Capturing the Organ in St. Patrick’s Cathedral – Part I

| March 27, 2011
st patrick's cathedral organ new york

Final image: The Organ at St. Patricks Cathedral, NYC

After receiving a great response to posting my image of the organ at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Twitter this week, I thought I would post some insights into how it was processed. The final image you see above was created from the three exposures you see below using a high dynamic range process with additional post processing with Adobe Photoshop.

About the shot

When I visited the church last August, although I did not see any signs forbidding tripods, I knew security might ask me not to use one. Not being able to use a tripod in such a dimly lit location is problematic. I planned to shoot at f/16 and at an ISO of 400 to keep the scene in focus with a minimal amount of image noise. As a result, the brightest photo on the left below took 30 seconds to expose. It would have been impossible to hand hold that shot without blurring the image.

st patrick's cathedral organ new york

The original organ captures

My method for shooting inside cathedrals is to shoot low at about 18″ off the floor to avoid drawing attention to myself. Once set up, I just stand up and click the remote shutter release while I admire the architecture like everyone else. I also shoot dead center in the aisle. I find the absolute center line of the church by referencing the tile lines on the floor. Once discovered, I simply align the center of the tripod head over that line.

My viewfinder has an upgraded focus screen (shown below) that has convenient vertical and horizontal lines inscribed on its surface. It is about $30 from Amazon and you can install it yourself with the help of searchable YouTube videos. If you get one, make sure it fits your particular camera. The inscribed vertical lines allowed me to quickly line up the center of the shot, which was straight up the middle of the organ and stained glass rosette. With the lens distortion, it is a bit tricky to get the horizontal alignment just right so I just scan all four corners of the frame and make adjustments until everything looks symmetrical. These structures are so precisely built that you will be amazed how everything lines up when you download your images.

The Canon Eg-d Focusing Screen

With the framing out of the way, I set the camera to autobracket the exposures at -2EV, 0EV and +2EV. Sometimes you may need more exposures but this setup usually does the trick. I do all this very quickly because I know my time is limited. In the end, I was able to fire off four sets of brackets in the church before I was asked nicely not to use my tripod.

Processing the files

Once home, I download the Camera RAW files into Apple Aperture. I rarely do any manipulation in Aperture because Photoshop is my tool of choice. Aperture is primarily an image storage and cataloging program for me but it does have some pretty amazing editing capabilities as well. If anything, I will adjust the white balance in Aperture before exporting 16-bit TIFF files for post processing. For this image, I applied no adjustments in Aperture.

Once exported, I merge and tonemap the files in HRDSoft’s Photomatix. It is a very popular program for creating high dynamic range photos and it works very well. Once the files are loaded into Photomatix, there are a number of adjustments to make, which are driven by user preference. You can make a perfectly horrible image in Photomatix of you don’t work the settings just right. Some common problems include distracting halos in areas of high contrast, amplified noise, and banded colors, especially in clear blue skies. While merging the files, I basically try to create an image that has a nice representation of all the lights and darks in the scene. I don’t worry too much about final contrast and color in Photomatix because I prefer to fine tune those bits in Photoshop. After merging the files in Photomatix, I ended up with the  image below.

st patrick's cathedral organ hdr

The merged and tonemapped file

Global image adjustments

At this point, I typically make global image adjustments to prepare a good base image for final processing. First up is noise reduction. Even though I shot at a relatively low ISO of 400, the long-ish exposures create some noise that needs to be dealt with. Plus, when you merge multiple files together, the noise that exists amplifies during the layering process. To reduce the noise, I use a plugin from Topaz Labs called DeNoise. It runs about $80 and the results are pretty impressive. Below is the before and after of a section of the image with the help of Topaz DeNoise. Click the image to better see the results.

st patrick's cathedral organ new york

Before (left) and after (right) noise reduction with Topaz DeNoise

Next, I do a global sharpening of the image. Sharpening has become a standard step in everything I process. I have used plugins to sharpen in the past, but frankly I think the native sharpening capabilities in Photoshop are quite good. I learned the sharpening technique I use from G. Dan Mitchell’s site. He has some wonderful images and he has spent a fair amount of time figuring out some great image processing methods. For this image, I did a quick Smart Sharpen in Photoshop with settings of 150% and 2.0 px. Below is the result of that step on the same section of the image as before. Pretty sweet, huh? Especially sweet when you think about how dark the scene was and how high the detail in the organ was from where I was shooting. The new DSLR cameras are awesome!

The results of a single Smart Sharpen in Photoshop

I think I will cut the post off here because the next steps will make this way too long. You can see the status of the processing below. It is easier to see the results of these steps by clicking and looking at the full resolution images. A few things we will do next time include color correction, burning and dodging, selective focus and vignetting. Oh and there is a pesky lens flare to the left of the rosette that we will need to fix. I hope you find this helpful and thank you for visiting the blog.

If you like this post and are on Twitter, just click the photo birdie below to retweet this post. THANKS!

End Part 1 - After merge, noise reduction and sharpening

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Category: Photography, Tutorials

Comments (5)

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  1. AutumnLeaves says:

    As always, your photos are simply exquisitely beautiful, Lee. This is no exception. I think I remember you talking about shooting this photo awhile back (not the process you outlined above, but actually the accessibility of the church. What a stunning place. I read once somewhere that it takes a whole room to hold the pipes you don’t see on a pipe organ.

  2. Erin Duke says:

    Love, love, love this! Having seen this organ in person I can tell you without hesitation that this is an exquisite organ and you captured it gorgeously! As always, I enjoy your photos!

  3. Lee says:

    Thanks Erin and Sherry. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in this church and missed the organ. I was thrilled when I looked up and was able to take a picture of it!

  4. Great photo Lee – love this shot!

  5. Lee says:

    Thanks Nancie!