Multiple Exposure Blending vs High Dynamic Range
Unlike the more consumer-oriented EOS bodies, the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II and its predecessors do not offer an in-camera High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature. As a result, the solution I worked towards in order to capture the high dynamic range found in stained glass windows was Multiple Exposure Blending (MEB).
Which ever process is used, a final image is created from a series of bracketed photographs (bracketing referring to taking a set of photographs in which one setting in the exposure triangle (ISO – Aperture – Shutter Speed) is changed. For each window I photograph, 20 images are captured each with a fixed ISO (50), fixed aperture (f/8.0) and varying shutter speeds (at 1/3rd stop increments).
It is possible to have HDR Software apply an algorithm to blend portions of the mages together through tonal mapping, but I much prefer the manual approach of MEB. By using layers in post production, I am able to select the optimum appearance of each glass element within the stained glass window and merge them together into one ‘optimum’ image. While this method is both time-consuming and skill-intensive, it achieves the most accurate results:
One of twenty bracketed images, unedited.
The final image after Multiple Exposure Blending.
A slight deviation to my proposed Research Project found me at the country home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Dorneywood House sits within 215 acres of beautiful gardens in the tranquillity of the Buckinghamshire countryside and was gifted to the Nation in 1942 by the philanthropist Lord Courtauld-Thomson. The gardens are open to the public for two weeks each summer, but for security reasons photography is forbidden. Pleasingly this ban was waived for my private tour.
1874 saw the arrival of Courtauld-Thomson, the 137th pupil, at Summerfield (as was the name). He moved on to Eton in 1879 and from there to Magdalen College, Oxford. He decided to memorialise the key events of his life with a series of five stained glass windows and in the centre of the five is this lavish and rather touching tribute to his time at Summerfield. Interestingly, his years at Eton and Magdalen College are squeezed onto a single, rather plain window – for which I spared very little time in post-production.
Vanishing History – St. Hilda’s College Chapel
A visit to St. Hilda’s College Chapel became more urgent than was expected on hearing of its planned demolition within weeks. It was relieving to discover that there were only two stained glass windows (six lights) within the chapel, eased further by being granted open access to photograph them. Weather conditions today were perfect: bright, but over cast, the windows were clean and at head height. This had the makings of a straightforward, yet very poignant photo shoot. It transpired that I would be the first and last person to photograph (specifically) these windows.
At first glance all looked good and while the two windows were a little too modern in appearance for my liking, each told a clear and simple story. My initial placement shot revealed the first difficulty: The stained glass stood in front of much older panelled windows with the panels and window furniture clearly visible:
However, head-on, the full horror story became evident…
Everything could be seen through these stained glass windows. Even shooting at f/1.2 could not mask the red Ford Focus.
Notwithstanding, I completed the capture of a full set of images, albeit rather car-oriented. However, I have now entered into delicate negotiations with the College, in order to be granted access to the windows once they have been removed from the chapel, with the hope of photographing them clutter-free. If my plan comes to fruition, I have only to worry about where I might place the six lights to capture them against a backlit, neutral white background.
Somerville College Chapel
Uniquely, this is Oxford’s only un-consecrated chapel. It has no religious affiliation, so the large Reginald Bell stained glass west window depicting Christ comes as a surprise and juxtaposes the ‘undenominational’ intent of the building. Unusually, with vivimus approved and cartoon drawn, there was no Somerville chapel. Indeed, Bell is possibly the only glass-painter to have been commissioned to design a window and then to find an architect to build a chapel to house it.
This had the potential of being a straightforward shoot, with a spacious organ loft positioned at the perfect height for undistorted images. Sadly such plans were ruined by the placement of three chandeliers that followed the central line of the building:
With the chapel having just one stained glass window, and following feedback on my Work in Progress Portfolio, I experimented for the first time with capturing it in two images. To play safe, I also captured the window as a single image – this I did both from the floor and the organ loft, to the left and to the right of the central line (to avoid the chandeliers). Multiple exposure blending necessitated a batch of 20 images per shot, so this ‘straightforward’ shoot ended up taking just under an hour and totalled over 150 images.
Shot at 300mm f/8.0, the selected batch was shot from the organ loft, to the left of the central line.
The combined image was the result of over 15 hours of editing in which there was only the slightest image distortion: lateral offset from the central line produced horizontal convergence, which I opted to correct. The final result had a healthy 25.5MP resolution.
Learning & Truth (Reginald Bell, 1935) Somerville College Chapel
Celebrating the RAF: An exhibition of photographs and rare archive material
With today’s celebrations in London, 100 days after the 100th birthday of the RAF, I found time to visit The North Wall Gallery which is hosting a joint venture with St. Edward’s School, Oxford (20 June – 17 July 2018) an exhibition of photographs, military artefacts and largely unseen private papers and diaries in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the RAF. Many of the individuals featured in the exhibition are former pupils of St. Edwards, including Geoffrey de Havilland, Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson.
The early days of the RAF – 1914
The exhibition has a mightily impressive section on the Dambusters, including fascinating diagrams of the bouncing bomb in addition to photographs before and after the raid. One of the most personal items is a letter written by Guy Gibson to his headmaster and which has the memorable postscript “Was Awarded V.C. yesterday”.
