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How to photograph a derelict Abbey

Derelict abbeys range from small to very large sites, from markings on the ground to towering masonry, from large sites to sites where getting back far enough is a challenge. While many are open to the sky, some have parts that are roofed or other areas where lighting is short.

In addition to the documentary photography of the relic, we have the potential for romanticised shots, scenic views, often nature captured and more besides.

From a presentational point we could use black and white, or other duotone, silhouettes, include clouds, sunsets, vary the perspective, the depth of field, play with white balance, and a wide range of other options. Perhaps its a topic we could represent well in 3D.

In this article we look at how we can best go about photographing one of these sites.


Before we visit, we can:

  1. Check out the location guide, using the Abbey Section, the topic index or the county indexes on this site if we have one.

  2. Check our alphabetic or county lists of abbeys to see what is shown and what links we have.

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

  4. 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.

  5. Check to see if its covered within Wikipedia as this may provide not only the history but mention of specific features.

  6. By this point you may also be aware if its a site run by English Heritage, the National Trust, Cadw, Historic Scotland or some other organisation and can see what is shown on their website.

  7. Run an internet search to see what else is shown that may be of interest.

You may also be able to estimate how long you will require now at this site and look for other opportunities, in the same area so as to make the most of your travelling time.

You will want to note the opening times and access arrangements.

Some sites when you arrive will have guide books, however many are unmanned and do not, although information panels and labels around the site is often present. On some large volume sites audio tours are also available. Normally having done the research before you will be aware of the layout and  be able to get on with the photography, deciding before you leave if a guide book, if available, would be interesting for later reading.

Time of Day

Abbeys are often laid out in the same basic layout, and from the aerial photos you can see if there is anything unusual about the site. Generally as the abbey church lies east west, early morning the light will be coming through the remains of the main window at the eastern end above the alter and chapels, while by evening the sun is going to be shining through the opposite end above what was the great west entrance. They don't all lay at the same angle, early churches followed the earlier Pagan and pre-catholic Celtic church pattern, of pointing to the sunrise at the day associated with the deity or saint they were dedicated to. Some like Wells Cathedral,   has changed direction on each rebuilding or expansion and clear differences can be seen. Initially this allowed early Christianity to wrap around and include other beliefs, with many of the early churches built on previous Pagan sites, and by necessity at the time pointing the same way as the temple it replaced. With closer inspection you may find several alignments, perhaps making the birthdays of its sponsors or founders. You may find a well or font located in the south wall or transept, that may also be arranged on specific alignments.

You can deduce the angle of the sun at the time you propose to visit and if a special site of special interest to you, you may be able to time your trip to get the lighting you want, both by time of year and time of day. If its a sunny day you are going to have shadows, and knowing where these are likely to fall may be of special interest to you, but you may also know you will have contrast problems to overcome.


As you will know when we tilt the front of the camera up, we produce an effect where the building reduces in size as it gains in height, the more we have to tilt it up the more perspective effect is encountered, and with extreme tilts it may look as if the building is slopping backwards. We may also have a depth of field problem in that the distance to the top is much greater than the distance to the bottom. We may want this, but at other times we may want to make the building stand up straight, which can be done by:-

  • being back far further and using a longer lens,

  • using wider angle lenses and keeping the camera pointing level, sectioning out lower dead area if necessary

  • using expensive special perspective control lenses, but these are usually not wide enough for our use with these buildings

  • shooting with enough spare area at the top and sides that we can use facilities in Photoshop to straighten up the building

On many sites where we have low level remains, we can arrange some shots with these in the foreground, and by this means have an interesting foreground as well as the main structures standing near straight.

Often its the sheer scale of buildings that presents us with perspective challenges. See Making Buildings Stand Up Straight for more help on how to get over this perspective problem.

Creating more interesting shots

Getting interesting and artistic shots is often possible, perhaps shooting through an archway, or using one part of the remains to balance another part, perhaps showing detail in the foreground with a larger iconic shape in the background. Many well known artists over the years have been drawn to these remains, and produced striking images, take John Constable for example, while you may think of his image of Salisbury Cathedral from the water meadow and from the Bishops grounds, he also included historic remains in a number of his pictures.


