Mussenden Temple is one of the most photographed monuments in Northern Ireland. It was built in 1783 by Frederick Hervey, the Fourth Earl of Bristol. The structure was designed as a library and built for the Earl’s niece, Frideswide Bruce. Mussenden Temple became her memorial when she died in 1785.
Perched on a 120-foot seaside cliff, Mussenden Temple was approximately 30 feet (~9.5 metres) from the edge cliff when first constructed. Back in the day it was possible to drive a horse and carriage around the structure. Over the centuries cliff erosion put the structure at risk of tumbling into the sea. In 1997 the National Trust embarked on a cliff stabilization plan to help ensure the survival of Mussenden Temple.
The location of Mussenden Temple presents some interesting challenges from a photographic standpoint. Its precarious perch limits shooting angles. The structure dominates the landscape along this portion of coastline. And, the remote nature of the structure requires a photographer to consider what they are trying to convey with their compositions.
This article features a selection of images of Mussenden Temple, along with some thoughts about composition considerations.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
The composition above provides a sense of balance and has a strong leading line drawing a viewer into the photograph. Equidistant composition technique was used to frame the dome against the sky and sea. Overall a pleasant, but predictable image.
The photograph above also incorporates equidistant composition and a strong leading line. It was captured from the edge of the seaside cliff. The image misses the context of the structure’s location as there are no details of the cliff or sea in the photograph. On the positive side, the leading line is more visually interesting and is more congruous with the main structure.
The image above is a more dramatic perspective. It uses a subject bleed on the right hand side. This creates a ‘larger than life’ presence for the temple. A reader’s eye is drawn into the staircase of the structure. The right hand subject bleed then subtly pushes eye flow to the sea in the distance. This type of composition still makes Mussenden Temple the ‘hero’ of the image, but also provides the viewer with some idea of its precarious cliffside position.
Our next composition does a better job highlighting the cliff side location of the structure. It has a strong leading line which also serves as a corner exit. There is a nice triangular shape formed by the wall and the distant shoreline. This directs a reader’s eye to the main structure in the photograph. The shooting angle in this image did not afford the best lighting. Overall the composition lacks punch.
The photograph above was captured from the shoreline, looking up at Mussenden Temple. It focuses on the location of the structure. You can see some of the erosion protection that has been added to the sea cliffs. The downward sloping, right to left angle of the composition creates good eye flow towards the building.
Photographers visiting Mussenden Temple may want to highlight its dominating presence on the seaside cliff. The composition above accentuates this by creating a very long leading line. Classic rule of thirds composition technique was used.
This image was captured standing on the exact same physical spot as the first photograph in this article. The only difference was the focal length used on my 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 zoom lens. This composition pushes the structure away into the distance. The first photograph pulls it towards the reader and compresses the distance.
The composition above also depicts Mussenden Temple at a distance. It was captured from inside one of the ruins of Downhill Demesne. This framing adds more visual interest and also creates additional context for the temple.
The composition above takes a ‘less is more’ approach. Again, equidistant composition technique is used, as well as rule of thirds guidelines. The image relies on bands of colour to create interest and a layering effect.
Here is the same basic composition but captured using a longer focal length. This small change results in a much different visual effect with the temple building taking on much more prominence in the photograph. Both equidistant composition and rule of thirds guidelines were maintained in the image. The bands of colour are more balanced in this composition. Overall this version is more compelling visually.
Another option is to focus on one part of a structure in a photograph. The image above uses the variegated blue and white sky to frame the dome of Mussenden Temple. This type of composition seldom works with dull, overcast skies.
At times it can be beneficial to completely ignore what could have been a main element in a composition. This image was captured by looking in the opposite direction away from Mussenden Temple. It incorporates a strong leading line (along with it being a corner exit) and utilizes rule of thirds guidelines. A nice sky along with a couple of small boulders acting as foreground interest, make for a pleasing composition and creates a feeling of remoteness.
The photograph above accomplishes a number of important things. Firstly, it illustrates the precarious cliff side position of Mussenden Temple. It has a decent amount of detail of the structure, including the stairway. Overall the composition is balanced and has a good leading line to direct eye flow.
A portrait version of this composition creates better overall eye flow and a feeling of drama. This is a result of a more dramatic leading line, equidistant composition, and good colour balance on either side of the leading line.
Another portrait composition that incorporates a right side subject bleed follows.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.
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