Friday, May 17, 2013


Earlier this week I traveled to Port Washington, Wisconsin, a quaint town on Lake Michigan about 15 miles north of our home.  I was hoping to get some pictures of the town's harbor and historic downtown.  In that I was a bit disappointed.  However, before leaving, I noticed a prominent church on a hill at the north end of the downtown area, St. Mary's.  I took a few shots of the exterior and then checked to see if the church was open.  I was bit surprised to find that it was.  I had my tripod along but, even though no one was around, I was not comfortable bringing it in.

The church featured ample stained glass windows on each side.  Even so, the ambient light in the sanctuary was really quite low.  So I took a number of hand-held shots using a relatively high ISO rating (1000) and a relatively wide-open aperture to compensate for the lack of light and to keep exposures to under 1/10th second.  I was really encouraged by the interior architecture, so the following morning I phoned the church and asked if I could come back to take additional photos.  The representative I spoke with was very gracious and welcomed me to come at a time when I would not interfere with any church activities.  I returned that afternoon with my tripod and spent perhaps another 1 to 1-1/2 hours taking more photos.

Here is a shot of the front of the church.

I had limited room in front of the church to get this shot.  Just beyond where I was standing the hill began to drop sharply down toward the town.  Fortunately, my lens had just enough wide-angle capabilities to get in the entire exterior, including the cross atop the steeple.

Usually, among the first interior photos I take are wide-angle shots of the front of the church, both horizontal and vertical.

Because of the low-light situation, I had decided to set the aperture at a medium f/9 and with an ISO setting of 200.  These were both shot at those settings, and the resulting shutter times were 1.0 and 1.6 seconds, respectively.  (Later I moved to narrower apertures to gain more depth of field.)  The apparent brightness of these shots is deceiving, as it was really quite dark in the church.

As I have lamented previously, churches pose serious lighting challenges.  One of those is white balance.  If there are incandescent interior lights, they can "over-warm" the overall color.  The light coming through the stained glass windows can also create some white balance issues. I usually resort to an Automatic setting to get a rough approximation of the proper color and then work on the files in post processing.  I always shoot in raw, which means that the camera takes exactly what's there and I can then tweak things once the files have been downloaded to my computer.  My options would be much more limited if I were to shoot in jpeg.  (Perhaps that's a bit too much technical information.)

A more serious lighting problem stems from the fact that there can be an enormous difference in overall illumination between the bright windows and some of the dark interior surfaces, a difference that exceeds the camera's capabilities.  For example, in the shot above, the area above the altar was quite dark and I simply could not brighten it up without substantially overexposing other parts of the image, especially the windows.

And here is a shot of the back of the sanctuary, showing off the church's impressive pipe organ.

After I had been taking shots for about 15-20 minutes, a couple of custodians came in.  They asked if I would like them to turn on the altar lights.  I really couldn't say no, even though that additional lighting posed its own problems.  Here is the front of the church with the altar lights on.

Better I think, though now that area was perhaps over-illuminated and with incandescent light.  Here is a closer shot of the altar area.

With many church interiors, the real architectural "action" is with the corridors on either side of the sanctuary.  St. Mary's is no different.  Here is a shot looking up one of the sides.

I liked the way the early afternoon sun was streaming through the side windows.  Here's another shot taken on the first day when morning light was illuminating the east side of the sanctuary.

Here are a couple of photos of windows to either side of the choir loft at the back of the sanctuary (the windows actually being at the front of the church as seen from the exterior).

These two shots point up a significant difference between the photos from the first day and those from the second.  Frankly, the light was better the first day than it was on the second.  For example, the first of the above shots was taken on the first day, while the second was taken on the second day.  To my eye the surfaces in the first shot seemed to have a glow to them that was simply lacking in the second, despite my best efforts in post processing.  I noticed this in a number of other shots as well.  Of course, in some ways the technical quality of the second's days shots was superior, as I had the luxury of longer exposures and a lower ISO (meaning less "noise").  The photo above of the side of the sanctuary showing three of the stained glass windows was also taken on the first day, and I feel that it has more depth than similar shots that I took on the second day.

I realize that I seem to have a fetish for arches, but I thought the gothic-style arches in this church were particularly attractive.  Here are a couple of shots that I think reflect their beauty.

And here is one centered on a supporting pillar.

I also feel that I have a bit of an obsession for symmetry, as is reflected in the above shots.  However, in the end I thought the best shots I got of the arches were taken obliquely.

Because of their clean lines, I thought these worked well also as B&Ws.

Finally, here is a shot of the front entrance doors taken from the interior.

I liked how the angled light was reflected off the floor.  I also liked the simple colors of the concrete steps, lawn, and sky, giving the photo the appearance of having been painted.

Here are a few more facts about this beautiful church:
The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1882, and the building was completed in 1884.
The church can seat approximately 700 people.
The steeple rises nearly 170 feet above the foundation.  The dials of its four-sided clock are each seven feet in diameter.
The steeple holds three functioning bells, the largest of which weighs over 2,800 pounds.
In 1977 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since its construction, the church has witnessed over 11,000 baptisms, 3,000 weddings, and 4,600 funerals.


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