Saturday, March 26, 2011

Photographing Mausoleum Stained Glass

Photographing mausoleum stained glass windows is easier than photographing stained glass in say, a church, simply because with a mausoleum, you’re at eye level with your subject! That said, there are certain devices and techniques that will make your task easier. Also, the cheaper version of stained glass, painted glass, photographs the same way.

You might think that since the inside of a mausoleum is dark, you would need to shoot at a high ISO. Not so. This is one of the few situations where your intention is to shoot directly into the sun, with the stained glass window between it and you. To the photographer’s benefit, cemetery planners and mausoleum designers purposely situate mausoleums facing east or west. That way, the sun illuminates the stained glass window either when it rises or sets--except of course in the southern hemisphere, where it rises and sets north to south*(see footnote below for more on this).

Typically, in your average sized mausoleum, you have one big stained glass window opposite the mausoleum door (which you typically can’t open, in case you were wondering). Your best lighting conditions are when the sun is low on the horizon (either morning or late afternoon) and shining directly onto the stained glass. Then you can photograph it through the front door. If you can’t be there at the edges of the day, a bright cloudless day with crisp, even light works okay too.

Now, about taking the actual photographs. Since your subject is bright, you don’t really have to worry about shooting at a high ISO. The inside of the mausoleum will be so dim compared to the stained glass, you don’t have to worry about including distracting detail in your image—these details will be so dark your image sensor won’t even pick them up. If you have a lot of bright areas in the glass, you can easily shoot at ISO 200. If the glass has a lot of darker areas, you may have to shoot at ISO 400. Remember though, that you’re shooting a flat pane of glass so you don’t need ANY depth of field! You can shoot wide open (maybe f5.6 with your average digital point-and-shoot, f3.8 with a DSLR) and enjoy a relatively fast shutter speed, perhaps 1/30 second.

The Unobstructed View
Okay, you really don’t have one of those, in most cases. One of the minor challenges of photographing mausoleum stained glass windows is that the entry door opposite the window is typically partially obstructs your view. Whether for security** or ornamental reasons, these clear-glass paned doors are usually covered with very intricate bronze or iron design elements. (The door glass, though clear, is usually dirty, cracked, or covered with cobwebs, adding to the challenge).The gridded metalwork allows a view of the stained glass, but the spaces between the design elements are seldom more than two inches in rough diameter. What this means, of course, is that you can’t put your 62mm (filter size) DSLR lens right up to the door glass and shoot. In other words, the diameter of the lens barrel is too wide. When push comes to shove, I’ll shoot anyway, then crop blurred obstruction out of the photograph, if possible.

Camera Type
Front lit door
Now, for almost any other photographic purpose, I would recommend using a DSLR rather than a DPS (Digital Point-and-Shoot) camera, because a DSLR produces far better image quality (regardless of megapixel count). However, since the lens barrel diameter of most DPS cameras is far smaller than the diameter of a DSLR lens, the DPS lens fits more easily between the ornamental bronze and ironwork ornately artistic metalwork designs on most mausoleum doors! Since you don’t need a high ISO or a super low f-stop, you can do a lot of good work with the DPS camera.  DPS zooms are usually longer than those of a DPS lens, so this can be very helpful with composing and isolating sections of the stained glass.

Megapixel Count and Camera Type
I mentioned megapixel count in the previous paragraph, and I’d like to clarify that a bit. Because the image sensors of DPS cameras are smaller than those in DSLRs, the image quality of a DPS camera is ALWAYS inferior to a DSLR for the same MP (megapixel) count. In fact, since the pixels themselves are larger in a DSLR sensor, they hold more information and are more sensitive to light (that’s why DSLRs are capable of such higher ISOs than are DPS cameras, for example, ISO 1600 for the former, ISO 400 for the latter). Your print resolution is much better with the DSLR as well, allowing you to make bigger enlargements. One of my pet peeves is salespeople telling you that you need, oh, let’s say 12MP to make a fine 11x14 enlargement. Bullfeathers. An 11x14 enlargement from a 2MP DSLR might be far superior to a 12MP enlargement from a DPS camera! I go on and on about this in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, so if you’d care to read more, check out Chapter 4, “Magical Devices for a High Speed World.”

Get Creative!
If lighting conditions aren't exactly right or you can't really get the angle you'd like, be creative. Just shoot the door itself, or experiment with reflections (as I did in this self-portrait). If you can't photograph the intended pictorial elements of the glass, consider that simple patterns are sometimes worthy subjects in themselves (the image at left reminds me of a Mondrian painting). Bear in mind that even small mausoleums can have really nice stained glass, so don't pass up the opportunity of checking them out. In conclusion, since many cemeteries line up their mausoleums in one area, and usually in a row, its relatively easy to shoot half a dozen mausoleums in a short period of time. It’s an efficient process, so get out there and start shooting!

 Further Reading

* Just kidding about the southern hemisphere, wanted to see if you were paying attention. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west no matter where you live on Earth, because we all see the same sky.

* * Security issues? Why would anyone want to break into a mausoleum? Aside from the potential thrill of forbidden sex or some black arts ritual (neither of which is legal, mausoleums being private property), there exists the possibility of theft and vandalism. Thieves may think that if the deceased was affluent enough to buy an expensive mausoleum, the bodies inside may have been buried with valuables. And in some cases, they might be right. People have also been known to steal each others bones (see links below). In reality, the objects of most actual value in a mausoleum are the bronze entry door and the stained glass window, as you can see in the following links (my favorite of which is, "Metal Bandits Raid Queens Cemetery" -- sounds like a rock video, doesn't it? Speaking of music, click on the Buckethead link below to hear their song, "Mausoleum Door"). Tiffany stained glass windows bring hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market and with the price of scrap metal rising, bronze has become an increasingly valuable target for thieves. Ever notice a mausoleum where a cinder block wall has been placed in the opening of the door or windows? Most likely the result of vandalism or theft.

Expert Charged in Sale of Tiffany Glass Stolen From Tomb
Faux Tiffany Windows Are Stolen From Tomb (now THAT’s pretty funny!)
Cemetery Vandalism blog posting on The Cemetery Traveler
Interview excerpt on mausoleum stained glass from Ed Snyder’s StoneAngels website 
Precious heirloom stolen from mausoleum adds to family's pain
Cops: Brazen Thieves Came Prepared, Ransacked 3 Mausoleums
Couple at peace again after mausoleum fixed
Deer Park funeral home will donate a new coffin and liner to the family of a woman whose family is seeking return of her stolen remains
Metal bandits raid Queens cemetery
Russell-Cotes mausoleum doors stolen in Bornemouth
Tiffany stained glass  

Click here to listen to the song, "Mausoleum Door" by Buckethead