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How to Photograph Windmills


We can go out to photograph a windmill, or a part of a windmill, but for many the windmill will be a part of  a scene. Perhaps sitting on a cliff top, perhaps overlooking the coast, or in a wide variety of other settings.

We are lucky in Britain in that we have such a variety of windmills to photograph, in a wide variety of locations, large ones 100 foot tall, small ones, and every stage in between. We have windmills with different numbers of sails ranging from 2 to 8, and three distinctly different types of windmills with variations on each of these.

Many have been restored and more are being every year, but at the same time some what were in good order are being destroyed by  storms, burning down or being lost in other ways. Some are being converted to home sand some converted earlier for residential use are now being put back into working order.

On top of this we have a vast number that are derelicts, empty towers or converted for other use, and many that we don't know really what state they are in now, perhaps they exist perhaps there are no remains left.

A project I decided to take on a few years back was to photograph every windmill in Britain, quite a task as it turned out, and I still do not know for sure how many there are that even have sails or are interesting to me, to photograph. There is no complete listing anywhere of all the windmills, and remains. The only solution was to attack most of the sources of information I could find, and collate all the information. This plus a few weeks of work recently has resulted in the windmill section we have on this website. This however is not a completed project but a phase, with a lot of work still to be done. But having got the main section done,  I can add to it and update a section further at a time.

The many variables

When we come to photograph windmills, we have a variety of variables to consider, this includes:-

  • Which way the wind is blowing, as this will have an effect in many cases as to the direction the windmill is pointing. Those with fantails, like all of the three above turn themselves automatically to face into the wind. A lot of  post mills and some others don't have fantails to do this, but may have been turned or not.

  • The time of day to photograph it, if we can its better to have the light with or behind us rather than to be looking at a mill where the side towards us is in shadow. Many tower mills have been weather protected by being covered in black tar, so photographing the shadow of a black item does not produce exciting results.

  • The angle we would like to get, perhaps we want to include it in a scenic shot, or to avoid power lines or other buildings. It may be that only some angles work, perhaps there are trees or other obstacles in the way.

  • Where we can take photos from, roads, paths, boats, ........ perhaps a helicopter would prove helpful.

  • The season of the year, not only for scenic reasons but perhaps to be able to reduce the effect of trees causing obstructions when there are less leaves on them.

  • When its working or not, particularly post mills with canvas covered sails.

  • On open days when we can also look around and perhaps get better access, or on other days when there are less people and cars in the way.

  • The weather, sunny and high contrast or overcast, and maybe drab. What about clouds.

Often we need to make an exploratory trip to see what is at the location, what angles will work and work out when and from where we want to take a photo again. These reccé trips were essential before we started producing the location guides but now given the information available to you, you may be able, using these and the mapping links to cut out a personal reccé trip in most cases.

So far we have not looked at any photographic variables.

We have two major photographic challenges, particularly when we are closer to tower mills, exposure and perspective. Of course we still like all photo challenges still need to also consider the colour/white balance and focus as well.


We can't use gradated filters to overcome the problem of bright skies, as we would graduate the windmill as well. If we underexpose to capture the sky and then edit to bring back detail, then as we often have a black subject this is often not ideal. Of course we could use a tripod, take two exposures, one for the windmill and the second for the sky and combine them in editing, but many people don't like having to do this, or the similar solution of an image made up from two versions the same raw image, with different exposure variations.

You may think that this is not a major problem looking through the location guides but just about every picture has been edited. If you look particularly at the images by others, and click on their name you will in most cases see the image before I adjusted it. From this you will see that most photos of windmills suffer from the same problem of being very dark. In most cases we have used a very quick fix in Capture NX, but a few of our images you will see we have attacked with Photoshop as well, but this has mainly been in an attempt to correct perspective which we will come to shortly.

What you have to avoid doing is either making the images so dark that its unrecoverable or metering off a large black item that then results in massive over exposure as the camera tries to make this item grey. This is less of a problem for those with more advanced metering skills, but can, even for them, prove a challenge on occasion.


When we are close to large items, be it churches and cathedrals, lighthouses or windmills, the effect of lifting the front of the camera is to produce an image that appears to be leaning back. The solution is to go back a long way and use a longer focal length, but often this is just not practical if we want to include the entire windmill. Other solutions include standing on a tall item, using a pole system to support the camera, using a perspective control lens, taking the image with less tilt so there is more dead area at the bottom of the photo and sectioning or attempting to correct the problem in editing by using Photoshop, (Elements or CS3).

The best option if you are able is move further back, and second best as long as you don't need poster sized prints is to take it straighter and section the image after.

This image you will see has a perspective problem, I could not go back any further. Not only is the windmill leaning back but the building below has become misshaped.

Image partly corrected with Photoshop Elements. The building at the bottom is now corrected and mill nearly upright, this is the limit available on this image as I ran out of image area.

In very many cases we find windmills within an enclosure, fields or a yard, and particularly if a large mill we probably can't get back far enough to get the entire windmill in without using both a very wide lens and tilting it upwards.  Given that you don't have a tall pole system to put your camera on or a friend with a helicopter, we have to get the best compromise and then deal with the results.

Perspective control by editing in Photoshop, is possible but far from ideal. There is a limit to how much you can do this way. If you plan to do this make sure that you take a photo with extra room at both the top and sides, as the image reshapes the bottom becomes narrower and top is lost. You ultimately have to section the image to get it back to a rectangular print. The two images alongside the perspective discussion above show what can be done fairly easily.

We have looked at the problems of building sloping back, explored solutions and looked at perspective control lenses before.  Read more.

Colour Balance

If you are some way off and its a general shot that you don't want to be too critical with you can use auto white balance or better the  relevant light setting, sunny, cloudy etc. More ideal is to use the Pre setting. If you are closer so that the windmill becomes a large chunk in your image then it is likely to throw auto white balance out, but black mills won't have too much effect. The best solution is to use the Pre setting, and you avoid problems.

The following articles cover in more depth the areas of white balance:


You might think that focus is not a problem and you are most likely correct as the wider the angle of your lens the greater your depth of field is, and this is likely to overcome most problems. If you have a very tall mill, for example the one that is 100ft and you are taking it from 30 feet away, then you are 30ft from the bottom but around 125ft from the top. Checking my depth of field table I can see that at 18mm, at any aperture setting I have more than enough depth of field to deal with this. It is likely that I would at this range have to use a wider angle lens in any event. 

Identifying the windmill

In most areas of the country knowing which windmill you have photographed is not a problem, they are not that numerous and there are differences, height, number floors/windows, number of sails and sail types, possibly roof shape and more. It becomes more difficult in areas that have very similar windmills. In these locations, when you are photographing a number of mills in a day, you need to at least have a separator, so you know for sure where one ends and the next begins.  A separator could be as simple a taking a junk shot of the ground.

Some areas of Norfolk present a larger challenge as there are very large numbers of drainage windmills, many derelict and many not well documented. As far as I am aware there is no complete listing of these, we are still adding more to our indexes, but this is difficult as most are not near any villages but out along various drains. With few reliable landmarks, very similar mills and with some of these very close together, it is very easy to mix these up,  one with another, many people do, which also means that reliable identification from other images is also difficult. A solution I am looking at is to add a GPS device that will feed the exact position that images are taken from and the direction of the camera into my Nikon D300 and this will then become a part of the data for the pictures.

See Also:

Articles Listings

By: Keith Park Section: Windmills Key:
Page Ref: how_to_photograph_windmills Topic: Windmills Last Updated: 04/2011


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