Since taking up photography in 2011 after a long absence from the hobby, I have attempted to capture the beauty, spirituality, history, and architecture of churches. This effort has spanned 50 houses of worship in New York, Paris, Rome, London, and Montreal, with the results on my photography website, notmydayjobphotography.com. This article gives my thoughts and tips on photographing houses of worship, ranging from access, equipment, and image post processing.
It can be a challenge to photograph in tourist churches such as Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral given the crowds. For example, Notre Dame is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, with 13.6 million visitors in 2012, which amounts to about 37,000 people per day. To avoid crowds for unobstructed photos of the center aisle (nave) and chancel, I get to the church early. This strategy worked well at Notre Dame. On vacation in March 2012, I visited the cathedral on two occasions before 8 am to avoid the busloads of people. The official opening of the cathedral is 8 am, but the entrance door was open around 7:45 am. There were just a few visitors and staff at that time, maybe under five people. It was a strange feeling being one of the few people in this historic, massive structure, one of the most popular sites in the world. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is also sparse early in the morning. There is generally a 7:30 am mass that empties out around 8:30 am. With a limited number of people, it is an ideal time to take sweeping center aisle photos.
Like most endeavors in life, it is advisable not to be a jerk when photographing in a church.
Rules regarding photography vary across churches. Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey do no allow any photography (and also charge an entrance fee of about $30). Most popular destinations that permit photography do not allow tripods (an exception is Chartres Cathedral near Paris). However, some churches allow the use of small Gorillapod tripods. I used a Gorillapod tripod in Saint Patrick’s and Notre Dame Cathedral and security didn’t seem to mind.
Most churches I have visited are in the non-tourist category. Although many are spectacular, they have escaped the notice of the masses, with a limited number of people visiting during non-mass hours. When I arrive, I attempt to find someone to see if it is OK to take photographs. This is generally not a problem along with using a tripod. Church staff are generally happy someone is interested in their church. In a few cases, I’ve had to promise not to sell photographs of the church, not difficult to convince church staff with a website named nonmydayjobphotography.com. In some cases, I’ve received a tour of the church from a staff member interested in showing a visiting photographer around. One priest preparing for a baptism lamented that nobody listens to him during weddings and baptisms. “Funerals are a different story as people get really serious pondering their fate and pay more attention to what the priest has to say. Weddings are the worst; nobody pays any attention to what I say.”
Like most endeavors in life, it is advisable not to be a jerk when photographing in a church. Some visitors are there for moments of spirituality and don’t wish their moments of solemnity to be interrupted by a photographer making a commotion walking up and down the aisle. If there are people in the pews, I generally wait until they leave.
Most of my photos were taken with a Canon T2i DSLR with later photos with a Canon 7D Mark II. Although camera bodies attract substantial attention, the most important piece of equipment is a tripod. Churches can be very dark, requiring long exposure times, sometimes up to 30 seconds and a tripod is necessary to hold the camera still for sharp images. I use a Manfrotto tripod and ball head that attaches to the tripod and camera. Each costs about $100, although the cost of professional tripods (particularly made of graphite) and ball heads can cost much more. I use the following Canon lenses: 17-55 f2.8; 10-22 f3.5-4.5; 70-200 f4 non-IS. I generally favor my 17-55 because it produces less distortion; sometimes I use the 10-22 wide-angle for surreal perspectives. The 70-200 is great for close-ups of stained glass windows.
For maximum image sharpness, consider:
- using a tripod, especially important in dark churches;
- using an aperture stop several stops up from wide open. If using an f2.8-f22 lens, shoot at around f8 for sharpest results;
- shooting in live view mode to reduce camera vibration, with the mirror locked in the up position. This limits the movement in the camera;
- using a remote rather than pressing the shutter button. Pressing the shutter button inevitably causes some camera shake and the remote eliminates the need to touch the camera. A Canon remote costs about $22 with non-Canon remotes costing under $10;
- using the lowest ISO to limit noise;
- avoiding lens protecting filters. They simply add a layer of inferior glass to your nice, expensive lens. For lens protection, use a lens hood.
Typical settings for my camera are aperture priority at around f6.3-8.0 and 100 ISO. Given the uneven lighting, I always shoot multiple exposures. With my Canon T2i, I shoot two stops under/over exposed and one at 0 stops (Exposure Value EV: -2,0,2). With my Canon 7D Mark II, I shoot exposures of (EV: -5,-2, 0, 2, 5). This gives me more images to work with in post processing at different exposures. On the overexposed images, the dark segments will look fine, with other parts near sunlight, blown out with little detail. For the underexposed parts, segments near sunlight will be properly exposed, while the rest will be extremely dark, even black with no detail.
