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Photographing Stained Glass Windows

Written by Neil Ralley

Discover techniques and camera settings that produce the best results when taking photos of stained glass windows.

Until the last decade or so photographing stained glass windows was something which only professionals or serious amateurs could attempt with reasonable expectations of success. Technological advances in recent years have changed all of that.

Jesus in prayerThe traditional technique of photographing stained glass usually entailed the use of ladders and/or scaffolding in order to get the camera as near to directly opposite the window as possible so as to minimize parallax distortion.

In addition the photographer might arrange for the removal of the wire meshes often put on the outside of stained glass to provide protection from birds and other sources of potential harm. The addition of a white translucent sheet on the outside might also be considered if the sunlight was too bright.

While this technique will still produce the best results, especially when combined with the use of medium format equipment, the availability of affordable zoom lenses has opened up other possibilities. Now, instead of getting close and parallel to a window, almost equally good results can be obtained by going further back and using a very long lens to zoom into the detail. This by no means eliminates distortion but it greatly reduces it.

Clasped handsThe other technical advance that has helped enormously is in exposure metering. Modern cameras now meter so accurately, even in very low-light, that the bracketing (taking several pictures at slightly different exposures to be sure of getting a good one) is rarely necessary. If you add to that the ability to get instant feedback about a shot if using a digital camera, all of a sudden photographing stained glass is not as difficult as it used to be.

Personally I still use a 35mm camera and always shoot slide film. Next to the camera, film and lenses my most important item of equipment is a good tripod. In dark churches and on dull days exposure times can be long and the means of keeping the camera perfectly still is important.

I recall one shoot in Hudson Falls in New York State which was at around 4pm on a dark, gloomy, wet Saturday afternoon in late November. In churches I always work with the lights off if possible so as to optimize the contrast in terms of light coming in through the windows. In this case I could barely see to change lenses because it was so dark. The exposure times which my camera was giving were at least 30 seconds but my sturdy tripod did its job and every shot came out.

MusicianA lot of cameras today do not have the means of using a remote release or trigger to fire the shutter and putting a camera on a tripod is more or less a waste of time if you still need to press the button. In these cases the smart thing to do is to use the self-timer to fire the shutter – that’s the gadget which most cameras have to enable to photographer to get into the shot – it adds a few seconds to the process but the camera stays perfectly still.

If you don’t have or for some reason can’t use a tripod then consider a beanbag or even just resting the camera on a rolled-up jacket or soft camera bag. This shot was taken in the Vatican Museum using a nylon hold-all as a support where I would not have been allowed to use a tripod.

Stained glass windowIf you are shooting film and if your camera has a good built-in exposure meter then I would recommend trying some nice, slow slide film. Velvia and Sensia by Fuji are my personal favourites but I have also had good results from Agfa RSX.

The issue here is that slower films generally have finer grain and are more saturated and if shutter speed is not important because the camera is on a tripod then you may as well use a slow film.

On some digital cameras, you can change the ISO.

Similarly with aperture, if it makes no difference whether the shutter is open for 1 second or 10 seconds you can choose the aperture which works best in terms of depth of field and/or is optimal for the lens.

AngelDon’t forget that if you are looking up at a window there can be quite a distance between the bottom and top of the picture and you may need to use a small aperture like f16 to make sure that both are in focus.

Last but not least, what to meter on? If your camera has spot (or center-weighted) and matrix metering options you should probably use the spot/center-weighted option more often than not. Generally the exposure should be such that a mid-tone colour in the window is perfectly exposed – this will probably be a yellow or a gold or perhaps red or green if they are not too dark. The trick is to figure out what the camera is pointing at and basing its reading on. Matrix metering works fine if you are shooting fine detail and the entire frame is taken up by the stained glass.

angelAlthough many important windows have been photographed many times over there are lots of very fine works which have not.

I recently photographed a beautiful rose window by Tiffany Studios in Summit, New Jersey and it was not until the people in the church saw the photographs that they realized that the scrolls being carried by the angels in the window had the words of the Beatitudes on them!

The last three photos show how much detail can be captured when photographing stained glass.

Visit Neil’s photo gallery.

Photographs and text, used with permission: Copyright 2004 Neil Ralley All rights reserved.

Neil primarily uses a 35 mm camera but many of the areas he writes about apply to digital.



About the author

Neil Ralley

I am a native Brit who for over 20 years pursued a career in Human Resources, initially domestic UK work and then progressively more international. In 1996 I had the good fortune to marry an American and one of us had to move in order to shorten a
3500 mile commute and it made sense for it to be me. Since moving to America I have been building up a small practice in executive search, doing a combination of US and overseas assignments.

My interest in stained glass and in photographing it
also dates from the period around 1996. I had always noticed and greatly admired stained glass art from my early days in Carlisle, England, which has a fine gothic cathedral with some original glass dating back to the 14th century.

I had also
been a keen photographer since getting my first camera, an old Brownie box camera, when I was about 9. However, it wasn't until the mid-90s that I put the two things together and discovered that stained glass can be extremely photogenic, albeit
requiring more than a little luck and judgment in order to get good results.

Personally I still use 35mm and always shoot slide film. I used to shoot negative film but when I began shooting slides as well it quickly became clear to me that I
was getting by far the best results from slide film and because it is so easy now to get good prints from slides there is really no reason for me to use negative film.

I get each film scanned as soon as it has been processed and at what I
consider to be a reasonable resolution, 3072 x 2048. This means that within my portfolio I have digital images on CD and original slides. Even if the former should deteriorate over time the latter should be good for many decades if properly stored.

I honestly believe that, given the right equipment and film, I can produce pictures which include details which simply cannot be fully appreciated by the naked eye when one is viewing a window in situ.


At his gallery, Neil
sells elegant frameable art and notecards, each incorporating an actual photographic print of one of his images. He is a distributor of Glassmasters stained glass reproductions - miniatures of works by Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright and other well-known
artists. Many pieces are based on original artwork by Impressionists, Chagall, Kinkade and bird and wildlife artists.

Thumbnails are of photos by Neil Ralley - used with permission. Copyright Neil Ralley All rights reserved

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