Photographing The Beauty Of Stained Glass Windows

An example of the spectacular stained Glass windows in St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hamilton, Australia.

I love stained glass windows and, one day, when I finally get my very own Hobbit hole, I’II going to ensure that it includes some lovely stained glass windows. Secular or religious, it matters not. As long as they’re beautiful and speak to me of light and color and the human experience I'II be satisfied.

Actually, as I hope for a more pluralistic society, it would be great to have a series of windows each one reflecting one or more stories from our world's dominant religions. Where it would be inappropriate to show the human figure I'd rely upon design to symbolize that particular religions understanding of the divine.  

Reflections of stained glass windows make for a surreal image in St. Mary's Catholic Church, Hamilton, Australia.

Photographing St. Mary's Catholic Church, Hamilton, Australia

I photographed the stained glass windows in this post at the local Catholic church in my hometown, Hamilton in south eastern Australia. The church was extended some time back and now features a more contemporary worship space, though most of the stained glass windows reside in the original part of the church.

A lovely black and white photo of young Ashton, gazing out of frame, on the day of his baptism.

I knew the old church quite well, originally being brought their on a weekly basis by my folks and then, later, during my days as a local wedding photographer. I’ve only been back a few times since the mid 80’s, including my dad’s funeral and then again for the baptism of my niece Rachel’s first child, Ashton.

We are drawn to beauty when we travel to exotic cities around the world. But, more often than not, such beauty exists in our own neck of the woods. It’s simply a matter of being receptive and open to beauty, where ever it exists.

I’ve photographed stained glass windows in exotic locales such as Paris, Buenos Aires, Chennai and the Falkland Islands. And the ones I've photographed in St. Mary’s Catholic church in my hometown, Hamilton, compare really well with those I've seen in churches and cathedrals around the world. What’s more, a visit back home allows me to spend time with my dear old mum, which is a huge bonus for me.

A stunning detail from a stained glass window in St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hamilton, Australia.

Tips For Making Great Photos Of Stained Glass Windows

To prevent distortion of the perspective within the scene depicted, position your camera directly opposite and in the centre of the stained glass window. Clearly that's not an easy thing to do and, quite often, it's down right impossible. But there is a nifty solution. 

Simple stand back and zoom in to fill the frame. This greater camera to subject distance has the visual effect of actually raising the camera, thereby reducing distortion. It's an easy to implement tip, which also works when you want to record tall buildings without the inherent distortion that occurs when you have to tilt your camera upwards to fit the top of the structure into the frame.

Of course, regardless of how expensive or sophisticated your camera is, there's no guarantee it will produce an accurate exposure. Light meters, when trusted and not overridden by the photographer, determine the brightness of your photos. But they are constantly fooled into making poor decisions.

There are numerous ways by which you can quickly and efficiently gain control back from the machine and produce fantastic photos. How you actually go about doing that is a little more complicated. After working with thousands of enthusiastic photographers I believe the best way forward is dependent upon the following criteria.

  • The camera in question and what's the simplest way to use it while maintaining control over things such as focus and exposure.
  • The photographer in question. We're all different and we all make sense of information in different ways.

One of numerous beautiful stained glass windows in a Christian church in Chennai, India.

Back in the days of film most cameras where made for folks who were right eye dominant. Clearly that placed the lefties at a disadvantage, though they probably never knew why.

These days things are a bit more democratic. However, each camera brand and, in some cases specific models within a camera range, have their own logic. That logic will either make sense to the photographer in question or it won't. This is probably one of the reasons why the vast majority of people surrender to the machine and use their camera on fully automatic. In doing so they've largely surrounded their opportunity for creative expression, which is why most of their photos fail to explore their own, unique way of seeing the world.

I think that's a tragedy, which is why I make myself available to help folks both understand their cameras and make more creative photos.

Achieving correct exposure (i.e., brightness) in a photograph is no easy thing. That's largely due to the fact that, despite there incredible sophistication, camera's don't recognize subject.

Put simply, your camera has no idea whether you're photographing a baby, a birthday cake or a bar mitzvah. No wonder it often produces images that are brighter or darker than you'd expect.

A scene of average brightness should photograph correctly. However, small areas that are much brighter or darker than the rest of the scene can cause your camera to produce an inaccurate exposure.

What's more there are some fundamental concepts that most folks who make photos simply don't realize. I like to summarize those concepts as follows:

The brighter the scene the darker it will photograph.

The darker the scene the brighter it will photograph.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

A spectacular stained glass window in the chapel where the body of Duke Frederick II rests at Helligenkreuz Abbey in Austria.

Tripods Are Great When Working Under Low Light Conditions

One of the difficulties associated with photographing stained glass windows is that you often find yourself in churches and other old buildings where there's not much light, either natural or artificial. But, just because it's dark, doesn't mean that your photos will be too dark. Your camera's light meter will measure the low levels of light and, in theory, adjust your cameras shutter speed, aperture and/or ISO to achieve what it believes is a correct exposure.

But, under really low levels of illumination, that could result in a very slow shutter speed causing blur through camera shake; a depth of field less than what you would prefer; and/or noise resulting from too high an ISO. And that is, of course, assuming your camera gets the exposure right in the first place.

The best solution is to employ a tripod. Not only will this allow you to produce a cleaner and sharper image, by photographing at a lower ISO, but a sturdy tripod will also allow you to make very small adjustments to the composition of the image and, thereby, produce a more pleasing result.

Why I Love To Make Photos

However you go about making photos, and whether you're using a smartphone, a mirrorless or DSLR camera to do so, I recommend you try photographing stained glass windows at some stage. They're one of my favorite things in this world and it's amazing how the process of making photos of stained glass windows only heightens the appreciation of such beauty evident in the transforming, transient and transcendental nature of light. That's the magic at the heart of photography and why it is that I do what I do.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru