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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.