Tag Archives: architecture

What I’ve learnt: The hows of church photography

Crosby Garrett, Cumbria

A rare “pretty picture” for me

As daylight saving cruelly drags us back to GMT, shutting churches earlier, I’ve been catching up on uploading my images from an Indian summer of churchcrawling. I know I haven’t quite been updating this blog as much as I should with my amazing (!) adventures, but the sheer volume of things I’ve been visiting means that south-east views of chancels would rapidly get rather tedious unless I frame them in an interesting way. I would like to do a series of reflections: on the hobby of churchcrawling, the problem open and locked churches, as well as my continuing research, but first I’d like to do a guide to the sort of prosaic photography that suits architectural historians, rather than someone gunning for Flickr favs.

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

For many years now (since mid-2012) I’ve been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ48, a bridge camera with 24X zoom. Until this summer, I had basic rules for the dial. If I was shooting freehand, I have it on “P”, which means the aperture and shutter speed are set for you by the light sensor with this in mind. If I had the camera on a tripod, then I would shoot on “A” – that is, aperture priority, which means you choose the aperture size, and the camera takes a long exposure if necessary. If it was very dark and I needed a very long exposure (more than 10 seconds) I put it on S, “shutter priority” and set it that way.

Coleshill, Warwickshire

Perp chancels, with their massive windows, are a nightmare for photography – especially when they’re cluttered up with nasty MFI furniture for a wedding – but I still took a load of crap pictures.

This was the extent of control I had over the camera. But when I came back from Warwickshire in August for a two-day trip, I found I did have an unfortunate number of duff shots: blurry arcades and over-exposed chancels. I decided to up my game and shoot almost entirely on M:  full manual, in that I set both aperture and shutter speed for every shot. And since all cameras are basically the same – they let light through a hole of a specified size for a specified amount of time onto a light-sensitive surface – there might be someone out there who might benefit from me twaddling on for a bit.


Lichfield Cathedral

Another rare, “aesthetic” picture: the crazy abundance of dogtooth in Lichfield nave

First thing that improved my photos: when shooting on a tripod, set the ISO sensitivity to the lower number possible. This was originally done, in the olden days, by changing the film. Now there should be a button on the back of the camera where you can either lock it at one speed, set it to auto, or choose a maximum value. The only reason you want a higher film speed is if you are shooting freehand in low light or working with a moving subject. Unless you’re working with liturgy there’s no reason you need to this. Your pictures will come out so much sharper.


Audley, Staffordshire

I could not find the light switches here even though the vestry had the key left in the door and they had to be somewhere. Nevertheless, pictures mostly came out okay – just took twice as long as it should have had.

Next, setting the shutter speed. The first time you’re in a dark church and realise you can get great pictures by just taking 10-15 second exposures on a tripod is a marvellous dawn. Sometimes you’re going to want to turn off the lights where possible, as bright bulbs often over-expose and mess up your shots. But it’s also worth controlling the shutter speed when outside too. Cameras are very intelligent these days, but it can only go so far. A black box can’t know that you’re interested in the dark walls rather than the bright windows. However, I’ve found that’s always better to under-expose than over-expose. If it’s a bit dark, you can rescue it at home with some post-processing and upping the contrast and gamma correction. Whiteness means the information has been totally destroyed, and only a magic Blade Runner zoom-enhance-zoom-enhance computer could do anything.

Church Eaton, Staffordshire

Here we have sun on the W tower so it’s possible to balance it with the sky

The same goes for outside: when you’re taking a north side of a church in shade against a bright sky, there’s no way the light sensor know you’re more interested in the dark building than the bright sky. At the expense of over-exposing the blue sky and losing the pretty clouds, you can actually bring out your subject that would get lost in the dark. There’s really no excuse not to set your shutter speed manually all the time. While in filmic past, when plastic bags were free at Marks and Spencers and Pets Win Prizes was top Saturday-night viewing, you wouldn’t see your results until you unpegged them and took them out of your red-lit developing room, you can see them instantly on your camera’s LCD screen.

