Since our Focus On You theme this month is Glass, I thought I would say a few words about a photography subject I have long enjoyed playing with - stained glass windows. If you have ever tried photographing stained glass - you quickly found out it's not for sissies! The challenges encountered are many! The overly bright light streaming through the windows, while standing in a darkened church wreaks havoc with exposure. The fact that you are taking the shot from below, and at a distance makes alignment a factor, and distortion very likely. Often historical buildings and churches forbid the use of tripods, creating a real issue when you are trying to overcome the darkness. The sheer size of many of the windows is overwhelming. How do you choose what to include to give the viewer the appreciation for the size of the overall window, yet the intricacy of the detail? All of this must often be accomplished while respecting the people who are in these places for prayer and contemplation. Please don't ever lose awareness that there may be people in the pews praying for grace during a life crisis - and certainly getting your shot should not EVER encroach on the dignity and privacy of those moments.
And yet these windows can be incredible subjects. They are full of color and history. They are intricate examples of the most delicate of arts, representing hours and sometimes years of artistic creation. They are lessons in symbolic story-telling. They are studies in symmetry and pattern. So lets explore some ground rules for capturing their essence.
First lets deal with finding the best place to stand. Professional window photographers use scaffolding or ladders to get level with the window and reduce the distortion, but you can achieve decent results by getting as far back from the window as you can, and using a telephoto zoom lens. It's best to look for a spot that lines you up with the center of the window. Even so, you may have to play in post-processing with straightening your vertical lines. You can use a wide-angle lens, but chances are that you won't get the full window in anyway without great distortion.
Of course, it is preferable to use a tripod. With the surrounding darkness, long exposures most certainly would be beneficial, and hand-held shots are tough! If tripods are banned, see if you can support your camera on a post or pew. If the camera is in a steady enough spot, use a remote shutter release, so that the added vibration of you pushing the shutter button doesn't add to the difficulty. At the very least, lean back against a wall, steady those elbows against your body , and release your breath.
As for exposure. if you have the choice, it simplifies things to shoot on on overcast day, or in the early morning or evening to reduce the brightness of the sun. When you are aiming to highlight the glass itself, and you don't mind if it is floating in a black background, you can under-expose by a few stops. But if you want to include the frame or building structure as well as the window, your task is harder. I find it is best to use a small aperture with f-stops of f16 or f-22, at least. Use center-weighted or spot metering and expose for the mid-tone colors - usually the yellow, gold or red. This assures that everything from the bottom to the top of a large window will be in focus. If however, you are focusing on a small area within the design, using matrix metering works and shots can be successful with even a 50 mm prime lens to work with. Just remain aware of what the camera is using to meter and work around it's demands. Camera exposure meters are easily fooled if we aren't paying attention. Of course you can always bracket, particularly if you are on a tripod. Take one exposed for the surrounding frame and one exposed for the bright window, and combine them later. Don't be afraid of doing something different - black and white photos of stained glass compositions can be stunning! And playing with the symmetry with twisty filters can yield some great abstracts!
Finally - be alert to what your artistic goal is in this particular exposure. Are you trying to highlight the story within the window. Is color exploration your goal? Are you after the patterns? Are you making abstracts? Are you using the window like a mandala to communicate peace and contemplation? I love exploring all of these possibilities, and my travel companions usually have to drag me away from the world's gorgeous cathedrals so I don't miss the rest of the country!
Give it a shot in a local church or in your future travels, and post your results in our gallery hash-tagged glass. You may find yourself in our Friday Focus On You gallery!