5 Tips for Photographing Historical Sites

herculaneum art

When we travel it’s an exciting time to explore and a great opportunity to put photography skills to the test. Historical sites, such as Pompeii or Stonehenge, are often hugely rewarding to visit and offer little gems for keen travel photographers.

With that in mind, here are my top tips for photographing historical sites, along with some advice on how to plan ahead for the best opportunities.

Some of the best historical sites I’ve visited have been in Italy, including the world famous sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The photos I’ve chosen for this post are from these two locations.

Go for close-ups

Finding detail

Historical sites, such as Pompeii or Herculaneum, can be daunting and vast areas to cover, so don’t try to capture everything as this is impossible. Instead, aim to photograph unique details and elements that reflect the site as a whole.

Exhibits - filter

This can be especially rewarding in the age of the selfie where old buildings, structures and artwork can often take a back seat. With this in mind…

Keep the present day away

pompeii view

When on popular historical sites this can be challenging but persevere nonetheless. Avoid having tourists and modern scenes such as car parks and overhead planes in your shot, or indeed people taking selfies in the background! Prepare to wait a while once you’ve arranged your frame and angle and if you can, invest in a coffee from any on site cafes to make the wait more pleasant.

To make this process easier, travel to historical sites during off-peak seasons when they will be less crowded. This is great for photography of the artefacts themselves and also helps with creativity if you get nervous with an audience, or just people in your space.

Be prepared for bad lighting

interior lighting

Often sites of historical interest have areas that can’t be well-lit to preserve artwork or the integrity of the ancient materials. This of course needs to be respected so understand that you may not be able to capture everything to the best of your ability. In this case, particularly with interiors, try to turn the ‘bad lighting’ into a feature. It is after all a fact of the site so could be further emphasised for dramatic effect and storytelling.

Only take required equipment

historical site wide view

Historical sites can be difficult to navigate, with uneven pavements, steep steps and long climbs through dark interiors. As walkways can also be narrow, you don’t want your entire pack with you. Enter the site with a view of the shots you’re aiming for and then plan accordingly; if you want to create a timelapse, take your tripod, if you want to capture details, pack your best lens and always take a polarising filter as an essential against glass and exhibit windows.

If in doubt, capture

get jaunty herculaneum visit

You will also want to double check your luggage for memory cards and ensure you have enough to get snap happy. Taking lots of photos on site is highly recommended as you can then choose your favourites and delete afterwards, rather than only taking one or two and then being unhappy with the results or variety when you’re back home. After all, you’ve invested time in getting to the site so it’s worth guaranteeing good results as best you can, which I talk about more here, in a post about photographing my interrail trip around Europe.

Share your photos of historical sites and your own advice with me below, or ask me more on my Twitter account here.

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