Canon 5D, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L, 1/30 f 3.5 ISO 1250

Yes, I know the gospel is that we always use our tripods, with mirrors locked up and a cable release. But what happens when you can’t? No excuse you say? Carry that equipment, set it up and stop whining! Well, despite what they say about excuses, there are some legitimate ones. One of my favorite subjects is Gothic and Baroque church interiors. Many European churches and cathedrals allow non-flash photography to your heart’s content (notable exceptions are in London, where St. Paul’s permits nothing, and at Westminster Abbey a guard chastised me for even looking at my camera to review shots I’d taken outside). However, almost none permit use of tripods.

Since we now have pretty good performance at high ISO, quality handheld interior shots can be accomplished in a lot of settings using a wide aperture and moderately slow shutter speed. “Moderately slow” of course is relative to your focal length. The old rule of thumb that a safe shutter speed is the reciprocal of your focal length actually works pretty well. So if you’re shooting a 24 mm lens, then 1/25 – 1/30 sec can be handheld by taking proper care.

Canon 5D, EF24-70mm 2.8L 1/30 f/3.2 32mm ISO 1250

But even if we get around the issue of shooting in low light in general, a problem in large building interiors (particularly with wide angle lenses) is the convergence of parallel vertical lines (such as columns, corners of buildings) when you tilt the camera up to show something besides the floor/wall intersection. Sometimes we like this effect

Canon 5D, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L, 1/40 f 4.5 ISO 1250

But what about when we don’t want that look? We can distort the image in Photoshop, but I prefer real pixels to ones imagined by the computer. The obvious solution is a tilt/shift lens (see Understanding Camera Movements) using lens rise to produce an image in which vertical lines are parallel. For interior shots on my full frame DSLR, I use Canon’s 24mm TS-E 24mm f/3.5L. So why do we need the tripod? Well, getting the desired results with a T/S lens depends on keeping the lens (and hence camera) level and perpendicular to the ground. Once we have found the proper alignment (usually with a bubble level), the tripod allows us to maintain it.
No level? Use horizontal and vertical lines in your scene as your references. Looking through the viewfinder, if a true horizontal line is level and a vertical line is plumb, then your camera is level. We do this instinctively with normal lenses when shooting handheld or when setting up a tripod quickly. Here’s how it works with a T/S lens using vertical rise for an interior shot:

· Pick your location and compose your shot

· Make sure the lens is centered (no tilt, no shift)

· Find a true vertical and horizontal in the scene

· Look through the viewfinder and adjust the camera until the vertical and horizontal lines are parallel to top and bottom of viewfinder on both sides

· Keep looking through the viewfinder, hold the camera very still with one hand and carefully raise the lens with the other until the proper composition is achieved

· Shoot

You can see right away if you’ve held still—the verticals will still be vertical and parallel after you’ve shifted. You’ll also see that small misalignments markedly distort the perspective. If you’re off only a little bit in one plane, you can usually just move the camera slightly to bring the verticals and horizontals back to true. If things have gotten really cockeyed, it’s better to shift the lens back to normal and start again.

Canon 5D, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L, 1/50 f 3.5 ISO 800]]

Between the slow shutter speed and the need to maintain precise camera alignment, there will be many rejects. Whatever your opinions about the aesthetics of reviewing each shot in the LCD, it’s mandatory here—keep shooting until you’re happy with both focus and alignment.

Rob Porter
January, 2010