How to Photograph Cathedrals

I have been fortunate enough to see some truly spectacular cathedrals in my time, particularly in Europe, and even here in the United Kingdom we are very blessed (pardon the pun) to have some of the most splendid cathedrals anywhere in the world.

1 King's-College-Chapel-Cambridge

Some of them date back to Roman Times (St Alban’s Cathedral, for example), while others are nearly a thousand years old and took over a century to build (e.g. Lincoln Cathedral). Like many old and historical buildings they are truly marvels of architecture and engineering, and represent a dedication to a vision and a lasting monument (if also a great accumulation of wealth!). How many building projects today start with a view to completion in decades or even a century’s time? (La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is perhaps one.)

2 Hallsgrimkirkja Reykjavik

From a photographer’s perspective cathedrals offer a wealth of opportunities, rife with patterns, lines, features, frames and light; everything an interesting composition could ask for.

3 Lincoln Cathedral

Now before anyone suggests that I am exploiting a religious monument for my own photographic gratification, let me say that every cathedral that I have been allowed to photograph in has been extremely welcoming and perfectly happy for me to imbibe its splendour. And while I have absolutely no religious subscription of any kind, I am lucky to have friends of many different faiths and I have the deepest respect for all of them. They know I would never seek to disrespect their beliefs or faith in any way. Furthermore, even though I am focusing on cathedrals here, I look forward to capturing the beauty of synagogues, mosques and temples too.

4 St Nedelya Sofia

Right, back to some photography. Cathedrals of all architectural styles, from Gothic to Baroque to Renaissance, are replete with grand structures and cavernous interiors, inviting shots from wide angles lenses to capture the space, to macro lenses to appreciate textures and details. Such a variety of shooting opportunities grants me the impulse to use a variety of focal lengths. And while I may not have the most original collection of shots, cathedrals have stimulated my creativity and trained my eye in more ways than most subjects that I have attempted.

5 Gloucester Cathedral

Allow the nave to lead you down its aisle, using the lines of the floor, ceiling and columns to bring you further into the building. The lines themselves can be used alone as a compositional aid, directing the viewer’s eye into the shot.

6 Notre Dame

7 Zagreb Cathedral

The columns and their arches provide frames (within the frame) through which the eye can also be drawn through, perhaps to focus attention on a stained glass window or an architectural feature. There are so many spaces and shapes within a cathedral that this is a very useful exercise in framing. Not only can columns and their arches be used as the edges of a frame, but angles within the ceiling or vestibules, or the edges of the transept areas can all be used to frame the rest of the interiors.

8 Salisbury Cathedral

9 Salisbury Cathedral

10 Lincoln Cathedral

11 Lincoln Cathedral

11a Salisbury Cathedral

(The pulpit and its pillow are here used as part of the frame.)

 Perhaps the multitude of columns and arches and the regularity of their structure can be appreciated in their own right as an abstract; I find by removing the colour one can reveal the geometric patterns more starkly.

12 Salisbury Cathedral

13 Salisbury Cathedral

Lighting inside most cathedrals is quite special. Light inhabits small pockets of spaces, adding a glint to the outline of features or statues, or pierces through windows above to beam onto something below.

14 St Vitus Cathedral Prague

14a St Alban's Cathedral

14b-Salisbury-Cathedral

If the direction of sunlight outside is favourable the stained glass windows can shower their colours onto the floor in front of them, breaking up the concrete grey with a beautiful kaleidoscope of hues. Many of the areas in a cathedral have only selective lighting, providing scope for capturing contrast. Perhaps spot-metering off the lit area can create an abstract composition using light and shade.

15 Lincoln Cathedral

16 Salisbury Cathedral

Because most cathedrals have these contrasting spaces, from cavernous naves to compact chapels, it does force one to have a greater spatial awareness, and trains one to think of space itself as a compositional element.

17a Fredrikskirche Berlin

Do not forget to look up at the ceiling. Often you’ll find more patterns and directional lines, or simply some magnificent artwork.

18 St Nicholas Prague

19 Berliner Dom

20 Lincoln Cathedral

21 Marble Church Copenhagen

Due to their age (at least in Europe), many cathedrals have a multitude of textures and a variety of features (owing to a mix of architectural styles during their lengthy construction). Many of them have very similar statuettes and figurines, for example, the eagle on the pulpit (representing St John The Evangelist). But these details lend themselves to closer inspection and perhaps a rendition with a macro lens. Additionally, there are often small pools or baubles in which one can find appealing reflections (and not just of oneself!).

22 Lincoln Cathedral

23 St Wulfram's Grantham

24 Lincoln Cathedral

Last but not least, the façade on the outside of the cathedral is worthy of attention. Often a busy and ornate exhibit of carvings, statues and gargoyles, abstract in the sheer amount and variety of the shapes they form and shadows they cast. The magnificent structure of the cathedral itself can be captured against a favourable sky, particularly at dusk.

