A comprehensive guide on how to photograph stained glass using a recent shoot as an example.
All pictures shown in this article were taken for Balliol College, Oxford (www.balliol.ox.ac.uk) after stained glass removal, cleaning and replacement project by The York Glaziers Trust (www.yorkglazierstrust.org)
Images used by Balliol College on their own website along with more information about the windows and stained glass can be found here.
Images used on The York Glaziers Trust website can be found here.
Note: there are some technical terms used in this article such a ‘stop’ when describing exposure so a basic knowledge of such terms is assumed. Also, as this is a tutorial article, I have included several ‘before’ post production images (images that are basically straight out of the camera) alongside the ‘after’ finished image so that you can see how originals are shot slightly underexposed for the room but correctly exposed for the glass and then adjusted in post production. I have tried to list what post production techniques I have used for each image.
Photographing stained glass can easily become one of the hardest things to do especially when you make all those little ‘tweaks’ that make your pictures stand out. A good working knowledge of camera settings and exposure control will help and knowledge of how to set exposure manually is useful but is not essential to get the best result. It may be fairly straightforward to get a shot of the glass but I’m going to tell you how to get an excellent shot of the glass, window frame and all the post processing tricks to make your picture stand out from the crowd.
You will have three main challenges: the technical side of how to set up your camera and exposures to use, how to illuminate the frame of the window and the physical side of how to position the camera to take the photo. Lets attack these one at a time.
1) Camera settings.
You will notice that most of the ‘before’ images shown here look really dark when compared to the finished images. I always underexpose my images slightly to keep highlight detail and then brighten from the midtones down in post production to lighten darker colours and the room but retain the detail in the highlights.
The options available to us now in Photoshop and Lightroom are so versatile and focused that we can easily pefect an image that initially looks ‘wrong’. However, I know that, even if it looks ‘wrong’ the information is there in the image file to allow me to work on it in post. This is not a fudged solution to a badly made image, it’s part of the process. You need to know what can and can’t be done or perfected in-camera and in post and use all these tools, tricks and adjustments to get the images you need. This article wouldn’t be half as useful as a tutorial if I had just included the finished images, showing the process of achieving those images is important.
The simplest way to photograph stained glass is to set the exposure for the light that is transmitted through the glass. This is not as simple as letting the camera work it out as you compose your shot as there will inevitably be some of the stonework of the window frame in shot and this dark area will fool the camera’s sensor in to thinking it needs to brighten up the picture so the automatic exposure it will set will over expose the glass causing the colours to bleach out and any highlights will be totally blown.
Use the spot metering function to measure the exposure for a small piece of the glass without any of the frame in the spot metering zone. Note: be aware that you can get different readings when spot metering depending upon the colour of the glass at the metering point so try to use a colour that’s close to a mid grey tone and use the exposure shown as a guide and fine tune as necessary for the overall shot. Make a note of the exposure, set it in to the camera in ‘manual’ mode, compose your shot and take the picture.
Using this method you should get a picture that shows the glass and colours therein but has no or very little detail in the window frame, kind of a silhouette. We’ll look at how to light the window frame later. However, as mentioned above, the exposure from the spot metering may be a little off depending upon the colour of the glass in the spot meter zone. With digital cameras there’s a really great trick to fine tune the exposure to get the best settings by checking the picture on the back of the camera.
Make sure the ‘highlight alert’ setting is enabled in your camera’s settings and this will make any over exposed pixels in the image flash. (These over exposed pixels will not have any colour information in them so will show as pure white in the picture; these highlights have ‘blown’) As the human eye has evolved to detect details in moving things much better than details in still subjects (especially in poor light) your eye will be drawn to any areas, even very small ones, that flash on screen. If you have anything flashing dial back the exposure a little and shoot again. I can set 1/3 of a stop adjustments on my Canon 5D Mk4 so I change by that increment until the flashing areas have just stopped.
This is a great trick that wasn’t available to us back in the days of film based photography so use the technology, it makes life much easier!
