Photographing Churches

The churches and cathedrals of the United Kingdom offer many opportunities to the photographer. They are not always the easiest location, for example the half light that is so beautiful can also make it hard to photograph without a tripod, but they offer many rewards.

To walk into a church is to feel its history and often (though not always I find) its sanctity. The solidity, the acoustics, the scent of wood polish and most of all the light, identifies the space like no other. If one is lucky and patient, it is possible to capture some of the beauty in a photograph. I find black and white photography most often reflects what I am aiming for when I take a picture in a church, although in some circumstances colour is the best choice, and obviously so with stained glass (I particularly like the reflection of coloured glass on masonry).

Stained glass, Hereford Cathedral. © Simon Jones.
Stained glass, Hereford Cathedral. © Simon Jones.

I must admit to a certain trepidation when taking a camera in a church, and do believe that one should take any photographs in a respectful a manner as possible. We don’t want to snatch images like a treasure hunter snatching artefacts thoughtlessly from the ground. As I’ve mentioned previously when considering contemplative photography, I prefer to think of photographs revealing themselves to us, rather than us ‘capturing’ them. I felt this strongly with the black and white photograph below, taken with an old Rolleiflex camera at an ancient church in Anglesey many years ago.

Church interior, Angelsey, Wales. © Simon Jones.
Church interior, Anglesey, Wales. © Simon Jones.

I find that my most satisfying photography comes when there is a sense of stillness within myself, a stillness that in turn seems to settle on the subject of the photograph. I failed to fully adopt this approach when I visited the remarkable St. Botolph’s Church in Iken, Suffolk. Simon Knott, has a lovely description of this special place on his website dedicated to Suffolk Churches.

Iken is one of those fabulous spots that some people think of as their favourite Suffolk place. Others come across it by accident, as if it were a happy secret. And there must be many people, I suppose, who do not even know that it exists. The little thatched church on its mound jutting out into the wide River Alde is part of the panoply of Suffolk mysticism, an element in an ancient story of the birth of England, of grey mists and sad, crying wading birds swinging low over the mudflats, as if this were a piece of Benjamin Britten’s chamber music made flesh. As you may guess, it is a place about which it is easy to wax lyrical.

The promise of the church itself, it’s great history and presence alluded me; I think because I wasn’t in the right state of mind and took photographs before settling in to my surroundings and reaching the stillness I mentioned above. Sadly, I feel that the images below don’t not do the ancient church justice, something I hope to rectify on another visit.


Finally, the grandeur of cathedrals seem to offer the chance of more visual drama than churches, although they often have a number of smaller chapels and corners that beget quietude.

Hereford Cathedral. © Simon Jones.
Hereford Cathedral. © Simon Jones.

Further reading

The Little Musk Deer

I suspect that for as long as there have been people there have been stories told to capture their imagination, echo their ideas and dreams and help them understand their fears. Stories often help to suggest and frame that which we cannot touch, but which we nonetheless feel is true. I have a lot of sympathy with Philip Pullman when he writes:

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.

As a teacher, one of my greatest privileges is sharing stories, and I particularly love those that can be enjoyed by any age, enjoyed for what they are, but can also, if we allow them, to have a deeper meaning. I’ve collected quite a few and have decided that I would like to occasionally share them on this blog, both to record them for my own enjoyment, and in the hope that you will enjoy them too.

I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Eknath Easwaren, an Indian scholar and spiritual teacher who moved to America in 1959 to teach Literature at Berkeley, and who later established the Blue Mountain Meditation Centre, which still exists today. He had a wonderful way of telling stories that were simple (often based on the teaching of his Grandmother) but profound. One of my personal favourites is the tale of of the little Musk deer, recounted in Eknath’s book ‘Your Life Is Your Message’ by Hyperion Press:

In the Indian tradition they tell of a story which describes a spiritual search very well. It is about the musk deer, a gentle creature which makes it’s home on the lower slopes of the Himalayas. One day, it is said, a little musk deer went to his Granny musk deer. He was puzzled. “Granny,” he said, “I smell a haunting fragrance. What is it? Where is it coming from?” “Why don’t you go and smell the animals in the forest to see if it comes from any of them,” said his Granny. So the musk deer went to the lion, smelled the lion, and said, “No, it’s not the lion.” Then he went to the tiger and said, “Oh no, it’s definitely not the tiger.” Then the monkey, then the bear, then the fish, then the elephant; on by one, he went to all the animals in the forest and finally, quite baffled, returned to Granny. “I have been to every animal in the forest,” he said, “and none of them has this perfume.” Granny just smiled wisely and said, “Then here, smell your own paw.” The musk deer lifted his paw, gave it a sniff, and let out a cry of joy. ” It comes from me,” he cried. “It comes from me! It comes from me!”