24a Salisbury Cathedral

25 Notre Dame

There are plenty of articles online describing the technical aspects of shooting inside cathedrals, so I won’t presume to surpass them here. This article is about what cathedrals offer as a photographic subject. Needless to say, flashes and tripods are not really compatible with respectful discretion so higher ISOs may be inevitable for hand-held shooting and narrower apertures (unless you’re doing critical commercial work, most cameras these days cope with ISOs of 1600 or below very well). Fast lenses are great indoors but with larger sensors you risk a shallower depth of field wide open (great for individual details but an issue if you’re trying to capture the depth of the cathedral’s interior).

26 Alexander Nevsky Sofia

Anyway, perhaps you can see that cathedrals, extraordinary in their own beauty and historical significance, offer tremendous scope as a photographic subject. I’m no expert on architecture but I can appreciate the endeavours and ingenuity of past pioneers to erect these incredible buildings that will probably still be standing long after my worthless body has decomposed. And I am grateful, not only for the opportunity to visit them and learn so much human history, but also for training my eye to see so much better, even without my camera.

I apologise for so many photos. Hopefully some of them illustrate my suggestions.

27 Alexander Nevsky Sofia

28 Alexander Nevsky Tallinn

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Phil Wells
    July 4, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Why are you apologizing? The pictures are gorgeous and tell the story as well as your words.
    I really like abstracts (evidential of my unusual brain) and have found cathedrals and even small country churches to be wonderful places to look for patterns and colors taken out of context.

    • July 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks Phil. I was worried the photos would overwhelm the article somewhat, but I’m encouraged that you like them :)

      • 32
        ) Apple
        September 4, 2014 at 12:00 am

        Nope. Showing those photos was a good way of explaining further what you meant. I think majority of photographers are visual learners so it’s a good thing that you showed a lot of examples. They were awesome btw. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. 2
    ) roni
    July 4, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    i enjoyed reading this article since i have planned with my meetup group to photograph st john the divine, in nyc, in the next couple of weeks. it is the 4th largest christian cathedral in the world. we will have private access, after the cathdral is closed in the early evening. several years ago we did a vertical tour. it is a beautiful cathedral in uptown nyc.
    http://ronichas.zenfolio.com/p14165120

  3. 4
    ) Debbie
    July 4, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Great article! And the photos are stunning as well. Wished I had your insight during my visits a few of the cathedrals to Europe :-)

    Best regards,
    Debbie

  4. 5
    ) Boss Lady Sat
    July 4, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Why could I didn’t see this article last week. I just had a assignment to shoot at the National Cathedral, which a lot of your information would’ve been helpful. But now I know, I will definitely be visiting again.

  5. 6
    ) Boss Lady Sat
    July 4, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Beautiful work!!!!

    • July 4, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Thanks Boss Lady Sat! Always worth revisiting a great cathedral. I have been to several more than once :)

  6. 9
    ) Adrian
    July 4, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Some really great photos there, AW. Like yourself, I’m not religious, but I love exploring cathedrals (inside and out). I grew up with a clear view of Lincoln Cathedral from my bedroom window, and it’s still my favourite building… such a vast presence, but with so many varied details and natural light effects.

  7. Profile photo of Daniel Michael
    11
    ) Daniel Michael
    July 4, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    What a well written and illustrated article! It really goes to show you can be in one of these great buildings and never really “see it”. A great lesson in framing Sharif!

    I think what I’ve seen from this and your earlier articles is that we are always too busy looking at things with our brain’s internal levels, putting all horizontals horizontal etc. Your pictures’ use of angulation to place leading lines that might not have been there, into the corners is very imaginative. You are creating leading lines just by tilting the camera. It’s definitely made me look at scenes differently.

    Thanks!

    • July 4, 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Absolutely, Daniel. The edges of frames or borders can be lined up with the sides of the viewfinder/LCD to construct the image. As long as the elements within make a strong composition, then it holds its own regardless of what you’re actually shooting :)

      Cheers :)

  8. 13
    ) Kumar Dosi
    July 4, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Good collection Alpha. The 1st, 2nd and 4th are truly spectacular and a different composition, if I may.

    I wonder how did you manage to click the 4th one as it is. Apart from the beauty of clicking the chandelier at that angle, I wonder how do you get the structural circle on the right. Should it not distort into an ellipse or something non-uniform?

    Bravo.

    • July 5, 2014 at 12:25 am

      Hi Kumar,

      Thank you. I’m not sure why that 4th image (St Nedelya in Sofia) would be distorted. I shot it just by looking above me with a wide angle lens and it is pretty much as captured. The angle is just from me holding the camera at an angle :)

      Cheers,
      Sharif.

