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How to Photograph Historic Houses

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by Kat May (subscribe)
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Published September 21st 2015
Some simple tips to remember
With digital cameras now available to all at a low cost, there is now a renewed interest in photography. Whether we are traveling to other cities on holidays, or out and about on a weekend for a drive in the country, people are now taking more photos than ever. Some of the most popular subjects are to photograph historic houses, churches and buildings. These are a far easier subject to capture than portraits of people, or fast moving images such as sports. Old houses are an easy subject to learn photography, because it is something that is static. The building will sit and wait while you take many photos. It is one of my favourite subjects, as I have a love of old buildings, so I will share some tips here I have found to be successful.

The best thing about digital photography, as opposed to the old film cameras, is we can now click many times to get that perfect image and delete the others. But do not concern yourself with looking at the images while you are out. This wastes battery power, and removes your focus off the subject in front of you. Leave your judgment until the images are transferred to your computer. Many people are taking up photography for the first time in their lives, however some basic rules of photography and learning all the features of your new camera is a good start.

how to photograph historic houses
This photo is a good example of 'the rule of thirds' in photography. The image has one third each of foreground, middle and something at the top. The white church looks striking against the brilliant blue sky. And the story the photo tells, is this is an historic church in a rural area. Image by Out and About.

Old houses and buildings make fascinating subjects. They tell the tale of days gone past, but it is up to the photographer to try to include in the image those parts which tell the story of the house. There are two main areas to consider- the overall larger image and where the building is situated such as on the streetscape, and the other is the smaller details of the building. As buildings are large, you may need many images, some distant and some close up to be captured.

how to photograph historic houses
Which image is better?

Let's look at that of the overall building itself. Sometimes the house may be too big to fit into the viewfinder. I often find it is better to stand to the side of a house to and fit the building in on an angle. Walk to both sides to gauge the most appealing angle, or just shoot from both sides and look at the images later.

how to photograph historic houses
Or straight on? Image by Out and About.

Another thing to consider is the light. To the right side may be a better angle, but that could be in the shade, with the light being better on the left. Verandas often shade the house, so you may need to brighten the image later on your computer. Towards the end of the day long shadows can be a problem when photographing old houses as there may be shadows from trees on the house.

how to photograph historic houses
Or perhaps from the left where the sun is shining. Image by Out and About.

Just as an artist painting a picture considers composition, or how the picture is made up, so must the photographer. Always look at backgrounds first. Check for modern signage and power lines jutting into view. The aim is to show the house in an historic context. In this picture below you can see the house is not all that outstanding, it were shot from the front of the street. However what tells the story of the house is the inclusion of the old chimneys that look as if they are going to topple in the next breeze. Also the huge overgrown blackberry bushes in the garden shows this is an abandoned old house.

Old cottage at Maldon, Victoria. Image by Out and About.
This picture tells the story of how old this house is, and its gradual decline. Image by Out and About.

At other times it is best to get up very close and use the zoom if you have one. The zoom is an important feature on your camera. Yes, it is possible to crop later on the computer, however this will reduce the quality of the image. It is best to zoom first before you take the shot. In the photo below you can see that taking the rest of the building such as all the roof and street would have been unnecessary. I zoomed in close and only photographed the windows and door as well as the signage. The original painted sign on the galvanised roof tells the story of the history of the building.

Maldon shopfront.
An old shop front in Maldon, Victoria, shows detail of the buiding and signage on the roof. Image by Out and About.

The second part of photographing of old houses is to get details of the best features. Look for iron lace work, wooden stairs, or a view from a window, or the best feature of a room such as a close up of a unique fireplace. Every room in an old house usually has something to show its age or the use of the room. A kitchen may have the original old taps or old flooring. Get up close, either down on the floor or climb up onto a seat to get closer. Take a photo of the special feature a variety of ways, perhaps with some background or foreground in the room or take the shot on one side. Later on your computer you can decide which ones you like best.

photographing old houses weekend notes
This image was captured by sticking the camera through a broken window using available light. It shows the old kerosene refrigerator and primitive tables. Image by Out and About.

The next tip I have to share is take many photos as you are not going to run out of film. I take at least five of each scene, then move slightly and take more. Always use the viewfinder, where your eye looks through if you have one, not the live screen view. Don't have people in the image. You are telling the story of the old property and modern people of today do not fit in. When you are in high traffic area such as a tourist attraction, it's polite to say, "may I just take a few photos?" and people will be happy to move. I have taken photos with hundreds of people around, and then was ready to snap the camera at a break in the people walking past.

Urrbrae House Adelaide
This photo shows a well balanced image of Urrbrae House in Adelaide. The phot needed to be corrected with the tilting edit as the house veranda looked uneven. This is a good photo as the pathway leads the eye up to the dominant building, and is softened by plants in the foreground. Image by Out and About.

In my tips for photographing old houses I have advised taking images with distance, close-ups of unique features, and to ensure you are capturing the story of the building. While you are out, don't concern yourself with looking at the images. Concentrate on the light, the shadows, and moving your body around the area. In the sunshine you cannot see the image clearly on your camera anyway. Sometimes the best images are taken from a little higher or getting down lower. You may want to climb a little on a nearby hill. or lie on the grass. I often stand on the bullbar on my vehicle to take photos.

how to photograph historic houses
This image of an old house in Victoria, reflects some history of the building. You can see the small ticket window and a noticeboard, which means it may have been a coach stop. There is also a hitching rail for your horse still standing at the front so I put this to the front of the image. Photo by Out and About.

Back at home upload your photos to the computer and use the picture manager software to edit your images. Take copies of the ones you want to play with, some as cropping, brightening or deepening the colour. You can even add some special effects to an old house to make it look ghostly or dark and grey. I always take some images with my tablet as this has a fun photo edit feature that makes old building look really different such as a paper drawing, painted picture or monochrome effects. Gives me something to do while waiting in airports. Historic old houses are a fascinating part of our world that will bring you many treasured memories from your photos.
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Why? Old buildings will be preserved forever with photographs.
Your Comment
Great article. I too love taking photos of old houses - or corrugated iron buildings that have stood the test of time. They have so much character.
by Di Hill (score: 2|426) 1248 days ago
Enjoyed your article - would love to then find out more about the actual history though I appreciate this would not be easy. Marina
by Marina Marangos (score: 2|667) 1249 days ago
Good advice. I'm looking forward to putting it in practice.
by Gayle Beveridge (score: 3|6160) 1249 days ago
I know it's cheating...but with today's smartphone filters...anyone can take good photos:)
by Maria M (score: 2|661) 1245 days ago
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