How to Photograph Interior Domes of Popular Landmarks

Incredibly, the first domes date back to people living in the Mediterranean region 4,000 years BC. Since then, artists have created a fascinating variety of them all over the world. Still today, they are an essential part of modern architecture, as shown for example by Calatrava’s spectacular glass dome of the library of the Institute of Law in Zurich, Switzerland.

Unfortunately, most domes do not get the attention they really deserve. One reason is that many buildings, especially churches, are not well illuminated and the works of art can hardly be seen in the semidarkness. Another reason is that some domes, particularly those from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, are crowned by a lantern with separate windows which cause sharp contrasts. Furthermore, in bigger domes the details are far away from the observer on the ground, making it virtually impossible to study the subtle details of paintings. Finally – no surprise! – domes are located above you and looking upwards becomes strenuous for the cervical spine soon. The photographic technique described below helps to overcome some of these difficulties.

Praha Kreuzherrenkirche

I switched to full format photography a few years ago when the Nikon D800 came out. At the same time, Carl Zeiss started to sell their super wide angle lens with a focal distance of 15mm, the Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8. With a focus on architecture, this combination is really a dream for me. It gives you razor sharp details I have never seen before.

Berlin Dome of the Museum of Communication

First, I took pictures of domes as I did of other parts of buildings. They were not really in the center of my interest. This changed when I had a close look at some photos I took more or less accidentally, especially when changing the exposure in Lightroom. I became fascinated by the geometry of domes, their colors and their decoration. So I decided to focus on this subject a little bit closer. I added a notebook to my equipment on which ControlMyNikon serves as remote control software.

Berlin Dome of The New Church

The setup is simple: Without a tripod, I put the camera directly on the floor. The display is protected by a thin rubber mat. The lens is positioned directly under the middle of the dome and points directly to its center. As I cannot use the viewfinder or the LCD anymore with this setup, the camera is linked to the computer with a standard USB cable. The 15-inch monitor gives me a reasonably sized image. LiveView allows me to find the exact center of the dome, which can be a challenging task. The zoom function is extremely helpful in this context. Most of the images are taken with an aperture of f/8 or f/10. ISO is always set to 50. I take 16 pictures with shutter speeds ranging from 1/800 to 30 seconds. These settings are saved in a profile. I start the program with a click of a button and then the computer and the camera do their work. The photos are developed in Lightroom, then transferred to Photomatix as HDR software and finally prepared for web presentation in Photoshop by exactly following the workflow Nasim describes on this website.

Berlin Dome of the Old National Gallery

Some situations do not allow taking photos in the way described above, mainly for two reasons: you must be really fast (e.g. in a church which is open to the public only for the mass, so you don’t have enough time to install your computer after the priest has finished his service and before the building is locked again a few minutes later), or your setup is classified as professional equipment (e.g. by staff members of a museum who think that you take photos for commercial purposes). In these cases, I use the Haehnel Giga T Pro II (B&H) wireless remote control and the built-in bracketing function of the D800 with 9 images. This requires some experience, because you have no visual control and especially in larger buildings finding the exact center of the dome might be even more difficult than with Live View on the notebook.

Berlin Dome of the Picture Gallery

I am a professional radiation oncologist, not a photographer. But medical science means travelling from time to time. Furthermore, my wife and my three kids really like being on tour, so I see a lot of places. Before I start, I have a close look at good guidebooks, do some web search and scan sites like 500px.com. A perfect preparation is essential! Quite often you can identify problematic locations in advance. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome has definitely a perfect dome, but unfortunately, the Pope’s throne is situated where the camera should be positioned… Taking photos is usually not a problem in Roman Catholic churches which are generally open to the public. With Jewish synagogues the situation is completely different: without hardly any exception, taking photos is strictly forbidden, mainly for security reasons. In other locations, like courts, written requests and formal permissions are mandatory. However, despite good research in advance, you don’t get every shot you long for: some churches are open only once a week for two hours, some domes are covered because they are getting restored etc. Nevertheless, I am able to realize about 80% of the planned projects (a good rate compared to wildlife photography, isn’t it?).

