Digital Focus: Shooting Inside Museums and Cathedrals

Feature: Shooting Inside Museums and Cathedrals

Some of the most stunning photos I have ever taken were inside buildings such as churches, cathedrals, museums, art galleries, and other tourist destinations. I love sweeping, majestic ceilings. I like stained glass, huge tapestries, and dynamic, Renaissance-era paintings. Unfortunately, as you've probably discovered for yourself, these can be some of the most difficult subjects to photograph.

The Built-In Flash Isn't Enough

Wander into a big city cathedral or an expansive art gallery, and the first thing you'll find is that the puny flash built into your digital camera isn't going to cut the mustard. With a maximum range of about 10 feet, the flash on your camera is designed to illuminate someone standing right in front of you--not a hundred-foot-high wall of stone and marble, 25 feet away.

Luckily, many digital cameras come with external flash mounts--called shoes--that let you slide on beefier external flash units. These flash units can throw light 75 feet away, and are much better for illuminating scenes like this. As an alternative, you can get a slave flash that doesn't have to mount on the camera itself. You can hold it with a free hand or mount it on a tripod and it'll fire whenever the camera's flash fires. I recently reviewed a universal digital camera slave flash from Phoenix.

No Flash Photography

One of the most common stumbling blocks with shooting indoor tourist locations is that flash photography is often not allowed. There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, it's often discouraged to avoid disturbing other visitors. Second, flashing cameras are perceived as ruining the sanctity of the location. And finally, some historical sites want to minimize the damage that bright lights might cause to ancient materials.

Whatever the reason, if you have to turn off your flash, make sure you know how before you get there. Most digital cameras allow you to completely disable the flash by cycling though its various settings until you reach an icon that has a slash through the flash symbol.

Try a Tripod

If you can't use a flash at all--but cameras are allowed--your best bet is to take pictures with a tripod. Even a small, lightweight tripod is enough to stabilize your camera for the long exposure you'll need. Without a flash, your camera's automatic exposure control will leave the camera's shutter open anywhere from 1 to 8 seconds, and that's far too long to hold a camera steady by hand.

But what if full-size tripods aren't permitted? Indeed, some of the most famous landmarks around the world prohibit their use. One solution: steady yourself against a wall or doorway to keep the camera as jitter-free as possible during the lengthy exposure. To minimize the length of the exposure, set the camera to its highest ISO level, which makes the sensor more sensitive to light.

My Secret Solution

Finally, I'll share with you my personal secret, one I rely on when neither a flash nor a tripod is allowed, but I want to capture a sharp, compelling picture nonetheless. Go to your local camera shop and buy a tiny tabletop tripod--the kind with finger-length, flexible legs.

What good is that, you ask? You can use it to hold the camera firmly against a wall, doorway, or some other vertical surface while you take a long exposure. The folks in change probably won't mind because you're not blocking walkways or tying up a huge chunk of floor space--which is the main reason that tripods are banned in the first place. Some photographers also carry a small beanbag that they can set the camera on, which is handy for stabilizing the camera on the back of a pew or on top of a table, railing, or banister. That's great, but my tiny little tabletop tripod has saved my bacon on many an occasion. And guess what? When you're not using it, it fits in your pocket.

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