In Britain, we are blessed with an amazing collection of ruins, monuments and ancient burial sites. We guide you through the challenges of photographing these historic places.
10th December 2019
How to Photograph Ancient Sites
The ancient monuments abandoned old churches, castles and hillforts scattered throughout the length Britain has long been a source of interest to photographers.
They tell the story of our settled habitation of the land over the past 6000 years when the earliest Neolithic monuments date from. These historical remains have experienced mixed fates; some remain intact whilst others have been dismantled or allowed to disintegrate.
With so many resources available online it is relatively easy to piece together an impression of a place through photographs, maps and user-generated comments. This is a good way of getting an overview of locations that are worth a visit, but it is still important to do more research once you are on the ground at the site. For this, you will need a fairly large-scale map (1:25000 is ideal) and a compass, as not all monuments are conveniently signposted.
Timing the Shoot
Another important point to consider is the best time of year to visit an ancient site, in order to make the most of the surrounding landscape. If you are out on the moors, late summer is the ideal time to catch some purple heather or, if the location is wooded, perhaps autumn will provide the perfect opportunity for rich colours. Some places, such as those sites on or very near to the coast tend not to vary that much with the seasons, making them good all year round. So, I tend to save these places until winter and early spring when there is little other colour around.
Access to the Site
Before setting out, check the access to a location is like. Many ancient sites are in the care of English Heritage, and they may charge a fee for entry to the grounds. If you are using professional looking gear they may frown upon you taking photos without getting permission first. If in doubt, it is advisable to contact the site owner ahead of your visit or ask once you get there. Limited access could prevent you from getting into a location when the light is at its best for photography. I get around this by shooting the subject from a suitable distance outside the grounds with a longer focal length lens.
Find the Best Viewpoint
To find the best vantage point you need to explore the entire site, seeing it from different points and judging how it relates to the landscape beyond. Sometimes, the best view can be had from a nearby hill, so it's worth clambering up for a look. Take note of whether there are any interesting alignments with nearby geographical features, as ancient monuments were often built in conjunction with significant places, such as sacred hills or unusual rock formations.
As with any subject, the angle of view is critical and this particularly applies to buildings, where it is important to show the three-dimensional aspect. Rather than shoot from a face-on position, where a solid shape may as well be a cardboard cutout, move around the subject until you can find a corner to work from that shows two sides of the structure. It's tempting to angle the camera upwards or downwards to compose an image, however, this can create perspective distortion - which is particularly noticeable with tall structures, especially when using wider angle lenses. While this can work as a stylistic device, creating converging verticals with many subjects detracts from their true shape.
Carefully consider the height of the camera in relation to the subject and the effect it has on perspective when the lens is tilted. Tilt and shift lenses are very useful in such situations but are by no means essential. Often it is a simple case of putting more distance between yourself and the subject and using a longer focal length, as when you are further away the distortion problem is less pronounced.
Once the composition has been decided upon, then you can work out the best lighting direction. If the subject is to be side-lit then you need to establish when this is possible and whether this coincides with sunrise or sunset. If you are trying to photograph the ruin with backlighting, the ideal time to do this is when the sun is lower in the sky, as this will help control contrast. Strikingly shaped buildings and tall stones make fantastic silhouettes, but do not let the horizon cut halfway through the subject as this makes the outline unclear. Also, the camera position can be used to isolate the subject against the sky, making the profile more obvious. The relative position of sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year, so some locations are not lit in the early morning and late afternoon because of shadows falling from nearby landforms.
Lighting and weather help generate mood and although you have no control over either factor, its worth envisioning what kind of atmosphere you want to create. To convey the peaceful character of sacred sites, I prefer to use the first or last rays of sunlight, where the subject is barely lit and the colours are subtle. Some scenes lend themselves to a more dramatic interpretation and work well with colourful skies at dawn and dusk. But for the best effects, there needs to be some well-placed cloud for the light to reflect off.
WIth interior shots, it is better to use diffuse light, as this will cause fewer contrast problems. Other ruins and monuments can look better in black and white, as it adds to the air of antiquity and quiet decay. Colour can sometimes be a distraction if there are too many contrasting hues. I often turn to monochrome on overcast days as soft hues and flat tones can appear lifted.
Tips for Photographing Stone Circles
With stone circles, it can be hard to find a position where the numerous stones appear separate from one another, as they tend to overlap. You usually have to compromise, as it is not always possible to maintain these spaces - although a slightly elevated view may help with this. The lower the structure the harder it is to bring it out of the landscape, whereas tall stones make much more of an impression. This is why some stone circles photograph well and others tend to be a little underwhelming. The same is true of burial barrows, as these are often very discreet mounds that are easy to overlook. Good research about the site should help to avoid disappointment when you arrive.