The other thing to remember is that cameras are like your eye, not like your brain. You might think you can see a dark wall and a bright stained glass window at the same time, but actually, you can’t – you’re seeing them separately and experiencing them together. The only way to get a picture of something bright and something dark in the same picture is to use a tripod and take two different exposures, and do a composite of them in an imaging program when you get home.


Bakewell, Derbyshire

Burlison and Grylls glass enhanced by short exposure to bring out the painting

Stained glass should always be taken on manual shutter speed. But not all stained glass is created equal – a blazing boiled-sweet Wailes in the chancel at sunrise is not the same as a bit of medieval glass cradled in the vestry. You need to get a balance between the luminosity of the glass and capturing the painting. For sunlight directly through glass you can be shooting a 1/1000 of a second. It’s also interesting how you can make quite bad Victorian window look really good by reducing the glare effect of the thin panes – the camera never lies, indeed.

Checkley, Staffordshire

Medieval glass tends to let a lot less light through than Victorian glazing

Nearly all digital cameras have a preview function where if you lightly hold down the shutter button it will show you what it thinks the image will look like. Of course, this isn’t perfect – it won’t work for things that have very low light – but it certainly gives you a good idea how long you need.


St Giles R.C., Cheadle

Pugin’s Cheadle has a very difficult lighting system to work with

Finally, understanding the aperture. Beyond the film speed, there’s only two things to understand how a camera collects the light: how big the hole is, and how long it’s open for. Aperture is measured by F-Stop number. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the hole that lets the light in. This, I find, is more of a matter of practical advantages and disadvantages in church photography than the general benefits to your images with longer exposures. If you’re in very low light, then the necessary length of your exposures become a lot shorter (obvious, really). However, a higher F-Stop means a deeper depth of field and sharper focus. My F-stop only goes up to 8 anyway, which isn’t very good, so it’s not really something I’ve explored. Therefore, unless I want to highlight something in shallow focus or can’t find the light switches, I shoot on high F-Stop.


Kirkby Wiske, North Yorkshire

Curse the mason who came up with that string course

One exception I find is a perennial problem for me shooting my pet subject, sedilia. Sedilia are always built into the south wall and very often have a window directly above them. This means they are sometimes bloody frustrating to take a picture of because of the composition of dark wall with sunlight blazing in behind. While sometimes shooting them with a wide aperture and short exposure helps, sometimes all you can do is the ultimate cheat: flash them.

Acton, Cheshire

This flashed picture looks awful, but shows the re-masoned wall behind the two missing sedilia more clearly than anything

Ah, the flash. All those pictures of demon-eyed children round their birthday cake in the kitchen. For a professional photographer, it’s like a chef using a microwave oven. But like all but the most conceited gourmet will admit about microwaves, the flash has its uses. Essentially for any sort of aesthetic photography a flash is no-no because it absolutely destroys the ambience and subtleties of natural light. But for sculpture, this can be extremely useful for architectural historians. The intense light can bring out breaks and joins that can’t be seen with the naked eye. It can also highlight folds quite beautifully sometimes. It ain’t going to get on the cover of National Geographic, but it’s still wise to pop up your flash for a few close-quarter shots occasionally.


Chebsey, Staffordshire

The headdress distracts from her fine pair of ears

If you want to take decent interior pictures, you’ve gotta get a tripod, I’m afraid. It might make you look like a nerd, but on the other hand it does look a little bit like a you’re carrying a rifle, which might appeal on some level, and also if you got accosted by a ne’er-do-well you could always brain them with it. Most of the time I carry a plastic one that cost about £15. Generally this is totally fine – the main problem you will find is using it on high zoom, when it becomes difficult to move the mount steadily and get that perfect frame you want. Also, moving the camera 90 degrees and not having it be a bit wonky is also difficult. I have a metal one that had a former life as a telescope stand, weighs a tonne, but makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

Which of course, I don’t, really. I only have a bridge camera, so I don’t have a clue about the wide world of lens and SLRs. I hope this serves as a bit of an introduction on how to take the sort of dry, boring photos of churches that are useful for architectural and art history. But if this was the how to take pictures, there’s also the what to take pictures of, which I’ll save for another post.

