Church Etiquette for Photographers (Dennis Aubrey)

We get requests from many photographers, both experienced and novices, who want to understand what it takes to shoot at these churches. We have provided technical explanations already – we have discussed our camera gear, the lenses that we use and our procedures on a shooting trip.

We always stress the importance of preparation; to have an idea of what is important in a church; whether or not it will be crowded, the time of day you might be shooting, the time of year, and whether special permission will be required. It is also important to know something about what is unique or distinctive in the church. We once shot at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Cahors without realizing that the most remarkable feature of the church was the magnificent north portal in an alley on the opposite side of the main entrance. It was a good excuse to go back and shoot again later.

North portal, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot)  Photo by PJ McKey
North portal, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

This post addresses something different – perhaps it can be considered a primer for photographing in churches, especially in France and the United States. There are three main issues – respect for the church and the parishioners, use of tripods and access.

The first issue – respect for the churches and parishioners – is easy to communicate. Stay quiet and unobtrusive as much as possible. Don’t intrude on people who are praying or meditating. It is best not to photograph the services themselves except from a distance. And remember that these are religious services – we went to the vespers service at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay a couple of years ago, a service in which the monks and nuns sing the mass. A tour of Dutch tourists came in during the service. They sat respectfully and listened , but when it was finished, they applauded. The treated it like a performance. You could feel the shock among both the congregation and the monks and nuns.

When individuals are praying, they are very sensitive to interruptions (clicking of the camera can be very annoying) and of being photographed. Ask before you do so if you must shoot someone. Several years ago I saw a woman in a wheelchair at services in Vézelay, seated alone at the back of the church. I was taken by the way the light from a window looked like a reverse shadow of her image. When the service was over, I asked if I could take her picture. She gave me a lovely smile for the shot.

Shadow of light, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Shadow of light, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is also important to respect the church itself. In most cases, the altars are off-limits. This is almost assured if the church is actively used and consecrated. Stay off the altars, respect the signs and ropes that bar entry. If you are allowed to photograph in that area, leave when any sign of services begins. I was once shooting the vault from the altar at the Église Saints Pierre & Paul in Wissenbourg and failed to notice the arrival of parishioners. It wasn’t until the clerics started prepping the altar that I realized a service was imminent.

The artist in his studio  (Photo by PJ McKey)
Dennis photographing the chancel vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

The second issue is often not centered on photography in the church, which is usually allowed. But the difficulty arises in the need to use tripods. For us, tripods are a must since we shoot with small apertures and very long exposures. We spend hours shooting each church so there is no question of sneaking in.

Nave with layer mask of windows, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence (Rhode Island)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence (Rhode Island) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We find that in the United States it is almost always necessary to get advance permission from the church offices in order to shoot with tripods in a large church or cathedral. When we shot at the Washington National Cathedral for the first time, for example, we worked for a couple of weeks to get proper access. In Providence or Boston we just made arrangements a few days prior.

Light on pillar, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC  (Photo by PJ McKey)
Light on pillar, Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC (Photo by PJ McKey)

Smaller parish churches, on the other hand, are treated almost as private property. It is advisable to get permission to shoot on the premises, but it can often be done on the day that you arrive. It is a more informal process and we have found that the parish priests, deacons, rectors, or employees are pleased to show the church and discuss it.

Nave of Saint Ann Church, Lenox (Massachusetts)   Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave of Saint Ann Church, Lenox (Massachusetts) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In France, the churches are the property of the State, often managed by the church or a commune, and there are few obstacles to shooting except in large cathedrals – we would never have gotten access to Chartres like we did on the last two occasions had we not been invited.

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by PJ McKey
View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

But that being said, the only places other than Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, or Saint Denis that we needed actual permission was in Angers because the buildings that we visited were not open to the public, period. We have shot in Vézelay, Senlis, Sens, Reims, Laon, Albi, and many others with no problem.

The third issue in photographing the churches is the kind of access that you are allowed. In the large churches, there are two kinds of access. The normal access is when you can photograph in the space with a tripod undisturbed by any official interference. The second is where you are given access to areas that are not available to tourists at all and seldom seen by any visitors. This takes the most planning and communication with the church authorities and is not easily granted. In most cases the photographer will need a strong reference in order to gain this type of access.