Bern Dome of the Shopping Mall Wankdorf Center

The above technique for photographing interior domes has been quite effective for capturing the beauty of popular architectural landmarks. Setting the camera on the floor allows for the widest perspective without having to worry about setting up and aligning a tripod. Long exposure times enlighten the darkness. HDR image fusion is effective in avoiding overexposure and/or underexposure of relevant parts of the final image. The combination of a full format sensor with 36 MP and a tack sharp lens reveal the finest of details – when scrolling through images on a monitor at 100% or at even higher magnifications, I am always fascinated by a perspective comparable with an artist’s or a restorer’s point of view. And, last but not least, the presentation on a monitor or as a print offers an ergonomic way of looking at the photo. It’s much more comfortable to admire works of art without a stiff neck.

Bern Dome of the Swiss Parliament

A selection of photos from this series will be shown at the Photokina show in Cologne, Germany, September 16th-21st, 2014. For this purpose, the images are face-mounted to coated, highly transparent museum glass which gives them a crisp and vibrant look with an almost three-dimensional depth effect, as shown in this PDF document.

More Dome Images of Popular Landmarks:
Cologne Dome of the Basilica Saint Gereon

Darmstadt Church Saint Louis

Figueres Dome of the Museum Salvador Dali

Innsbruck Dome of the Jesuit Church

Karlsruhe Dome of the Regional Library

London Dome of the Central Mosque

London Dome of the Plaza Shopping Center

Praha Dome of the Church of Saint Joseph

Praha Dome of the Spanish Synagogue

Rome Church Quatre Fontane

Rome Church Santa Maria della Scala

Rome Dome of the Basilica of Saint Peter

Steinhausen Dome of the Church of Pilgrimage

Vienna Dome of the Austrian National Library

Vienna Dome of the Church of Charles Borromeo


This guest post was written by Prof. Dr. Johannes Lutterbach, a professional radiation oncologist based out of Singen, Germany. Please visit his 500px page for more examples of stunning photographs of interior domes.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) james winters
    June 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I live in a dome.
    Fabulous ideas.
    Very very very nice.

  2. Profile photo of Alpha Whiskey
    2
    ) Alpha Whiskey
    June 7, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Beautiful photos and superb collection. And one of the many reasons I love photographing the inside of churches and cathedrals. The architecture is often stunning and detailed, and remarkable to the eye even hundreds of years after they were constructed. :)

  3. 3
    ) DanielJ Photography
    June 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Took a photo of the Santa Maria Cathedral in Ibiza, Spain! Vertorama HDR. Photo can be viewed here.

    Thoughts?

  4. 5
    ) Phillip M Jones
    June 7, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Is the author aware of a little piece of Software on iPad, iPhone called Nikon WMU that work with built in WIFI or with a WIFI Dongle with Nikon cameras that allow you to view and control shooting you camera with the iPad, iPhone. And they have a version for other tablets as well. You don’t need to carry a Laptop.

    • 12
      ) Smarten Up
      June 8, 2014 at 9:50 am

      Which Wifi dongle would one get to control say, a Nikon D60?

      • 15
        ) Phillip M Jones
        June 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm

        The originator of the article was using a D800 which if I am not mistaken has the jack built in for the WiFi device built in Other newer Nikons have WIFI capability built in. I ma not sure of the D60 One would have to check specs with Nikon to see if it is able to use at least a WIFI device. (from Nikon). I’m Not familiar with Older Model DX cameras (predating D3000) nor non of the FX style Cameras 600, 700, 800 or even the Pro only cameras. I do know that 3200 uses plugin WIFI, 3300 has built in, 5200 has the socket for the adapter Dongle, the 7100 has the socket and so on.

        Here is a URL from Nikon with a list of some of the cameras able to use the adapter, or have built in.
        http://www.nikonusa.com/en/Learn-And-Explore/Article/h4spl2xm/shooting-wirelessly-with-nikon-digital-cameras-and-wi-fi-adapters.html

        Please note the pictures are stunning. I was just notice the author commenting on having to use a Computer to get some of the shots.

        • 17
          ) Smarten Up
          June 8, 2014 at 4:49 pm

          Thank you, Mr. Jones!

          Checking up a bit, I see more reasons to move on from my D60–cannot even use Nikon’s Camera Control Pro 2 software, wired, with this cam.

          Been waiting for a less expensive, full-frame Nikon DSLR option.

          Not holding my breath!

  5. 6
    ) Tim
    June 7, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Very stunning photography Dr. Lutterbach! Thank you so much for this article. It has definitely opened my eyes to new ideas.