Given the uneven lighting, I always shoot multiple exposures. This gives me more images to work with in post processing at different exposures.
Carrying around a heavy DSLR and tripod can be a pain. Also, some churches do not allow tripods, such as Saint Peter’s at the Vatican. On recent vacations, I used a lighter, mirrorless Sony A6000 without a tripod. I like the portability of the camera; sometimes I forget it is around my neck. My shots are handheld, which means my ISO is much higher to achieve a faster shutter speed that results in somewhat sharp images shooting without a tripod. My photos from a Rome trip were shot at 4000 ISO with a shutter speed of 1/60 to 1/250 second. The photos came out fine with post processing, particularly with noise reduction. However, the sharpness and focus of the images do not compare with photos taken from a tripod.
Post-processing church photos, I make heavy use of three techniques: panoramas in Photoshop; perspective correction in Lightroom, and High Dynamic Range in Photomatix.
Perspective Correction in Lightroom
Symmetry is beautiful and simple; what is on the left side is a mirror image of the right side. Churches exhibit many symmetric features. Take the photo above, a simple shot of Trinity Church in the Wall Street area of Manhattan. Given that it is shot down the middle of the nave, the goal of the final image is to capture the symmetry. To achieve this goal, I set up my camera in live view mode, with grid lines to provide perspective. For one grid line, I check the left side for a reference point, say a column or light, then the right side for a similar reference point. If they don’t match, I adjust the camera to achieve balance. The more adjustments done in the church, the less that needs to be done post-processing. It is always easier to make adjustments in camera rather than in post-production in Lightroom or Photoshop.
Church photography can be a frustrating struggle to achieve symmetry. Sometimes the camera is not perfectly aligned, even with much care and patience during the shoot. Also, despite a perfectly aligned camera, church features such as columns and windows may not match up on the right and left hand sides. That is where Lightroom adjustments can correct minor flaws during the shoot. Lightroom has several perspective adjustments that I frequently use. I use the Rotate and Vertical sliders a lot under the Lens Perspective category in the Development mode. The Rotate slider provides horizontal and vertical grid lines on the image. Using the Rotate slider allows for minor symmetry adjustments, aligning a right reference point to a left reference point. The Vertical slider allows the user to reduce Keystone Effects, also known as Converging Verticals Effect. This effect can be clearly seen in the photo at the top of this article. See the columns on the right and left sides and how they are not parallel as they converge? That is the Keystone Effect. The Keystone effect is not necessarily bad; it can provide an interesting distorted effect, particularly when using a wide-angle lens.
When I want a more realistic perspective, such as the image below of Trinity Church in Manhattan, I used a normal lens rather than a wide-angle shot from a Gorillapod tripod with the camera about a foot from the floor. In Lightroom I adjust the Vertical slider such that the columns are parallel. However, there are limits to this slider as a substantial adjustment will lead to a distorted image in an attempt to achieve parallel columns.
Panoramas in Photoshop
I use panoramas to provide sweeping views of massive church ceilings. Ceilings are too expansive to be captured by a single image, even with a wide-angle lens. Panoramas can be constructed in Photoshop (click here for more detail on constructing panoramas). Simply upload 2-4 overlapping images and Photoshop does its best to merge them. It helps if there is substantial overlap between the images. The image below from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York City is an example. This is a result of merging three images taken with my Canon T2i in July 2012. The church was empty on a Friday afternoon so I was able to plan it out after several failed previous attempts. The ceiling is large, so I used a Gorillapod with my camera close to the ground with a Canon 10-22mm wide-angle lens at 10mm (17mm with the 1.7 crop factor). The church was fairly dark, so I kept my shutter open 13 seconds at f6.3, 100 ISO. I was barely able to get in the entire sweeping ceiling. Photoshop was able to merge the three images and, with some perspective adjustments, the final image is below. The result is a distorted sweeping image of the massive ceiling not accessible to the human eye. It might be similar to what a mouse with great peripheral vision might see.
