Looking to capture gorgeous photos of churches and cathedrals? You’ve come to the right place.
Last winter, I traveled across Europe so I could visit and photograph the old cathedrals and churches, and I had an amazing time. I also learned plenty about the art of church photography – and in this article, I share my top six tips.
Now, photographing churches and cathedrals is a uniquely challenging endeavor; you’re often working in near darkness, surrounded by other folks who can easily become unwanted distractions, all while you attempt to create beautiful, well-exposed compositions. Fortunately, there are lots of easy tricks and techniques you can use to handle such scenarios, starting with:
1. Carefully choose the best church photography settings
Most old churches are incredibly dark, and it’s tough to capture sharp shots that are also well-exposed. So what do you do?
First, make sure that you get your camera off its Auto mode. Set it to Aperture Priority mode (which lets you choose the aperture and the ISO while your camera selects the shutter speed) or Manual mode (which lets you choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO independently).
Remember: To counteract low light, you can make three adjustments:
- You can widen the aperture.
- You can lower the shutter speed.
- You can increase the ISO.
When you’re working in churches, you’ll often want to keep a relatively narrow aperture; otherwise, you won’t have enough depth of field and the scene won’t be in focus throughout.
And unless you’re using a tripod (which often isn’t allowed), you’ll want to keep the shutter speed fast enough to capture sharp handheld shots. (Around 1/80s is a rough cutoff point, but it really depends on your handholding technique, your camera, and your lens.)
So the biggest adjustment you can make when photographing churches and cathedrals in low light? Boost that ISO. Unfortunately, a high ISO does produce noise, but most modern cameras can go up to ISO 800 and beyond without issue. And if your images do end up a little too noisy, you can successfully correct a lot of the problem areas in post-processing.
But don’t only rely on a high ISO. Widen your aperture as far as it can go while still capturing the depth of field you want, and lower your shutter speed as far as it can go while keeping the scene sharp. You can also stabilize your body by leaning against a wall, or you can keep your camera completely still by setting it on the floor or a bench.
That way, you’ll get a photo that’s sharp and well-exposed, even in the darkest conditions.
2. Be quiet and respectful
No matter where you go to photograph, this is probably the absolute most important guideline I can offer:
Have an attitude of quiet respect.
If you’re capturing a famous church or cathedral, people have likely come from all over the world to get a glimpse of the building, and for many, these visits are part of personal journeys of deep meaning. So do whatever is necessary to remain respectful.
First, make sure you’re always aware of your surroundings. If you’re adjusting your angle in order to find a composition, keep an eye out for other visitors because it’s easy to accidentally bump into passersby when you’re staring through a camera viewfinder.
In a similar vein, take steps to avoid disturbing or distracting other viewers. If someone is praying and you wish to take a photo of a nearby window, I’d really encourage you to stay back, shoot from a distance, and plan on cropping if you want to highlight specific details. (A longer lens can be helpful in these scenarios!)
Finally, set your camera to its quietest mode. Some cameras offer a “Silent” or “Quiet” mode, so before heading out to the church, check your camera’s menu (or the manual) so you can figure out how to activate it. If you’re using a mirrorless camera, you may have access to an electronic shutter; if so, then make sure it’s active. (Often, mirrorless electronic shutters are totally silent, which is perfect!)
3. Work quickly and efficiently
Churches have curators and security guards. And unless you contact the church in advance and gain special clearance, there is little chance the church staff will appreciate you taking several minutes to compose a shot. Remember, you don’t want to be a distraction!
So instead of walking around with a camera to your eye, keep your camera around your neck or in your bag. Think about the shots you want. Ask yourself:
- How do I want to compose this image?
- What settings should I choose?
- How can I achieve this image in as little time as possible?
Once you’ve planned out a specific image, then grab your camera. Feel free to make adjustments to the composition and settings as you take your shot, but work as efficiently as you can, and if you run into a major issue (such as a person walking into the scene) consider putting your camera away until you’ve solved the problem.
I wouldn’t encourage you to rush each photo – it’s important that you treat each shot with care – but you shouldn’t work slowly, either. Work as fast as you can while still giving yourself the time you need for a great result. Make sense?
4. Use the window light
As I emphasized above, the lighting in churches and cathedrals is often very limited, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist! Instead, you’ll often encounter a few large, open windows, and these can make for amazing photos – if you know how to use them.
For instance, you can create beautiful images of subjects just inside the windows (such as pews or other architecture). Seek out subjects that are bathed in a stream of light; here, sidelight – where the light comes in at a 90-degree angle from your lens – often looks great and will add a strong sense of three-dimensionality.
You can also capture stunning silhouette photos. Find a large window and adjust your camera settings until the interior of the church is nearly – but not completely! – dark. Then, when a person walks by, press the shutter button. You’ll end up with a beautiful silhouette that helps communicate the grandness of the church interior.
Note: If you’re looking to use window light in your church and cathedral photography, I encourage you to research the position of the sun in advance and time your visit accordingly. When the sun is positioned just right, it’ll blaze through the windows and produce a gorgeous high-contrast effect (though you can also create great shots when the sky is overcast or the sun shines more indirectly; it all depends on the look you’re trying to capture!).
5. Work from different angles
The best church photos tend to communicate a sense of awe, and they also tend to show the space from a completely new perspective.
That’s why I encourage you to shoot from all sorts of different angles. Different angles will give the viewer a new way of looking at the church (plus, interesting angles look, well, interesting).
For instance, crouch low to communicate the size and scale of the church. (Of course, in the interest of remaining respectful, don’t spend too much time crouched down.)
If the church includes a balcony, you can try shooting from high up. Even if there are lots of visitors, a high-angle shot can really encapsulate the mood and feel of the area.
And no matter what angles you use, make sure to keep your compositions simple and compelling. Exclude distractions, consider adding foreground subjects to give the scene a sense of depth, try to include a clear main subject, and follow the basic composition guidelines (such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, and the rule of space).
6. Go when the crowds are gone
If you’re photographing lesser-known churches, this won’t be a huge issue – but if you plan to capture some of the most famous buildings on the planet, you risk scheduling your photoshoot on a crowded date and time.
Now, including people in your church photos isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, adding people to your architectural photography can be a good idea; they’ll add context and can act as key compositional elements. But too many people are (photographically) distracting, and you’ll be forced to abandon certain compositions simply because the scenes are full of people.
I encourage you to research each church in advance. Determine when they’re quietest, and plan to head over during those times. In general, you should avoid school vacation periods, weekends, and mid-morning and mid-afternoon time slots. Instead, go early or late on weekdays, and try to schedule your trip dates when travelers aren’t trotting the globe (e.g., in the winter).
That way, you can capture all the images you’ve envisioned, and you can avoid plenty of frustration, too!
Church and cathedral photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to head out with your camera and capture the beauty of churches and cathedrals.
Just remember to stay respectful, use the light, adjust your settings, and plan your trip carefully. That way, you can create consistently amazing photos!
What churches do you plan to photograph? Which of these tips will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!