Behind the lens: the heavens above
My interest in shooting ceilings began over 40 years ago, with a realisation that while many visitors to buildings look around and appreciate the craftsmanship from centuries past, few ever take the time to appreciate just how accurate the design and construction of the ceilings are.
Built over 500 years ago, conceived by King Henry VI and initiated by Master Mason Reginald Ely, Kings College Chapel took 69 years to build, with the roof alone taking three years. Today, it is considered one of the finest examples of late Perpendicular Gothic architecture and it is often described as one of the wonders of the world.
I always seek and gain permission to do this style of shot, because lying down on the floor with my mini tripod and camera is a definite hazard to anyone walking around and looking up. Producing these images can be hugely frustrating. Lining up the camera and getting every plane level takes time and a great deal of patience. I can sometimes get everything correct, but then I’ll have to move everything because someone wants to walk past. When that happens, I restart the entire setting-up process. It may sound laborious, but it’s worth it and if done right, there is rarely any need to use perspective, rotate, or distortion tools.
The most important step is to first find and focus on the centre of the ceiling. For this image, I took one shot, and then added two other exposures of one second and five seconds. I look to find the sweet spot of correct exposure that will hold the highlights and produce the best shadow detail. That said, the improvements in dynamic range of camera sensors these days makes that a little pointless, as I don’t require them in editing. One more tip - an overcast day is better than full sun, as that will make capturing the detail in the windows easier.
Once I chose what I think is the best RAW file and I’ve made all the edits I require in Camera RAW, I duplicate the chosen RAW file a couple of times and re-edit the two duplicates, creating a “darker” and “lighter” version. This gives me three files, which are then all used in a single file in various layers. I could use the three different exposures, but any slight movement between them could mean they don’t line up correctly, which is why I prefer the method of selecting a single exposure and then duplicating it.
I don’t use any automatic process or automatic HDR as I find this is the most effective method and the most natural. Plus, like most photographers, I’m a total control freak.
These days I shoot a lot of commercial architecture and I’m astonished how accurate these buildings are. Every time I shoot ceilings such as these, I remind myself that they were built by hand. The most important tools were plumb lines and string; there were no architects, no cad drawings, not even spirit levels (which were first invented in 1661).
I was intending to add to this project in 2020, but chose the worst time to go to the UK, right at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Arriving in the middle of February, I caught Covid three weeks later and then spent 11 months locked down unable to take a single image. I remind myself that many of these buildings have been there for hundreds of years, so they will still be there for another time.