5 top tips for photographing historic buildings

First published:
August 26, 2022
February 6, 2024

5 top tips for photographing historic buildings

First published:
August 26, 2022
February 6, 2024

Girl walks up Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal by Stephen Barna

How to take photos of old houses, castles and stately homes

Whether it's a castle or an old fort, a stately home or a church, there is no doubt that historic buildings have a unique place in the world of photography. Packed full of history and stories and in various states of disrepair, spending a few hours exploring historic buildings can be immense fun, but can come with a lot of challenges. Here are some of our top tips to get you started… 

1 What lenses to take

Kilchurn Castle. Photo by Matthew Baxter

Historic buildings can be extremely claustrophobic and difficult to take photographs in. So pack a wide-angle lens, or a wide-angle zoom lens, to maximise your chances of fitting in as much as possible when you're working in tight spaces. A 24mm lens or below should do the job. Even when you're outside the property you'll not need a zoom lens, with 50mm prime lenses more than enough for facades and close-ups from the building’s vicinity.

Author tip: Historic buildings very often have fascinating ceilings, but taking photographs of them in tight spaces can be difficult. Instead of trying to use a tripod to point your wide-angle lens at the zenith, consider just using a 10 second shutter delay. It can be a little trial and error, but placing your camera on the floor, LCD screen down, and running out the room to stand around the corner for a few seconds can herald expansive results.

2 Other camera gear you’ll need

Cardiff Castle Interior. Photo by Andy Griffiths

What a lot of historic buildings lack is light. You can maximise the light available by coming at different times of the day, all of which will cause different effects, but plan on using your own LED lights and speedlights if they’re permitted inside. Don’t forget to take along some spare batteries or a smartphone battery, depending on what is relevant for your gear.

The lack of reliable light at historic buildings means you will also need to take a tripod with you as well as an intervalometer (for operating your camera from afar) or a shutter release cable (for operating your camera from close by – though be sure to add at least a two-second delay). Before you get to your location carefully check opening times and any restrictions that apply, especially when it comes to photography permits, which may have to be purchased in advance. Some properties don't allow tripods or flash, so it's best to check in advance. 

Author tip: Although it's tempting to rely on one tripod, and the smaller the better, you'll have more freedom to be more creative if you bring a mix of different ways to support your camera. A full-size, or thereabouts, tripod is always handy, though just as useful might be a tripod with flexible legs that can be bent around the branch of a tree, or attached to some railings. 

3 Coping with low light

The refectory. Photo by Marcus Hennen

If you want to capture dark and dingy rooms in detail you have three options; you can bump up the ISO, you can try longer exposures or you can rely on exposure bracketing (whereby you take three photographs each exposed for different lengths of time and blend them in post-processing). If you go for exposure bracketing then you’ll reveal more dynamic range, which will allow you to later create an HDR (high dynamic range) photo.

Although HDR photography has got a bad name in recent years for its association with garish and unreal-looking photos, when used properly it can be a powerful tool in crafting natural-looking compositions. If you use Photoshop then it’s easy enough to post-process the resulting three images simply by selecting them and choosing the ‘merge to HDR’ option. 

If you're going to use the exposure bracketing technique a lot, it's wise to take along some large capacity SD cards. After all, if you're shooting in 30 megapixels and you're taking three exposures for every composition then you’re going to use up a lot more storage than usual. 

Author tip: when done properly HDR images can look fantastic, but making your entire image bright and the details within easily visible is an aesthetic decision. Just as valid is to embrace light and shadow, allowing bright highlights to shine through while the rest of the shot is in darkness. That’s best done on sunny days when light is streaming in through windows or gaps. 

4 Be careful and have respect 

Kolmanskop, Namibia. Photo by Peter Svensson - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/50s

Even if they're well preserved and have orderly queues to get in, historic buildings are fragile. Don't go clambering on things you shouldn't and don't go into rooms with fallen ceilings or other obvious dangers, however good they look as subjects for your compositions. As well as being respectful to other people in the vicinity, think about other photographers he will come after you. Don't move things about in the room just to create a better composition and don't ruin dusty or sandy floors with your footprints and tripod marks if you can possibly help it. 

Author tip: You’ll often find intricate carvings and other architectural detail around historic buildings that is difficult to do justice in macro shots. So a useful technique when around historic buildings is focus stacking or focus blending, which describes the process combining multiple images taken at different focus distances to produce one image with a greater depth of field. Check out our focus stacking masterclass in Adobe Photoshop

5 Join a photography tour

A camera with a large lens. Photo by Nikolay Chekalin - f/5 | ISO 100 | 1/400s

The trouble with popular historic buildings is other people. If you wait in line with the general public to take a tour with an expert guide you are unlikely to have the time or the opportunity to take great photos. So consider undertaking a more expensive out of hours one-to-one guided tour, if available, which will afford you a lot more time and freedom.

Another option is to join a local photography tour, during which the guide will have arranged special after-hours access to the historic building. As well as lots of tips on how to take the best photographs, you'll also get a lot of freedom and a lot more time. You might even get the opportunity to photograph the historic building in low light or set against a starry sky without any artificial illumination to ruin your shots – a problem that is increasingly affecting historic buildings at night. 

Author tip: Historic places have incredible stories to tell. As a photographer, you are a storyteller. So before you go to your location and begin taking photographs do some research. Whether that's some reading online before you go, or just a scan over the information boards at your destination, a basic understanding of what happened and in which building or room can powerfully influence how you use your camera to tell a story.
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