Church Xmas Shoot – Reality

View from the choir balcony at St Michael's Byzantine Church during the Centennial year, 29 December 2010.

So now for the reality…  Actually, this was one of the easier shoots all around, in terms of the theory meeting the reality.  When shooting static scenes there’s something to be said for having the place all to yourself – we were able to get in and shoot everything on our list within a few hours.The scene above was the wide-angle establishing shot from the choir balcony, which ironically we shot last in the series.  Keeping with the theory that Christmas is all about atmospheric lighting we doused the main house lights and instead relied on just the icon screen spots and the tree.  That left the scene a little too muted so we kicked on the choir balcony spotlights as well, which threw just enough light forward to add some punch.

Comparison between an HDR and regular processed image of the Christmas tree at St Michael's Byzantine Church during the Centennial year, 29 December 2010.

The tree itself was obviously one of the main shots we wanted, since it’s only there for a shot time each year but is the hallmark of the season.  I show two different versions, shown above: the left image is an HDR composite of three exposures, while the right image is a single shot, exposed to the right and brought down a bit.

Originally I expected the HDR to be the better of the two; the lighting ratio is wide in the scene, especially on the icon of St. Nicholas vs. the tree.  HDR often adds a glow-ish look, which works well in this instance.  Still, after seeing them side by side, I find I’m partial to the regular image – it’s simply more true to the scene.

Nativity display at St Michael's Byzantine Church during the Centennial year, 29 December 2010.

This one I’m quite proud of, since it’s always a challenge to add some drama to an inanimate display.  The nativity is utterly lacking dedicated lighting.  During the services, it’s lit by the regular overheads, which just don’t do it justice.  So I approached it the same as I would an actual person.  The key light is a 430EX and shoot-through umbrella to camera right, with a YN-460II tucked down behind the baby Jesus, with a dome diffuser, as a kicker.  It is Jesus after all, so I figured a little dramatic light couldn’t hurt, and in the image it definitely helps pull the eye to the him.  (Both lights were set manually and triggered by radio slaves – and Mary’s face isn’t actually blown out in the full-res version.)

We shot two other scenes: a close up of the icon screens, and one of the stained glass windows illuminated from outside with a flash.  Unfortunately, the window shot failed – holding the flash at the bottom of the window, we weren’t able to light it all the way up, nevermind with any sort of even spread.  The solution here will be to re-shoot another time, with an assistant up on a step-ladder, to get the Speedlite closer to the center of the window – or perhaps even using two Speedlites mounted to a pole for better coverage.

Detail shot of icon screen at St Michael's Byzantine Church during the Centennial year, 29 December 2010.

In this final image, we again doused all the lights, save for the icon screen spots.  Unfortunately, the side doors don’t have any lights, so we used a gridded Speedlite on each of them to throw a flick of light, just enough to make the artwork come out of the shadows.

As expected, this was a night of tripod work, and although it isn’t as dynamic a session as, say, a portrait shoot, it was still a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the sessions needed to cover the centennial year!

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. Try the following with the HDR Christmas tree…

    Slightly bump up the Contrast, Black, Saturation, and Vibrance. Key word is slightly,

    I think you will get the best of both worlds.

  2. Marie Pennington

    What a beautiful church. I enjoyed these and look forward to more from this project.

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