Church interiors are difficult to photograph because they usually have huge bright windows and dark nooks and crannies with the rest being a mix of tones illuminated by tungsten light or candles. Automatic exposure cameras will often deliver a photo with a well exposed interior, but no detail in the windows. Fortunately, with digital photography and modern software there is a solution, it's called HDR (high dynamic range) photography.
To do HDR photograph you need to take several shots of the same scene at different exposures, each one from the same position. These are then merged into one photo using HDR software (see ePHOTOzine's technique section for articles on how to do this). To ensure the photos are in an identical position it's best to use a sturdy tripod which will keep everything aligned and steady. It's worth using a cable-release too to trigger the shutter when the camera is on the tripod, but with a static subject such as a church you can get away using the camera's self timer.
A wide-angle lens is best for church interiors and ideally you want one that's really wide. With a lens like this you can usually shoot the interior from wall to wall if you stand back far enough. The camera you use can be a DSLR or compact so long as it has a manual exposure mode or at least exposure compensation to override the automatic settings.
As exposures are long in churches they can soon flatten your camera battery so always carry a spare just in case. Also, when shooting HDR, every picture you take requires several exposures so you may need extra memory cards.
HDR exposures should have a fixed aperture so that the depth of field is the same for each shot. Set the camera to f/8 and before setting up the shot take a meter reading for the lightest area. If the shot has a stained glass window in view this will usually be the brightest part. These are usually very decorative and beautiful works of art so you need to record those with an exposure that gives 100% detail. Use the camera's spot meter and position the camera so the window is in the centre of the viewfinder where the meter takes the reading. Take a shot and preview the result on the LCD If it's good make a note of the shutter speed. Now take a meter reading for the darkest area and make sure that the resulting photo has detail in it. Make a note of the shutter speed.
Your HDR exposure should have a range of shots that covers from the speed needed for the window to the speed for the dark areas. Let's say the window was 1/15 sec and the dark area was 8 seconds. The full shutter speed options would be 1/15sec, 1/4sec, 1/2sec, 1 second, 2 seconds, 4 seconds and 8 seconds. So you could take seven photos or as most HDR software can get what it needs from two stop intervals you could take four shots at 1/15sec, 1/2sec, 2 seconds and 8 seconds.
With this new information, adjust the position of the camera on the tripod compose the photo, including the previously metered elements in the frame and take a sequence of pictures, making sure no one walks into frame and the light doesn't change, sun comes out, floodlight goes on inside etc., at the shutter speeds calculated earlier.
Try this technique all around the church, in bigger churches/cathedrals there are lots of smaller rooms and chapels to discover.
Here are some of the tutorials you'll find in ePHOTOzine's technique section on HDR photography
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