Monday, November 2, 2009

Photographing Stained Glass Windows

Stained Glass Window from Notre Dame de ParisWith the tremendous technological improvements in DSLRs and even digital point and shoot cameras, coupled with the improvements in software used to remove lens and positional distortion as well as edit photographs in general, it’s now possible for travelers to make wonderful photographs of stained glass windows in the churches, synagogues and mosques they visit.

In most instances you’ll be able to get very good exposures of incredible stained glass windows while you travel, but there will be pitfalls, and most of the time there will be distortion to deal with in post processing once home.

If you’re going to at an out of the way church or museum you may be fortunate enough to be permitted to use a tripod and remote shutter release, but if you go to busy places like I’ve visited recently in Paris, such as Notre Dame de Paris, Musée de Cluny, or Sainte-Chapelle, that won't be possible.

Sainte ChapelleGetting the right exposure is certainly the number one problem in photographing stained glass windows, especially if you’re trying to capture both the stained glass window and the beautiful interior of the church you’re visiting. The photograph of the interior of Paris’ Sainte Chapelle to the right is a perfect example of the problem. Even though there is light in the room, the light coming through the stained glass windows overwhelms the illumination of the interior of the Upper Chapel of Sainte Chapelle.

If you expose your photo for a church interior, most photographs will show white stained glass windows, as the windows will be overexposed. If you expose exclusively for the windows, like I’ve done in the photo above to the left, of a stained glass window at Notre Dame de Paris, the church’s interior will be extremely dark.

There are several strategies you can employ to get your exposure right for stained glass windows.

Stained glass inset from Sainte ChapelleYou can expose strictly for the window itself. I employ this strategy often when making close-ups of some part of the window, or when I’m trying to show off the window itself, to the exclusivity of the building in which it’s located.

The black background surrounding the lighted stained glass accentuates the intensity of the colors of the glass, and helps to bring out its beauty. In close-ups, the details pop out with the black background.

Most churches ban the use of flash. In any event, a single flash, especially the built-in ones, directed toward a stained glass window will wash out its colors. Using a flash just isn’t a viable option for travelers.

You could use HDR, or High Dynamic Range Imaging, which in this case, might be accomplished with just two shots; one for the church, and one for the window(s). You will need to brace your camera somehow to get a well focused shot, like mine above of the interior of Paris’ Sainte Chapelle. That photo is the combination of two images. I was able to brace myself in the chapel, and use a wide angle lens which made the shot easier to keep in focus.

Stained glass window from Notre Dame de ParisI took about 20 – 2 photograph sets to get a pair in focus. If you’re going to try this without a tripod, believe me when I say you’ve got to brace your camera to hold it steady, and even then, take a whole series of sets, not just one or two. Getting a useable pair won’t be easy.

The low light you’ll find in the church can emphasize the problem of camera shake, especially if you’re using a longer focal length. I strongly suggest the use of “image stabilization” or “vibration reduction” when shooting the stained glass windows. In addition, for most of my stained glass photographs I use an ISO of 400, which enables me to use shutter speeds for which I can hand hold my camera with IS/VR active. Most of my stained glass photos used a shutter speed of about 1/15 to 1/30 second. Some photographers must bump their ISO higher as they can't hold their camera steady enough at those shutter speeds.

Your angle of view can be a difficult problem, but can be dealt with via software. For example, the North Rose stained glass window to the right above is located well above the floor of Notre Dame de Paris. I used the vertical perspective tool in Photoshop to correct the photo. Most software today has tools to correct lens distortion.

Some stained glass windows are so enormous you can’t get far enough away from them to get the entire window in one photograph, even with a wide angle lens. There are many computer programs which enable you to stitch multiple photographs together to form one photo. The idea here is similar to HDR, in that multiple photographs are used to make one photo. To stitch photographs together, make sure you include enough overlap between photos, when you make your exposures, to make the stitching as accurate as possible.
Musée de Cluny, Paris, France, stained glass window from the Workshop of Peter Hemmel, of Andlau, Strasbourg, circa 1483


David said...

Wow, while the advice in the articles is great, and I'll use it, it's some of your gallery photos of stained glass that wowed me.

For those who haven't seen them yet, when you go to the Notre Dame stained glass gallery, make sure you look at the photos in their extra large size so you can see the details in the windows.

Thanks Ned.

Charles said...

Wonderful tips to get great stained glass windows, and your stained glass photos are fabulous.

Tess said...

Great idea to use HDR to photograph stained glass windows in churches. I wish I thought of it.

Your photos are great. That photo in Saint Chapelle is amazing. I can see that with all that detail you would really have to brace yourself and your camera to get the shot.

Rachel said...

Ned, what do you use to stitch together photos to make a single photo, and what do you use to make HDR photos?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Rachel,

I use Pana Vue Image Assembler to stitch photos and sometimes even make Quicktime panoramas. I use Photomatix Pro for HDR.

Jon said...

Fabulous shots of the stained glass Ned. You're right about the black background. It really makes the colors pop out at you.

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