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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

An Introduction to Photographing Historic Buildings: Part - I

Photography is a great medium to portray architecture without words. There are various types of photography, each of which is distinct from the others. At the same time, the camera to be used also varies. Photographing historic structures is an important step in their documentation and preservation. It is different from capturing just the aesthetics of the structure. Seeing these photographs after many years will bring back memories of a bygone era. Apart from the context and purpose of the building, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of recording. The following guidelines will help identify the process by which a historic building or site should be documented.

The View of the Tombs of Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali in Srirangapatna

List of Contents

What is Record Photography?

Record Photograph of a Temple

Record photography is the practice of taking photographs of any structure or inanimate item that is portrayed objectively, without the photographer's artistic interpretation or manipulation. Usually, the subject will take up the entire frame. The subject may be enhanced with the right lighting, but no additional pictorial content should be added.

The Purpose of Record Photographing

The purpose of record photography is to convey as much information as possible to the viewer. It is also important to keep in mind that these photographs can be used to render the elevations and plans of the building, structure, or site. Before photographing a historic building, it is important to understand the context within which it was built and the purpose for which it was constructed. The details to be recorded will vary accordingly.

1. Recording for Posterity

This includes photographs of the general elevation, details, and a general view of the interior. It should portray the exterior, identifiable features of the building.

Floral motifs on the ceiling of Kuttichira Juma Masjid

2. Recording for Reconstruction

Recording for Reconstruction

If a building is being carefully dismantled to be reconstructed, progress photographs should be taken from the same viewpoints on a regular basis. The reconstruction is carried out based on these photographs.

Photographing Various Subjects

1. Industrial Buildings

Museum of Labor Movement

Most industrial buildings are no more than protective covers for the processes that take place inside them. Therefore, the machinery and its arrangement will be more important aspects of photographic recording. Any existing machinery and cast iron or timber construction features should be photographed in detail. The exterior of the building should be photographed with whatever evidence remains of the associated structures.

2. Public Buildings

Public buildings take many forms, depending on their purpose and period of construction. Often impressive in appearance and symmetrical in design, each public building has to be photographed in a way that will best show its most distinctive external features. Hence, straight-on, overall external views should be taken in addition to details of windows, doors, and decorative features. Internally, the staircase and its setting, the entrance hall, and any principal rooms should be photographed. Where all rooms are similar in appearance, coverage of one typical room will suffice.

3. Religious Buildings

Thirunakkara Temple

The exterior photographs of a religious building should be taken from viewpoints that relate each part to the whole structure. At least one photograph should show the religious building in its immediate setting, with another more distant view to show the building's relationship to its landscape.

Important Points on Photographing Historic Buildings

  1. Invest in a wide angle lens to fit the entire structure in the frame. A polarizing filter can come in handy when the conditions are bright and sunny, which can cause unnecessary reflections on the building.

  2. Take advantage of the soft, gentle morning rays, which casts a silhouetted, outlined shadow as the sun rises from the rear of the structure.

  3. Try to take pictures in different conditions to capture the varied moods of the building, from sunrise to sunset, day to night, or sunny to cloudy times.

  4. Study the history of the building and refer to brochures so as to plan the important frames to capture beforehand and not miss out on important details.

  5. Incorporate rules of composition such as the golden ratio, symmetry, etc. Consider using spiral staircases, long spaces with convergent lines, curves, and rounded lines to help create the illusion of space in a two-dimensional image.

  6. To capture the photograph without perspective distortion, stand far away or on an elevated surface. Consequently, make sure that the lens is pointed directly at the building.

  7. Experiment with unusual, aerial shots and unconventional perspectives to see if they help to capture the true essence of the building.

  8. Avoid getting cars and people in the frame as it will ruin the antiquity of the building.

  9. The details must be captured with clarity as they are an essential element of the structure


Desamangalam Mana

A good photograph is the result of patience, practice, and experimentation. Although the building might last for decades, the photograph captured will be different every minute of every day. Furthermore, there is no certainty that the building will last forever either. Several historic structures have been and are still being demolished. For instance, I photographed Desamangalam Mana in Thrissur, Kerala, right before its demolition in the 1980s, thus preserving the photograph even though the building no longer exists. In such a scenario, all we have is a memory captured on paper. At the same time, buildings end up losing their beauty due to external factors, which could be natural or man-made. Thus, it is important to record these monuments to not only evoke memories but also to understand their evolution over time

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