Tag Archives: architecture

What I’ve learnt: The hows of church photography

Crosby Garrett, Cumbria

A rare “pretty picture” for me

As daylight saving cruelly drags us back to GMT, shutting churches earlier, I’ve been catching up on uploading my images from an Indian summer of churchcrawling. I know I haven’t quite been updating this blog as much as I should with my amazing (!) adventures, but the sheer volume of things I’ve been visiting means that south-east views of chancels would rapidly get rather tedious unless I frame them in an interesting way. I would like to do a series of reflections: on the hobby of churchcrawling, the problem open and locked churches, as well as my continuing research, but first I’d like to do a guide to the sort of prosaic photography that suits architectural historians, rather than someone gunning for Flickr favs.

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

For many years now (since mid-2012) I’ve been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ48, a bridge camera with 24X zoom. Until this summer, I had basic rules for the dial. If I was shooting freehand, I have it on “P”, which means the aperture and shutter speed are set for you by the light sensor with this in mind. If I had the camera on a tripod, then I would shoot on “A” – that is, aperture priority, which means you choose the aperture size, and the camera takes a long exposure if necessary. If it was very dark and I needed a very long exposure (more than 10 seconds) I put it on S, “shutter priority” and set it that way.

Coleshill, Warwickshire

Perp chancels, with their massive windows, are a nightmare for photography – especially when they’re cluttered up with nasty MFI furniture for a wedding – but I still took a load of crap pictures.

This was the extent of control I had over the camera. But when I came back from Warwickshire in August for a two-day trip, I found I did have an unfortunate number of duff shots: blurry arcades and over-exposed chancels. I decided to up my game and shoot almost entirely on M:  full manual, in that I set both aperture and shutter speed for every shot. And since all cameras are basically the same – they let light through a hole of a specified size for a specified amount of time onto a light-sensitive surface – there might be someone out there who might benefit from me twaddling on for a bit.

Lichfield Cathedral

Another rare, “aesthetic” picture: the crazy abundance of dogtooth in Lichfield nave

First thing that improved my photos: when shooting on a tripod, set the ISO sensitivity to the lower number possible. This was originally done, in the olden days, by changing the film. Now there should be a button on the back of the camera where you can either lock it at one speed, set it to auto, or choose a maximum value. The only reason you want a higher film speed is if you are shooting freehand in low light or working with a moving subject. Unless you’re working with liturgy there’s no reason you need to this. Your pictures will come out so much sharper.

Audley, Staffordshire

I could not find the light switches here even though the vestry had the key left in the door and they had to be somewhere. Nevertheless, pictures mostly came out okay – just took twice as long as it should have had.

Next, setting the shutter speed. The first time you’re in a dark church and realise you can get great pictures by just taking 10-15 second exposures on a tripod is a marvellous dawn. Sometimes you’re going to want to turn off the lights where possible, as bright bulbs often over-expose and mess up your shots. But it’s also worth controlling the shutter speed when outside too. Cameras are very intelligent these days, but it can only go so far. A black box can’t know that you’re interested in the dark walls rather than the bright windows. However, I’ve found that’s always better to under-expose than over-expose. If it’s a bit dark, you can rescue it at home with some post-processing and upping the contrast and gamma correction. Whiteness means the information has been totally destroyed, and only a magic Blade Runner zoom-enhance-zoom-enhance computer could do anything.

Church Eaton, Staffordshire

Here we have sun on the W tower so it’s possible to balance it with the sky

The same goes for outside: when you’re taking a north side of a church in shade against a bright sky, there’s no way the light sensor know you’re more interested in the dark building than the bright sky. At the expense of over-exposing the blue sky and losing the pretty clouds, you can actually bring out your subject that would get lost in the dark. There’s really no excuse not to set your shutter speed manually all the time. While in filmic past, when plastic bags were free at Marks and Spencers and Pets Win Prizes was top Saturday-night viewing, you wouldn’t see your results until you unpegged them and took them out of your red-lit developing room, you can see them instantly on your camera’s LCD screen.

