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Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

Stained glass windows are colourful and prime target for great photographs. In this article Peter Bargh explains the common problems and offer ways to help you improve your chances.

| Architecture
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Words & Pictures Peter Bargh of ePHOTOzine

Churches and cathedrals are usually beautiful examples of fine architecture. From the spires, carved doorways and gargoyles of the outside to the arches and monumental tombs on the inside, but the stained glass windows provide us the most photogenic subject. Well restored windows provide a wealth of colour and beauty. But often the pictures you try and take will come out bad. In this article we will explain the common problems and offer ways to help you improve your chances. Then we will look at how you can take things further using digital manipulation techniques.

First lets look at what can go wrong.

When you enter a church from the bright outside you instantly see how dark the interior is. Fortunately our eyes soon adjust and we find it easy to see in the dim lit environment. Film is not so forgiving and a quick look through your camera will indicate that a slow shutter speed is necessary or that flash will fire. First rule: don't use flash when shooting stained glass. As well as being banned from most historical buildings it will bounce off the window and cause nasty reflections. There is one exception and that's if you want to attempt painting with light, but we will come back to this later).

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

The brightest part of the interior is usually the sunlight projected on the lovely stained glass windows. These are often a fair distance from you, so the camera cannot fill the frame with just the window. Take our example above, the automatic exposure system of the camera will record the dark surrounds and the bright window and will often get the exposure wrong. It will either compensate for the surrounding area making the window area too bright (above left) or expose for the light coming through the window, making the surrounds black (above right). The picture on the left is more pleasing, but the detail in the window is ruined. There's not a lot you can do about this it's an either or situation, unless you can get permission to use flash and then you can use a painting with light technique. This is far too complex to cover in detail here, but the basic idea is you set the camera up on a tripod, with a long exposure. You'll need ND filters to prevent the windows being overexposed. Then you point the flash at the various recesses and fire it on full power to illuminate all the dark areas. It's a tricky technique to master and in most buildings you will need a photography permit which will cost you a few pounds.

The other thing you can do is take two shots; one exposing for the shadows, the other for the highlights and carefully combine both in an image editing program. Again this is only for the advanced user as a lot of complex manipulation will be necessary.

If you decide to fill the frame with just the stained glass window you can usually rely on the auto metering, unless it's really bright outside and then you will need to compensate by about one stop over exposure.

Camera shake
The next problem is that the shutter speed without flash for an interior shot like the one above will be around f/2.8 at 1/4sec using ISO100 film. This is too slow to hand hold the camera so a tripod is necessary. The chances are, if you are sightseeing with the family, that you won't have a tripod so you need to look for a wall to use as a support. Rest the camera gently against a pillar supporting the it with your hand, to produce a cradle around the lens. Hold your breath and fire the shutter. Don't forget to turn off the flash! If you're using a digital camera check the shot to make sure it's okay. If film based and you have an exposure override, bracket the pictures shooting two stops either side of the indicated metering when using print film and one stop on slide film.

Angle of view
The designer of the architectural delight you are photographing would not have considered you, the photographer, in his plans. The window you are about to photograph will probably not have a pillar to support your camera exactly where you want it - aligned parallel to the centre of the window. So you're likely to have to photography it at an angle and from below so you'll capture a photograph like the one on the right.
This can be corrected digitally. If you take this sort of shot on a film camera, use a scanner to convert the photo to digital. With a digital photo open in you image editing program select all (Ctrl+A) and locate the Transform tool. In Photoshop Elements this is intheImage>Transform menu.
Pick the Distort option and drag all four corners outwards so that the image looks square on.

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

It's easy to straighten up a photo like this using the Transform tool because there are many horizontal and vertical lines as reference points.

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

With the picture transformed we will now crop to the indicated area to remove the less interesting areas of the window. Draw around the picture using the crop tool and click in the middle to activate it. This leaves a square photo and because of the angle we shot at the panels within the window are squashed. Simple select image size turn off proportions and adjust the height by about 30% to stretch the proportions and make a more natural looking portrait format shot.

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

I adjusted the brightness and contrast to introduce
more of a sparkle to the stained glass.

The window is too big!
Some of the stained glass windows are so grand that they are so big you can't see all the window in the camera viewfinder. Many cameras have a zoom lens that can be set to the wider angle. If this still doesn't work try taking two shots with half the window on each and stitching the two together using your image editing program.

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

In this example the two photographs were taken using the camera in horizontal format. Both from the same position but one framing the top half of the window and the other framing the bottom half. Allow a fifth of the frame for overlap. Then use a stitching program to combine the two. Roxio PhotoSuite and Photoshop Elements include one in their programs. The photo was stretched using the previously explained technique.

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide

Choose your spot and use your eyes
So now you have all the common problems solved you can go out and shoot. But just before you do take a look at the three examples below. These show that you don't have to photograph all of the window (left). Small sections can provide colourful details (right). Even the projected patterns on pillars made by the sun streaming through the window can be worth a photograph (middle).

Photographing stained glass windows - a how to guide



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dwilkin 16 24.3k United Kingdom
Does anyone know where these shots were taken? These are some lovely windows...
Pete 21 18.8k 97 England
I took them and sadly can no longer remember :-(
They are scans I did in 2003 from 35mm transparencies that are way older. If I get time I'll dig out the sheets that will have exteriors and other shots as reminders of the locations.
dwilkin 16 24.3k United Kingdom
Can't say fairer than that! Thank you!

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