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Photographing Historic Houses

When we look at photographing a large or historic house, we have a number of considerations. Some technical, some artistic and some relating to the permissions to take the photographs.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Where can you take photos

There is never any restriction on photographing any building or property from the public highway, from rights of way like footpaths and bridleways, from vantage points or from the air.

In most cases taking photographs of the grounds and the outside of a house that is open to the public is not restricted, although some may attempt to control the use of the photographs. With the reduction in prices and income that picture libraries are getting, it is likely that eventually all will recognise that the loss of income from photographers not entering is greater than the revenue they would loose if they dropped any attempt to control the use of photographs. Also the wider use of photographs of the property would be free publicity reducing their advertising costs and also increasing attendances. The National Trust in particular  is not known for being photographer friendly, and we have an article National Trust and Photographers  looking at this in more detail.

Photography inside properties is more often restricted, sometimes through a misconception that flash can damage items, see can flash damage anything, but also often to try to increase the sale of guide books, postcards and other items that are sold. Some smaller privately owned places, if you contact them by email before with the enquiry if you come, can you take photos you will be given permission, and its worth taking the copy of your email with you just in case the people present on the day are unaware of this. If you have a specific interest, for example a particular piece of furniture or setting, then you are more likely to get permission from a wider number of places. The National Trust, on its website, says that you can ask about being able to take inside photographs in a property by contacting the property directly and arranging a mutually convenient time when the property is not open to the public, there is an extra charge for this (including NT members). See National Trust and photographers

If you want to photograph within a  property, whoever owns it, its always worth asking, you may find that they are happy to accommodate your interests, or you may find that they have arrangements, such as specific days, when photography can occur. Another route may be to become involved with an event of some type put on at the property, this might be one of their events or a charity event.

If you are turned down, then you may like to use the good salesman approach and accept no as the answer, but of course never the final answer, and ask again in the future.

Witley Court, Worcestershire

Artistic considerations

The photo of a historic house could be to document its style, it could be to explain a part of its history or it could be a picturesque photo, maybe better covered in Landscape photography.   

The first artistic consideration is therefore, what is it we are trying to achieve or show, we can then consider how best to achieve this. This will lead us to consider the composition that will achieve this objective. We may then have many choices or there may be only a single place and camera angle that will achieve what we want.

In most cases we will have a range of artistic opportunities, and the chance to select which to use. We might consider the arrangement, so that the eye is taken to the most important part of the image or perhaps the composition of parts that form the whole.

We may want to include something within our photo that gives it scale, and with older properties we can consider if we want to include modern items and costume or put someone into period dress to fit into the time it was developed.

Lead in lines, framed corners and other such techniques that are a part of landscape photography can perhaps also be used.

Technical aspects general and outside

Many of the aspects of photography that are general to many areas of photography apply, such as how to Make Buildings Stand Up Straight, setting white balance, and exposure.

Where the light is coming from is relevant to this type of photography, both inside and out, using either a sun calculator or tables will enable you to work out the compass angle and vertical angle that the sun will be in for any date and time. The weather forecast may then tell you the likelihood of sun or cloud cover. Photographing outside its probable that you can fit a date, time and condition to get what you require, but with inside shots where pre arrangements have to be made, you may not be able to get exactly what you like.

Getting images without tourists in can be a challenge, you can do this either by making a stack of mages and in editing rubbing through to get clean areas with no people, see Making People Disappear or you can use a high value Neutral Density filter and a time exposure, as long as the people are not moving about.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire by John Nicholson

Technical considerations inside

Inside a property you may like to use available light, but this might require the use of a tripod and run into restrictions. Where you can, at least try available light as it often will produce a result not available when lit in other ways.

In some ways photographing with available light is an advantage as its shows the property the way that the architect designed it to be seen. In some cases combining available light with infill flash or reflectors may be the solution and at other times using flash as the main light source. Once you start using constant light, you then run again into problem areas, like health and safety and insurance cover where there are cables about and fire risk.

The choice of lens length to use can have quite an impact, closing up or emphasizing distances.

With long rooms it is necessary to use a medium length lens so the far end does not look artificially too far away, and with this you will find the depth of field is insufficient for the length and the room. This can be overcome by using slicing, taking a number of images with different focus points and combining them after.  See Introducing Slicing.

Where you want to include a lot of the room, you may have a problem getting a wide enough angle without distortion. A 12mm lens on a DX format DSLR gives a 90 degree view so standing in one corner does allow you to cover the room without distortion, although you have to keep the camera level to avoid extreme vertical sloping occurring. With areas that are larger than this, rather than going wider it may be preferential to use a panorama approach building the image up from a number of overlapping patches.

Identifying houses that you can photograph

We have a  number of listings that details houses that you can photograph, plus another listing that identifies properties that are open throughout the year, allowing you to take property photography's at any time . Take a look at :-

Historic Houses Section - for links to both houses by county, and an alpha list.

Heritage Attractions Open All Year

But also take a look at the following sections:




Dyrham Park, Nr Bath, Gloucestershire


By:  Keith Park  Section: Historic Houses Key:
Page Ref: Photographing_historic_houses Topic: Historic Houses Last Updated: 06/2009

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