Architectural lenses (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay photographed with the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L (Photo by PJ McKey)

Here is photograph from almost the same spot corrected with the tilt shift lens using the “shift” function.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay) shot with Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Photoshop correction of 17mm shot

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.

Panorama view of Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Combination tilt and shift at Old South Church (Boston) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Canon 24mm f3.5 TSE L (Photo by Canon)

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.

Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac shot with Canon 24mm f3.5 TSE L (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L (Photo by Canon)

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.

Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac shot with Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The lens also lends itself to another specialty use in architectural photography – shooting the vaults. The results have been superb.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon (Aisne) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II (Photo by Canon)

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.

Sigma 105mm F/2.8 EX DG Macro (Photo by Sigma)

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.

Notre Dame d'Heume l'Eglise, Puy-de-Dôme (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Here is a detail of another shot to show the sharp focus that makes all the difference in these photographs.

Detail of Notre Dame d'Heume l'Eglise (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM (Photo by Canon)

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 Fall of Simon Magus at Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Crucifixion vitrail at Cathédrale de Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Canon EF 24 - 105/F4.0L IS USM (Photo by Canon)

This lens is helpful in shooting the Vierges Romanes and other statuary and is a wonderful exterior lens for shooting distance shots of churches.

Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

The second is a wide angle zoom, the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM.

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM (Photo by Canon)

This is primarily of use in exteriors or in closeup details of ground-level elements where perspective distortion is not an issue.

Detail of column, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

10 responses to “Architectural lenses (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Pingback: Tilt-shift lenses for church architecture (Dennis Aubrey) « Via Lucis Photography

  2. Pingback: Architectural lenses (Dennis Aubrey) « Via Lucis Photography | Prime Lenses

  3. Hi,
    I take a lot of shots of old churches in France too. I mostly use a 5D mark 2 now and the 24mm tilt shoft, but the second version, which has almost no chromatic abberation. I use the same 400mm lens as you, and occasionally I use a Nikon 800mm AIS ED lens which I can adapt to the 5D.
    I also use HDR photography (avoiding the excesses) to get more shadow detail.


    • Henri, thanks for your comments. I had a chance to look at some of your shots, particularly liked the frescoes at Montoire sur Loir, which we have not shot. We use HDR sometimes, but mostly on shots that were taken a few years ago with older cameras. Don’t need to do it often with the 1dsMarkIII. It was nice to see that you don’t go to extremes and keep the shots naturalistic. You are absolutely right about the chromatic aberration on the Mark II version of the 24ts. We should be getting ours next week. Look forward to hearing from you again.

  4. Alas … this is one of those topics that makes makes me thinking, sometime, to switch from N… to C…
    The point about Ps line correction is interesting and true in the case of big prints but I think it is not really valuable on small/medium jpg web photo. Talking about the loss of image details (and not of course loosing part of the image) I certainly believe what you say and it would be interesting if you could post a link to view two big images in order to fully understand the real level of details degradation as this is something not often written by sw designers…

    • Enrico, that is a good idea. You are right that it is possible to get away with certain procedures at lower resolutions, and the wonderful editing tools make that possible. And certainly there are distortions introduced by the T/S lenses, particularly the 17mm. But for us to have to do perspective correction in post processing for all of our shots would be an enormous task, even without the quality problems. I’ll try to come up with a post to show the quality issue. Thanks for yor suggestion.

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