This last winter I had the great experience of going to Europe exclusively to visit and photograph the old Cathedrals and churches there. This trip was full of both adventure and serenity, and every day I had the opportunity to learn more about myself and my craft.
Photographing these old churches presents a very unique challenge, and it is neither a simple nor an easy challenge to master. What I did learn about this special area of photography though, equipped me for shooting in similar environments in the future.
1. Be Quiet and Respectful
By far this is the most important part about photographing within these churches was having an attitude of quiet respect. People literally come from all over the world to get a glimpse of this faith which has been in existence for over two thousand years. For many, these visits are part of personal journeys of deep meaning. Do whatever is necessary for you to maintain respect of that. Some ways to do this may be:
- Put your camera in [S] mode. Rather than hearing a harsh clicking sound, the shutter softens the click and seems to drag the shutter. Of course, the disadvantage to using this mode is that you always have to pay attention to the speed of your shutter – elsewise you may end up with all blurry images.
- Place priority on the story first, and the image second. If someone is praying and you want to take a photo of them silhouetted in the window, you absolutely must do whatever possible to not disturb them. Make yourself invisible. Shoot from the hip, or from further away and plan on cropping in.
2. Be deliberate with your settings
These great churches are infamously dark – almost to the point that you can try everything to get a good exposure, and the fact of the matter is, you probably can’t. A few settings to keep in mind:
- High ISO is typically something that we choose only with great hesitance. In these places of worship, High ISO is a necessity if you want to capture an image at all. Plan on incorporating some intense post processing work to reduce the film grain of a shot.
- Slow shutter speed is your only option for creating a decent image in this environment. And most churches do not allow tripods so, of course this means that you have to either prop your camera on something to act as a tripod [challenging to do if you are trying to be invisible], or train yourself to hold your camera steady during a very slow shutter. On a really good day, I can handhold at a 1/10.
- Open wide your aperture as far as it will go to let in the most light you can.
3. Point, Shoot, and Move on
Unless you have a pro-photograpers clearance, there is little chance the church curators will be pleased with you if you take several minutes to compose a shot. Remember, you don’t want to be a distraction at all. Think about the shots you want before you even lift your camera. Ask yourself:
- How do I want to compose this image?
- How do I need to arrange my settings?
- How can I achieve this image in the least amount of time possible?
You may sacrifice some of the technical awesomeness for being invisible, but you may catch a h3er story for it.
4. Find the Light
The large, open windows will be your first choice of location for shot creation. Find this light and create an image using it’s contrast.
5. Use Angles
How can you give perspective to a wide open area? Use angles. Take your shot by crouching down quickly, or lifting your camera in the air and taking a shot looking down. Also, shoot between objects, arrange your shot with elements in the foreground and the background to keep the image interesting.
6. Be reflective
The shots I loved most were the ones that literally “came” to me. They were the ones I was not planning on taking. They were the ones that came when I wasn’t looking for them. Sometimes, your state of mind can actually impede your ability to create a shot. So while you are there, sit down, and take some time to be introspective. I think you may be surprised how inspired you become.