5 top tips for taking photos of the remains of abbeys, castles, forts and other ruins

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Historic Photographer of the Year calls on photographers to explore and capture the best historic places that the world has to offer.

Whether it’s a ruined medieval fortress, a secluded religious sanctuary or an Iron Age earthwork, historic sites are among the most stunning and provocative places to photograph on Earth.

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Would you rather photograph a new car or an old castle? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for many photographers there’s far more to love about a decaying old ruin or a crumbling facade than there is about a new car or modern architecture. From abbeys and castles to forts and castles, with some basic information you’ll be able to capture scene-setters, close-ups and more featuring everything from crumbling arches and stairwells to walls and columns. Here are some of our top tips to get you started … 

1 Gear to take with you

The great Cistercian abbey at dawn. Photo by The Mountain Photographer - f/16 | ISO 100 | 1/1000s

Don’t overpack. Whether you’re going to be spending the day in a busy tourist site or you’re going to hike to a remote ruined church on a hillside, comfortable shoes or boots are a must. A heavy camera backpack is not. If you have a 24-70mm or 24-105mm zoom – a.k.a. a ‘travel zoom’ lens – you should be covered for shots you intend to take in and around the ruin. If the ruin is in a dramatic landscape (as many are) then you’ll get more use out of a 70-200mm or even along 300mm to 500mm telephoto lens. If the latter then you’ll certainly also need a tripod.

Author tip: An easy way of finding ruins wherever you are is to search online for the name of a town and the word ‘ruin’ or ‘abandoned’. Used in conjunction with a maps app you should be able to find some kind of decaying nearby building to go photograph. In the UK, monasteries and abbeys are sure-fire ruins because they were almost all destroyed by Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 16th century. 

2 Do your research

Whitby Abbey. Photo by Linda Ullathorne - f/4 | ISO 100 | 1/320s

Ruins are the survivors of dead cultures. They allow us to see the past and, ultimately, preview what will happen to everything that exists today. So do your research. Find out at least some basic details about the ruin you are going to visit. If you don't then you could miss something of pivotal importance. For example, maybe part of the ruin you are going to visit is aligned to the Sun on the equinox. That may be of no interest to you, but you'll be kicking yourself if you find that out a few days after visiting in March or September. Similarly, knowing there was a murder in part of the building you’re capturing could give you an idea for a series of photos, or at the very least something to put in the caption. 

Author tip: The golden hour is the period just after sunrise and just before sunset when the Sun is just above the horizon. At that position it projects a soft natural light and warm colour temperature on everything that shines upon. It's a quality of light that is impossible to fake and gives photographers a lot more options than the harsh light of midday. It's no surprise that most photographs taken outside, such as landscape photography and architectural photography, are taken during a golden hour.

3 Think about composition

Arabian Ruins. Photo by Ronan Shenhav

Whatever the fame or the incredible story behind what you’re about to photograph, never assume that your subject matter will speak for itself. Only a powerful composition will do that.

A good place to start is the rule of thirds, a 3x3 grid of nine squares that you should imagine while looking through your camera’s viewfinder (though most cameras will let you superimpose it). Try to put your subject not at the centre of your composition, but on any of the four points around it on the grid where the lines intersect. 

Author tip: Unless you don't mind having lots of people in your compositions you're going to have to make a little effort if you're anywhere of note. Go to any well-known ruin during the day and you will find colourful jackets and anoraks everywhere you point your camera. So come as early as you can or visit at the end of the day when the Sun is low and the ‘golden hour’ begins.

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4 Better skies and movement

Valle Crucis Abbey. Photo by Andy Blakey - f/22 | ISO 100 | 55s

A photograph of a barren ruin on a hillside or in a landscape will lose its power if it’s under an over-exposed sky. Cue a graduated ND filter, which is grey at one end and clear at the other. It sits in front of a lens and reduces the intensity of light that gets to your camera’s sensor. Since it's graduated it doesn't do that evenly. With the grey end of the filter over the sky, you simply expose the ruins and the landscape around it, but less light will come into your camera from the sky.

It should leave you with something akin to an HDR image. Since ruins are static it can also be worth trying to introduce a sense of movement using clouds. If you happen to be on location while the clouds are moving quickly and then a long exposure will allow them to drift through the image while you slow down your shutter speed to 10 or even 20 seconds. To do that you'll need to use an ND filter.  

Author tip: If you’re going to a ruin surrounded by water – perhaps a castle at the coast or in a lake – then you can have a go at using a graduated ND filter the other way up to create a smooth-looking ‘milky water’ effect in a landscape shot. 

5 Post-industrial landscapes

Old Whaling Station. Photo by Jeni Stembridge - f/3.2 | ISO 80 | 1/60s

‘Ruin porn’ doesn’t always have to mean stones, foundations or arches from antiquity. A ruin can be a few years old. Deserted factories, old docks and harbours, abandoned quarries and post-industrial landscapes can be difficult (and dangerous) places to work, but they can be excellent locations to be creative and get the kinds of shots you only ever dreamed of. Amid rusting machinery and deserted buildings you’ll often find strange protruding patterns, leading lines and shapes, which can look great in silhouette. 

Author tip: The current obsession among photographers for photographs in crumbling and dilapidated buildings is often called ‘ruin porn’, but it’s not a new movement. There was an explosion of interest in antiquity in the 18th century that continues to this day.

SUBMIT YOUR ENTRIES BEFORE 16 OCTOBER 2022

Historic Photographer of the Year calls on photographers to explore and capture the best historic places that the world has to offer.

Entries will be judged by a panel of five judges based on their originality, composition and technical proficiency alongside the story behind the image and its historical impact.

Enter your images and learn more via the link below.

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