Below is a similar photo from Saint Jean Baptist Church in New York City from January 2013. I stitched together three images (15mm, 4 seconds, f6.3, 100 ISO) in Photoshop. The result is a single image of the beautiful, French- styled ceiling.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) in Photomatix
Church lighting can be a great challenge for a camera. Some parts of the interior will be nicely lit, but other parts too bright and others too dark. Given that the dynamic range of a camera is less than the range of the human eye, no single image will be lit properly. Consider the images below, taken at Holy Trinity Church in New York City in February 2014. I was in the balcony with my Canon T2i, 17-55mm at 17mm, 100 ISO, f6.3, tripod mount. The first image, taken at 0 Exposure Value (EV) at a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds, has nicely exposed windows, but other parts are too dark. The second image is two stops underexposed (-2 EV) at 1/8 second and is similar to the first, with nice details in the windows. The third image is two stops overexposed with the shutter open for 2 seconds. Windows are blown out with no detail; other parts of the church are nicely exposed with great detail. Given that no single exposure is satisfactory, blending of the images is necessary, using the underexposed portions for the windows and the overexposed regions for the rest of the church.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) post processing can help greatly, resulting in a photo that balances over and underexposed regions. I use Photomatix for HDR processing, which is a Lightroom or Photoshop plug-in. Photomatix takes various images with varying exposures and merges them together. After processing and making adjustments with numerous sliders, the result is an image with the best parts of the various images. In the photo from Holy Trinity, the windows are nicely exposed, with ample detail in the other areas of the church. I’m generally not a big user of HDR processing, but it can work well with interiors. The image at Notre Dame at the top of this article was also HDR processed. Take a look at this article on real estate photography for more detail.
Focus on Ceilings
I spend much of my time in churches exploring ceilings, which are typically gorgeous works of art. I am amazed that the original artists were able to create such great work so high up. Two of my favorite non-panorama photos are below. The first is at Sant’Andrea della Valle Church in Rome. I used a Sony A6000 handheld at 4000 ISO, f4, 1/60 second shutter, 16-50mm lens at 16mm (24mm with 1.5X crop factor). Results would have been better with a tripod as I could have used a lower ISO with resulting longer shutter speed. I shot multiple images in case some were blurry due to the slow shutter speed. With noise adjustments in Lightroom, the results are reasonable. I made a few modest adjustments in Lightroom on the Vibrancy, Clarity, Exposure, and Perspective sliders.
The photo below is from Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Handheld shots are mandatory because the Vatican does not allow tripods. This was shot at 4000 ISO, 1/250 shutter, f4, 23mm (34mm with crop factor).
Don’t Ignore Church Exteriors
Most of my work has been inside churches. However, some of my favorites are of the exterior of the grand structures. An example is Westminster Abbey in London. Exterior photos are the only option as the church does not allow photography (in addition to a $30 entrance fee). Undaunted, I was able to salvage the visit with the photo below of the north entrance. I used a Canon T2i, 17-55mm at 17mm (27mm with crop factor), f4, 1/200, 100 ISO. I made a few adjustments in Lightroom using the Clarity and Exposure sliders, with Vibrance adjustments to the blue sky.
Standing outside the center of the west portal of Notre Dame, I had a strange feeling that a lot of people were looking at me in judgment. No wonder as this portal depicts the Last Judgment, originally sculpted between 1200 and 1240. Unfortunately many statues, particularly the large jamb statues (the first carved figures a visitor meets on a visit to a Gothic cathedral-traditionally depicting Old Testament prophets or martyred saints), were destroyed in the French Revolution. During the major restoration campaign in the mid-1800s, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc restored the portal to its original state by replacing trumeau (a pillar in the center of a Gothic portal) and jamb statues. The trumeau shows Christ teaching. I used a Canon T2i with 10-22mm lens at 10mm (17mm with crop factor), f3.5, 100 ISO, 1/100 second.
Tight Perspectives for Stained Glass Windows
Stained glass windows are some of the most beautiful elements of a church, with rich, vibrant colors that have lasted for many years (about 800 years for Chartres Cathedral windows). Capturing the entire window provides a complete perspective of the work. However, details are missing. To capture closer perspectives, I use a 70-200 lens with two examples below. The first is the beautiful Goodness and Mercy Angels Window by Louis Comfort Tiffany in The Second Reformed Church, in Hackensack, New Jersey. The closeup captures one of the angels and the detail in the window. Taken with a Canon T2i, 100 ISO, 200mm (335mm with crop factor), f6.3, 1/25 second.
The second example of a closeup is from Saint John the Divine Cathedral in New York City showing the Armed Forces Bay Stained Glass Window by Ernest Lakeman. Stats are: 70-200mm at 150mm, 100 ISO, f6.3, 0.4 seconds