Given the scale of these buildings and the time when they were created, often built by a small number of people, and fast, the structure and way they were put together is always interesting, as are many of the features. The carvings, drainage, layout, structures and how it was enlarged over time. Take the re-redorter, for example this was the monks water flushed loo, with partitioned space for a large number to be seated at once, Canterbury had 55 seats while Lewes had 66, arranged above a channel that was able to be flushed or was a running stream or river diverted for the purpose. It can be found near the monks dormitory, (dorter), and was a quiet and pleasant part, nicknamed the third dorter at Canterbury as the monks had a habit of falling asleep while there. We find the remains of these at many sites, often with the water still running through them, some have a single channel, others have an elaborate multi channel system. There are many other parts we can look at.  Most have their cloisters and main abbey buildings south of the church, this made sense as it meant they had light and were not living in the shadow if their church, but a small number are built back to front, going north, why in many cases we don't know. This and many other mysteries await your thoughts, and documentation.

Including people

People can be included in shots for a range of reasons, perhaps to illustrate the scale and size of the place, perhaps to use them to draw our attention to a specific feature as we naturally look to see what they are looking at or moving towards. You can choose to have people walking towards you, perhaps making them more dominant and identifiable or walking away from you, more helpful in scale and dramatic effects and less identifiable. Perhaps there are children playing, perhaps making daisy chains or exploring some recess or another, while in towns photographing children may now get stupid responses, in the countryside you don't normally encounter these problems.  Usually there is insufficient that is complete to consider dressing someone up in period clothes, but in some cases this is a possibility. 

There are many of these sites that are very quiet, and the popular ones you can often get to early and avoid the coach tours, or perhaps you want to include a large number of people for your interpretation.

Exposure and other technical considerations

We have already looked at perspective above, but we also have to consider depth of field, colour and exposure.

The depth of field challenge often comes about through including interesting foreground information as well as more distant larger structures, or trying to document the layout of the site by including several parts at different distances. If there are few people about we may be able to use a tripod and drop the speed, to allow us to get a large f number, small hole, giving us more depth of field, while if there are people about we may decide to increase the ISO to allow us to achieve the same results without using a slow speed.

Exposure challenges are often made worse on bright days when we want to include skies but also shadow areas inside remains, in these cases the brightness difference is too great to get good images straight off. There are solutions, using several images at different exposures taken on a tripod and put together afterwards, HDR techniques but often when shooting in RAW format we can shoot so that the highlights are retained and then bring out the detail in the shadow areas later. In most cases we can't use graduated filters as there is no simple division between bright and darker areas, with often large chunks of shadow masonry sticking up into a bright sky.

Colour in shadows as you will know is different to that in direct sun, and we may have in some cases, particularly when including areas of deep shadow as well as sunlight areas. In most cases this is the least of our concerns and at least to start we can perhaps put up with this, latter in editing providing we are shooting in Raw we can always produce two versions with different white balance settings and merge them together selectively. Alternately we may in some cases be able to use flash to lighten shadow areas, flash is the same colour as sunlight. For some situations we may need a number of flash units, perhaps with Nikon system using the creative lighting to set up and take the images. We always have 2 and usually have 4 flash units with us when out at these sites, although rarely use them all.

Other possibilities

There are often endless other possibilities, such as extreme wide angles, stitching images to make panoramas, perhaps a high shot or extremely low one, perhaps a reflection or water in the shot, and we can think about how to represent it set within the location or countryside, or clashing with modern traffic or other aspects.  Perhaps you may be able to also get other special shots such as the buildings after a snowfall, and after a rainstorm, the stonework may show its colours more. We could also start to consider how we get either our camera or us as well into the air, or what images would make really effective 3D images.

What I hope I have illustrated is that you can be in control, creating your images, telling the story you wish to and doing far more than being a snap shot tourist. Abbeys and other remains offer you, as a photographer, a wide range of opportunities and challenges, and as well as the better known sites can be found locally everywhere.

See Also:

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

How to photograph an abbey or cathedral that is still in use


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

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