The other thing to remember is that cameras are like your eye, not like your brain. You might think you can see a dark wall and a bright stained glass window at the same time, but actually, you can’t – you’re seeing them separately and experiencing them together. The only way to get a picture of something bright and something dark in the same picture is to use a tripod and take two different exposures, and do a composite of them in an imaging program when you get home.

Bakewell, Derbyshire

Burlison and Grylls glass enhanced by short exposure to bring out the painting

Stained glass should always be taken on manual shutter speed. But not all stained glass is created equal – a blazing boiled-sweet Wailes in the chancel at sunrise is not the same as a bit of medieval glass cradled in the vestry. You need to get a balance between the luminosity of the glass and capturing the painting. For sunlight directly through glass you can be shooting a 1/1000 of a second. It’s also interesting how you can make quite bad Victorian window look really good by reducing the glare effect of the thin panes – the camera never lies, indeed.

Checkley, Staffordshire

Medieval glass tends to let a lot less light through than Victorian glazing

Nearly all digital cameras have a preview function where if you lightly hold down the shutter button it will show you what it thinks the image will look like. Of course, this isn’t perfect – it won’t work for things that have very low light – but it certainly gives you a good idea how long you need.

St Giles R.C., Cheadle

Pugin’s Cheadle has a very difficult lighting system to work with

Finally, understanding the aperture. Beyond the film speed, there’s only two things to understand how a camera collects the light: how big the hole is, and how long it’s open for. Aperture is measured by F-Stop number. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the hole that lets the light in. This, I find, is more of a matter of practical advantages and disadvantages in church photography than the general benefits to your images with longer exposures. If you’re in very low light, then the necessary length of your exposures become a lot shorter (obvious, really). However, a higher F-Stop means a deeper depth of field and sharper focus. My F-stop only goes up to 8 anyway, which isn’t very good, so it’s not really something I’ve explored. Therefore, unless I want to highlight something in shallow focus or can’t find the light switches, I shoot on high F-Stop.

Kirkby Wiske, North Yorkshire

Curse the mason who came up with that string course

One exception I find is a perennial problem for me shooting my pet subject, sedilia. Sedilia are always built into the south wall and very often have a window directly above them. This means they are sometimes bloody frustrating to take a picture of because of the composition of dark wall with sunlight blazing in behind. While sometimes shooting them with a wide aperture and short exposure helps, sometimes all you can do is the ultimate cheat: flash them.

Acton, Cheshire

This flashed picture looks awful, but shows the re-masoned wall behind the two missing sedilia more clearly than anything

Ah, the flash. All those pictures of demon-eyed children round their birthday cake in the kitchen. For a professional photographer, it’s like a chef using a microwave oven. But like all but the most conceited gourmet will admit about microwaves, the flash has its uses. Essentially for any sort of aesthetic photography a flash is no-no because it absolutely destroys the ambience and subtleties of natural light. But for sculpture, this can be extremely useful for architectural historians. The intense light can bring out breaks and joins that can’t be seen with the naked eye. It can also highlight folds quite beautifully sometimes. It ain’t going to get on the cover of National Geographic, but it’s still wise to pop up your flash for a few close-quarter shots occasionally.

Chebsey, Staffordshire

The headdress distracts from her fine pair of ears

If you want to take decent interior pictures, you’ve gotta get a tripod, I’m afraid. It might make you look like a nerd, but on the other hand it does look a little bit like a you’re carrying a rifle, which might appeal on some level, and also if you got accosted by a ne’er-do-well you could always brain them with it. Most of the time I carry a plastic one that cost about £15. Generally this is totally fine – the main problem you will find is using it on high zoom, when it becomes difficult to move the mount steadily and get that perfect frame you want. Also, moving the camera 90 degrees and not having it be a bit wonky is also difficult. I have a metal one that had a former life as a telescope stand, weighs a tonne, but makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

Which of course, I don’t, really. I only have a bridge camera, so I don’t have a clue about the wide world of lens and SLRs. I hope this serves as a bit of an introduction on how to take the sort of dry, boring photos of churches that are useful for architectural and art history. But if this was the how to take pictures, there’s also the what to take pictures of, which I’ll save for another post.


