One of the countless things I that love about the United Kingdom is the rich historical heritage to be found within our borders. The recent history of our civilisation can be experienced through the hundreds of stately and historical buildings and homes available to the public for visiting.
I realise that in many cases this historical and material wealth has been accumulated at the expense of and loss to other civilisations around the world during times of conquest and empire. But the places that I have visited do not try to hide this fact or present it in a heroic light. Most simply try to provide an experience that briefly puts us in touch with our history and allows us to make our own judgements.
Over the last year or so, I have visited over 25 of these properties, so I may be able to offer an insight into capturing them through a modicum of my experience. There are, of course, many such places all over the world, reflecting the proud heritage of each nation, and thus these insights may be applicable anywhere.
In my humble opinion, many of the photos taken and presented on the websites and printed media of these places simply do not do enough justice to their true splendour, and I have often donated my own photographs to help lure in more visitors (and in a few cases they have been accepted and used!).
Rest assured I don’t work for any of these places or organisations, but my aim is to capture the scale, beauty and details of such venues, enticing the viewer into the world they represent and showcasing the history that they keep alive. Simply put, we should aim for the viewer to vicariously imagine and enjoy these places as much as we did actually being there.
Right, let’s get all the gear out of the way. When I had my my DSLR kit, I would bring a wide-angle lens and a couple of primes. I mounted a Tokina 11-16mm F/2.8 (a DX lens) on a (full frame) Nikon D600 and used it as a 16mm prime (any focal length lesser with this lens and you get vignetting). If you have an FX wide angle then great, go even wider. (I couldn’t be bothered to get one since I was looking to downsize my gear, and most FX wide-angles are quite heavy.) I also brought along the Nikkors 35mm F/2 AF-D and 50mm F/1.8G for tighter framing and small details.
Since going mirrorless, I now mainly use the Olympus 12-40m F/2.8 mounted on my EM-5, and perhaps the 45mm F/1.8 or 60mm F/2.8 for subject isolation or detail work. I find the 12-40mm F/2.8 (equiv 24-80mm) to be very versatile, however, and the bokeh at 40mm is pretty good. It’s also refreshing not to have to keep changing lenses inside rooms with delicate furniture and lots of visitors moving through them!
Some of the large rooms and internal geometry lend themselves very favourably to a wide-angle treatment, as indeed do the hallways. A wide-angle lens will exaggerate their perspective and scale, allowing the viewer to ‘travel’ through their depth.
It is tempting to shoot at a wider aperture to keep the ISO low and shutter speed high, but the shallower depth of field may render some parts of the image out of focus (and in the Tokina’s case, the corners are a little soft on a full frame sensor). This may be desirable for isolating foreground details against a wider background, but capturing a full interior would require a narrower aperture. Most modern cameras are perfectly capable at handling higher ISOs necessary to use such apertures.
Tripods are not practical because of all the other visitors passing by you, and are probably not allowed anyway. Almost all of these types of buildings prohibit the use of flash. Many rooms have light-sensitive materials and textures so interior lighting is minimal. Still, try to use as low an ISO and shutter speed as you can get away with at your aperture. Brace your elbows against your body when you shoot to steady yourself, or crouch down and rest your elbows above your knees. (My EM-5 has a pretty good image stabiliser that allows me to get away with shutter speeds as low as ½ secs).
For the exteriors too, a wide focal length can capture the entire property and its forecourt or garden in a single image, giving the viewer a sense of its immensity. I have even tried making a panorama from several images.
(A panorama stitched in CS5 from five images)
But getting closer to the building (especially with a wide-angle lens) can also exaggerate its architectural beauty. I find shooting close-up from a low position helps to give a sense of the building towering over me. Rendering in black and white reveals the lines and details bereft of any distracting colour. I also try to arrive early to capture shots before lots of people start wandering into them!
Furthermore, the views both to and from these buildings can be quite spectacular. Be aware that a wide-angle may cause many features to seem too far away from you, so a tighter focal length, say 35mm, might be a better choice. Remember that you don’t have to get the entire vista in your shot for it to be appreciated by the viewer. Instead try to offer depth to the scene with both foreground and background elements. A tighter shot can also force you to focus more closely on architectural features.
(m4/3 45mm – equivalent to 90mm)
Longer focal lengths are easy to achieve through the range of my Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 zoom, of course, but the Nikkor primes held their own whenever I used them. 35mm (on full-frame; c.17mm on m4/3) is an effective length at capturing a scene within a room, say, a desk and its paraphernalia, or a fireplace or even furniture. It gives the viewer a more intimate and realistic sense of being in the room and experiencing its time, while still offering a sense of depth.
A longer focal length still, particularly with a fast aperture (e.g. 50mm F/1.8), can help isolate details or individual furnishings.
Do not forget to look up or you may miss a beautifully ornate ceiling, with some stunning carvings, artwork, or both.
Many of these locations have some truly beautiful gardens, ponds and floral arrangements, and using a macro lens or fast prime can really help to isolate the flora and fauna.
There may also be plenty of statues around the grounds. Try to ensure your backgrounds are either clear or provide an interesting context to the statue (e.g the building behind it), ensuring the composition is neat and uncluttered.
Of course, the usual compositional ideas apply. Look for shadows and interesting light, leading lines and patterns, or frame the buildings through foliage. Perhaps find reflections in bodies of water. Having a person in the image can offer a story, context, or simply scale.
Ultimately, these are only mere suggestions and ideas. You will undoubtedly make your own unique shots should you visit these kinds of places. The most important thing is to absorb as much of the place (and its history) as possible, not only for your own pleasure, but to inform your photographic capture of it so that your images may fascinate others too. Thank you. (You can find more detailed descriptions and more photos from each location on my blog.)
(The inevitable selfie! Taken with a remote trigger in my right hand)