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How to photograph an Abbey or Cathedral
that is still in use


In this article I want first to explore where you can take photos and costs etc, then look at researching your visit, if you are aware in advance, that you propose to take photos in this location and finally look at the technical aspects involved in getting good photos.

We have a second article looking at taking photos in abbeys and other religious buildings that are historic remains, as some aspects are different, and they normally don't have a roof on, so where shortness of light may be a problem in religious buildings in use, too much or too high a contrast can be the problem with historic remains. Planning is also different, however you will find it worth reading both articles.

Photography allowed

Most cathedrals, abbeys, churches and other religious places allow photography, many encourage it, as a means of spreading their message to more people, and because more people will get to know of their place of worship and wish to visit it.  With the larger ones, ideally know in advance what the rules and arrangements are, many will have volunteers around and may ask you if you have permission, even if you don't need it, and having clarified the position allows you to explain the situation to them. This is more likely to happen in places that fall into the small tourist site, that fewer tourists visit, than places with large numbers of visitors, who operate in many ways like a major tourist site.

With parish churches that you visit, usually there will be no one around, and I have never come across any objection to taking photographs in them. Its not normally practical to seek clarification first, and often when out you are not aware in advance where you are going to visit and if you do, if there is anything that you would like to photograph. It is usually those places that have larger numbers of tourists that have charges.

Large church structures are expensive to maintain, and today often run heating much of the year. There are a variety of ways that they hope those visiting them will assist with this, it may include donations, it may be by charging entry fees or it may involve the sale of camera permits. Some however may have no financial expectation and just welcome all visitors. The costs of photographing in these buildings is not excessive, typically a 5 entry fee or perhaps a 3-7 photo permit. This is comparable to entry to other tourist sites.

There may be 'no commercial photography' restrictions in some places, but this should not concern you unless you are expecting to take a team of people on a commercial shoot, or proposing to photograph fashion or something. In these cases, as with the filming of Harry Potter and other films, many religious buildings are available, but at a price.

The photography will be principally for your own use, for research, your portfolio or to illustrate something you are writing, its unlikely that you will find any large market for photos of the inside of religious buildings. The larger more spectacular will already be well represented in picture libraries and unless you have a lot of specialist knowledge you are unlikely to spot others that might have some special appeal. Therefore if asked, I would always say that the photos are for your own use, even if on the odd occasion you do find some other use for one or two. On a day when we photographed three religious buildings in a day, and between us took around a thousand photos,  if in the future I was to sell 5 of these, it would be only 0.01% of the images taken, so the majority have to be considered as being taken for my own private interest.

Although we are allowed to take photographs, there may be specific items that they wish us not to photograph, and we should respect their wishes even if they are based on incorrect information.

Its a common misconception  that flash lighting can cause items to fade. Although a flash is quite bright when close, the time this is for, is for an extremely tiny fraction of a second, so just about any light, even the weakest has far more light per hour falling on something than you could generate from a series of flash photos, therefore flash has no fading effect whatsoever.  A powerful Nikon flash like the SB800, would typically be running at about a 16th of its power when near to something, at this power the duration of flash is just 1/10,900th of a second, even at full power the longest flash is just 1/1050th of a second. At full power and with a high ISO, and medium to long zoom, this can light a distance of over 70 feet. The power of light diminishes to a quarter every time you double the distance, so the actual light that falls on an item some way away is far smaller then you may think, what you notice is the change in brightness rather than the actual light. 

As these buildings were, and often still often are, principally places for religious services, even where allowed I would suggest you plan your visits so as to not be taking photographs while a service is in progress, as this can be a distraction for those attending, and may also cause offence in some cases. In some you are not permitted to take photographs when services are running.

In some cases you will come across other restrictions, perhaps limiting the use of tripods, photography in certain places, or of specific items. You won't normally find objections to you using a tripod, providing that you are not blocking an area people need to move through or likely to be causing a risk or obstruction to others.

Climbing on parts of the building, standing on pews, and going into any area that is fenced off from public access should also be avoided unless you specifically ask if you can do it. Often parts of the building in areas that the public do not normally walk will be accessible to you if you ask, particularly if you have a reason, for example to get a better photograph of a stained glass window, panel or similar. There may also be alarms in some cases designed to detect people that may be removing church plates, art or similar, and going into some fenced off areas may set these off, when you ask these can usually be easily turned off.

