BTL: Photographing Churches

Churches, cathedrals, mosque, and other religious buildings offer some unique opportunities to photograph grand architectural structures, elaborate sculptures, stained glass, and woodcarvings and historically relevant artifacts. If you plan to photograph any such religious building, do some research first to find out what is permissible photography wise. Some religious buildings might ban photography altogether while others offer limited access and restrictions on some photography gear. Generally, most places of worship ban flash photography and tripods. Here are a few tips to help you get some great shots the next you have an opportunity to photograph in a church.

  • First and foremost, know the rules before you start taking pictures. Not sure, ask someone with the church if it’s ok. You do not want to disrupt the sanctity of the church.
  • Most churches are dimly lit and ban flash photography and tripods, so to compensate you will need to work handheld and at a high ISO setting, anywhere from ISO 800 to ISO 2000 and slow shutter speeds. The higher the ISO setting the more noise will be introduced into your images. Know what’s the highest ISO setting for your camera that yields the most acceptable sensor noise. Also, know the slowest shutter speed you can hand-hold for the lens you are using without camera shake. As a general guideline, do not use a shutter speed slower than one over the focal length of your lens. As an example, if you are using a 50mm lens do not set your shutter speed slower than 1/50th of a second.
  • Setting the correct exposure for interior church shots can be Sometimes bright interior lights and backlit windows and stain glass can fool your camera’s exposure meter. Try using manual exposure mode. Set your shutter speed to a hand-holdable setting and set your aperture to get the desired depth of field. Then use the ISO setting to balance the exposure. You can also try exposure bracketing if your camera has that feature.
  • While you can get some acceptable images with any camera, there are some camera features that will greatly help in getting good images.
    • High ISO noise control. Some cameras can get good results with an ISO as high as 12,500!
    • VR (Vibration Reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization), either in the camera body or in the lens, or better yet, in both camera and lens.
    • Exposure bracketing
    • The silent shutter of a mirror-less camera can be of benefit when photographing in churches and other quiet places.
  • A wide-angle lens is a good choice for photographing churches. Great for both interior and exterior shots. A 50mm to a short telephoto lens will allow you to focus on some of the details that can be found in churches.
  • If possible, visit the church at different times of the day to see how the ambient light is affected by the position and intensity of the sun. Especially notice how the sunbeams coming through stain glass magically colors the interior details.
  • When photographing the exterior of the church try to kept your camera’s focal plane parallel with the façade of the church to minimize the perspective distortion caused by tilting the camera up. You can also correct the perspective distortion in Lightroom or Photoshop, but sometimes the results may like unnatural.

The next time you have an opportunity to visit a church and take some photographs try some of the above tips to improve your chances of getting some great images.

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