I have the opportunity to photograph a recently renovated old church, a fairly small one, in a small mountain town this coming week (weather permitting). This is actually a church I used to go to myself, and the client is a friend of mine who I know pretty well. I don't usually photograph buildings or architecture, however I would really like to do the best possible job.

I would love to know how to get artistic shots of a relatively small building that is in the middle of a small town. There is a fair bit of unsightly clutter all around nearby buildings, but the church is pretty clean. I'll be doing both exterior and interior shots. Apparently the steeple has recently been fixed up, and other parts of the building have been improved or fixed as well.

I have some pretty good lenses, including the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro, the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L, and the EF 50mm f/1.4. I recently picked up a 430EX II flash and a diffuser cap for it, however I do not yet have any off-camera stands, larger diffusers like umbrellas or softboxes, or even a flash bracket. My camera, the Canon 450D/Xsi, is decent, but does not perform particularly well at high ISO (800-1600).

I have a few ideas about how to photograph the interior, although I would like to hear some more ideas, but I am not really sure what to do about the exterior. Outside of a pretty simple strait-on shot of the front of the church, which wouldn't include a lot of the grunge and decay of the rest of the town, I am not really sure how to take some really great shots of the building that will fulfill my clients expectations.

External resources, links to example photographs, etc. are welcome.


Shoot the details.

The entire story of the building cannot be told by a wide angle shot. You look at the whole building, and you tell a story which everyone else can understand if they stand in front of it.

You see, a postcard does the same. If you have actually walked into a historical building, see every detail of it, you "experienced" the place and its story, from the texture of the floor, the smell, the lighting, the artworks and all other subtle things. You really cannot say you get the same experience just by looking at the postcard.

So, shoot the very fine details of the building, and not just wide angle shots that includes everything. Shoot the floor to show it's texture, shoot the worn down decorations to show that it once was brand new. Shoot the chairs made of stone that so many people sat on, that the sharp edges became rounded and shinny.

Shoot the details, and you get a story that is multi-dimensional, that is rich, that is vivid, and leaves a strong impression. If you love that place, your photos will even show how attached you are to this special place.

Also, shoot new vs old. A brand new piano next to a century old piano that is about to break into pieces and get thrown away, can be an excellent shot to show the history of this place.


How near are the nearby buildings? With building exteriors, I've had good results with low-viewpoint wide-angle shots, with you crouching down or even laying on the ground.

What's the lighting situation inside? You will likely be fighting against high contrast situations -- blown-out stained glass windows, but otherwise very dim interiors. For this, bring a tripod, use a very long exposure (stopped way down and/or with a ND filter), and bring something to "paint" the shadows with light (flash gun or even flashlight). This will be trial-and-error. (Or use HDR techniques.)

Do you have access to unusual parts of the building that the public wouldn't normally see? You also may have privileged viewpoints during a service.

  • The nearby buildings are pretty close...a few "big steps" away in most cases. Across the road there is an open area, so I'll be able to get some distance to photograph the exterior from frontish angles. Lighting inside is decent, not particularly dim. The church is pretty small, and it doesn't really have any hidden parts (I think I've been in every room...the only place I have not been is out back, but that space is pretty small before a mountain climbs strait up into the sky.
    – jrista
    Nov 6 '11 at 4:44

For exterior shots, especially in close quarters (tight European streets, crowds, etc) I highly recommend very wide angle lens. Your 16-35 is just barely enough, the 10-20 might be better. The trick is to get very close to an interesting object, and allow the rest of the architecture to be 'supporting cast' to the object. Interesting angles are also very much helpful.


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The "mountain climbs straight up into the sky" part of your comment intrigues me. Try to figure a way to get this in a shot.

Also, look around for vantage points. Can you get on the roof of a nearby building?

How about a building on the far side of the open space across the street? Your 400mm, from a far perspective, could compress the building up against the mountain.

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