  6. Profile photo of motorbikeme
    7
    ) motorbikeme
    June 7, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful pic and sharing of nice tips. Cheers

  7. 8
    ) Rabthecab
    June 7, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Fantastic images & love the tips.

    One small quibble: it would have been nice to know where the images were taken.

    • 11
      ) Smarten Up
      June 8, 2014 at 9:48 am

      Run your cursor over the photos and the location city and building will display.

      Would have been nice to have an instruction for this–I found it by accident.

      This feature is NOT intuitive!

      • 19
        ) Rabthecab
        June 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm

        Thanks! Feel such a dope for not noticing this myself. :)

  8. 9
    ) Don T
    June 7, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Very timely, as I just returned from a month in Spain and Portugal. Much of that time was spent photographing cathedrals, and in particular I shot a lot of domes. Some HDR and some not. Did pay a lot of attention to finding the central point under the Dome

  9. 10
    ) Jano
    June 8, 2014 at 1:18 am

    Really beautiful pictures, though I always find domes quite exhausting to look at since they have such surreal perspectives.
    Have you thought about mounting a strong laser pointer to the tripod mount and aligning it before the shoot? This should help you find the exact middle of the dome a lot more quickly and more precisely for those situations when you can’t use the tripod.

    • 22
      ) Johannes Lutterbach
      June 16, 2014 at 12:11 pm

      Dear Jano,
      in an ideal world, your idea would work perfectly. However, the reality is different… 1. A strong laser point is an additional part of the equipment you have to carry with you. 2. Laser pointers are considered as part of a professional equipment by staff members. You won’t be allowed to use them in museums etc. 3. Most floors, especially in older buildings, are not even and most of the vertical axes of domes are not perfectly rectangular. So a laser pointer is not really a great help. I have tried it several times, meanwhile I leave it at home.

  10. 13
    ) Keith R. Starkey
    June 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Wow! What a treat. Thanks very much. Third photo from the end is my fav!

  11. 14
    ) drew
    June 8, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    Beautiful images, and thanks for posting them.
    Don’t much like HDR but in these shots the exposures look so natural.
    I hope your exhibition in Cologne gets the attention it deserves.

  12. 16
    ) Mr. T
    June 8, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Geile Bilder!

  13. 18
    ) al
    June 8, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    You have captured some very beautiful images. I like the detail you were able to show in each.

  14. 20
    ) Vipul Kapadia
    June 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    These images are absolutely stunning! I went to Europe with my family last year and was blown away by the beauty of these domes everywhere. I found that capturing images of these domes was no easy. I didn’t have a professional dSLR with me but I can relate the preparation it demands. Thank you for sharing your creative work.

  15. 21
    ) Iris Perez
    June 10, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Beautiful pictures! I really need a full frame camera but just got into photography and bought a Nikon D3300, any recommendations for us cropped picture taking people? I will invest eventually in a full frame but at the moment need to work with what I got :)

  16. 23
    ) Johannes Lutterbach
    June 16, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you so much for the positive comments which encourage me to keep on with my dome project!

  17. Profile photo of Preriit Mundhra
    24
    ) Preriit Mundhra
    June 18, 2014 at 5:09 am

    Beautiful pictures. I am myself a hobbyist and looking at your pictures have just encouraged me to do more. Thank You for the tips and for sharing your beautiful creative pictures.

  18. 25
    ) Framcisco Javier Díaz Benito
    June 20, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Great work Mr lutterbach:
    But HDR is not always take the fine details. I was in the Spanish Synagogue and I took this pic of the centre of the dome, and i remember there were small red cristals in the lantern above that i didnt get to capture. I have to try your formula focusing in small part of the dome because i have no a 36 mp sensor …by the moment.
    http://www.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#view=photo&position=374&with_photo_id=95078656&order=date_desc&user=4672065
    Greatins from Spain

  19. 26
    ) Jorge Balarin
    June 23, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you very much for your advice and your beautiful photos. Best wishes.

  20. 27
    ) Thomas
    July 3, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Lovely dome shots. Thanks for posting.

    I too shoot with a D800(E). I’ve shot domes in Bavaria with the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 MF lens. It is wicked sharp, and much of the distortion can be taken out in post. Great results from a lens that cost me about $400.

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