# 154 Shooting inside churches and other dark haunts

By philberphoto | Opinion

Sep 13

Shooting churches has to be one of the more difficult exercises in photography. Yes, I know, that can be said of many other styles. True macro, not just very-close-ups, can be very hard. Portraits are incredibly demanding. Sports photography and capturing the heart of the action is a feat. OK, I give up, you are right, churches are not close up, so you have lots of depth-of-field. They don’t move, so you have lots of time. And they are not so well-known that rendering has to be as faithful to each detail as a portrait.


Shooting inside a church is really tough for a number of reasons. The first one is the lighting. Usually churches are dark, and rules won’t let you deploy a tripod or use a flash, so you really struggle with minimum shutter speeds, wide open apertures, high ISOs and sharpness. Clubs and other stage events are the same.


Then, amid the semi-darkness, stain-glass windows are usually very bright, so bright that the contrast is much more than any sensor can handleSONY DSC

If you can manage that, you need to take care of the vast, deep size, which is not easy to replicate in a 2D photography.

Finally, a church is not merely  building, it is silence, a deep space where faint, distant echos rumble far away. It is a humid cool atmosphere even in the most sweltering of summer days. And, for some, it is a place of absolute spirituality and contact with the Creator._DSC9506-1 _DSC9509-1

So, what can you do? Of course, you  can do what millions of uncaring tourists do, and use your compact camera or camera phone on “auto”, and take pictures with flash, violating rules and those people who are there to worship. That, of course, is not what DearSusan’s is about.

The obvious answer is “boost ISO”. Of course you can, but that also boosts noise. I only do it when all else has failed. Even though modern cameras are a lot better about it than older ones, noise is noise, and it shows. So this is really a very last resort.

The first thing you can do is use fast lenses. If you can get your hands on lenses that are f:1.4 or faster, this helps considerably. Remember, Stanley Kubrick managed to film a whole movie without any lighting other than candles, just as they did before gas and electricity. It is “Barry Lyndon”, and it required Zeiss to develop unique, other-worldly f:0.7 lenses that NASA also used. Currently available lenses include a couple faster than f:1, from Leica, Voigtländer, SLR Magic and Mitakon. Such fast lenses help, but they are obviously expensive, and pretty much one-trick ponies, because, in order to be that fast, they are less well corrected than slower siblings._DSC9297-1

The second thing you can do is use a camera or a lens with a stabilizer, so that you can get down to slower shutter speeds without camera shake ruining your shot. There are fine examples of this, like the Olympus OM-D which Pascal used to love and loved to use, but that restricts your choice of cameras and lenses to a large degree.

So what can we do that is less restrictive, and less expensive, yet lets us get away with good shots in very dark churches? We can use very short lenses that are still fairly fast. Because a short lens lets you use slower shutter speeds without showing camera shake than a longer one. For example, I use a Zeiss Touit 12mm f:2.8, and can get acceptable sharpness down to 1/6s @ f:2.8. Which is already just about enough to shoot a dark church as ISO 100, and definitely enough at a still acceptable ISO 200.Here is one such shot, of a really very dark chapel. And below it, a couple, with the cheap Sony pancake 16mm f:2.8._DSC8363-1DSC00040-1DSC00052-1

Then you can use support for your camera. Tripods and monopods are out? That doesn’t mean you can’t rest your camera somewhere. Check for pews and other stable surfaces. If you can find one that gives you good composition, you can get very long exposures and wonderful shots. Though you will still need to be careful with the high contrast._DSC8152-1

There are another couple of supports that I would like to share with you. One is the Cullmann Chestpod. A not-very-simple harness that combines your neck and chest to give your camera more stability than handheld. After a bit of experimenting, count on it for improving your performance by between one and two stops. Of course, it won’t make you look great with your harness, but it is also not very expensive, in the Cullmann tradition of very good value for money._DSC8157-1

My last suggestion is a bit of a little white lie. Rule say “no tripods”. That is obviously intended for full-sized tripods, which would be incompatible with large crowds. What I sometimes do is used a table-top tripod, in my case a Manfrotto, but there are many. I carry it in my bag, so nobody knows. I then sit on a pew in a quiet area, usually at the back of the church on the side of the center alley, and discreetly mount my camera on it. Then, I set it on 2s delay, and put it down stealthily on the ground, facing up. Because there is no flash, and hardly any noise at all, and worshipers are usually closer to the front, nobody is disturbed, and, by keeping my arm around it, nobody risks tripping over it. Bend the rules, yes, but without harm to anyone. I usually need quite a few tries before I get good composition, because you can’t do it in situ. You have to do it by iteration, and that takes time, but the results when you get it right, are worth it._DSC7747-1_DSC7849-1_CF-1_DSC7767-1_CF-1

Incidentally, this way of using natural or miniature supports when you can’t carry or use full-size ones can be very helpful in many dark situations, including night city shots, and really complements my N°1 rule. Never leave home without my camera, and never without some form of tripod. You never know what could come up, and don’t wan’t to be forced to make do with a smartphone shot, would you? 🙂

  • michael from vienna says:

    +) tripod is the best and you do not have to hide it.
    we are all grown ups. and we stand for what we are doing!?

    +) hidden shots look like hidden shots. shots with a good tripod and good framing with 100 iso from a good pont of view with f5.6-8 with a goot prime lens do have power! or you use a small dof with a tele – everything goes. but hiding is no good concept

    if no camera is allowed. respect it. but this is another case.


  • philberphoto says:

    Michael, I agree with you. When no camera is allowed, I don’t shoot at all. And when tripods are allowed, of course, I make use of one, as I very rarely leave home without one. That said, if they are not allowed, step 1 is the look for alternatives, and step 2 for harmless bending of the rules. If you feel otherwise, fine. I did not mean to educate people about rule-bending, but only about how to do it in a harmless way rather than in an obnoxious one.

  • michael from austria says:

    thank you for your reply.
    i didn`t mean to bend the rules. i ment to “stand up” to make good photos. most people feel save to stay in the crowd. but to make good shots you have to “be visible” yourself.
    (of course not as a wild life photographer)

    e.g. you have to shoot on the street and ask people “to pose for you” or “to ignore you while you are photographing”. the same with churches. a church will hide its beauty if you do not stand up and walk around for a while (.. and be seen by the video surveillance as someone who photographs …. as a consequence).

    there are so many “beautiful frames” waiting to be explored. an ornamental detail, floral decoration in front of a statue … , even the patterns of stonefloors are interesting, most churches have interesting artefacts of time, barely seeable parts of frescos …. foreground, background compositions …

    e.g.: look at the paintings in your 2nd picture. there are so many strong details


    and as a final praise of tripods:
    a tripod raises the quality & not only the technical quality of your equipment.
    macro work, making your lenses “sing” at f5,6/100 iso, time lapse, portrait photo series, stitching/panoramas …. i have a carbon tripod (packed 40cm, height about 160cm with ball head), costs about 160euro used, weight about 1,3 kg with bag and i will no more regret to miss that quality shot, cause i carry it always with me.

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