Monday, August 31, 2009

Photographing Sacred Spaces

Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, PAWhen we travel we certainly see and often visit churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other religious shrines. Many contain some of the world’s great artwork. Many are architectural gems unto themselves. Many have extensive grounds. Many are important for their history, or their part in historic events.

Some are the center of their town’s or city’s culture, and attract visitors from across their region, country, and some attract visitors from across the world.

Often we find shops, vendors, and other places supporting the sacred space. That means many photo opportunities besides the place of worship itself, and those of its grounds and interior.

Gaining access to a place considered sacred by those who maintain and belong to it, brings responsibility to behave with sensitivity to the place of worship itself, those who worship in it, and those responsible for running it. The building, grounds, and the people must be respected.

If you have any doubt at all if photography is forbidden there, ask! If a religious ceremony is taking place, even if photography is generally permitted, ask if it’s alright to take photographs during the ceremony, and specifically the people participating in it. Ask about using your flash too. Remember you are a visitor!

If photography isn’t permitted, put your camera away if possible. Don’t try to sneak in a photo.

Notre Dame de Paris, GargoyleIf you’re fortunate enough be able to take photos of a religious ceremony in a sacred space, I suggest turning off your flash, even if you’re permitted to use one. Use faster film, or bump up the ISO setting of your digital camera’s sensor. Often a flash can disturb those participating in the ceremony.

When going to a famous sacred place like Notre Dame de Paris, everyone takes a photograph of its famous front, but like many places of worship there is much more. At this incredible Gothic church, for example, there are the flying buttresses, and the fantastical gargoyles, just to name two.

You’ve got to look around. You’ve got be be observant and carefully examine the detail. Often the detail cries out for close-up shots.

Look for details which have relevance to the religion being practiced in the sacred space; incense sticks, candles, special motifs on the walls, statues, bas-relief carved into the walls, paintings, frescoes, furniture, special urns or light fixtures. All add photo opportunities to your visit.

Inside, it goes without saying that there may be spectacular stained glass to photograph. You definitely need to turn off your flash to capture them at their best.

Photographing the interior of a place of worship can have unique problems. The interiors are often illuminated with a variety of types of artificial light (incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, LED to name a few) plus some have significant natural light coming in from both clear and tinted windows. In the top photograph, of Congregation Rodeph Shalom's sanctuary, in Philadelphia, PA, there were 5 different types of artificial light illuminating the space.

That means the white balance of the composite lighting may be beyond the means of your camera to calculate. Even the various manual settings of your camera may not apply.

Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, PA - part of wall frescoI use an ExpoDisk with my DSLR to determine the white balance in such places, and use my camera’s ability to input a custom white balance setting. If your camera has the ability to create a custom white balance setting like many pro and prosumer level DSLR’s, this is the time to use it. If you’ll be visiting sacred places on your trip, make sure you know how to set custom white balances into your camera.

If your DSLR doesn’t have that ability, or if you are using a Point and Shoot digital camera, survey the interior and use your judgment to make the best choice of what the dominant light source in the space is. Set your white balance accordingly. Later, in your computer, you’ll be able to use software to correct the white balance. You may not be able to correct it perfectly, but you’ll be able to get it close.

Many places of worship are enormous, and a flash is useless, except for close-ups. That generally means low light conditions, even in the middle of the day. A tripod can help, but find out if their use is permitted. Many sacred spaces are just too busy to successfully use one, but if you can, they will enable you to use lower ISO settings, or slower film, reducing noise or graininess, and permit you to close down your lens’ f/setting, to gain depth of field, and have more of your photograph in focus.

Take your time at sacred spaces, think out your shots, and make the most of your photo opportunities.
Notre Dame de Paris


Carol Perloff said...

Nice article - we took the same gargoyle picture at Notre Dame - nice RS santuary shot and the Judah tribe picture is very cool - people have no idea its location. Good job.

Harry said...

Great article. Yours is the best travel photography blog anywhere.




Sophia said...

Wonderful article. I used to live in Philadelphia. When can we see more photos of Rodeph Shalom in your galleries. I understand they did a $5+M restoration of the incredible sanctuary.

Sophia in LA

Harold said...

Great photos at Notre Dame. I do hope we'll be able to see more Rodeph Shalom photos soon. It looks like an amazing sanctuary. I'm going to be in Philadelphia next year and hope to visit it.

Janice said...

OK Ned, so why didn't you write this article ages ago. You're so right about photographing "details." I don't know why I didn't think of that before. I missed too many opportunities, but I did get some good shots of the gargoyles last year.

Charlene said...

I'm leaving for Paris next week. We'll be visiting many churches including Notre Dame while there. Thanks for the great article which will be of great help.

Your photos of Paris are marvelous.

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