Stained glass photography

People sometimes ask me about how I take my photographs of stained glass, so here’s how I do it. I know there will be some who take issue with various parts of this, but this is how I’ve found works best for me.

0. Pick the right day. The best sort of light for photographing stained glass is bright but overcast

1. Use a tripod. The window isn’t moving (one hopes) and you don’t want the camera to be either, especially with some of the later tips. The more adjustable your tripod, the better, because it will have to cope with slopes, steps, pews, and other assorted unevennesses. Some tripods have built-in spirit-levels which can be useful, but you can do without.

2. Use a zoom lens. Ideally you want to be using the longest possible lens from the greatest distance which will fill the frame. Sometimes that just doesn’t work, though, so you need to be able to widen out the lens.

3. Get as square-on to the window as possible. Distance helps (see above) but often there are inconveniences such as pillars, things hanging from the ceiling, organs etc. which mean you have to take a more extreme angle than you would like. Don’t worry too much – it can be dealt with later.

4. Use a medium aperture (I go for f8). This puts you safely away from most lenses’ extremes, so sharpness will be optimum. Also, you may think a window is a flat thing so that depth of field is not an issue, but if you are up-close, and tilting your camera a lot, suddenly the top of the window can be much further away than the bottom!

5. Take a test shot at the metered exposure. Don’t be disappointed if it’s rubbish! The camera’s exposure calculation software is expecting what it’s looking at to be light reflecting from an 18% grey surface. Windows don’t reflect light – they transmit it, so the camera is being presented with a light source, and exposure can be way off.

6. Based on your test shot, set the camera to under- or over- expose 2/3 of a stop and try again. Keep going in 2/3 of a stop increments until it looks right, and then one further just in case. What you are aiming for is an exposure which keeps detail in the highlights (usually faces) without losing all colour and detail in the dark parts.

7. Back at your computer, select the best shot of the window and load it into your favourite image-editing software – I use Adobe Photoshop Elements. Straighten up the window using perspective correction to adjust for the angle at which you had to take the photo. Always correct in the direction which reduces (normally squeezing the bottom of the window): this loses detail, but the other way has the computer inventing stuff which isn’t there, which would be bad…

8. Use exposure controls (‘shadows and highlights’ in PSE) to pull up the detail in the dark areas. This is simply remapping the range of levels in these parts of the image to a broader range of output colours – it’s not adding in any detail which isn’t there, so it’s ‘honest’! For my taste, this gives a result closer to what the eye sees than does using HDR from multiple exposures.

9. Crop to taste, and there you have it.

Don’t forget to share what you’ve done so we can all enjoy it…

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