Overlooking the exhibition is a huge reproduction of a stained glass window housed in the school’s dining room. On 19 November 1955, the school was officially presented with the commemorative window, pictured below, by the Air Council of the RAF in ‘recognition of the fine record of boys from St Edward’s in the Royal Air Force’.
I plan to visit St. Edward’s School later this summer to photograph the stained glass windows of their chapel, but it would seem foolhardy not to photograph the RAF window as well, if given permission.
The World War I Trail
Our Bury St. Edmunds BID and the My WiSH Charity have collaborated to create a public art trail across Bury St Edmunds Town Centre, commemorating the centenary of the ending of World War 1.
The World War 1 Trail runs from 21 July until Armistice Day, 11 November 2018, and comprises 18 separate pieces of art, each created by a local artist. One of those artists has produced a stunning piece of stained glass that has been framed and mounted for table-top display – something that particularly interested me, having worked only with installed windows during my project.
Russell Cook (2018) – Jon Messum with cartoon for his stained glass
Jon Messum has been working in the lead lights and stained glass specialism for over 40 years. He has worked on both private and public properties including; historical, listed and buildings of national significance. Ensuring that work is complimentary to a buildings history and design, with an emphasis on preservation and conservation.
Russell Cook (2018) – Jon Messum with stained glass window
In the work ‘Then and Now’ (Location: Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St. Edmunds), Jon focuses on the sombre experiences those faced on the battlefields. The panel then transitions into a more positive and bright scene, reflecting the life we have now – owed to those who fought in the war. The panel is made of various textured glass, hand painted and fired pieces. The methods and tools used are the same as those used 100 years ago. The scene was created out of over 80 individual pieces of glass which have been hand cut, painted and then kiln fired. The piece is a reminder of how much sacrifice was given so that we may have the peace we enjoy today.
Lack of cloud cover has been a problem
Several weeks of sunshine have been an absolute pleasure when working with children – my athletics squad have had uninterrupted track and field sessions that have resulted in a huge number of PB’s, fantastic results at their meetings and a record number qualifying to the National Championships. Taking fifty 13-year old boys on a five-day adventure activities trip to the edge of Dartmoor was a doddle compared with the more usual cold a mizzle of the high moorland. Sadly, it has not been very helpful where my project is concerned, but it has allowed me to consider other aspects of stained glass.
A look at the windows of the Chapel of St. Nicholas, bathed in glorious sunshine reveals a stunning richness to the colour palette. The combination of a warmer colour temperature and a more intense light give all colours a more vivid appearance, with the darker colours having greater depth and the more subtle skin tones having a healthy tan! This made me think that I have perhaps been missing a trick in photographing stained glass windows only during bright, cloudy days. Consequently I spent a morning photographing five of the windows. It was not until I viewed them on a computer screen that I realised the problem with this approach: every single glass panel had an obvious shadow created by the calmes (strips of lead H shaped to hold the pieces of glass together). While the palette is, perhaps, more attractive with the sunlight pouring through the left window, the dark shadow in the hair at the top of the head detracts from the image.
Unedited images taken in sunlight (left) and during cloud cover (right).
Waking to an overcast sky gave me the opportunity to re-shoot the windows, with the image to the right being the preferred skin tone of this particular batch of twenty image: providing a purer, perhaps more innocent face to the angel.
Chapel of St. Nicholas – revisited
The Chapel of St. Nicholas was the starting point for my passion of stained glass windows. Boasting thirteen beautiful windows by Henry Holiday, this jewel of Pre-Raphaelite excellence is a private chapel to which I have uninterrupted access. A brief break in the uninterrupted sunshine of recent weeks provided me insufficient time to negotiate access at such short notice to one of the college chapels, so I took the chance to redo my very first stab at multiple exposure blending back in 2013.
I was tempted to use the same camera (Canon EOS-1D X), since I would be using the same lens (Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM) but it seemed more sensible to maintain continuity across the project by using the EOS-1D X MkII. My original batch we shot at f/3.2, but throughout the development of this project, I have opted to shoot a f/8.0 in an effort to hit the sweet-spot of the lens as well as to ensure that every part of the window is in sharp focus. Much care has also been taken at the editing stage in working only with uncompressed images – such attention to detail was definitely lacking in 2013:
2013 (left) vs. 2018 (right)
Eighteen hours of image editing proved that my software skills have come a long way in five years and I am now more adept at removing the support bars, in addition to ensuring that subtle designs are included that I had previously omitted (the flower motif in the top section of the sword scabbard, for example).
With support bars (left) vs. edited image (right)
While a blog post does no justice to the window, nor indeed the editing, the finished image reminds me why I was first drawn to these windows.
Fight the Good Fight (Henry Holiday, 1906) Chapel of St. Nicholas
A departing long-serving colleague was given an unusual, unauthorised, yet fitting gift by a parent: a cushion featuring one of my images from Dorneywood House that depicts a stained glass window tribute to the school.
Had permission been asked of me, I would have been only happy to have obliged and would have supplied a full resolution image. As it was, a low resolution image was grabbed off the school’s news letter and used.
The results were surprisingly good, albeit somewhat soft, both visually and physically! – indeed I wonder if the limiting factor is the process rather than the image quality. This is definitely something that I would not consider doing myself, but as a result of this gift, I am now left pondering and suspect that I might dabble in this medium if only to examine the image quality when dealing with higher resolution originals.