PJ and I use Canon full-frame sensor cameras for our work (1dsMkIII and the original 5D) so we use Canon lenses almost exclusively. This article will detail which lenses we use for the different tasks in shooting churches and cathedrals. There is a caveat, of course. Since we travel across the Atlantic and in France for extended periods at a time, we need to be somewhat portable. We usually carry a Tamrac rolling case with room for two cameras and six lenses. We have two Manfrotto tripods with geared heads and a smaller Lowepro camera bag for chargers, filters, and other accessories. Given those limitations, here is our lens selection.
We’ll start off with the prime lenses. The most important are the tilt-shift lenses. They are crucial for adjusting the perspective distortion by keeping the vertical elements (like pillars and columns) parallel by shifting the lens element to keep the subject plane parallel to the image plane. Here is an example of a scene shot with a conventional 17mm lens. While the distortion effect in this particular shot is interesting, for most uses it is not acceptable.
Here is photograph from almost the same spot corrected with the tilt shift lens using the “shift” function.
There are some people who think that we don’t need these expensive tilt-shift lenses. While shooting shooting in Vézelay last year, a Dutch gentleman approached PJ and said, “You know, you don’t need that lens. You can fix it in Photoshop.” While it is possible to correct some shots without compromising the image too much, look at the results of trying to fix PJ’s image in Photoshop. We lose a significant part of the view and the quality definitely suffers from the interpolation required to create the new pixels.
There is another excellent use of the shift function in the lens, and that is to produce panorama views. When the camera is locked onto a tripod, you can shift completely to the left, take a shot, and then shift completely to the right. The resulting two images can be seamlessly joined in Photoshop to make stunning panoramas.
This particular image has finished dimensions of 9131×3044 pixels. At a high resolution 240 ppi that equates to a print of about 38×13 inches.
In addition to shifting the lens element, it is possible to tilt the lens as well. To quote Wikipedia, “A camera lens can provide sharp focus on only a single plane. Without tilt, the image plane (containing the film or image sensor), the lens plane, and the plane of focus are parallel, and are perpendicular to the lens axis; objects in sharp focus are all at the same distance from the camera. When the lens plane is tilted relative to the image plane, the plane of focus (PoF) is at an angle to the image plane, and objects at different distances from the camera can all be sharply focused if they lie in the same plane.” This function is used by many landscape photographers to keep the entire image in focus. It is also an excellent way to achieve selective focus.
This tilt function is a specialty function in architecture, but yields interesting results. Here is a test photo from Old South Church in Boston using both the shift for the verticals and the tilt for a continuous plane of focus on a diagonal plane.
So the tilt-shift lens has been the staple of our photography of Romanesque churches since the beginning of the project. We started with the original Canon 24mm f3.5 TSE L.
This has been our bread and butter lens and has served us well. The image quality overall is quite good and the build quality is superb. There are two things that have been less than stellar. First, there is significant chromatic aberration when shooting in areas of high contrast. The second is that it is not possible to use both the tilt and the shift simultaneously. While this is not a significant limitation, it does restrict the lens usage somewhat. But overall, the lens is wonderful for capturing architectural interiors.
We recently got the brand new Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L lens, released in 2009. This is a spectacular lens and an improvement in almost every category on the original tilt-shift lenses.
The build quality is as solid as one could hope. The optics are amazing, sharp across the entire image plane and throughout the aperture range, and we have seen no chromatic aberration at all. Plus, it can tilt and shift simultaneously. This lens has become our standard for shooting in large churches.
The lens also lends itself to another specialty use in architectural photography – shooting the vaults. The results have been superb.
Certainly with large a cathedral vault like that at the Cathedral in Laon, we get the great scope as might be expected. But for more intimate churches, the results are equally impressive.
We have only two reservations about this lens. In smaller churches, the 17mm introduces distortion in the near elements at the edge of the frame. How important is this? Not at all, we merely switch to the 24mm lens. The second issue is caused by the bubble lens – we experience a great deal more lens flare. We have to be very careful because it is often difficult to see in the viewfinder. Here is a link to a terrific detailed review of the lens.
The new tilt-shift lens improvements by Canon are quite expensive, of course. But that is not going to stop us from the next step – we are upgrading to the new 24mm TS II. Next fall when we return to France, we’ll be using that lens instead of the old reliable, the original 24mm tilt-shift.
We use other prime lenses than the tilt-shifts, of course, but they are for specialized functions.
The first is one of our only non-Canon lenses, the Sigma 105mm F/2.8 EX DG Macro.
This lens is primarily used for shooting the Vierges Romanes, the Romanesque wooden statues which are a specialty of ours. Our chief concern is tack-sharp focus and image quality since it is so difficult to get access to these precious works of art. The Sigma has been a wonderful performer.
Here is a detail of another shot to show the sharp focus that makes all the difference in these photographs.
We use the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM for shooting capitals and details of architectural elements out of reach of our normal lenses. This lens is on the tripod, of course, but also requires the use of a wireless remote shutter release for that extra degree of stability.
This is a shot of a column capital at the Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun. This image is about twenty feet off the ground, but the detail is superb with this lens.
The lens works equally well on exteriors and interiors, and on stained glass as well. Here is a detail of the great Crucifixion window at Cathédrale de Saint Pierre in Poitiers. This is one of the greatest stained glass windows created in era famous for its work in this field.
Finally, we use two zoom lenses for our work in these churches. The first is the Canon EF 24 – 105/F4.0L IS USM, a standard high quality zoom lens that is very useful to us.
This lens is helpful in shooting the Vierges Romanes and other statuary and is a wonderful exterior lens for shooting distance shots of churches.
The second is a wide angle zoom, the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM.
This is primarily of use in exteriors or in closeup details of ground-level elements where perspective distortion is not an issue.
We have one interesting non-Canon lens, a 1970 vintage Takumar SMC 1000mm f8 fitted with a Pentax adaptor for use on our cameras. We have not been able to use the lens in France because it is so huge. In its beautiful wooden case and with its heavy duty wooden tripod, this monstrosity must weigh 75 pounds. When this lens is put into the service of our photography, I promise to do a post just on this subject alone!
Thanks for putting up with this long post, but there is a consolation – it could have been much longer! If you have any questions or comments, I would be pleased to discuss them with you.