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Photographing Stone Circles

Photographing stone circles is not easy, some like Avebury can only be photographed as a complete item from the air, due to their size and obstacles, while some others are difficult in that they are a small number of spread out stones relatively small compared to the area they cover.  You also often have difficulty getting into a position to observe them and where you can in many cases there are people in your way.

Smaller circles with relatively large stones are easier to photograph than large circles, take Stanton Drew for example, where you have a number of circles together, in the main field you have a very large circle, with some large stones, some smaller and some in the ground.

Part of Stanton Drew Main Circle with another behind.

In summer some are difficult to see let alone photograph due to the height of vegetation, while in winter they are often rather cold and bleak places to visit. With some all the stones have fallen over and are flat on the ground, or may even be mostly buried. Ditches may have been filled in and a number of centuries caused both severe erosion and some stones to break up. 

You can of course photograph individual stones, and also look to feature groups of stones to show a curve or the proximity of different stone patterns.

If we stand back further and use a telephoto lens we can close up distance, making more distant stones both visible and proportionally larger, while if we use a very wide angle lens we can get far closer to the circle and get it all in.

I like to use the Nikon 10.5mm special fish eye lens,  as this allows me to take a photograph that is 180 degrees wide. You can even stand in the entrance to a stone circle and include all the circles within the ring with this lens, although if the ring is very large, like the largest circle at Stanton Drew, the stones away from you become very small. The special effect of this lens is to allow a very wide angle but to partly correct the effects of this by pulling forward the centre of the photograph. Like all fish eyes modification of the images can be noticed, including a bending or curving in on the extremes and the tendency for the horizon to lose its true perspective if the camera is not completely level. With general landscapes the effects are not that noticeable but with stone circles they can be. We could modify this in editing if we chose to, but in many cases we may like to leave it as it is. Stanton Drew above and Rollright below both taken using a 10.5mm Fisheye lens, allowing a photograph to be taken very close of a very large item.

The path between the ring and the hedge at the Rollright ring is only about two people wide.

Click to see a larger image

Stones reflect well the colour of the light, so the time of the day can have a noticeable effect on the mood of the photographs. Shortly before sunset you get both a golden glow but also long strong shadows that may offer compositional opportunities.

Photographing into the shadow side, you often need to increase the exposure slightly but this is then often at the expense of the sky, which is highlighted out. With a single stone you could use a reflector as fill flash, while with a group we could do the same with a load of flash units and using creative lighting, but in practice this can be too difficult or time consuming so we need to look at other ways to achieve it.  Providing that the shadow is not too dark we can pull out a lot of the detail later in editing, while those of us with D300 or D3 cameras can also use Active D-lighting when we are taking the images to lighten the shadows at the time the images are captured.

Avebury, showing evening warm light and long shadows.

The height the camera is from the ground can also effect the impression given, from lower the stones look larger, but often less can be seen, from a higher position you may get a better impression of the shape of the circle.

If we have a sky with white clouds on blue and are shooting at around 90 degrees to the sun we can add a polarizer to make the clouds stand out and the sky bluer, while in hazy conditions the polarizer may also help to cut down some of the haze. Using B&W and filters may set a mood, and often days where there is cloud can create interesting photographs.

Colour balance can be set accurately using PRE, but the auto white balance is usually close enough, as long as we are photographing in RAW format we can change the white balance afterwards if we wish.

Many stones have weathered to interesting shapes, and in many you can imagine you can see faces or all types of creatures. In many cultures we find statues of Gods and other creatures around features of this age for example, the Pyramids. You will find if you look carefully at many stones you can see what could be the remains of creatures carved into them, we have to remember that in many sites for example Avebury and the Rollright at least some of the stones have been re-erected and may be pointing the wrong way or be upside down. The picture on the left is from Stanton Drew, where very little if any reconstruction has taken place.

One of the stones at Stonehenge shows a face for just a few minutes from a particular angle at around 2pm in the summer, and is said by some to be the face or its architect, while many stones across stone circles do tend to have different items showing up at different times of the day as the lighting changes. So as you walk around look out for interesting shapes and faces, you may get the chance to photograph something not noticed before.

Unless we go to one of the stone circles that is off the tourism trail, or go very early of a summer morning we are likely to have people in many of our shots. We have to decide if this is a benefit or a distraction, it can give a scale to the images, particularly if they are near to distant stones or walking on earth banks.  But what if you donít want them, well you can wait and a gap may appear, or you may be able to manoeuvre so that the people are hidden behind a large stone, this is the approach we often use a lot when two of us are photographing a large circle or we would be in many of each others shots.  Using a tripod you could take several images as people move from one position to another and then in Photoshop create a stack of images rubbing out the people on each layer so the layer underneath showed through. You can also use the multiple image facility on your camera (if it has it) to take up to 10 photos that merge in camera to produce a single shot. This makes the individual people far lighter and ghost like, compared to the items that are in the same place in each shot.  Some people in dark clothes will disappear completely, and the effects you can get are worth playing with. Probably a more common approach is to use a clone tool to copy other parts of the scene on top of the people making them disappear, and has the benefit that you donít need a tripod or multiple shots. If you plan to do this then try to make sure none of the people are in front of the stone at the point you take the shot.

Most stone circles are accessible and have few if any restrictions, and are located in fields where you can photograph them from any angle and get as close to them as you wish. There are frequently cattle or sheep in the fields and their droppings as well as other mud makes it wise to have a pair or walking boots or wellingtons.

The exception to this is Stonehenge, which years ago was the same and many of us remember climbing on the stones, however now it is a managed and controlled commercial site. With a path around close on one side otherwise, some distance away from the stones. The sheer number so people visiting this site does make this a sensible move, and allows you to get photographs without people in but you do need a reasonable length telephoto zoom lens to get in close, we both used the 18-200 lens on our last visit and found this just about the ideal range, from wide angles to show the site or from where the path goes closer to telephoto shots from when further away. With tourism comes better car parks, toilets, food and shops, and of course promotion and more people. Compare this with Stanton Drew, which has 3+ remaining stone circles an avenue and more, over a far larger site, and no facilities, and few if any people. Its car park would hold only about 4 cars and at a £1 a person in the honesty box is far cheaper to visit. Three more stones are conveniently found in the garden of the Druid Arms, a local hostelry, and can be seen from a public area or from the large pub grounds. Plan the time right and you can get a good meal and use of facilities after discovering the larger site.

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