If you’re not sure how to spot meter try this. Compose your picture, take a photo and check it on the screen. It will almost certainly be overexposed, that highlight alert will be flashing furiously as the camera’s meter has been fooled by the darkness of the room. Then use the exposure adjustment wheel to dial back the exposure so you’re underexposing what the camera says you need to take the picture. Shoot again, see if you have any blown highlights flashing on screen and if so dial the exposure back more and shoot again. My camera will allow me to underexpose in this way by up to 3 stops so by shooting, checking for blown highlights and adjusting the exposure if necessary I can get a pretty good shot very quickly rather than using spot metering as described above – useful if you don’t have much time. Note: this is just a quick and easy method but doesn’t take in to account the finer points of stained glass photography which would take your image to the next level.
Once you have an exposure that ensures you have no overexposed pixels you could use that as your base exposure. However, I often find that anything outside the window like bushes, trees or even buildings that are close to the window can cast a shadow over the window – even on a dull day – and, more often than not and very annoyingly, over just a part of the window. The effect is that the light transmitted through the glass can vary over the entirety of the window which means that you need a different exposure for different parts of the window. In order to balance this exposure there’s two standard ways I use to make a more even finished photograph.
Firstly, if my camera in on a tripod I could take several pictures across a range of exposures, starting with the setting described earlier where there are no over exposed pixels and moving to an exposure that means a lot of the image is overexposed but the darkest parts are correctly exposed. These images can then be combined in Photoshop using the ‘merge to HDR (High Dynamic Range)’ function to use the correct exposure for each part of the image to give an overall that is balanced in terms of brightness. (Some cameras allow you to shoot HDR images in-camera so try using that too). There are quite a lot of adjustments you can make in Photoshop to the HDR image so play around and see what works best for you. If you do not have a tripod Photoshop can automatically align your pictures but it can leave ghost images and isn’t an ideal result.
A second option, that may be easier especially if you’re hand holding your camera, is to take one image from the exposure range that you’ve just shot and work on that in post production. This is akin to how we used to manipulate an image when printing it in a darkroom by dodging (shading part of the image during a portion of the time the image is exposed to the print paper) and burning (selectively giving more light to controlled areas of the image once a base exposure has been made to the print). These techniques have been used to manipulate images since the beginning of photography. I tend to use an image that has just but only just blown some of the highlights as I know that’s given me the best chance and dynamic range of information in the picture to enable me to manipulate it in Photoshop without the image looking too noisy or under/over exposed. When doing your manipulations in Photoshop make sure that you don’t move the highlight or shadow ends of the levels slider so you can retain shadow and highlight detail. Try to work on the midtones and then dodge/burn as necessary to work with the image. You can set the dodging and burning brushes to work on highlight, midtone and shadow tones independently, as well as brush size of course, so you can be really fine tuned in terms of this manipulation. There’s endless tutorials on that sort of thing so I wont go in to too much detail here. I’m trying to talk about actually capturing the best image in-camera to minimise the post production which invariably will degrade the image even if only slightly.
Of course another very important thing is to make sure your camera is set up as optimally as possible to capture the original image. Shoot RAW if possible, set the picture style as neutral as possible and dial the contrast settings down if you can. Doing these things will allow you to capture as much information as possible in the digital file and you can then work on it in post-production to put contrast back in, check the exposures etc. as desired.
Another camera setting that I find particularly useful is the built-in level function. I have this visible in the viewfinder if hand holding when up a ladder for example, so I can get my camera as level as possible, again to minimise post production manipulations.
As with all photography there’s no hard and fast rule regarding exposures settings that will work for every situation. Try to use f8, f11 or f16 for the optimal performance of the lens, avoid cropping too close in to avoid the ‘pin cushion’ effect of vertical lines bending on the edge of the frame and make sure you shutter speed is fast enough to avoid camera shake (if hand holding) or use a tripod. Churches and older buildings are notoriously dark so dial up the ISO to give you a usable aperture/shutter speed but beware of noise at faster ISO’s. It will always be a juggling game so choose your optimum given the situation you’re in.
2) Illuminating the window frame.
Churches are usually dark. Any building can be dark inside. It may not look dark, our eyes can adjust quickly and see pretty well in shady rooms making us think it’ll be easy to take pictures, but when you actually measure the light, photographically speaking it’s pretty dark, especially when compared to the transmitted light through the window you’re trying to photograph. If you set an exposure for the ambient light in the room to photograph the window frame it will inevitably overexpose the glass massively, you’ll loose a lot of detail and any colour that remains will probably look very washed out. We therefore need to figure out a way to illuminate the room so that we can match the exposure we got to get the best tonality for the glass as well as detail in the window frame and anything else that we want in the picture.
