Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You've got to come Back With the Shot: Challenging Church Lighting Conditions - No Problem

Hello Again Everybody,

We're coming to the end of my eight post series and I hope you have enjoyed it. I've tried to cover as many difficult shooting situations as I could over these last several weeks and I hope the articles have helped you solve some problems in you own shooting situations. If you've got any others to discuss, just drop me a note in the comments section below.

Today I want to discuss challenging lighting conditions in churches.

Difficult Church - Shooting Into Stain Glass Windows

Some of the most challenging lighting situations I encounter in churches have to do with stain glass windows. Here's the thing - you want to be sure to retain the richness of color of the stain glass window. That usually means a shorter exposure than the ambient exposure of the church. But, you still want to get enough detail on the subjects, which may be standing many feet below the bottom of the window, during the wedding ceremony. Shooting in raw mode does a lot to solve the problem particularly with the software tools that we have available to us today. My favorite software tool to use when facing this kind of the situation is Adobe's Lightroom 3.

Let's take a look at the photograph in – Figure 1. It shows the front of the church with the beautiful stain glass window directly above the altar.

Figure 1

When we expose for the stain glass, it’s really dark where the bride and groom will exchange their vows. But we still need to remember that the bride loves this church. It's her family church, the window may have been the deciding factor why she chose this church location and she thinks it’s beautiful. We need to capture and detail, color and wonders of the stain glass work of art.

I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh, how am I going to get a decent exposure on the bride and groom and still have the stain glass window retain it’s splendor.

Hit the “Read More…” link below for the rest of the story and all the past links to the earlier posts.

After spending a little time thinking through the problem I accessed the solution was not to be a camera/lighting concern. I was going to need a software solution that gets me the result I’m looking for. I knew I had to maintain the detail and beauty of the stain glass window - there was no way I could blow it out, otherwise I would have one unhappy client on my hands. But how was I going to even see the couple exchanging rings, saying their vows, gazing into each other’s eyes...

Think Software Solutions

Also, of equal or greater importance was that, I needed to obtain a decent exposure on the bride and groom during the ceremony as well as proper exposure on the stain glass window. Exposing for the stain glass window would have meant that I would severely underexpose the couple. To recover the detail in the shadows, the darkest part of the scene, I easily would have introduced quite a bit of noise into the photograph.

In analyzing my situation, I decided that I would approach it in two ways. First of all, since I was shooting RAW, I would be able to over-expose the stain glass window by at least 1 1/2 stops and still easily recover the detail in the window. This new exposure, over-exposing the stain glass window, would also give me a lot more detail where the where the bride and groom were going to be proceed with the wedding ceremony. That area would still be under-exposed by about a stop or stop and a half but I felt I could still pull it off without introducing a lot of noise within the image.

Shooting at a medium ISO, let's say ISO 400, I could easily recover the detail in the darkest part of the scene with the software tools we have available to us today. My software of choice was easy – Lightroom 3. With LR3’s new noise reduction algorithms now working at 16 bit mode, noise in the shadows could easily be eliminated. Another favorite software tool is NIK Software’s DFINE 2.0 which provides excellent results in removing noise.

When I returned back to the studio, I loaded the images into Lightroom 3 and surveyed my results. I selected one of the images where the stain glass window was slightly blown out – just about 1 ½ stops over-exposed – Figure 2. This was going to be an easy fix with the Adjustment Brush in LR3. I was able to bring down the over-exposed tonalities of the stain glass window quickly, easily and quite effectively.

The second part of the solution was to use the Adjustment Brush again on the bottom part of the image. I painted in that part of the image raising exposure by about a 1 ½ stops – Figure 2.

Figure 2a

Now I had a perfect balance of my stain glass window together with decent exposure where the bride and groom would eventually exchange their vows. My times to make these adjustments were less than 1 1/2 minutes.

Digital Salvation

You may raise your eyes with my software solution, but in our digital world our software tools many times are the fastest and easiest way to get the job done. I’m not suggesting that you shoot away recklessly abandoning proper exposure, but if I can fix it faster in Lightroom or Photoshop on a few problematic images, you can bet I’m going to take the most efficient route.

Another cool advantage when using Lightroom 3 is that if you have several similar images, the local correction made on one image can easily be synced across all the similar images in the series – pretty cool. This was something we could never do back in the film days. In the film days it would have been expensive custom printing for the whole series of images. I love the software tools we have available to us today; it sure makes life a lot easier when one comes upon an especially troublesome shooting situation.

Related Links:

Challenging Shooting Situations–Great Images!

You’ve Got To Come Back With The Shot: Speckled Lighting On The Gowns

You Still Have To Come Back With The Shot! - Super Dim Receptions

You’ve Got To Come Back With The Shot: Really Low Light Churches

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Bright Light!

No Excuses For Not Getting The Shot: Rainey Day Woes Part 2

New Series: No Excuses For Not Getting The Shot!


Hey gang, that's it for me today. I'm supposed to be relaxing and taking it really easy but I still have a few things to complete. So, I'm on to my next project. How about I see everyone tomorrow for another profit building episode of Business Day Thursday: Planting A Few More Seeds Of Expectation.

Hope to see you then, David.


  1. Raw rules. You can always change RAW to Jpeg but never the reverse. Then you can delete the RAW with the corrected Jpegs. HD space is now min. Yes it will take some time but batch processing when you are having lunch or sleeping. I used this to make an old church stained glass window pop back. People just loved the image.

  2. Great post as usual! And David, I have a question: what do you do when, say, in a big room, part of it is lit by very strong tungsten light and the other side of the room has big windows that let a lot of natural light in? Even with raw, how do you balance shooting in the middle of the room, for example, where both lights mix? What do you do with your flash? Any gels?