Photographing Small Church Exteriors

Many times when we’re on holidays, or driving through rural areas, we may come upon small churches. Often these structures can make interesting photographic subjects because of their local history, or architectural design. This article discusses some of the composition considerations when photographing small church exteriors.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 14 mm, efov 37.8 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

During our recent trip to Ireland we had the opportunity to photograph numerous ruins of churches and abbeys. Access to these locations was typically quite open. Many of the small churches that were still in operation had more limited access with fences and locked gates. This necessitated composing images from a distance, like the church in the above photograph.

The shape of smaller churches can be challenging at times. Including complete spires on small buildings in cramped locations is one such challenge.

Driveways and walkways can serve as convenient leading lines. It can be important to pay attention to small details in our compositions. For example, in the photograph above it was important to make sure the horizon was straight and that I didn’t partially crop the headstones on the right hand side.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 12 mm, efov 32.4 mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-160

When faced with fences, gates and other peripheral structures it can be a good idea to use them as foreground elements. This can add some additional character to an image as well as creating a sense of scale.

As we can see in the above photograph, sometimes a foreground element like the dark, picket gate can compete with the main subject. In this case it takes away from the effectiveness of the leading line formed by the gravel pathway. The picket gate creates a high contrast area in the composition and draws a viewers eye to it. The church in the background is almost overpowered by the gate. Utilizing a vertical composition also added prominence to the gate.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

As we can see in the image above, changing from a vertical composition to a horizontal one can lessen the impact of a high contrast element in the foreground. Intentionally cropping off a portion of the gate, and including some stone details in the bottom right corner, also helped tone down the impact of the gate.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-160

In situations like these it can be helpful to look further up and down the length of the gate, fence or wall. There may be other textures, tones and colours that are better suited to our subject church.

In the photograph above you can see the use of a corner exit. The more muted tones of the stone wall compliment the colours of the church, rather than competing with them. This adds more colour balance in the image and a more integrated feeling to the composition.

There is also a smoother leading line combination that gently takes a viewer’s eye to the subject church. Use of a wider angle focal length helps to create a feeling of distance. Shooting from farther away also enabled me to include the green hillside… with its right to left sweep… into the composition. This helps to direct the reader’s eye to the subject church.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 12 mm, efov 32.4 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

Sometimes the front entrance of a church may be obstructed by trees, shrubs and other elements. Composing our photographs using a side or front-quarter view may be our best option. We may decide to focus on other related parts of the grounds, like a small graveyard. This can create additional context in terms of the importance of the church to the local community.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 26 mm, efov 70.2 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

When photographing small church exteriors another approach is to feature only a portion of the church… like the tower in the image above. Using a vertical composition helps to accentuate the shape of the church tower. Including a number of headstones and aligning them with the tower and the church window help to direct a viewer’s eye upward. Using a longer focal length creates more compression in the visual perspective of the photograph.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

In the photograph above you can see that I walked past the small graveyard so I could use the gravel driveway as a leading line. I also used equidistant composition to frame the tower at the rear of the church. This helps to create a feeling of balance in that portion of the composition.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 13 mm, efov 35 mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-160

When photographing small church exteriors we can also choose to overlap various elements in a composition. In the image above I chose to overlap the stone wall in the foreground with the church. This technique links both elements visually and draws them closer together. This helps create more visual compression in the composition.

While these techniques have been discussed in terms of photographing small church exteriors, they can also be used for other types of structures.

All of the photographs in this article were captured hand-held using Nikon 1 equipment. If you would like to find out more about the Nikon 1 system, you may find our eBook The Little Camera That Could of interest. The eBook is available for purchase and download. It is priced at $9.99 Canadian. Readers interested in purchasing a copy can use the link below.

Technical Note:
All 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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2 thoughts on “Photographing Small Church Exteriors”

  1. Hi Thomas, thanks for the article. I appreciate every advice in the article, I will certainly continue to implement them. In general when there is an obstacle in front of our main subject (and we do not know these principles) we try to make a composition of the main subject without obstructions. I think the way you explain it, the photo is richer and more complete. And it better represents the context of the place.

    I would like to leave some recommendations based on my experience on the site, I think they could be useful.

    In each article you publish, I begin by reviewing all the photos in maximized view. I analyze them trying to recognize the principles of composition that you used and then read the text to see if it was indeed so.

    In relation to that, I am having a little inconvenience when reading the articles. I often have to turn the page up to review the photo after reading the detail below. In my opinion, to eliminate this problem, the photos should always be below the text paragraphs. Since we read the page in a downward direction. However, it is only a recommendation.

    I liked the composition advice, I will apply as soon as I can. It seems that in the last one you used a CPL filter although I may be wrong, it is the one I liked the most in terms of contrast and color. Photo 2 feels a bit HDR, I don’t know if you used a plugin in the edition.

    Probably for a psychological reason, I feel that the white balance you use in your photos is colder than I would use. I live in a country warmer than yours and, perhaps, it is due to that.

    Anyway, thanks and regards.!

    1. Hi Motografia,

      Thanks for your comment! In terms of your issues with viewing the articles, perhaps you could let me know what device you are using with which to read the articles. I believe that my webmaster set the photo size to be 95% of page height. We did this so readers would not have to scroll down on each photo to view it in its entirety.

      In terms of the individual photos included in this article…
      1) No on camera filters were used when creating any of the images in this article
      2) All photos went through my standard process of DxO PhotoLab 2, CS6 and the Nik Collection. I typically do the same basic corrections to all of the images, especially when captured in a series.
      3) I use the auto white balance with my Nikon 1 gear and have done so for over 6 years. I’ve never deviated from that so I’m not sure what would cause you to see my images a bit differently now.


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