HDR in Churches (Dennis Aubrey)


Everyone who has experience in photography realizes that the wider the dynamic range of the lighting in the scene, the more difficult it is to get a properly exposed image. If the photographer exposes for the shadows, the highlights are blown. If the shot is exposed for the highlights, the shadows are dark, featureless and lacking detail. Metering is used to establish the light readings at any point in the scene, and metering multiple times is used to find the optimum exposure for any combination of highlights and shadows.

In the SLR, such metering is both science and art. It is a science when the on-camera processors measure light intensity at multiple points of the scene and then combine the results to determine the appropriate exposure. This is called matrix metering and can include information other than light intensity – whether part of the image is in focus or not, whether part of the image is backlit, etc. Some proprietary processing is required to take this information and provide a proper exposure for any combination of ISO and aperture. Metering is an art when the photographer makes judgments about the overall tone of the scene and exposes in order to achieve a specific tonal effect.

After establishing the exposure parameters of a shot, the photographer has two choices: to use additional light sources to “balance” the image, or use the natural lighting and employ post processing techniques to achieve that balance.

High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR) is a post-processing method of combining multiple exposures of a scene in order to provide a more balanced image and capture more of the contrast.

HDR is a technique, not a style, although there are clearly masterful photographers who use HDR to create superb stylized images. Others, unfortunately, use HDR on images of no particular distinction and call that a style.

We are not concerned with HDR as a style, but as a solution to a pervasive problem. The churches that we shoot represent such a wide dynamic range that conventional photography is challenged to capture them adequately. The problem is exacerbated when you take into account that we typically take very long exposures. This image of Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers shows bright windows, an unlit crypt, a statue lit by artificial light, a dark oven vault, and shadowed areas behind the hemicycle of columns in the background. The image shown has been conventionally processed but is a good representation of the challenges found in photographing these structures.

Apse and crypt, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When we use post-processing techniques, our objective is to create an image that is otherwise impossible to represent with a camera but reflects what we see with our eyes. We have three basic techniques that we use to achieve that objective – HDR, layer masking, and simple, elegant editing in Lightroom (this is PJ’s specialty).

The intent in using HDR is to capture the dynamic range while keeping the image as natural as possible. There are no hard and fast rules – a tripod is necessary, of course, and we use the number of exposures necessary to capture the various light levels within the scene. The “three shot/two stop” rule often will not work in our environment. I routinely shoot six stops at 1-stop intervals, but have shot up to 24 in a complex situation. However, I don’t think that any finished image has required more than six or eight source images.

We have used both the Photomatix Pro and Photoshop software, but prefer to use Photoshop in conjunction with Lightroom. We create the base HDR image in Photoshop and then edit that image in Lightroom, just as we would edit the RAW image from the camera.

This shot at Saint Michel-de-Cuxa is an amalgam of five of nine exposures that were taken of the cloisters. The trick was to balance the dark underside of the wooden roof with the extreme brightness of the exterior scene, while maintaining the natural look of the pink stones of the cloister itself. In addition, it was necessary to preserve the detail in the cloister on the far side of the grass.

HDR of cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is not always necessary to merge the entirety of different versions of a shot. In some cases there may be a very good overall photograph that contains only a limited number of elements to be improved. This image of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Providence is an example of using layer masking to replace elements from one exposure with those from another. In this case, the side windows and rose window were the underneath layer that was revealed. The only difficulty was to get the windows to be the right intensity compared to the rest of the scene. In actuality, I set the opacity to 92% on the windows to achieve the right balance between the two layers.

Nave with layer mask of windows, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence (Rhode Island) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This photograph of the Basilica of Saint Hilaire in Poitiers was processed in Lightroom by PJ. She has created a wonderful balance of light and shadow. This is a work of great skill that gives a true representation of the space without any special processing.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

It should be clear that we are not trying to use these techniques to create artistic visions in themselves. We are trying to use photography to illuminate the artistic visions of the builders, and like them, we use the tools available to us to achieve our ends.

21 responses to “HDR in Churches (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Michael, thanks for the kind words. The churches can be a challenge to shoot and we often get questions. The blog is a great way to communicate with people who are interested in this somewhat esoteric undertaking.

  1. I agree with you that there are situations where HDR imaging is the best way to capture what the human eye sees. Nothing wrong with that. I have been using HDR for awhile now when I want to represent what I was actually seeing. Although tempted to use the “paintery” process, I prefer the tone balanced versions best. Never make apologies for realistic beauty. Rembrandt knew it very well……

    • Vann, the post was originally going to be a rant at some of the really execrable HDR images being posted, but I calmed down and tried to actually make the post useful. Rembrandt knew well, didn’t he.

  2. HDR can be beautiful or to the other side some over application of the slider can create a mess. I see some use Lucas Art to achieve almost the same results, and Topaz also is used by many to try and achieve an image that resembles HDR. Good stuff thanks.

  3. Dennis, just to say I know NOTHING about photography but I could look at your photos all day. The perspectives put me in mind of Masaccio and Mantegna- never a bad thing!

  4. I have always wondered how Zodiaque images of cloisters kept from over-exposing the outside and from losing details of the covered area in shadow.

  5. Thank you for explaining a bit of the art behind the photograph. Photography has always frustrated me because it is indeed so difficult to represent what the eye sees… for me it is easier to paint it, and so I do…

    • Michelle, welcome back. Even with the tools that we have, the eye sees so much more than the sensors or the films. And the brain is the engine behind it all; that is what must be engaged no matter what. The hand and the eye are hard-wired, and I wish that I could paint or draw the cathedrals and churches as well as photograph them.

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  7. Great article – photographing church interiors is something I’ve had limited success at. Unfortunately I don’t always carry a tripod on a day trip when I’m travelling so I’ve always just had to muddle my way through Lightroom as best I could after the fact. You’ve inspired me to try a bit harder!

    • Olivia, glad to hear that we’ve inspired you to shoot these churches. The tripod is required, of course. By the way, your post on Roussillon reminded us of our trip there in 2010.

  8. What a stunningly beautiful blog! I am so glad you “liked” my post on the looting of Britain’s heritage sites, so that I found you!

    Very best wishes.

    Elliott elliottingotham.wordpress.com

    • Elliott, thanks for the kind words. We are very concerned with historic preservation, although more from a “restoration” perspective. There are, however, ongoing problems in the world of the Romanesque churches, as you know. The theft of art objects, particularly the Vierges Romanes, devastates the local parishes. I look forward to more exchanges as I read your work.

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