Great Mistakes in English Medieval architecture

One of the great things about medieval art and architecture is that people just went in and did things. They didn’t build models and scale them up, building great cathedrals and abbeys was a learning process as much as anything else. This means many of these apparently perfect aspirations to the Heavenly Jerusalem have some often quite comical mistakes, corrections and bodge-jobs that once you see, you can’t unnotice. There do seem to be a few more of them in English architecture than anywhere else, that makes it all the more fun to study…


Selby Abbey, nave, north arcade, early twelfth century

Selby Abbey, nave, north arcade, early twelfth century



Ok even I know arches don’t look like that

Just a bit of settlement abbot, nothing to worry about

I don’t know why we even bother sometimes






Canterbury Cathedral, south-east transept, south wall, triforium, early 1180s

Canterbury Cathedral, north-east transept, west wall, triforium, early 1180s

Uhh, master William, we’ve had a small problem in the triforium, some guy springed the arch at the wrong pitch and oh god it looks ridiculous

Naw, leave it, yeah

Seriously? William of Sens had us redo loads of things because they were not up to s-

Look, I’m going to get this thing finished on time or my name isn’t WILLIAM THE ENGLISHMAN






Pershore Abbey, arch to Lady Chapel, c.1220

Pershore Abbey, arch to Lady Chapel, c.1220

Uhh, we don’t need a vaulting shaft there

Oh, whoops


I’ll just, like, cover it up with some leaves, no one will notice

Good job

Should I do the same to the arch on the other side


So it matches?

What on Earth for


Salisbury Cathedral, north-east transept, c.1230s

Umm, what is going on up there

Going on where

That arch that springs from that last window and goes nowhere

Oh sorry yeah that’s to do with the original Norman plan nothing we could do about it

This is a virgin site, you can’t pull the old “Normans did it” with us here

Look do you want to build this Cathedral yourselves


Well shut up then


Durham, eastern transept of the Nine Altars, begun 1242, probably vaulted in late 1250s, possibly into 1280s

Durham Cathedral, eastern transept of the Nine Altars, begun 1242, probably vaulted in late 1250s, possibly into 1280s

I’ll come clean prior, when we measured up that copy of the eastern transept at Fountains Abbey for you, we didn’t take into account that your church is kind of a completely different width

Is this going to be a problem

Well when we put the vault on there might be a teensy teensy mistake

Is anyone going to notice

We’ll carve a ring of really nice angels to cover it up

Ah, distracting surface ornament, good job




Westminster Abbey, presbytery, 1250s

Westminster Abbey, presbytery, 1250s

Master Henry, we have a problem

What have you fools done now

Some guy has used a different sized diaper to everyone else on the presbytery spandrels

Mon dieu

You don’t really notice it though

Yeah, I suppose we’ll get away with it

You don’t think the king will notice

Oh no way, he’ll look at this bit like, once. Three times, tops

Okay good to know

This never happened in Rheims


Wells Cathedral, nave 1170s, strainer arch 1338-48

Wells Cathedral, nave 1170s, strainer arch 1338-48

So Mr Joy, you say our tower is totally dodgy and might fall down, what is your solution

An enormous angry owl


Yes, three of them. Three angry owls, one under each crossing arch

Are you serious it will look ridiculous

Have you got a better idea

Okay, angry owls it is




Since this has gone viral I think it’s worth saying that the pictures are taken by me except Selby which is from http://www.docbrown.info/docspics/, and Durham (where photography is not allowed, leading to it being very hard to find pictures of online, so I’m lucky I found one at all) which was taken by Flickr user Ninesergeants https://flic.kr/p/a7pQdG. Wells is taken from the Cathedral website (I’m so bad at taking the one straight-down-the-nave picture which is the only shot most people take!)