  9. 14
    ) Tony Padua
    July 4, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Please provide the camera brands, models, and focal lengths used.

    That was an excellent experience, especially the shots where it appears you were shooting lying on the floor.

    Thank you for the efforts.

    • July 5, 2014 at 12:39 am

      Hi Tony, thank you very much.

      I wasn’t lying on the floor for any of these shots (would have attracted some very funny looks if I had!). Most cathedrals are massive enough that you can simply look up and take the shot. :)

      I used a variety of cameras and lenses, about half of the ones here with my Olympus EM-5 and 12-40mm F/2.8. Focal lengths across all images range from 16mm (FX -top image) to 60mm (m4/3: equiv 120mm).
      Not sure why the brand of equipment matters so much, as these shots are attainable with any brand ;) There are probably 2 brands of camera here and three brands of lenses used; hopefully the fact that one can’t tell which was used for which shot proves that it doesn’t matter that much :)
      The article has over 30 images, so I probably won’t list all the different cameras and lenses here, and in any case it was intended to stimulate imagination for compositions, rather than be a technical piece about camera gear. Hopefully readers will think about seeing differently whatever camera they are using.
      Hope this is ok :)

      Regards,
      Sharif.

  10. 15
    ) ZEESHAN MITRA
    July 4, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    Wonderful images.

  11. 16
    ) Alec Trusler
    July 5, 2014 at 12:20 am

    Very nice article with some amazing images, I love the angles that you have taken some of the images makes them more interesting.
    Would love to know what your setup was iso etc, and I guess that most shots were handheld and not using a tripod..

    Thanks.

    • July 5, 2014 at 1:27 am

      Hi Alec, thank you.

      Yes, all the shots were hand-held. ISOs range from 200 to 1600, a variety of focal lengths from 16mm (FX) to 60mm (m4/3: 120mm equiv). Apertures range from F/2.8 to F/14 (a narrow aperture brings out the sunstars better (as in shot 11)). DOF is greater with the smaller m4/3 sensors at any given focal length anyway, but for deep interior shots I probably used between F/4 and F/5.6 on my EM-5 to strike a balance between DOF and ISO.
      Hope this helps :)

      Regards,
      Sharif.

  12. 20
    ) Beta Tango
    July 5, 2014 at 4:50 am

    Beautiful photos but lack of any technical details (until people started asking in the comments) really bites.

    When I was first starting out and wanted to start shooting images like the ones I saw the pros taking the first step was to find out the technical aspects. This included Film (we are talking pre digi) and lenses used, F stops and details of the exposures. This doesn’t negate the absolute essentials of knowing what you are going to go and shoot and how, but sure sent me down the right path.

    If you are using lightroom there are plugins which will render your camera details, lens used, exposure settings etc on the photos when you export. This information alone would have been tremendous. Adding in how you enhance the images would also have helped.

    Inspired by the photos yes. Two thumbs up.

    Educated – not at all :-(

    • Profile photo of Daniel Michael
      22
      ) Daniel Michael
      July 5, 2014 at 5:35 am

      I’m the same as you Beta, in that I do like to know settings for some really great shots that I see. It has helped me over the years, more so for close work than scenery. However, knowing how Sharif likes to emphasise the idea that gear isn’t the issue and these shots are all about framing, I think the lack of info is a good idea. It actually makes you concentrate on the positioning and the lines as opposed to the settings and the camera/lens. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the brighter shots could have been taken on a good smartphone, but the aim of the article is not about that.

      Daniel

    • July 5, 2014 at 5:57 am

      Well said, Daniel, and entirely correct.
      Not to take anything away from Beta’s point which I completely understand, but yes, the aim of the article was to suggest compositional opportunities within cathedrals, and how they can enable us to ‘see’ better, irrespective of the gear we use. I’d much rather spend my time writing about that than listing EXIF data for 30-odd photos :)
      Ultimately, I hope people will take away some compositional ideas and use their own gear, initiative and perspective to make their own unique shots. :)
      I understand your (Beta’s) point entirely, but speaking personally, whenever I see other people’s photos that I like, I try to learn from their composition and how they saw things rather than worry about what gear they used. That’s how I improved my photography :)
      I am sorry if this does not meet your expectations. If there are any specific images you would like info for, please let me know and I will endeavor to get that info to you. But I hope you will be inspired to make your own unique (and better!) shots with whatever gear you have :)
      Regards,
      Sharif.