Access to some other parts of the building for example climbing the tower to get a view from the top, or visiting the crypt, is often a scheduled excursion that happens at set times, or specific days, but if you particularly want to do this at some other time then contact them in advance and they may be able to arrange this with you. If you haven't arranged it in advance then it depends on who is around, you may be able to get permission on the spot. Similarly if you have a particular interest such as church organs, or specific architectural features it may be worth clarifying in advance the access that you wish to have.


Some you will find we have location guides for and over time, we would hope to have many more, covering at least the principle and larger places.

We have a listing of all the Church of England cathedrals and larger churches plus some others of specific historic interest that are still in use. On this listing you will find links to the location guides we have available, links to Wikipedia pages explaining their history, and in some cases architecture and in most cases links to their own websites. Some will also appear on on featured abbeys listing. and amongst our larger listings of all abbeys and county listings of the same. So check our alpha or county lists of abbeys to see what is shown and what links we have within the Abbey Section.

You can access all of this and more from the Abbey and Religious Buildings section of this website.

Just about all the larger places  and many of the others you will find have websites. In some cases you will find photography mentioned, particularly if they are a tourist site or if they make a charge. Where there are restrictions these are also shown. Where its not covered on the website, you have two choices, go along and see if there are any sign's when you arrive, or call in advance to clarify the situation. I have never come across any restrictions on photography of the outside of the buildings and most are so large that they can be photographed from a public right of way so you could take them anyway. Also check on the website for entry times, entry charges, and special events, for example weddings, regular services, concerts or filming.

Have a look at an aerial photograph using Google maps, most are clearly visible and it gives you a good idea of the site layout, and amount of the ancient abbey that is present in buildings that now stand. At the same time you can also see maps to see how you find it.

Both Wikipedia entries and their own websites will also have some photos, but also check Geograph, the location square is shown in our abbey lists, but you can also use their search,  and perhaps flickr as well. This allows you to see what others have shot, and gives you a better idea of what is there. You sometimes also see problems others have had and can think in advance about how you will overcome these challenges.

If you have unanswered questions its probably worth contacting them before making a trip, before travelling far. You will find that some only man telephones for specific periods of the day, and on occasions, particularly where not a popular tourist site, they may have to get an answer from someone else and get back to you so plan to do this long enough in advance to make this possible.

Timing your visit

At different times of the day the sun will be entering the building by different windows, and producing different lighting effects and shadows, at different times of the year the sun is at different heights in the middle of the day. Similarly outside, the light will be from different directions at different times of the day and shadows vary by the time of the year. As churches lie approximately east west with the main alter east'ish, you can predict where the sun is likely to be at any time, and with a sun compass or similar work it out precisely if you wish. The actual angle they are at varies, early ones pointed to the point where the sun rose on the day associated with the saint they were dedicated to, and in some cases the birth date of the major sponsor. Some over time have been rebuilt and the angle on each rebuild changed, this can be seen at Wells Cathedral.  

As most of these buildings are in use, the decoration, alter cloths and some other items may change according to the season or for specific religious events or days. Many also have flowers in and the flowers will usually vary depending on what is in season. You may also find at Harvest Festival and Christmas in particular that there are major displays.

Deciding what to photograph

Of course you could just photograph everything, and in a large cathedral this could take several days to accomplish. You could take the tourist route and take major views and major items, plus anything specific that catches your attention, or perhaps if you have a more specialist knowledge of religious buildings you may be looking to document specific features that are either special to or well demonstrated in this building. Many of the more spectacular buildings are the church of an Abbey or Monastery, that have been reused after the monasteries were closed down in the time of Henry VIII, and many parts of the abbey will still be evident, the most likely ones that you will spot are the cloisters and chapter house, but many other parts are likely to also be present and probably be now used for other purposes, as all abbeys had a similar content and layout deducing this  is often possible. See The layout of a monastery or abbey,  for more details on this. Many of the features that you come across on abbey ruins can also be found within cathedrals and other larger church buildings or near to them. The more you know about or research the ways these ancient societies ran, the more of what you see, when visiting a major church building today, will fall into place.

