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.
The 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.
The 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.
A 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.
If 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.
Don’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.
Although 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.
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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.