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[OM] Notes on photography of stained glass windows

Subject: [OM] Notes on photography of stained glass windows
From: Chuck Norcutt <chucknorcutt@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 28 Dec 2006 23:01:38 -0500
This Christmas was spent with my daughter and her family in North 
Carolina after a long drive from Boston.  My daughter is a magazine 
editor by trade and she volunteered her services to her church in the 
preparation of a photographic directory of the parishioners.

She decided that she would need some cover art and some other images to 
sprinkle about here and there.  She decided that the church's many small 
architectural details including the stained glass windows would be the 
perfect complement.  The church already had a small set of images that 
were usable but she needed more.  Well, you can probably guess who was 
asked to bring his photographic gear along to help fill the photo void.

I had never been in the church and didn't know what was facing me.  But 
my fears were calmed when she told me that she already had images of the 
higher windows and that most of what was needed was just a few 
architectural details here and there and some first floor stained glass 
windows.  That sounded pretty easy but I still did a little research on 
the web to find out what other folks had to say about shooting stained 
glass windows.  There's a lot of stuff out there in the ether but most 
of it boils down to "shoot on an overcast day".  I recognized that was 
probably desirable, however, my shooting time would be limited to one 
particular day so I would have to take pot luck with whatever was handed 
me in the way of sun and cloud.

Well, as often happens, the situation turned out to be worse than I 
imagined and none of the "research" I had done prepared me for what I 
found.  The primary window she was interested in turned out to be an 
interior window between a gigantic vestibule and the nave.  At the entry 
to the vestibule were gigantic doors and windows casting strong 
cross-shaped patterns and bright reflections on the window from one side 
while giant windows far above the alter did the same from the opposite side.

There was no solution other than to return at night and light the window 
from one side with a couple of studio flash units.  But even that didn't 
work very well.  It turns out that the same patterns created by the 
daylight sun were recreated at night by a giant mercury vapor lamp 
hanging outside the vestibule windows... a detail I had overlooked 
during the day.  And, of course, the mercury vapor was introducing a 
much different color light than the daylight had done.  Going around to 
the opposite side got rid of the shadows cast by the window frames but 
still left a moderately strong reflection.  Ultimately I had to shoot 
the window from an off-center position to minimize the reflection and 
used two studio flash units with umbrellas which weren't quite large 
enough to completely and evenly light the window.  The result isn't 
really bad and is much better than anything she had before but it could 
have been better if I was better prepared.

The second problem, related to the other ground floor windows, is that 
many of the pieces of glass were nearly clear or of very light colors 
such as pastel yellows.  Being on the ground floor, it was quite 
possible to see through much of the window to the landscape beyond which 
meant that the distant tree line produced an undulating, greenish band 
along the lower third of the window.  My first thought here was also to 
return at night and shoot from the outside of the building with flash 
units on the inside.  Wrong.  That didn't work either in some cases 
since there were small trees or shrubs outside such that you couldn't 
get a clear shot from the outside.  Trying to reverse the situation by 
putting the flash units outside didn't work for the same reason.  The 
flash units had to be beyond the trees and shrubs which would then cast 
shadows on the windows.  In the end there were a couple windows I just 
couldn't do or couldn't do well enough to my own satisfaction.

Moral of the story:  Only shoot stained glass windows on the second 
story or otherwise high up on the wall and only in subdued daylight. 
Alternatively bring two pairs of background stands with each supporting 
a 10x10 foot piece of rip-stop nylon.  Place both of these back-to-back 
and close to the window to be used as diffusers for your flash units to 
take the photos at night.

A little smarter now,
Chuck Norcutt

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