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The Grand Tour: photographing antiquities

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Sagalassos in southwest Turkey is an archeological site that has also been a major tourist attraction since 1990. It was said to be one  of the wealthiest cities in Pisidia when Alexander the Great conquered it in 333 BCE Sagalassos in southwest Turkey is an archeological site that has also been a major tourist attraction since 1990. It was said to be one of the wealthiest cities in Pisidia when Alexander the Great conquered it in 333 BCE MrPhotoMania
16 Aug
Camera technology may have come a long way since the early days of photography inspired travellers to capture the world on film. But when it comes to photographing ancient sites, we can still learn a lot from the old masters

Global tourism as we know it today ‘took off’ with the arrival of the passenger jet and mass marketing of package tours from the 1950s. But a hundred years earlier, Europe’s wealthy elite were already spending their summers touring the ancient sites and antiquities of Italy, Greece and Spain. The more adventurous even explored the historic ruins of Turkey and the Middle East, often clutching a copy of Baedeker, the seminal travel guide of the time.

This was the age of the Grand Tour, a cultural rite of passage for Europe’s upper classes, who would record their journeys with pen and paint brush, sometimes spending whole days trying to capture a single scene of renown. When the new science of photography was given its first public demonstration in Paris in January 1839, Grand Tours by the first travel photographers soon followed.

During the 1840s and 1850s, expeditions were made to the world’s great archaeological sites to photograph what had previously been trusted to a canvas, easel and the artist’s eye. Over the next decades, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Robert Macpherson, Francis Frith and other pioneers travelled through the sites of the Mediterranean, carriages loaded with cameras, lenses, plates and chemicals, for the sole purpose of capturing images of antiquity.



Frith, who was born in Chesterfield in the north of England, was especially prolific and spent his early adult years on extensive tours of Egypt and the Middle East, producing a series of albums that excited academia and society in equal measure. His photographs created a wide-reaching public interest in ancient sites and stimulated renewed interest among English high society in the Grand Tours of Europe and the Holy Lands.

Even in these early days of photography and with a process that was painstakingly slow and cumbersome by today’s standards, Frith was still forward-thinking enough to see the commercial potential in depicting archaeological sites with a human context. Instead of taking pure record shots where people were either absent or reduced to a blur due to the very long exposure times of the day, Frith astutely depicted scale by placing people in positions that added to the marvel of these ruins. For example, a plate from 1859 called Colossal Sculpture at Abu Simbel only fits the title because of the inclusion of two robed locals, one of whom is sitting on the knees of the ancient form. Such placement made his compositions more memorable to the eyes of the beholder.



By the 20th century, cameras were essential for any field trip or expedition of potential discovery – not just to record what was found but, more importantly, to enable the pictures to be screened to the public at home and therefore raise the funds needed to repay expedition backers.

The importance of photography to the recording of ancient sites is best illustrated by arguably the most famous discovery of a lost civilisation. On 24 July 1911, the American Hiram Bingham climbed the Urubamba Valley in the central Andes and became the first foreign traveller to see the ruins of Machu Picchu. Bingham’s first action wasn’t to sketch a plan of the lost city or to write down his thoughts. Instead, he set up his plate camera on a tripod and started taking photographs.

Bingham stayed only a few hours but it was long enough for him to expose 31 plates. He carefully noted down the position and perspective of each image, certain in the knowledge that the pictures would excite enough archaeologists, museums and philanthropists to provide the necessary finance for a longer, more extensive return expedition.

Sure enough, the following summer Bingham returned to Machu Picchu, having secured sponsorship from Kodak founder George Eastman, and recorded every corner of this extraordinary site.



More than 150 years since Frith and his fellow pioneers first trained their plate cameras on the columns and sculptures of fallen empires, the archaeological sites of the 19th century are among the biggest tourist attractions of the 21st. However, the techniques adopted by Frith and Bingham continue to resonate today in the commercial images of Europe’s ancient ruins: a clear view, precise focusing, balanced composition and a sense of scale.

Despite these huge technological advances, there is one important aspect of photographing ancient sites that remains as much of a challenge today as it ever did for the Victorian adventurers: how do you avoid the effect of converging verticals when photographing tall classical structures such as the Colosseum or Parthenon from the ground?

This trapezoidal effect is a type of distortion that becomes more pronounced with wide-angle lenses or through tilting the camera skywards when shooting a tall building from ground level. If you cannot photograph your subject square-on to the camera, or from far enough away to reduce this effect, then a specialised lens to control the perspective can provide the solution.

Known as perspective control (PC) lenses, these are not a recent invention. In fact, one of the prime advantages of the old style, large format camera is the use of the bellows to tilt the lens when still fixed to the camera body and so ‘straighten’ any converging verticals within the frame.

