Photographing Old Churches
Europe has so many old churches that you'll never run out of subjects to photograph. In fact, you're spoiled for choice as there aren't enough years in a lifetime to photograph all of them, even in your own country, unless you're from a particularly small country such as Lichtenstein or Andorra. England has more than 16 000 parish churches and thousands more that belong to other denominations and religions.
Now, I'm not a historian, neither am I an expert in old churches, but I do love taking photographs of these wonderful old building that are so much part of our heritage. One comment I often receive from viewers of my photographs is that they depict the parts of the church I photograph better then they see it in real life. I try to explain to them the reason is that they are looking at the whole of the church and miss much of the detail, whereas in many of my photographs I try to show a specific detail to the exclusion of whatever else is around it. By taking a large number of photographs of the details they can view the church much more intimately instead of just trying to take in the whole scene – and yes, I do take photographs of the whole scene too – sometimes even panoramic views.
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you is to spend time finding out more about the church you want to photograph before you go there. Most old churches have many items of interest which are easily missed unless you know what to look for – and where to find them.
The starting place for your research is the church website and other websites specific to churches and church history. You won't be the first photographer to have visited the church and you can see what others have photographed and put on line. There is almost always a page devoted to the history or the church where you will often find some very interesting facts that will give you ideas on what photographs to take. You may also find books on local history that contain a wealth of information. Books about local history are often to be found in local second-hand bookshops. There are also many general books available on our parish churches.
It is always wise to contact an official of the church before you visit. There is almost always an e-mail address on the church website. There are many good reasons for this, one being that if you just turn-up at a church you may well find it locked, which isn't a great help if you want to photograph the interior. Contacting an officer of the church will help you arrange a mutually convenient time for you to enter the church where you can often be the only person there and not be a nuisance to anyone who may be using the church for worship. It also means that you can more easily use a tripod – which may not be permitted during normal opening hours.
By having an officer of the church present during your visit you will also be able to find out more about the history of the church and be guided to see other items of interest that may easily escape your notice. In fact, many churches will keep valuable or historic 'treasures' out of sight and locked away except for use during special ceremonies. Before you leave the church, you may also find a booklet that describes the church's history and this may even show pictures of items you may have missed. By way of an example of this, I visited a church recently where I was given a 12-page publication that gave a great deal of information about memorial graves in their churchyard which I would have probably otherwise missed.
It's also a good idea to make a donation to the church as a way of saying thank you for them assisting you with your photography. Churches need every penny they can get in order to pay for the maintenance and repairs.
There is one huge problem that you need to try to overcome when photographic churches, or any other building, and that is converging verticals. You will be familiar with the scene when you hang over the side of a railway bridge looking along the railway lines. As you look into the distance, the parallel lines seem to converge when, in fact, you know full well that they don't. It's the same with buildings too. This is the one major difficulty you need to overcome as much as possible when photographing old churches. We need to look at ways that we can mitigate this problem as much as possible and this is covered in more detail in my blog page entitled 'A Change of Perspective'.
Unless you're using some of the more esoteric equipment mentioned in the blog above, not owning specialised equipment isn't really a problem just as long as you work within its limitations. For me, my favourite lens (on 36 mm x 24 mm full-frame) is the very wide-angle Canon EF 17 to 40 mm f4L USM lens, frequently used at its widest setting. I also carry with me the Canon EF 24 to 105 mm f4L IS USM II and the Canon 70 to 200 mm f4L IS USM lens, both of which are useful for capturing details or for photographs of objects some distance away. These are also useful for taking photographs of stained-glass windows from the other side of the church when, in so doing, you can reduce the tilt of the lens, and thereby minimise the converging verticals as you are much further away from the subject than you would be with a wide angle lens.
Many telephones (least said the better!) are also helpful in having panoramic modes but your final image quality will be nowhere near as good as if you used a good digital SLR.
You may also find a rock-solid tripod to be an essential piece of equipment if you are permitted to use one. You will have so much more control if you can use one and this is particularly important if you are taking video clips.
It's also useful to take a notebook and pen to write down any additional information as well as giving out your contact details if you don't have a business card.
If you are going to meet an officer of the church please make sure you're on time and have all your equipment ready to use. If you are early, you can always use the time to start taking photographs of the exterior of the church.
Having carried out at least some basic research you should have some ideas of what to photograph, both inside and outside the building. If you are being shown around by an officer of the church it is a good idea to take all your interior photographs first as his/her time may be limited and they can lock the church after you've taken those photographs and you then have as much time as you need to take exterior photographs for which they don't need to be present.
There is often a great deal of interesting detail to be photographed outside of the church. Apart from the building which may incorporate unique features there is usually a great deal of interest in the gravestones. Many of these may be badly worn to the extent that the engraving or writing has become illegible. Once again, some previous research can reveal a great deal as there may well be some old records that can be viewed to reveal far more than can be read on the tombstone.
One of the aspects of the graveyards I always try to photograph are the military graves. Many of these will be those headstones erected and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and these are usually fairly easy to spot. Their website also provides a great deal of information about those who are buried in the churchyard. The website of the Imperial War Museum is also a useful source of information.
No all military graves are those maintained by the CWGC as many families chose to erect their own memorials to their lost loved one. However, some of these also provide an interesting background to those who have lost their lives in service to their country.
We are so fortunate to be able to view these, often very ancient, buildings and their treasures and it is also important to remember that photographing them helps to record them for posterity as so many of these lovely churches are being sold or are falling into disrepair. Let's try to save them before it's too late.
Examples of church photography can be seen on the website of MyLancashire at URL: MyLancashire, Lancashire, Touring and Travel in Lancashire
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