Slide Shows on Cathedral and Church Architecture - by Michael G Hardy

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Some Thoughts about

Photographing Churches

Some Personal Opinions by Michael G Hardy



Permission to photograph - Exteriors

As far as the exterior of cathedrals and churches is concerned, I have never had a problem about permission to photograph them. Obviously one is basically allowed to photograph what one likes from the road anyway. Churchyards seem to be treated as virtually public property, and only in the occasional extreme case does access have any restrictions. Sometimes one realises that a good vantage point could be obtained from somebody's private property, and I have been known to ask, which is usually not a problem. In fact, probably more often, I have been asked if I would like to use somebody's back garden as they are proud of the view they have of their local church or cathedral. The top of multi-storey car parks can be good vantage points in towns and cities, although that is possibly breaking numerous bye-laws.


Permission to photograph - Interior of cathedrals and greater churches

Virtually all cathedrals operate some sort of procedure where they will issue permits to take photographs. There can be different rules for still cameras, video cameras, and the use of flash and tripods. These permits are not usually too expensive, but as with all such permits and tickets, the relative cost per photo depends on how much you want to use it. I suspect that with the fairly recent introduction of very small digital cameras (and weird shaped cameras that could probably be mistaken for binoculars), it could now be far more difficult to tell exactly who is taking photographs anyway.

However, if I plan to photograph a cathedral in detail, I will probably be there for a few days and so beforehand I will speak to the authorities to make sure they are aware of what I would like to do.

The Greater Churches (large Abbeys, Priories and Collegiate Churches which are now Parish Churches) will sometimes have similar procedures and permits to cathedrals. As there will generally be some-one in attendance, it is usually easy to find out the situation.


Permission to photograph - Interior of churches

I find that the etiquette on photographing the interiors of small parish churches is actually far more complicated than the larger churches which are attended.  If I am going to make a journey to a particular church, then I always try to obtain permission beforehand, when one can also find out the opening arrangements. I would normally do this by writing to the incumbent or a churchwarden. Personally I find it easier to write, because I can then constructively show what I use my photographs for, without trying to hurriedly explain during a telephone call. This method is virtually never a problem, and people are usually happy to help when special opening arrangements are required. They are more often than not proud of their churches and pleased when interest is shown in them.

However, despite explaining that my photographs would only be used to interest people in the subject, and not published or used for profit, very occasionally a Parochial Church Council will try to ask for money far above what I would normally expect to drop in a donations box. On one occasion a vicar told me that his PCC required 30 for each of their churches that I had requested to take photographs in. I politely told him that I was planning to visit about 60 churches in that county during a 10 day period. A total charge of 1800 was completely out of the question, after all I do not have the budget of a company making television commercials. I did visit one of his churches where I saw a couple of visitors wandering around trying to photograph the whole interior with cameras and small flash that could never produce any useful results.

I really find it can be far worse when one sets off on one of those care-free days meandering around the English countryside, just calling in at churches which are open. I will often find something that I would desperately like to photograph. Occasionally a church will have a notice about taking photographs, but otherwise there are  three different courses of action:

A: Just take the photographs. (This will normally be fine, but very occasionally an irate churchwarden can arrive asking:  "What are you doing?  -  Who are you?  -  Who gave you permission?  -  Why did you not ask?")

B: Try and speak to someone in authority. (This can take a considerable time and effort, and will invariably get the following reply: "Of course you can take any photographs  -  You did not need to ask.")

C: Ask any-one who happens to be in or near the church and looks as if they might be remotely connected to it. (This will usually get the following reply:  "Oh, I don't know anything about that.  -  I can't decide what to say.  -  There is nobody else about today."  This leaves one in an impossible situation, often knowing that you might not be able to get back for some time.)


What I do NOT photograph

On the home page of this web site I wrote briefly about the way some people think they are 'entitled' to photograph the interior of a cathedral or church whenever they want to.  This even seems to apply to a church when there is a service taking place, something I would certainly never contemplate. If some-one is attending a service which they know is going to be photographed or filmed, then they choose to be there, a completely different situation.

Although I might photograph a variety of objects in a church, I am always very careful about what I include in my shows, so that I hope I cannot be criticised for showing items that could be stolen. I also think very carefully about monuments or other items that remember people who have died only fairly recently.


