There is something about photographing old churches that is very moving. But to photograph old church ruins nestled amongst stately oak trees in a “Low Country” setting was a thrill on a whole different level. Photographing the Sheldon Church ruins, previously known as Prince William Parish Church, was a trip back in history filled with an element of romance in an haunting southern atmosphere.
The location is only about 15 minutes from Interstate I 95 in Yamassee; yes that really is the name of a town.
History of Prince William Church:
William Bull, the owner of a nearby plantation, founded the church around 1740. He named the church Sheldon in commemoration of his family. However, the original church did not last long before it was burned down by British Troops in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. The church was rebuilt around 1826 only to be destroyed again in the Civil War by General Sherman’s troops. Although a sign states it was burned again, it appears that subsequent research determined the church was destroyed but not burned a second time. Today the ruins and grounds of this historic church are managed by the Parish Church of St. Helena in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina and thankfully open to the public.
Photographing the Church:
For any photographer who enjoys photographing architecture, the ruins of this old church offer hours of photographic fun. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s take a photographic walk around this church.
The Entrance: Immediately upon entering the grounds from the parking lot I visualize numerous photo compositions. My first composition involved a wide angle view that framed the church with beautiful oak trees. Since leaves from the tree framing the church were in my foreground, the image was photographed with a 17mm lens for maximum depth of field.
Getting Closer: Now it was time to move a bit closer for a slightly different composition. In this next image, I used a 35mm lens and again paid close attention to the minimum focal distance of my lens to ensure the tree branches would be sharp. To learn more minimum focal distance be sure to check out my Depth of Field post: Introduction to Depth of Field.
An Old Grave: After spending some time photographing the above compositions and waiting for people to move out of the ruins, I moved to the front of the church to photograph a marker by an old grave. I admit that I have never been able to capture perfect lighting from this location despite three attempts but haven’t given up and will try again soon.
A Front View: The next composition was a close view from the front of the church. For this composition I chose a 35mm lens to avoid the perspective distortions of wider angle lens. Also here I did not have any foreground trees to be concerned with keeping sharp. To accentuate the columns, I decided to compose the image at waist height.
My head was still spinning with all the composition options these ruins offered. The best advice I can offer for photographing this church is to have a game plan based on where the best light is and follow the light. For example, wait until last to photograph abstracts and textures as lighting will not matter as much for those shots. Also my visit was before I began using an app call Photopill that helps track sun angles so trips can be planned at the right time of day and year. To learn more about how I now use this app to plan my trips, check out: 10 Tips for Planning Photography Trips
Ruins Interior Compositions: After photographing the Sheldon Church ruins from the front, I began photographing the interior of the church ruins. I was literally a kid in a candy store that could not decide what to sample first. Below are a couple of the many different compositions inside the ruins.
Back Outside: Next, I headed back outside the ruins and worked the surrounding grounds from the side of the church. Again I found the lighting to be very challenging as portions of the side were in beautiful light while the other portion was in deep shadows. I have been back twice and still have not mastered the lighting from this angle and know there are more trips to work this composition in my future.
The Back of the Ruins: Lastly, I photographed the back of the church and found the images conveyed an entirely different feel to the church ruins. Here graves and trees form the foreground, unlike the greek style pillars at the front of the church. There is just something about having a grave in the foreground of an image, if you know what I mean. Although I was there in the afternoon, I believe photographing the back of the church ruins is best undertaken in the morning light.
- To properly photograph this church, one needs to visit it both in the early morning and again the the late afternoon light. I will not talk about night photography out of respect for the sign that stated what hours the site is open to the public.
- A plan to manage contrast is very important as the dynamic range is very large between the trees and the ruins.
- Allow plenty of time to explore and evaluate compositions as there are so many potentials.
Gear and Settings:
- Lens in the range of 17-200mm work best. A tilt shift lens would also be great here.
- No need for any ND filter due to the trees
- A flash is handy for certain compositions
- Shutter speeds of the grounds should be at least 1/250 of a second or faster to ensure the leaves are sharp. Faster speeds will depend on the wind.
- Aperture settings will vary depending on composition to much to provide specifics here.
- Respect the private grounds as there is talk that they may close this site to the public due to vandalism
- No bathrooms are available
- Be aware of other photographers and try not to walk in front of someone’s image if possible, unless they are spending hours in one spot.
- Food, lodging, restrooms and campgrounds are only about 15 minutes away in the small town of Yamassee.
Update June 2020:
I have heard that a fence has been erected around the church due to vandalism. I am currently in the Rocky Mountains and have not been able to verify what that means for photography of the ruins but doubt it can be good news.
Thanks for joining me on my Road Trip Friday adventure to the Sheldon Church Ruins in the beautiful “Low Country” of South Carolina and I hope to see you again next Friday on my next destination.