Flying buttesses, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by PJ McKey
Flying buttesses, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

One further difficulty of access remains in rural France – getting inside. These smaller churches are often (alas) closed, and it is necessary to search around to find who might have the key. That can be quite an adventure. Your best chance to find a key is at the Mairie, but that city office might only be open one or two days a week. In the Charente last year, one Mairie was only open on Thursday afternoons.

Many times the key is with a local person who lives nearby. In a small village in the Saône-et-Loire departent of Burgundy we found the church locked and no sign of where the key might be obtained. Across the square was a small house with a lovely, well-kept garden in the small front yard. I crossed to the house and rang the bell. When the elderly woman who lived there opened the door – gazing a bit suspiciously at this large stranger – I asked about the key. She brightened immediately, reached into a flower pot and pulled out the huge metal key. She gave it to me and said that she had to leave and run some errands in town but I could just return the key when I was finished.

PJ shooting at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges  (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
PJ shooting at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have asked at many such houses, in some cases interrupting family gatherings, a woman putting on her wig, and men doing chores in their yards or fields. Once in the town of Peyrusse in the Auvergne, the mayor emerged from her house with a key that must have been a foot long and weighed five pounds. She exchanged it for my permit de conduire. But these kind people have never hesitated to help us when they heard the purpose of our visit. In some cases they show up where we are shooting to see if everything is working, turning on lights (often when they are not wanted), and sometimes, I think, looking to make sure that some small treasure of the church is still secure. But we always welcome them and try to engage in conversation about the church. Inevitably, they know something interesting or important about the church.

Dennis photographing at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey
Dennis photographing at the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

There is one final thing to remember in France = there is a good reason that the churches are locked. Thieves have long known that they might find beautiful and valuable objects in these churches. The shortage of priests in the villages mean that they are most often empty and targets for theft. We went to the small town of Thoisy-le-Désert in the Côte-d’Or to see their famous vierge romane. When we arrived at the church which was situated in a field just outside of the village of about 200 souls, we found it locked. I walked into the nearby village and found a group of people preparing for a festival. When I asked about the vierge, everyone looked crestfallen, some even began crying. It turned out that the statue had been stolen twelve years earlier in 1995 and had never been recovered. It was like the heart had been stolen from the village.

Statue en bois polychrome : Vierge à l'Enfant assise, Image copyright Patrimoine de France, photo by Henri Heuzé.
Statue en bois polychrome : Vierge à l’Enfant assise, Thoisy-le-Désert. Image copyright Patrimoine de France, photo by Henri Heuzé.

It is important to understand some of these issues when going to France to photograph these churches. They are much cared for (even in the smallest town, the largest portion of the maintenance and repair falls on the shoulders of the inhabitants) and beloved, and many have been violated in the most brutal fashion.

If you are serious in photographing in these churches both in the United States, France, Spain, and anywhere else, you will find that people are ultimately pleased to have you do so. They just ask for you to respect the church itself, the faith that of those who worship there, and the people who come to pray and meditate. In France it is always a nice gesture to buy a candle and place it on one of the altars and to buy any small publication that describes the church and its history. Your contribution will help to defray the costs of maintaining these extraordinary medieval buildings.

31 thoughts on “Church Etiquette for Photographers (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I applaud this interesting and thoughtful post. Thank you, Dennis. Next time I go to Durham, I will try to obtain permission in advance to photograph that elusive pulpit!

    1. It is especially bad in the large popular churches like Notre Dame de Paris. Thousands of blinking flashes firing continuously – flashes that are totally useless in capturing the spaces, like using a flash at a football game. Even a little thing like that is annoying to anyone trying to use the church for its purpose. I won’t even talk about the people who pose in the middle of the aisle, stick out their cameras and capture themselves making faces. Some of my favorites are the young women that I see “voguing” in the churches as if they were models. I saw one where the boyfriend lay out on the ground in the aisle so that he could get his low angle shot of the girl with his cell phone camera. One just shakes the head in wonderment.

  2. Great post, Dennis. I find that sometimes people with cameras in their hands seem to think that they are invisible, or immune to the laws of common sense and society. To capture the heart of the church, one must respect the role and life of the church. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Ann, we’ve seen some truly ruthless behavior in churches, both from individuals and groups. Thomas Mackay observed long ago that people will do things in groups that they would never consider doing by themselves, and it is true here.

  3. Your fourth paragraph tells a story, I’m afraid, of what has happened to worship itself. You capture this so well, Dennis. As a pastor I long for the quiet that stills the noisy voices that scream from within my own soul and from the world outside that treats everything as though it were entertainment to be applauded. There is no applause in prayer. There is the stillness observed by the monks.