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Great Mistakes in English Medieval architecture

One of the great things about medieval art and architecture is that people just went in and did things. They didn’t build models and scale them up, building great cathedrals and abbeys was a learning process as much as anything else. This means many of these apparently perfect aspirations to the Heavenly Jerusalem have some often quite comical mistakes, corrections and bodge-jobs that once you see, you can’t unnotice. There do seem to be a few more of them in English architecture than anywhere else, that makes it all the more fun to study…

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Selby Abbey, nave, north arcade, early twelfth century

Selby Abbey, nave, north arcade, early twelfth century

 

 

Ok even I know arches don’t look like that

Just a bit of settlement abbot, nothing to worry about

I don’t know why we even bother sometimes

 

 

 

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Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral, south-east transept, south wall, triforium, early 1180s

Canterbury Cathedral, north-east transept, west wall, triforium, early 1180s

Uhh, master William, we’ve had a small problem in the triforium, some guy springed the arch at the wrong pitch and oh god it looks ridiculous

Naw, leave it, yeah

Seriously? William of Sens had us redo loads of things because they were not up to s-

Look, I’m going to get this thing finished on time or my name isn’t WILLIAM THE ENGLISHMAN

 

 

 

 

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Pershore Abbey, arch to Lady Chapel, c.1220

Pershore Abbey, arch to Lady Chapel, c.1220

Uhh, we don’t need a vaulting shaft there

Oh, whoops

Yeah

I’ll just, like, cover it up with some leaves, no one will notice

Good job

Should I do the same to the arch on the other side

Why

So it matches?

What on Earth for

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Salisbury Cathedral, north-east transept, c.1230s

Umm, what is going on up there

Going on where

That arch that springs from that last window and goes nowhere

Oh sorry yeah that’s to do with the original Norman plan nothing we could do about it

This is a virgin site, you can’t pull the old “Normans did it” with us here

Look do you want to build this Cathedral yourselves

No

Well shut up then

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Durham, eastern transept of the Nine Altars, begun 1242, probably vaulted in late 1250s, possibly into 1280s

Durham Cathedral, eastern transept of the Nine Altars, begun 1242, probably vaulted in late 1250s, possibly into 1280s

I’ll come clean prior, when we measured up that copy of the eastern transept at Fountains Abbey for you, we didn’t take into account that your church is kind of a completely different width

Is this going to be a problem

Well when we put the vault on there might be a teensy teensy mistake

Is anyone going to notice

We’ll carve a ring of really nice angels to cover it up

Ah, distracting surface ornament, good job

 

 

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Westminster Abbey, presbytery, 1250s

Westminster Abbey, presbytery, 1250s

Master Henry, we have a problem

What have you fools done now

Some guy has used a different sized diaper to everyone else on the presbytery spandrels

Mon dieu

You don’t really notice it though

Yeah, I suppose we’ll get away with it

You don’t think the king will notice

Oh no way, he’ll look at this bit like, once. Three times, tops

Okay good to know

This never happened in Rheims

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Wells Cathedral, nave 1170s, strainer arch 1338-48

Wells Cathedral, nave 1170s, strainer arch 1338-48

So Mr Joy, you say our tower is totally dodgy and might fall down, what is your solution

An enormous angry owl

What

Yes, three of them. Three angry owls, one under each crossing arch

Are you serious it will look ridiculous

Have you got a better idea

Okay, angry owls it is

 

 

 

Since this has gone viral I think it’s worth saying that the pictures are taken by me except Selby which is from http://www.docbrown.info/docspics/, and Durham (where photography is not allowed, leading to it being very hard to find pictures of online, so I’m lucky I found one at all) which was taken by Flickr user Ninesergeants https://flic.kr/p/a7pQdG. Wells is taken from the Cathedral website (I’m so bad at taking the one straight-down-the-nave picture which is the only shot most people take!)