Early Morning, © Simon Jones.
Early Morning, © Simon Jones.

On the street …

One of the best ways Street Photography can be defined is “photography that features the human condition within public places”. Commonly however the term ‘Street Photography’ refers to what might be described as candid photography, and is usually seen as different to documentary style work, despite there being considerable overlap. The latter tends to set out with a determination to photograph a particular event or social condition (for example the excellent work of Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression), whereas ‘Street Photography’ is more spontaneous.

Like so much photography that interacts with people (or has the potential to) it needs a confidence and on occasion a level of “thick skinness” that I personally find difficult to achieve. I also battle with a feeling that I am invading the privacy of others when I take photographs ‘on the street’, although there are both potential solutions to this and different arguments surrounding it. I certainly think it must have been easier when photography was younger and had a greater sense of novelty; today, with cameras practically everywhere, unsolicited photographs can be regarded more as an intrusion than a blessing.

Wicked, Chester, UK. © Simon Jones.
Wicked, Chester, UK. © Simon Jones.

With all that said, I can’t help feeling that Street Photography can be wonderful, inspiring, illuminating and capable of bringing our attention to the human condition as much as (and often more) than any aspect of of the photographic art. I can’t imagine photography without it, and I’m both grateful for and greatly admire the great photographers who work in this field. There seems little doubt that there is no aspect of photography in which the “Decisive Moment” is more important, an aspect of photography that is practically synonymous with one of my favourite photographers of all time – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Further Resources

It’s not just another day

Geese. © Simon Jones.
Geese. © Simon Jones.

In an earlier post, on a Suffolk walk, I mentioned my ingratitude for not fully appreciating the gift of a beautiful morning. In many ways we find ourselves in a time where the certainties of established religions have less of a hold on us, and yet so many of use still perceive (almost like a fragrance that we can’t name) a call to the spiritual. That call provides us with a moral compass of sorts, but also has a bias towards beauty and truth. Mary Oliver’s sublime poem “Wild Geese” expresses some of what I mean. The poem is from Mary’s book ‘Dream Work’, published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Some things we see or hear resonate with us, and we recognise their value and importance. For me, one such truth is the importance of appreciation, and recognising the superfluity of the wealth we have.

This concept is beautifully and simply expressed by Brother David Steidl Rast in the video below, I thoroughly recommend it. The video starts with the words

You think this is just another day in your life. It’s not just another day, it’s the one day that is given you today.

Just remembering and living the truth of that would in itself be a remarkable achievement.

Reflecting on reflections

For whatever reason, I’ve always been drawn to incorporating reflections in my photography, and in this I know I am certainly not alone. One of the most well known photographs with a reflection was that taken by that astonishing master of the photographic art, Henri Cartier-Bresson, recording a man leaping over (or into) a puddle. The photograph, entitled Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare was regarded by Time Magazine as the ‘Photograph of the Century‘. Without doubt it is a superb photograph, and certainly one that proves my point that you’re in the best of company if you use reflections in your work.

Gare Saint Lazare. 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.
Gare Saint Lazare. 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Using reflections in my own photographs

Reflections work best for me to help give a certain mood to a photograph, or more often, to help emphasise abstraction and colour.

Dog walkers reflected on Entwistle Reservoir, Lancashire. © Simon Jones.
Dog walkers reflected on Entwistle Reservoir, Lancashire. © Simon Jones.
Manchester street scene. ©  Simon Jones.
Manchester street scene. © Simon Jones.

I find that the swirls, smudges and softening that reflections can bring to a photograph make it seem more impressionistic, and I particularly appreciate how digital camera seem to assist in this regard, as I find they are extremely good at capturing reflections faithfully.

Garden reflections, © Simon Jones.
Garden reflections, © Simon Jones.
Winter trees at Entwistle. © Simon Jones.
Winter trees at Entwistle. © Simon Jones.

The use of reflection in painting

Monet of course created some of the most famous (and exquisite) paintings that contained reflections, not least the beautiful Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond.

Reflections Of Clouds On The Water-Lily Pond', Claude Monet.
Reflections Of Clouds On The Water-Lily Pond’, Claude Monet.

As you might expect, reflection has been used extensively by a number of artists, not least by the incorporation of a mirror (or it’s substitute) in the work. The following examples by Picasso, Manet, and Van Eyck being only a small sample.