  13. 21
    ) Framcisco Javier Díaz Benito
    July 5, 2014 at 5:17 am

    Hello Alpha Whiskey:
    I think you are wrong with the spectacular photo number 21 “Marble Church” of Copenhaguen.
    I was there last year and I took this photos of Frederiks Kirke or Marble Church of Copenhaguen:
    http://www.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#view=photo&position=502&with_photo_id=91455310&order=date_desc&user=4672065
    So, I wonder where did you shot this amazing pic.

    • July 5, 2014 at 5:41 am

      You might be right there Framcisco. I had the image in a folder of shots from Copenhagen, so I assumed it was from there since that was the only church/cathedral that I remember visiting in the city. But I’ll check on it. I apologise if it’s mis-labelled :)

  14. 25
    ) Keith R. Starkey
    July 5, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Thanks very much for the article.

  15. 26
    ) Dom
    July 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Hi Alpha, the widest lens I own is 35mm on full frame, is it sufficient for Catheral shots?

    • July 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

      Hi Dom,

      Any lens is sufficient for photographing cathedrals. It all depends on how you want to see them. If you want to capture the scale of the interior, then a wider lens might be better (14mm to 24mm). If you want tighter frames, then 35mm or 50mm will suffice; details might call for a fast lens with a wide aperture, or a longer focal length to give you better subject isolation.
      Hope this helps :)

      • 28
        ) Dom
        July 6, 2014 at 5:20 pm

        Thanks Alpha. That’s very helpful :)

  16. 29
    ) Alvaro
    July 7, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Alpha:

    This is a very interesting article with quite spectacular photographs to support your point of view, your perspective.
    As earlier posts have mentioned, it would add a bit more if you suggested focal length ranges, however, that’s up to the writer of the article (that’s you).
    As you perfectly mentioned in the article, cathedrals are like caves, some are really dark, some have openings for that magical glimpse of light, however, I would like to ask your take or opinion on using auto ISO, in order to let the camera figure out one of the components of the exposure, leaving you the aperture (which would be the most important thing in this type of photography)?
    And another question is, what is your opinion when you visit a cathedral and see the no “cameras allowed” sign (ie Sacre Couer) and suddenly you see disrespectful people taking photos?
    And one last comment, although I inspire myself in observing work like yours and try to figure out the perspective used, the composition and even time of day, some photographs that tend to be technically tricky, it would be of great use if you would share exif data (like ISO, focal length, EV compensation, shutter speed). Notice that I’m staying away at all costs of what gear used, since I’m not a believer that gear makes a photographer.

    • July 7, 2014 at 5:06 pm

      Hi Alvaro, thank you for the questions. I will do my best to answer them thus:

      I think auto ISO is a good idea, and on most cameras is quite effective (although some have a tendency to pick the maximum ISO too easily). I tend to shoot in aperture priority, adjusting only as I see fit. I set the maximum ISO for auto ISO to 1600, so all exposures will be there or below depending on the light, and the camera will determine the shutter speed. If I set the ISO low myself, the EM-5’s image stabiliser is good enough to allow me to shoot at the resultant slow shutter speed hand-held without any problems.
      If I see that no cameras allowed, then I always respect that instruction, and I am very disappointed to see people ignoring or disobeying it. (There must be a good reason why photos are not allowed, either to prevent the use of flash which can be damaging to old surfaces or artwork, or because there is a privately sponsored art collection, or simply for privacy reasons.) Even in St Paul’s Cathedral here in London you sometimes see people disobeying that instruction, although now they have rather unpleasant thugs in suits hassling people to put their cameras away. Bit of shame to see that in a cathedral, which is ultimately a building of peace and worship. But I believe one must respect the wishes of a place that is gracious enough to open its doors to visitors.
      As I have indicated in the article and on other comments, this was never intended to be a technical piece, as there are plenty of those already out there, but merely suggestions about what to photograph. I understand that it can be helpful but I would prefer to use my time to make those suggestions rather than list EXIF data for 30-odd photos. But if you would like EXIF data of any particular images let me know and I will endeavour to get you that information.
      Hope this helps :)

  17. 31
    ) Martti Wallin
    August 4, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    The technical aspects of these photos are rather complex and always a combination of capture parameters combined with processing parameters, which all are largely hardware and software specific. Requesting a complete listing of these parameter is unreasonable IMHO and instead I wish to express my thanks for sharing the results and the narrative that came along. Very nice pictures indeed.

    Having a facination with the subject matter myself, I only wish to emphasize, that we are usually faced with extreme contrasts, so having the highest possible dynamic range sensor is preferred. Always shoot raw and bracket your exposure: only at the computer you finally find out which exposure gave you best balance between shadow noise and burned highlights. The parameters and techniques used are very much a personal choice and I encourage everyone to experiment with the eqipment you have.

  18. 34
    ) Thomas Stirr
    September 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Hi Sharif,

    Great images and article! I will try and keep this in mind when near buildings of this type of grandeur.

    Tom

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