The sad fate of St Jacques d’Abbeville and church preservation

This church, in Abbeville, Picardy, Northern France, is no more. St. Jacques’ tall spaciously glazed apse, its rose windowed transepts, its elegantly flying buttressed nave and its grand west facade with proud tower and crocketed spire has, in the last week, been completely demolished. Despite the extraordinary images, this story has not found its way into the English press, the only English language source interested in it was the often admirably contrary Art Tribune. They have an excellent summary of the church in 2010 and the political situation surrounding it, the last straw that came this February when stones fell from the apse and the subsequent death sentence that came afterwards. Abbeville is now the proud owner of a new level car park.


This was the church towards the end of Tuesday. Photos of all this sort of thing can be seen on this blog  that once served to highlight the plight of the church. I can’t deny looking at it obsessively as it comes down. Part of it is the Hollywood spectacle, the other the road-side-car-crash effect, and it’s also quite fascinating to see the structure revealed, the functional buttressing failing, the vault bays collapsing. But ultimately the malice behind the whole thing,  like the Euston Arch, makes it quite upsetting to look at. And that pathetic sight of the stump of the tower with only indications of the great nave it served as the porch to is really the saddest shot of all.

Okay, it’s not a proper medieval church or anything, you could say. It was built in the 1870s by Victor Deleforterie, a follower of Violett-le-Duc, generally espousing his principles of correct, structural, Neo-Gothic. Indeed, ironically enough, it replaced a medieval church deemed structurally unsound. But its qualities were evident to anyone, and it’s hard to dismiss it as cold or pedantic. It certainly does not deserve the atrocious indignity of being smashed down, post-war stained glass, gargoyles and all, by driving diggers into the side of it in the short span of a week. Ten million euros was the (probably inaccurately high) estimate for its restoration that was the main case for getting rid of it. However obvious it is to make the comment that we’ve just spent ten million pounds parading a coffin two miles on the Tuesday morning when the tower of St. Jacques was pushed over by a crane, it’s inevitable that I make it.

I know we can’t keep everything. Our towns and cities are filled with plenty of churches I wouldn’t be too bothered if they went. In fact, maybe a couple should. I can (just about) see two of these sorts of things out the window of my current student flat. Both are non-conformist (neither Church of England or Roman Catholic) buildings of unremarkable ragstone Dec type, like you see all over London. The best you could say about them is that they look like churches.

02 SwedenborgianPresbyterian church, Camden New Road

They are the Camden Road New Church, built 1873 for the New Swedenborgians, deconsecrated in the ’50s and since the ’70s, along with its rather nice Edwardian Arts and Crafts church hall, occupied by the Islington Arts Factory, and the Presbyterian church on Camden Park Road, 1876-9, which has been professionally subdivided into flats and offices. Subdivision for secular use is really the end of the church interior, and very difficult to undo. The only rationale for doing this sort of conversion is that it preserves the exterior as a picturesque folly. But both of these churches have suffered the ultimate indignity of being emasculated – their spires capped in the ’80s when health and safety decided they were unsafe. The Presbyterian church has suffered the further insult of having mobile phone aerials attached to it. The outside of the former Swedenborgian church is a bit of a mess, west gable graffiti’d, windows boarded up, glass broken, and from the south side, little sign the building is occupied at all. Both now neither have their original aesthetic effect as a proud house of prayer of a denominational congregation or the Romantic allure of the ruin, they are just look like depressing has-beens. Although they have found alternative uses, their retention as pieces of architecure is counter-productive for the local built environment.

But what happened at Abbeville shows a wholly different attitude. While here we pickle unremarkable buildings in a sorry state with a misplaced feeling of duty for our heritage, this town in France has blatantly ignored a building to the point where they can claim it is structurally unsafe and knock it down. This could never happen here, right?

