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Shooting 'The English Cathedral' 2011
October 22, 2012
by Peter Marlow
Canterbury Cathedral September 2011

Everything about this work was about the preparation. Once I had decided that the right approach was to only photograph with all the interior lights off, the hardest thing to do was to convince each Cathedral to let me do this. It required a vast number of telephone calls and follow up e-mails for them to give me access before sunrise and arranging for staff to come in early.

For the set of Royal Mail stamps I used a 6x7 Mamiya RZ camera with a 75mm shift lens to control perspective, and used Tri-X Kodak black and white film. When the project developed into shooting all forty two English Cathedrals in colour I decided to increase the film size and quality switching to a Sinar F1 monorail camera, mounted on the largest tripod Manfroto make. I used a six foot stepladder bought from my local hardware shop. Filmstock was Fuji 160 Pro negative colour film, rated at 100ASA.

Once again with more equipment than I could actually carry, preparation was important as often there were no public parking spaces near the entrance to the Cathedral. I would try to get special permission to park right outside the west doors. If not I would struggle with one of my US made Portercases which converted into a handy trolley.

It was important for me to keep the sense of the relative size of each nave, some were enormous, some were small. To do this I used exactly the same elevation on the ladders and tripod and kept the lens a constant focal length, After extensive testing at Southwark, I settled on a Sinaron-W 115mm f6.8 lens which I used throughout the whole project. Controlling the vertical perspective was vital and I used the rising front on the Sinar at just about as far as it would go to keep all the verticals parallel.

It was important for the whole volume of the space to be in focus so I normally used the small aperture of between f22 and f32 for the maximum depth of field. This required exposures of between one and five minutes, I became rather instinctive about what exposure was required but based it on light readings on the mid tones of the cathedral internal walls. With that length of exposure, reciprosity failure, where the film requires a much longer exposure than indicated on the light meter, was also a big issue. I discovered that Fuji FP 100 Instant film appeared to have the same level of this effect, and that a well exposed ‘Polaroid’ would indicate the perfect exposure for the negative film by reducing the aperture by one and a half stops. The exposure meter was essential to monitor the light levels as this could quickly change as the weather changed, I would pick a mid tone point in the cathedral, such as the floor of an aisle, and use this as my reference, with notes on each exposure I could adjust the aperture as the light changed, keeping the exposure time constant to maintain the same reciprosity failure exposure time compensation.

In most places I used between six and twelve sheets of film, and about five ‘polaroids’.

I edited from contact sheets produced by my lab, and made an initial edit which I scanned using an Imacon 848 scanner.

Having created this ‘shortlist’, on completion of the project I made a final edit of the forty two images I wanted to use, and my Brazilian studio assistant , Marcio, scanned them full frame in 16-bit format using the Imacon. These were then carefully spotted at 66% using Adobe Photoshop 5, and cropped in a consistent 5x4 format to clean up the film rebates and processing marks.

During the shooting I was very careful to prepare the image by physically moving any distracting objects such as posters, prayer books, waste bins and welcome desks.

Consequently with the exception of two cathedrals where we cloned-out small ceiling emergency lights which were unable to be turned off, there was no digital manipulation of the images in Photoshop, other than the standard darkroom methods of spotting, colour balancing and tonal adjustment. With no artificial lights this was generally reasonably straightforward, but being so subjective it seemed to take ages, and was a mentally exhausting process.

We decided to use a PSD format for saving the cleaned up files which would maintain all the changes we made in separate layers, so that the process of getting to the final image could be recorded, and referred back to in case of difficulty getting a colour proof I was happy with. This made the files enormous, sometimes up to one and a half gigabytes, and meant I had to increase the Ram my Intel Mac to 12 gigabytes to handle them.

The final files were then flattened and saved as 16-bit tif’s, and passed to the printer for proofing with small 8x10 Lamda reference prints as a colour match reference.

In over thirty years of photography there were many times in the past when I had been not very well prepared, I often lacked a vital piece of equipment. I was determined with this project to have everything I needed to hand, and everything in place well before so I was able to purely concentrate on experiencing the space and simply ‘looking’.

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With Thanks to James Hudson