibited, so we recommend checking their guidelines here.
We’ve already professed our love for this magnificent cathedral in our York travel guide, but we can’t help but encourage anyone looking for exquisite architecture and charming interior features to visit York Minster. Not only does the cathedral boast the most stained glass of anywhere in the UK, it also offers stunning views across the city from its Central Tower. One thing’s for sure, you won’t be lacking in photography inspiration when you pay this wonderful building a visit!
Getting the Perfect Shot
Aperture is another camera setting that can have a huge impact on the light that is let into an image. The aperture is the opening in the lens, and the larger it is, the more light is let in. In many low-light churches and cathedrals you’ll need a larger aperture in order to create a well-lit image, and this is reflected in the f-number or ‘f-stop’ that you’ll see on your camera. The larger the aperture, the smaller the f-number! Find out all about aperture and how to find the right aperture here.
ISO is an underrated trick for creating a lighter image. By adjusting the ISO, you adjust the light sensitivity of the camera, which allows you to take brighter photos. However, be careful not to set the ISO too high, as this will cause noise in the photo. Read more ISO top tips and information over here.
Position Yourself Well
Settings are one part of a successful photo but being in the right position is also key to that perfect shot. Sometimes all it takes is a few steps forward or back to get a good amount of light onto the lens. Don’t be afraid to play around and move about in order to perfect your shot – just don’t climb on any furniture to do so!
Look out for details and lines
Many well-composed photos have some kind of guiding line as a key element, and there are plenty of these you can use as inspiration inside a church or cathedral. Whether it’s the symmetry of the layout, the perfectly aligned pews or the elegant archways above your head, you’re sure to find something to focus in on. These lines can also help offer a sense of scale to the building, so especially in larger cathedrals, you can achieve really nice results by building them into your shots. Don’t forget to take advantage of the rule of thirds, too!
In addition to beautiful lines, a church or cathedral is often full of ornate details: a woodwork pulpit, details etched in stone or a beautiful mural. These are details that you can’t miss when shooting.