Film or digital cameras

Digital cameras have, of course, become increasingly popular, and the ease with which computers can be used to download photographs, adjust and print them on modern printers, is quite remarkable.  The ever increasing speed of computers, and cheaper storage mediums,  also now makes it more practicable to handle the large files from digital cameras capable of giving very high definition, although at a high cost for the upper end of the market in digital cameras.

I do not need to list any of the logistical advantages of taking digital photographs, as these are now commonly recognised.   However, for most of my photography over the years, there was no choice, and I have always needed slides, so I was brought up on  good old fashioned film.  I don't expect anyone will ever ask me again about which films I preferred, and virtually all of them have now disappeared anyway.

I have now virtually changed over completely to taking digital photographs, however the prospect of converting all my slides and shows to digital presentations is rather daunting, as it is for many people who have accumulated photographs on film over many years.



After seeing my slide shows, people will often presume that I take a lot of flash photographs. I have to tell them that actually I very seldom take any flash photographs. I much prefer to use natural light. Flash does have its uses, but particularly on sculptured stonework, a direct flash has the capacity to completely flatten out all the detail that has been crafted and that one is trying to show. I am always amazed that so many cameras are produced that seem to have no facility to turn their built-in flash guns off. I wonder ho long it will take for people attending large public events to realise that all their photographs are completely wasted, as they are trying to use a flashgun over many times its possible working distance. Surely the classic case was the eclipse of 11 Aug 1999 when so many people travelled great distances to see 2 minutes of darkness. By what I saw on the television, the beaches of Cornwall looked completely saturated with flash guns trying to light up that very special atmosphere. I suspect the only people to really enjoy such a ludicrous use of technology are the manufacturers of of batteries. 

Anyway, I must return to my subject. The interior of many churches can, of course, be very dark, but whole interiors can usually only be lit by very sophisticated multi-flash set ups. So I try to make do with what is there. People will often want to turn the lights on, this can occasionally help with some forms of lighting, but with so many types of lighting nowadays, it is mainly guesswork trying to use the correct filters to correct the colour balance. Cathedrals and large churches will often have lights on at all times in certain places, such as central crossings. This will have a devastating effect on the relevant part of a photograph, so it is sometimes necessary to diplomatically ask if they could be turned off for a while.


Other equipment

A variety of lenses from wide angle to telephoto are necessary for one's camera to cope with every type of photograph from a whole interior to a fine detail of a building. There have always been mixed opinions about zoom lenses, and although very convenient, I will never believe they can really cope with the extremes of focal lengths at which some are now made. I use Canon 35mm equipment, and have always found it very reliable. I know  people who shy away from autofocus cameras - indeed I was one of them myself for many years. It was not until I seriously tried it that I could believe how amazingly well it works, even in a very dark building, maybe looking at dark woodwork or into a dark roof. Talking of dark buildings, I have not yet mentioned one of the most vital pieces of equipment to me - the sturdy tripod. This is the item that can make a photograph with an exposure of 20 seconds possible, but a good tripod still has to have some weight though. Probably the main disadvantage is that most people who see you with a tripod  think that you are a professional photographer out to make a vast fortune, and their attitude can be very different.


When to take photographs

The question 'when' actually encompasses many different questions - what time of day - what time of year - what type of weather, etc, etc. There can also be many different answers. Firstly, my favourite time of year for taking photographs is the early spring, when light levels have picked up and day lengths are improving.

Exteriors can be a lot easier as one can see through trees, which also don't cast such heavy shadows without their leaves. Sunshine is obviously best to pick out the colours in stone walls, but, of course, it needs to be in the right direction. If spending a whole day photographing the outside of a cathedral, this is fine as one can spend some pleasant time following the sun from the east around to the west. However one will generally be looking for a cloudier day to photograph the north side of a church. To keep up with the sun in photographing smaller churches is rather more difficult as one needs to be at east ends early in the morning, south sides during the day, and west fronts at the end of the day!

Interiors need different weather, ideally bright but cloudy days. Sun streaming through windows obviously causes far too much contrast on stonework. So in general, a day with clouds gently crossing the sun to give alternate sunshine and shade at roughly 20 minute intervals is perfect.

I am also often asked how I manage to photograph cathedrals when there is no-one in them. There are no secrets to this, it is really a matter of timing - being there at a quiet time of year - and concentrating on the long views as early as possible in the day - and also quite a lot of patience. I should explain that, of course, I have no objection to seeing people in a cathedral, indeed I want them to be there, but nowadays so many seem to insist on wearing such bright clothes, that I find them incongruous in my photographs.


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This page last modified on 3rd December 2007