Girl before a mirror', Pablo Picasso.
Girl before a mirror’, Pablo Picasso.


A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet.
Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck.
Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck.

The mirrored shield of Perseus

I couldn’t leave this topic without mentioning one of my favourite references of the use of reflection in literature – the mirrored shield of Perseus. As you may remember, whomsoever dares to look at Medusa is turned to stone, a fate Perseus cleverly avoids by using his shining shield (a gift from Athena) to allow him to see her reflection only. Now that really would be a photograph worth seeing!

Further resources

A walk in Suffolk

I recently enjoyed an early morning walk near Minsmere in Suffolk. The land was touched with a heavy dew and the silence seemed deeper than usual, the bird song louder, my presence more accepted. The stillness encouraged the recognition of connectedness, and it seemed that my sense of awareness and anticipation, time itself, was more luminous and authentic. I am sure many of you will recognise the feeling I am trying to explain and would seek, as I do, to encourage it’s presence in their life.

I have taken many photographs in Suffolk, a county I love visiting and will return to again, but I would give them all to have one that reflected a sense of that early walk. I did stop to take photographs, and at the time felt they might reflect some of the beauty of the day, but when I looked at them later I felt disappointed. Writing this now I realise my in-gratitude and greed, perhaps some things will, perhaps should, elude the possibility of reproduction. Despite that, I am grateful that the photograph below serves as an ordinary reminder of what for me will always be an extraordinary walk in Suffolk.

Leiston Abbey Chapel with views over Minsmere Levels. © Simon Jones.
Leiston Abbey Chapel with views over Minsmere Levels. © Simon Jones.

Creating the composite ‘Mariabronn’

As well as being a keen photographer, I have also more recently taken an interest in creating photo composites. I won’t repeat what I’ve already written about this art form, but would recommend anyone interested to have a look at my reference post on this subject. I hope you find the background and links to resources interesting.

What I wanted to do in this post is talk a little more about he process I went through in creating my latest composite which I have entitled ‘Mariabronn’ (the name of the monastery in the book upon which I based my work).

As mentioned in my previous post about compositing, one of the most important principles is to be clear about the story you want to tell, and in this case I was. One of my favourite books is Hermann Hesse’s “Narziss and Goldmund,” a story set in the Middle Ages that tells the relationship between two men (it’s better than it sounds), and I have always been attracted by the opening description of an old chestnut tree “isolated here in the North, planted long ago by a Roman pilgrim” that shadowed the entrance of the cloister, a tree that “generations of school boys” walked past, some to stay, grow old and die, others to have a short stay at the monastery before going back into the world

The novel is set at a time when the Black Death was sweeping Europe, and I wanted my composite to reflect what the tree and the monastery might look like today, while still giving some impression of the original setting.

This is where the freedom of photo compositing comes into play, and after deciding on what I wanted to create, I went through the following steps:

  1. Do an outline drawing of my idea.
  2. Find images from my photographic library I could use to create the elements in the image (to be honest I already had an idea of what they would be).
  3. Combine the elements in Photoshop to try and reproduce the image I had in my ‘Mind’s Eye’.

Below you can see my final composite:


It is made up of the following elements:

  1. The sky For this I used some clouds I had previously photographed on a walk when I was attracted to them.
  2. The tree. When I started the piece I remembered an old black and white photograph I had taken of a dead tree some years ago. I don’t know what originally compelled me to take the photograph but I thought it might work well in this work. That proved to me the case I think, but not before I tried different alternatives!
  3. The monastery. Not far from where I live are the ruins of an old Monastery which was left abandoned shortly after the Reformation, I had a number of photographs of the ruin and chose one for the composite.
  4. The land. For this I used a moorland scene in which I exaggerated the hills.
  5. The birds. In the upper right hand corner of the image there are a couple of birds (rather fancifully I suppose meant to represent the souls of Narziss and Goldmund” escaping into the light). I cut out a couple of birds from a larger picture I had previously photographed.
  6. The background texture. I find the background texture an important unifying element in my composites and this particular one (possibly too rough) was a photograph of the back of a gravestone in the local cemetery. I felt the ‘providence’ was right and ultimately gave the final image the ‘feel’ I was looking for.


After choosing the different elements, the hard part is combining them to bring together the image you were seeking. Expect to resize, cut out elements and change contrast. Although far from perfect, and a million miles away from the work of advanced artists, I felt the final image held something of my original vision.

Should you be interested in learning more about photo compositing in general, and links to resources to help you learn the process, please refer to my reference post on the subject, Photographic Compositing – An introduction.