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Photographing The Notre Dame Cathedral site contributor:

Glenn Guy / website


Article sponsored by:

Momento and Momento Pro


Paris is a very, very beautiful city. Rich in history and architecturally splendid it's a credit to city leaders that they have prevented Paris from being overtaken by high-rise demons. A highlight for most tourists is a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral.

While Notre Dame was definitely on my list, as a photographer the emotions associated with my visit, both prior and post the event, were somewhat mixed.

As is the case in many public buildings, tripods are not allowed. Clearly the light levels inside the cathedral were not going to be particularly bright, so it was going to be tough to make razor sharp images. While I have a Leica M9 and fast f1.4 and f2 lens I opted for my Canon 5D Mark II camera for the compositional versatility and Image Stabilisation offered by the Canon 24-105mm f4 IS L series lens.

I knew there would be lots of tourists and that their presence would mess up some of my compositions. But hey, by definition a public building belongs to everyone and photographers have to do their best to make great images without adversely affecting the progress or experience of other visitors.

glennguy20110928b.jpgSadly that attitude didn't stop dozens of people, upon noticing the little chap with the big camera, standing between me and whatever it was I wanted to photograph while they had their own photo made. It gets a bit tedious when a whole bus load of tourists follow suit. And still you wait to make your photo!

So, without any special access or treatment, how can we make photos that are memorable and worthy of the sacred nature of such a wondrous site?

We can either include or exclude people from our composition. Excluding people may mean concentrating our composition on details or architectural elements that are not blocked by the wandering hordes. That may require you to point your camera to one side, upwards, for a birds eye view or, alternatively, down for a worms eye view. When photographing upwards use dominant lines (columns) to lead the viewer through the frame and shapes (arches and windows) as focal points. A wide-angle lens can be helpful in allowing you to capture the grandeur of such a space.

Positioning your subject against a significantly brighter background will render your subject as a silhouette which, if that was your intention, will work best when your subject forms a graphic shape. Most, if not all, color will be lost in the subject, but often rendered darker and more saturated in the background. That recipe worked well when I made the silhouette of the statues against the stain glass window.

For those folks shooting JPEG I would generally recommend shooting at plus 1 to 1 1/2 stops above your camera's recommended exposure when shooting silhouettes. This should result in a silhouetted subject against a brighter background and a sense of space between the two. Conversely, trusting your camera's light meter will often produce in an overly dark, flat (2-dimensional) result.  

Another approach is to photograph the other tourists, with a very slow shutter speed, moving through the frame. That might result in an image that talks to us, for example, about the transient nature of human existance compared to the infinite (religious entity) worshipped within that space. However, without the use of a tripod to steady the camera, it may not be possible to get a slow enough shutter speed to create the right amount of subject blur and, at the same time, maintain sharpness in the surrounding architecture. But that's not to say you shouldn't try. Great photos come through experimentation and, while not necessarily our most technically proficient, meaningful and evocative images often follow.  

I found it interesting that a church service was conducted during my visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. I noticed the separation between those actually attending the service, roped off in the middle of the cathedral, and the throng of visitors who moved around the outer aisles.

By squeezing through a group of visitors, and positioning myself up against a church pillar, I was able to help steady the camera and obtain an interesting view of the proceedings. The intention was to make a photo that talked to the history, ritual and adoration associated with the space.

I'm glad the use of a 24mm focal length allowed me to include a considerable amount of the cathedral's architecture. In this way the altar, stain glass windows and some of the congregation, who remained quite still during the relatively slow 1/10 second hand-held exposure, were included within the composition. A favourite tool of the documentary photographer, the wide-angle lens helped me tell the story within a single frame.

To obtain a working shutter speed I had to open my Canon 24-105mm f4 IS L series lens to the maximum aperture of f4 and increase my camera's sensitivity to ISO 1600. As a result the tonal smoothness, low noise and fine color gradations associated with the camera, when used between ISO 100 and 400, were somewhat compromised. However, I think I got away with it. A higher contrast, more gritty image resulted. But, within that incense-filled space, it only seems to have made for a more evocative image.

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