These buildings are large, some incredibly so and often in cities land around them having been reused, so you may find that the space that you have available to you to take photos of them is very limited and therefore making them stand up straight may present a problem. However in many cases, particularly with older ones some streets will have been arranged so that you get a good view of them and often from high points, for example multi storey car parks, you can often get at least a different view. Due to their size you may find that other views from some way off across parks and the like also present opportunities, while near to them you may have obstacles and perspective problems. While most ruins are in country locations most in use, larger religious buildings, are in the centre of cities and towns. Having said this much of the way that you deal with perspective problems are similar, and we have looked at this in taking photos in abbeys and other religious buildings that are historic remains.

Photography in large buildings with minimal light

Where these buildings differ greatly from the remains of abbeys, is that they have roofs on, and due to their size, and internal layout, available light may be limited at least in places. Most have very large windows, and their size means that they stand above other buildings, so little blocks their window light. Most were of course developed well before the period when a large amount of light could be created, and in a time when glass was very expensive, were really striking compared to other buildings in the amount of light that entered them. With ruins, often the size of their major windows is more striking than when we see them in a building still in use.

Most, initially, would have had clear glass, and those that had coloured windows had most of them smashed by the puritans in the period of the commonwealth, (Oliver Cromwell etc), so most of the stained glass is far later than the buildings and in many cases reduces considerably the light compared to what would have been originally experienced.

The darkest part of larger cathedrals is usually the quire, its in the centre surrounded by other items often a screen blocks most of the light coming down the naive and transepts and means that windows on the side are some way off, in addition a division often between the main alter and chapel under the main window to the east may cut out more light.

There are two main options we can use, flash or available light. As flash diminishes in power rapidly with the increase in distance, in many cases you will not have enough flash power to cover large areas, but can use it for closer items if you wish. The other solution with flash is to have a number of flash units off the camera and placed within the scene so as to illuminate parts, perhaps if you use a Nikon you might use the creative lighting system to achieve this. This can produce very good results but needs time, lighting stands and probably an assistant or two to be done, and you may start to get questions asked if it looks too professional a job you are doing.

My preference is to use available light, this is often best done using a tripod, although the exposures may not be very long if you can use a high ISO. High ISO can create noise, but on many of the later cameras this is not really noticeable, and with stone buildings is lost in the texture of the stonework. Its worth running some tests yourself with your camera both inside and outside to see how much impact noise has, and what you feel happy to use.

Taking photos with lower or normal ISO's perhaps 400, is also possible when using a tripod and exposures will be longer. What you may want to avoid in most cases is using large apertures (smaller f numbers) as with these the depth of field will be far more limited. If however you are using very wide angle lenses then the depth of field with these is so large that you can use most apertures. As with most of photography it's a case of selecting the compromise that suits you.

The reason I often prefer high ISO's to time exposures, which if long can also create noise, is that I don't have to worry so much about either people walking into my shot or people moving. I often like to include people to show the scale or size of the place.

Exposure wise, you will find that often you need to have some negative exposure variation on, so that highlighted items are not bleached out, but you don't want more than necessary as pulling out the detail may create more noise again, if done in the extreme. You could use two exposures and merge them in editing, or take two from one raw, but in most cases we can just lift the light levels in shadow areas and with a little more editing get great images.

Providing that we shoot RAW images and edit, then the results that we will get with available light is generally more natural and pleasing.

Widening your skills

As there are several of these buildings very near to you, why not give it a go, particularly with a local place, if they charge it may be worth looking at an annual ticket, these are often only just above the cost of a single day, and allow you to experiment, and go back to try out other techniques. You may want to check out the various places within reach of you, as many will not have any charges, while others perhaps will have free parking. The other way to widen your skills and experience is to start with what you can achieve with confidence on each location and then before leaving take a range of experimental or different shots, this way over time you will get to widen the range of techniques and get to understand what will work well for you, giving you different results to match your interpretations of each building.

Watch the abbey and religious buildings section of this website, for additional articles on aspects of photography in religious buildings, this is an area we can add to over time. While it may not be a speciality that attracts vast numbers, it does allow everyone to widen the range of photography skills that are equally applicable in many other areas of photography.

See Also:

Abbey and Religious Buildings Section for all articles, lists and location guides on Abbey's, Cathedrals, Churches, Holy Wells etc.

Featured Abbeys and other religious buildings

Cathedrals & Main Churches in current use

Taking photos in Abbeys and Other Religious Buildings


By: Keith Park Section: Abbey and Religious Buildings Key:
Page Ref: photographing_a_cathedral Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 02/2011

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