The easiest way to do this is to use flash. However, and it’s a big however so pay attention, you cannot fire the flash directly at the window. If you do this you will get hot spots from anything shiny, even wooden panels around or under the window and, depending upon whether or not you can zoom the flash, it will not evenly illuminate the entire window. You need as big a light source as possible to illuminate the window indirectly. To do this we bounce the flash.
In a small room this can be as simple as turning the on-camera flash head around a bouncing it off the wall behind you. You might need to increase the power of the flash and maybe angle the flash head so it doesn’t give you hot spots but it’s a useful option. A better option is to use off camera flash so you can position it wherever you want to illuminate evenly but indirectly. I have a travel flash kit consisting of two 750W studio flash heads and a couple of brolleys. I often wont use the brolleys as the illumination source is still too focused and it’s easy to get hot spots or uneven illumination – I prefer to fire the flash at full power away from the window I’m photographing and bounce it off as much wall space as I can. I basically try to light the entire room without pointing the flash at whatever I’m photographing. I recently shot a 30m high window at the end of a chapel, see pictures that accompany this article, which tested my flash to the maximum. I had them as high as I could get (maybe 4m up on stands) at full power and bouncing off the wall behind me. Unfortunately that wall was quite dark so I really struggled to get enough light to the other end of the chapel. In the end the exposure I got from the flash was 2 stops less that that for the glass but I knew I could lift the interior in post production so I had to go with that. In the end I’m pretty happy with the result as it’s important to keep the ambient light a little lower than the glass anyway so that your eye is drawn to all the detail in the glass. I also had to contend with shiny wood panelling so had to angle the lights away from bouncing directly on to my subject wall which took a bit of juggling but is par for the course.
3) How to physically take the photograph.
The next major problem that I often encounter is that stained glass windows are often quite high up, in churches in particular. If you’re at ground level and have to tilt the camera backwards to get the whole window in shot the vertical edges of it will converge at the top and look distorted. What we need to do is get our camera position as close to the middle of the window as possible. Of course perspective is fairly easy to correct in Lightroom and Photoshop but, as mentioned before, it’s best to get the picture as good as possible in camera to minimise this sort of post production work.
To get the camera position as central to the window as possible use a step ladder, if available, a viewing balcony opposite the window, a chair or anything you can find to gain some height. To photograph the massive window shown in the pictures accompanying this article I was 3m up a massive step ladder and then I’m nearly 2m tall so the camera position was approximately 5m above the floor. This still wasn’t enough so I knew I would have to correct the perspective in post. However, I had done all I could to gain height so that’s just something that would have to be done for this set of images.
Once the camera position is as close to the centre of the window as possible watch out for things hanging across the window like curtains (easily moved) or chandeliers (not so easy to move). If you have an assistant with you and full access to the church you could try hooking a rope around the end of the chandelier and CAREFULLY pulling it to one side. Take a picture, swing the chandelier to the other side and take another and combine them in post so the chandelier isn’t visible. ALWAYS ASK PERMISSION BEFORE EVEN TRYING THIS. Chandeliers and other things that may hang or sit in front of the window may be fragile, old, delicate etc. and should NEVER be moved without asking permission first.
If you don’t have an assistant you need to find a camera position as optimal as possible and work with that. I recently had a situation where I had to shoot a pair of windows at quite an angle. However, I knew that the ‘Full’ setting of the ‘Transform’ menu in the Develop module in Lightroom would shift the perspective of the windows so it would appear that they had been shot from directly in front. This is where knowledge of post production techniques can be vital when photographing difficult subjects.
Getting a finished image that you’re happy with requires technical photographic knowledge, tricks and ideas to cope with the physical situation with which you’re presented and a good knowledge of post production techniques like perspective correction and dodging/burning to really make the image complete. There’s loads of guides around for all of the technical items I’ve discussed but I wanted to give an overview of the whole process and I hope it has been helpful.
I hope this has helped improve your knowledge of how to shoot a very technically and practically difficult subject but if you have any questions please ask in the comments bellow.