The Right Tools for the Job

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral: In its magnificent setting on the banks of the river Wear. 5 image stitched panorama.

Durham Cathedral is one of the architectural masterpieces in Europe. Blessed not just with painstaking Norman workmanship but a setting that rivals any in the country for sheer magnificence, the Cathedral lies on a plateau in a loop in the River Wear.

It has stood in that spectacular setting since building work began in 1093, when it took about 40 years for the majority of the original construction work to be completed. A colourful history through the centuries includes serving as a political and military base for the Prince Bishops in Anglo-Saxon times, through to more contemporary fame when it was cast as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first two Harry Potter films.

Durham Cathedral in Infrared

A little bit magical: Durham Cathedral, through the trees. Infrared image.

Together with the neighbouring Castle, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. The Cathedral receives in excess of 600 000 visitors a year and is open daily as a place of worship. And like many other cathedrals in the country, photography is strictly prohibited.

So it was a surprise to discover that the Cathedral was hosting a Photography Evening on 1 June 2010, during which members of the public were invited to bring their camera and tripod along for an evening in the Cathedral. The fee was a very reasonable £10, pre-booking was advised, and I had the opportunity to go along as a helper from Durham Photographic Society.

Crossing, Looking up Durham Cathedral Tower

Crossing: Looking up Durham Cathedral Tower. Fisheye lens, four frame HDR.

Photographers were there in good number, rendering the evening an exercise in patience as photographers waited with cable releases at the ready for a clear shot. There were photographers young and old, and of both genders. Big tripods, little tripods. Point and shoot compact cameras, through to full sized DSLR cameras. Samsung, Olympus, Pentax, Sony, Canon, Nikon… every major brand.

And in the middle of it all, I spotted someone with Nikon’s top of the range DSLR. The Nikon D3x… 24 million pixels of amazing quality that would have been just the ticket for lovely detailed interior shots of the Cathedral. Along with the very highly regarded and highly priced Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 zoom lens, it was a setup that would set you back over £6 000.

That’s enough to buy a small car in this country. And not a bad set of tools for this unique photographic opportunity, then.

Chapel of the Nine Altars

Chapel of the Nine Altars: Spectacular stained glass, converging verticals and all. Three frame HDR.

Yet not the right tool for the job. Not in this case anyway, as £6 000 of top of the line photography equipment was paired with nothing more than a monopod. Which, as it turned out, was swiftly discarded as being of little use as the photographer resorted to lying the camera flat against any surface that he could find in an effort to get vaguely sharp results.

The irony of course is that someone with an entry level DSLR and kit lens and a basic tripod would have got better results. Freedom to shoot at base ISO, freedom from handshake, freedom to choose a smaller aperture for greater depth of field, and freedom to compose freely and accurately using a tripod as opposed to laying the camera on a ledge and hoping. And freedom to spend the extra £5 500 sitting in their bank account.

I’d take 12 million sharp pixels over 24 million pixels afflicted by a bad case of noise, limited depth of field, and handshake, any day of the week.

View from the Choir

View from the Quire: Better balanced light later in the evening allowed this shot as a single exposure with a Perspective Control lens.

So, the moral of the story is to bring the right tools for the job. That’s not necessarily the highest resolution camera or sharpest lens or most expensive bit of kit you can get your hands on. Sometimes it’s as simple as a humble tripod.

Another way of looking at it is, if a spectacular Cathedral opens its doors to the general public for photography for only the second time in its long and illustrious history, don’t bring a D3x. 😉

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