03 Rossyln Hill ext

Well, it almost happened with the absolutely magnificent church of St Stephen, Rossyln Hill. If you’ve ever taken a walk along the lower fields of Hampstead Heath, you will have seen this quite remarkable elephantine structure swelling up from the west. It was built 1869-73 by S. S. Teulon, one of those so-called “loveable rogues” of the Gothic Revival who strove to find new avenues within the grammar of Gothic. The problem with Teulon’s churches is, while always quite exciting, that they fell between two stools. While they are often wonderfully ornate inside, they generally were built for congregations of rather low churchmanship. Their planning and design were just the sort of thing that had church-reviewers for the magazine The Ecclesiologist leaving the building with a bunch of angry notes, shaking their heads at how much he’d got wrong. While no doubt the original congregations adored their beautiful buildings in which they could gather for distinctly non-Catholic worship, later generations found the high-Victorian excess intolerable, unlike High Church ritualists. The other problem is that Pevsner was not an admirer of Teulon or indeed many of the Rogueish Goths. While Pevsner’s acerbic little asides are always entertaining, I don’t think he would have appreciated them being used as the main case for getting rid of buildings. St Stephen’s was declared redundant in 1977. The church was boarded up, and in this time it was occupied by squatters, who filled it knee deep with rubbish and the sculptures in the chancel literally defaced in a bizarre revival of iconoclasm. The nave windows were seemingly systematically and covertly stolen from underneath the boards, the rest vandalised. Being grade I listed, demolition was out of the question. It was left to rot. It was not until 2002 that this unloved building was handed over to an independent group, deconsecrated, and restored for secular use. Although all the furnishings have gone, the restoration allows us once again to experience this inspiring space.

Interior of St Stephen's Rossyln Hill

The St Stephen’s Trust (who hold regular open days on alternate Sunday afternoons) have done quite remarkable things, even having missing panels of the Clayton and Bell east windows replaced with replicas of the finest quality to the original designs. But their efforts should not have been necessary. The biggest crime was the neglecting of the building in the first place. It’s a strange thing that there is a certain moral dimension to vandalism. It is only if a building looks unused that some people generally are inclined throw bricks through the windows. It was by ignoring the building that London Diocese nearly condemned it to the fate of St. Jacques.

Willful neglect is a weapon that can defeat listing, and it did not save Christ Church, Sumner Road in Croydon, another Teulon church. It was a fairly early work of 1852 by the architect, certainly not the masterpiece at Hampstead but still had interesting signs of his trademark style. No doubt the twentieth-century disgust of Victoriana was the same here, the building was declared unsafe and closed in 1979. Just as demolition was ordered, the building was listed in 1983, making its fate uncertain. It hung around until 1985 when it caught fire and the whole east end of the church destroyed. Rather suspicious, isn’t it? Regardless, in 1991 the church had a new east end built, and the old west end retained. Of course, I didn’t know all this, as I approached it the other Sunday with my 1983 London: South Pevsner in hand, so the utilitarian brick east end,  was a bit of a surprise. I’m not adverse to modern churches, but the roof in particular here  is rather claustrophobia-inducing in its oppressiveness.

05 Christ church sumner road05 Christ church sumner road int

When I had worked out what had went on, “When did you have your fire?” I resigningly enquired to the lady handing out books for the service, who was only too pleased for me to have a look inside. “Oh… that was before my time”, she said. “Oh, umm, well, sorry about your church” was the most I could muster. There’s no way of putting it except that she frankly did not care in the slightest.

There was no malice in the disregard the Christ Church Croydon worshippers had towards the building they no longer had. But sadly it is this indifference to beauty and heritage that ultimately leads to destruction.  An ignorance towards the great efforts of the past to build up places that aspired to beauty in making a space for communal worship is certainly one of the factors that led to the otherwise unbelievable situation of the barbaric demolition at Abbeville in the past week.