These movements also make it possible to improve depth of field. It is only in more recent years that major camera makers Canon and Nikon have produced ‘tilt and shift’ lenses for the full-frame digital format to correct the trapezoidal effect in-camera. However, perfecting such movements necessitates the camera being fixed to a tripod, a practice that plate camera users of the 19th and early 20th centuries followed as a matter of course. PC lenses are more expensive than their standard focal length equivalent, so some prefer to overcome converging verticals through digital manipulation.



Many ancient structures were built for religious purposes and located in cities that have become built-up and densely populated over the centuries. As a result, a temple such as Rome’s 2,000-year-old Pantheon is hard to capture in its entirety when viewed from the crowded space of the Piazza della Rotonda.

An easier and more creative approach is to photograph a recognisable part of its structure such as the line of columns or the inscription to Marcus Agrippa on the frieze above the lintel. Some structures, such as the dome of nearby St Peter’s or the elevated position of the Acropolis in Athens dominate a city’s skyline and are best photographed from a distance to show them in relation to the surroundings.

Don’t forget the details either: the intricate stone carved figures of ancient Greek gods and Roman saints can only be truly appreciated when viewed through a telephoto zoom for maximum impact. Whether photographing a close-up detail or a more general record shot, your composition is likely to be more impressive when the subject is well lit by direct sunlight. After all, throughout history many of the world’s great buildings were designed with attention to their location, elevation and directional aspect. Therefore, east-facing walls are best photographed in the morning, west-facing in the afternoon, when lit by direct sunlight respectively at these times of day. Even then, early morning and late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky is preferable as the light reflected from the surface of most types of stone will appear warmer and more pleasing to the eye.



Symmetry is an obvious feature of many classical buildings from ancient Greece and Rome. These presents many compositional possibilities, particularly when photographing close-up. Look for angles and linear patterns in columns and steps, emphasised by the equally spaced separations between light and shade.

Of course, many landmarks, such as the Parthenon in Athens, have an iconic status, recognisable around the world. So how do you freshly capture a building that has been photographed millions of times before? Every visitor to the Colosseum in Rome tries to copy the postcard view of its exterior, but few bother to photograph the interior. Tourist numbers may be at their greatest in the middle of August, but it remains possible to photograph parts of the Colosseum’s extraordinary interior without their intrusion.

That said, even at the height of the tourist season it pays to remember how a pioneer such as Francis Frith included people to convey the great size and scale of these impressive ruins. Some techniques, like Europe’s ancient sites, have always stood the test of time.


Find out where the sun rises and sets in relation to the site and return in the ‘golden hour’ around these times to get the warmest light.

Spot meter from the surface of the stonework for an accurate exposure reading. Most building exteriors are a neutral shade or colour, so are ideal for this purpose.

Fit an 81 series warm-up filter
to give stone work a more appealing colour cast in overcast conditions.

Always try to take the ‘postcard view’ when visiting an ancient site or ruin for the first time. Instead, walk around and note how the fall of light differs on each side, and identify prominent features to include within the frame.

Ignore the chance to include the main subject as a background to other images, thereby showing its position and significance in relation to the setting.

Shoot in the middle of a summer’s day
when the sun is at its highest as contrast levels will be too great for your camera’s dynamic range.


Recommended reading

The Sites of Ancient Greeceby Paul Cartledge & George Gerster; Phaidon; £39.95 (hardback)

Kingdoms of Ruin: The Art & Architectural Splendours of Ancient Turkeyby Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch; IB Tauris; £31 (hardback)

Great Monuments of the Ancient World by Henri Stierlin; Thames & Hudson; £19.95 (hardback)


Equipment Selections

Accessory option: Warm-up filters

A warm-up filter counteracts the colour shift in daylight that occurs in overcast conditions. Warm-up filters are known as the 81 series (81a, 81b and 81c – from £20) and reduce the amount of light reaching the image sensor by 2/3 stop. Hoya makes a range of circular filters that screw directly onto the front of your lens. Cokin & Lee are square-shaped filters that require a filter holder to fit to the lens.



Lens option: Perspective control lenses

Recently, Canon and Nikon brought out PC lenses for their own digital SLRs. But Korean company Samyang has also released generic PC lenses that are available from wide-angle to short telephoto fixed focal lengths, these tilt the lens when still fixed to the camera body to obtain greater depth of field. Shift movements correct any converging verticals so that the subject does not look distorted.



Camera option: Tilting screen SLR

It is the nature of ancient sites that many fallen artefacts need to be shot low to the ground. In addition, using a low viewpoint can lead to a more creative composition. A DSLR with tilting LCD monitor, such as the Nikon D750 (£1,250 body only), can make it much easier to frame a scene without straining your neck or back. It’s also an excellent choice for low light shooting with an impressive ISO range of 100 to 12,800, extendable to 50 to 51,200.


This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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