    An evening worship service on the Isle of Skye is etched in my memory. When I, a tourist, walked into the wood frame building down the street from the B & B on Loch Snizzort, the stillness overwhelmed me. The room was filled with men, women, and children of all ages…but you could hear a pin drop. They were preparing their hearts for worship. Every one of them. I thought to myself, “I’m home!”

    After the minister entered and had taken his seat, the Congregation rose to sing with no instrumental accompaniment “Old Hundredth” (Louis Bourgeois, c1510-c. 1561), the lovely musical setting of Psalm 100::

    All people that on earth do dwell,
    Sing to the LORD with cheerful voice;
    Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell.
    Come ye before Him and rejoice.

    Know that the LORD is God indeed;
    Without our aid He did us make;
    We are His flock, He doth us feed,
    And for his sheep He doth us take.

    O enter then His gates with praise,
    Approach with joy His courts unto:
    Praise, laud, and bless His name always,
    For it is seemly so to do.

    For why? The LORD our God is good,
    His mercy is for ever sure;
    His truth at all times firmly stood,
    And shall from age to age endure.

    Thank you, Dennis, for this sensitive post…and for these magnificent photographs that bring us such a sense of the sacred in light, shadow and color.

    1. Gordon, I understood the desire to applaud because the music was beautiful and uplifting echoing through the stone vaults of Vézelay, but to forget that this was a solemn service was unthinkable. Did the tourists think that vespers were for their entertainment? We have even seen people go right up to the altar during services to take pictures of the monks and nuns while they celebrate mass. I have taken a photo of the service myself, but I was far in the side aisles, hidden from view. Even then I felt like an intruder.

      1. I, too, understand the feeling that would lead to applause in no small part, I think, because I am also shaped by an entertainment culture in which we are increasingly observers and tourists. The late Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama did the inaugural address for First Tuesday Dialogues at Shepherd of the Hill seven years ago. His title was “Jesus and the Buddha: Pilgrims or Tourists.”

    1. Angeline, we had a guest post from Mexican photographer Salvador Penaloza – if you go to Mexico City, check out the churches that he posted about. At the bottom of that article is a link to his website. Let us know when you post your pictures of that visit!

  4. Bravo to you and PJ. Did she get on the roof to photograph the flying buttresses??? What a woman! My favourite human photo today is the lady in the wheelchair – I hope her family and friends see this on your blog! Lastly, this sentence had me thinking: ‘Ask before you do so if you must shoot someone.’ Perhaps the gun lobby could put it in their constitution.

    1. Trisha, we both got on the roof in 2011, but PJ went up again last year. She went inside the walls in the old masons’ passages. She really is quite a woman! My hero, actually. As far as the woman is concerned, we seldom shoot people anymore – we joke that we would make them look like old buildings. But I was so taken with the sunlight “shadow” behind her that I had to ask. She was kind enough to agree.

  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing these very essential “how to” tips. I love the idea of locals proudly showing off their parish church to you for these amazing photographs! 🙂

    1. Christina, they have invited us into their homes for dinner or aperitifs. They have told us of other churches in the area that we didn’t know about. Mme Geile in tiny hameau Heume l’Eglise has allowed us access to a precious 12th century Madonna, served us American whiskey and potato chips at ten in the morning because she was so glad to have something American for us. We have so many wonderful experiences on these back roads of France.

      1. Vraiment, Helen, vraiment! Years ago in the Sologne, I met a chef at a wonderful country restaurant. After the meal, he joined us for a digestif and a long conversation. I’ll never forget his description of France as “50,000 villages.”. Absolutely true.

  6. I am always a little concerned about photographing in churches – never quite sure if it’s disrespectful. Thanks for clarifying. What a find that lady and the light was. I also enjoyed looking down at the interior from a place I would not get on my own.

  7. Wonderful photographs and some excellent advice here on respect for the churches being photographed. It is a pity that even fellow Catholics now think nothing of bringing out their phone/cameras and snapping away even during the most sacred part of the Mass.
    May I point out that Chartres is actually in the departement of Eure-et-Loir and not Eure? And the Vespers you attended in Vezelay is a different Service from the Mass. I can imagine the shock of those present at that group who applauded as if it had been a concert. They obviously had no idea that Vespers whether said or sung is the Evening Prayer of the Church!

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