A sense of history

By Geoff Harris

The winners of the Historic Photographer of the Year Awards 2020 have just been announced, and they are a reminder that combining an interest in photography and history can yield some really great results.

Over the past few years, this has grown to be one of the bigger and better supported photography competitions, so it’s well worth thinking about entering yourself next time.

Given the restrictions and frustrations of this year, entrants were allowed to submit images from their archive. The Overall Winner was awarded to Michael Marsh for his dramatic capture of the Grade II-listed, Brighton Palace Pier.

Overall Winner - Michael Marsh - The Brighton Palace Pier

Meanwhile, the Historic England category was won by Adam Burton’s aerial view/drone shot of St Michael's Church on Somerset’s Burrow Mump.

Winner - Historic England - Adam Burton - St Michaels Church

The newly-launched Where History Happened category run in partnership with the TV channel Sky History went to Martin Chamberlain for his sombre shot of the ancient city of Palmyra, captured before the destruction wrought by Syria’s civil war.

Winner - Where History Happened - Martin Chamberlain - Palmyra, Syria

There were some really great shortlisted images too, including this dramatic shot of Whitby Abbey, taken by James Smith.

Shortlisted- James Smith - Whitby Abbey

Meanwhile Welsh Farmhouse by Ian M Hazeldine is just really atmospheric and evocative, and shows that you don’t need to schlep out to a stately home or exotic ruin to get an image with strong historical interest.

Shortlisted - Ian M Hazeldine - Welsh Farmhouse

So what can we as photographers learn from some of the great work to have been recognised in this competition?

Look for extra elements

These days it’s not enough to just take a ‘record shot’ of a famous historical building and hope that will get you recognition. This image of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, by Dmitry Bogdanov, works because of the soldiers in the foreground and the strong graphic shapes they create. They really add resonance, especially when you consider the Soviet Union’s turbulent history.

Shortlisted - Dmitry Bogdanov - St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

What’s your angle?

Several images which did well in the competition were overhead shots, so think carefully about your shooting angle. Not everyone will have access to a drone, but sometimes just getting a higher level than your subject, or finding a more unusual angle, can yield good results.

Shortlisted - Jo Emery - Ladybower Plugs

Go wide

A wide angle lens comes in really handy for this type of photography, as it gives lots of versatility. By offering a greater field of view, wideangles let you squeeze more into a frame, including big skies, dramatic scenery and interesting foregrounds. They also come in useful for capturing the full sweep of an imposing historical building or monument. Good, reasonably priced buys include the Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC HLD and the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM.

Shortlisted - Jo Sowden - Dovercourt Lighthouse

Brush up your night photography skills

Several of the successful images were taken at night or in low light, so shooting a historical monument or famous scene in this way can really make your image stand out. Remember to use a tripod for longer exposures when you select a higher aperture at night in order to preserve depth of field – the shutter speed will drop right down and you will struggle to keep everything sharp handheld. Keep the ISO down to reduce noise and use manual focus as your autofocus may struggle to ‘lock on’ in low light.

Shortlisted - Elana Pakhalyuk - Church of the Good Shepherd, New Zealand

Mist opportunities

Many imposing buildings can look great in mist and fog too, and give a real ‘timeless’ feel. Good tips here are to overexpose a bit (nudge up the exposure compensation dial) to prevent the camera from underexposing and making everything too grey and murky. Shooting with a longer lens enables you to compress perspective for interesting results and choose a Daylight white balance to keep the cool look of a misty morning. If you shoot in raw, you can always adjust white balance afterwards. Careful image editing can also really work up the drama in misty shoots too.

Shortlisted - Gillian McDonald -Taj-Mahal

Focus on detail

Last but not least, sometimes it’s the smaller details which can evoke the sense of a place, and a real sense of history. So carry around a fast prime lens (fixed focal length) with a wide maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 for interior shots, or a macro (close-up) lens.

Shortlisted- James - Slate Mine, Mid Wales

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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