5 Tips For Photographing Churches And Cathedrals

I really enjoy architectural photography and cathedrals, churches, temples – most every place of worship – are great subjects for our cameras. For me, the older the structure, the better. Decades or centuries old churches have character and are steeped in history. The carvings and statues inside have their own stories, too. There are some challenges to shooting in and around churches and cathedrals. Here's 5 tips to help you out on your next church or cathedral photo outing.

1. Tell A Story With The Exterior Shot

An exterior shot of a cathedral can be tough. When I first started shooting, I was disappointed with many of the photos I took of churches. In many cities, a church is the historical center of a place and is surrounded by other buildings. When you are visiting the building itself, it can be hard to "fit it all in". Finding a good angle or composition may not be possible. Scaffolding, cranes, and facade coverings are commonplace also (but hey.... it's better these buildings are maintained so future generations can enjoy them, too). 

Seville Cathedral, Spain

Il Duomo at dusk, Florence, Italy

Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

Facing these photographic roadblocks can be discouraging, but, don't skip the exterior shot. Instead, find a way to tell a story with the exterior shot. For example, couldn't get an exterior shot of the entire Seville Cathedral. Instead, I included a horse drawn carriage in the foreground with a part of the cathedral in frame (check out the behind the scenes video from the shoot).

Another option is finding an elevated position to shoot from. This is especially effective when a cathedral dominates the skyline, like Il Duomo in Florence, Italy. When you're lucky, a temple is completely isolated such as the Punakha Dzong in Bhutan.

Consider the time of day to shoot the exterior, too. These buildings are usually lit up in the evenings, so the blue hour is a good choice for the exterior shot. And if you're lucky enough to live near your chosen church, consider shooting it in different seasons. A fresh snowfall, autumn colors, or a stormy sky will give your photos very different feels.

2. Raise Your ISO Setting Indoors

The insides of churches and cathedrals are typically dim and they generally do not permit tripods or flash photography. To compensate for the low light, you'll need to raise your ISO. Higher ISOs mean digital noise, so there will be some post processing work. Modern tools like Lightroom, ON1, Noiseless, and so on can handle noise reduction very well.

Sidebar: Be mindful of the photographic rules. Obey them. You can get great photos and stay within the guidelines.

Use the Auto-ISO feature on your camera when shooting in dimly lit churches

It really helps to know how steady your hand-held shooting is. Most people can shoot hand-held at a 1/60 sec shutter speed without noticeable camera shake. I happen to be below average and a 1/80 sec shutter speed is better for me. Here's how I like to shoot inside a cathedral:

  • Set the camera to Manual mode

  • Set the shutter speed to a speed you're confident you can hand-hold without camera shake. For me, that 1/80 sec.

  • Set the aperture for your desired depth of field. When I'm shooting larger sections of the church, I'm at f/8 or f/11. When I'm shooting details, I'm typically at f/4.

  • Set the ISO to Auto-ISO

The Auto-ISO will dynamically choose an ISO sensitivity and give you a good exposure for the shutter speed and aperture you've dialed in.

Take a few shots, check your LCD display, and make any tweaks you need. If your camera doesn't have an Auto-ISO option, start at ISO 800 and work from there. Depending on the location and what you're including in frame, ISO ranges will vary. Going to ISO 6400 or higher is not unheard of.

3. Shoot Scale And Symmetry

Cathedrals and churches are big. Columns, arches, and buttresses dwarf us. Compose and capture that in your shots. A favorite technique of mine is to shoot upward toward the ceiling and have columns rising up from the lower corners of the frame. The diagonals give a feeling of motion to the photo, drawing the eye upward. Another technique is to include a visitor or worshipper in the frame as well. 

San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, Italy

Barcelona Cathedral, Spain

St. Jerome's Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Churches are typically symmetrical, too. Symmetry is a powerful compositional style and churches lend themselves to it. Find the center point of the altar, or stand at one end of the church and shoot the length of the building. Look up, too. The ceilings have their own forms of symmetry.

Sidebar: Here's a fun exercise. On your next visit to a church, see how many compositional techniques you can use shooting the interior? I've covered diagonals and symmetry. What about framing? Repetition? 

4. Shoot The Details

Churches are filled with details. Stone carvings, stained glass windows, ornate decorations... the list goes on and on. Often, we're initially overwhelmed by the size and scale of a cathedral. And I think that's natural. Let that sink in. Then look closer. Soon you'll be finding all sorts of details on columns, walls, even the floor. Get close and do a subject study on a small segment of the whole.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Sacre Coeur, Paris, France

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

The detail shots will complement wider exterior and interior shots when assembling a set of photos to tell the story of the church or cathedral.

5. Find Interesting Light

Cathedrals and churches are a great place to shoot mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Many windows are fitted with stained glass and sunlight can paint the interior in a rainbow of colors. Filtered through the glass, the light is softer. Look for subjects in this soft light. Angled light will also make patterned shadows when it strikes interior support columns.

Mezquita de Cordoba, Spain

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Spain

You may even be treated to the so-called "God rays" filtering in from windows and openings closer to the roof... how apropos!

There you go! Like any location, take the time and get a good look around the cathedral before pressing that shutter button. And when you find that special subject, use these tips and you'll get a better photograph.

Do you have a tip that's not on the list? Share! And feel free to post a link to your favorite church or cathedral photo.