How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples

Sacred buildings are often considered the gems of a city. They combine historical value and monumental design aimed at the masses of centuries ago. There are many ways to capture their beauty, so let’s take a look at some of the main ones.

In the first article in our series about urban architecture, we covered some more general rules of urban architecture photography. These rules apply to religious buildings as well. However, there are unique characteristics that we will go through in this article.

We’ll still be focusing on photographing buildings from the outside, since shooting interiors comes with a whole different set of challenges. For those interested in photographing religious interiors, there’s a separate article about interior church photography

Religious monuments from afar

Religious buildings often are dominant part of a city skyline and are a symbol that is visible from afar. This also means you can start photographing them several kilometers before you even get to them. This is not a close up of the building, but rather a more general shot of the part of the city where the monument stands. A telephoto lens always comes in handy for “more general” shots like these, though it depends on the specific distance from which you’re shooting. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
View of the Sagrada Familia Basilica. The branches add an element of interest (frame the shot), but as time passes, they seem a bit too noticeable to me. Sometimes it’s difficult to judge on the spot. ISO 800 is here by mistake – The old Canon 350D doesn’t have an Auto ISO function, so mistakes like these are common.  Canon 350D, Sigma 70-300/4-5.6, 1/800s, f/11, ISO 800, focal length 108mm (equivalent to 173mm on a full-frame)

Barcelona, with its world-famous architecture, is perhaps an extreme example of religious monuments dominating the skyline. However, it is also no great exception. Churches dominate the skyline in small towns too.   

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
For comparison, a small town in South Moravia, Czech Republic. On a different scale, but the church also distinctly stands apart from the other buildings. (Just a descriptive shot without any artistic ambitions.)  Canon R5, Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6L, 1/60s, f/11, ISO 100, focal length 300mm

Issues with up-close shots

If you break away from the city’s skyline and move right to the monument itself, you are likely to encounter minor setbacks. For example, nearby buildings usually don’t give you enough space to move in order to fit the entire monument in one shot.

Having an ultra wide-angle lens will make life much easier, but shooting a building that rises high above the street also means the appearance of converging lines. This means walls that are parallel will appear to intersect in the photo. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
Church in the city of Artá on the island of Mallorca. The original shot shows obvious converging lines. Canon R5, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 1/60s, f/20, ISO 100, focal length 16mm

Some photographers are bothered by converging lines, while others don’t mind them. Some even intentionally use them as a composition tool. If you leave enough room, this effect can be corrected, but at the cost of a loss of pixels on the sides and lower image quality. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
The lines can be straightened, but it is now more difficult to find the right crop. Canon R5, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 1/60s, f/20, ISO 100, focal length 16mm

Panoramas as a tool 

With a bit of skill, you can stitch together a panorama of the building before you and solve both issues of converging lines and having enough space. Panoramas widen the shot more than your camera equipment is capable of and, at the same time, give you extra margins for cropping and straightening lines. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
The Sagrada Familia up close. The image consists of 9 photos taken with a 29mm focal length when converted to full frame. I didn’t have a wider lens at the time. The image can be cropped almost anywhere.

Including surrounding objects 

It’s also worth looking around to see if you can find something interesting to include in your shot. This adds depth to the scene and makes the photo more interesting than merely a shot of the monument itself. Trees and other plants are useful for this purpose, but you are sure to find other objects to include as well.

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
The Piazza del Popolo square in Rome has two “twin” churches at its edge. Here they are together with the fountain in the center of the square.  Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 200, focal length 10mm (Equivalent to 16mm on a full-frame)

Even when it seems like there is nothing to include in your shot, try looking at the ground and you may find an interesting detail or line that leads the viewer to the monument. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
Vatican Square tiled in smooth cobblestones that lead to the fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/160s, f/8, ISO 200, focal length 10mm (equivalent to 16mm on a full-frame)

Views 

If you move further away, maybe even to the next street, you’ll get a more unique version of the “church + background” shot. Only part of the main monument may be visible, but it will still be impressive in the photograph. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
Only part of the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris is visible among the other buildings. Canon 40D, Canon EF 85/1.8, 1/640s, f/5.6, ISO 200, focal length 85mm (equivalent to 135mm on a full-frame)

Architectural details

You don’t have to go far or rely on the covering up of surrounding buildings. You can just as easily walk around the cathedral closely and use a higher focal length to choose the interesting features of the historic architecture.  

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
The lightly colored statue in front of the dark close up of the cathedral in Cologne. Canon PowerShot S2 IS, 1/15s, f/4, ISO unknown, focal length 6mm (equivalent to 36mm on a full-frame)

Don’t be afraid to include inconspicuous details that don’t scream for attention but serve to accompany other photos in the series. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
The Vatican emblems are only subtly visible on one of the smaller domes. Framed by the shadow of a nearby guardrail.  Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 55-250/4-5.6, 1/1600 s, f/8, ISO 200, focal length 55mm (equivalent to 88mm on a full-frame)

Don’t overlook the surrounding areas

Important buildings are often located next to beautiful neighboring areas. These areas contain objects that are worth noting. These typically include decorative plants (or entire parks), statues, fountains, gazebos, and other smaller structures. Be sure not to overlook them just because they are located next to their larger counterpart.

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
View of the statues through the columns on St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Canon 40D, Canon EF 50/1.8, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 200, focal length 50mm (equivalent to 80mm on a full-frame)

A compromise is to join lesser and more important structures in one shot so it’s clear they belong together. We are touching on the previous point here, but it depends on how much space you want to give the foreground and background in your image.

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
The fountain on the square has the same importance in the picture as the part of the building behind it. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 55-250/4-5.6, 1/1600s, f/4, ISO 200, focal length 55mm (equivalent to 88mm on a full-frame)

Nighttime glow

Important religious buildings also have another feature that is a plus for photographers – they tend to be well-lit at night. It completely transforms the scene and allows you to discover new angles. To demonstrate, take the Vatican again. With a glowing street lamp and illuminated pillars, it takes on a completely different atmosphere. I can’t correct the converging lines here (I’d lose an important part of the photo), so I have to pretend I planned it this way from the beginning. 

How to Photograph Historic Churches and Temples
Nighttime shots have their charm.  Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5, 1/8 s, f/4.5, ISO 800, focal length 13mm (equivalent to 21mm on a full-frame)

Don’t forget to take pictures of religious buildings

Temples, cathedrals, churches, and other religious buildings are places in the city that deserve to be photographed and most tourists automatically do so without being told to. Perhaps this article will encourage you to explore other possibilities for photography and you’ll return from your next trip with even more captivating pictures and greater joy. 

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AuthorVit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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