the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Churches in Black and White

1st Presbyterian Church, Sante Fe

1st Presbyterian Church, Sante Fe

I’m continuing my series of posts about my trip to the Southwest with a look at New Mexican churches – adobe churches in particular. I’ve always enjoyed photographing churches, at least those with classic architectural styles. And in New Mexico, there is nothing more classical than adobe.

San Fransicso de Asis, Rancho de Taos

San Fransicso de Asis, Rancho de Taos

If you are interested in seeing churches such as these, I highly recommend traveling the high road between Santa Fé and Taos. There are a number of highly photogenic churches along this route, many described in Laurent Martes‘ excellent book on photographing the natural landmarks of Colorado and New Mexico (okay, I know churches aren’t natural landmarks, but the book is titled Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and does mostly cover natural subjects). By traveling this road, you’re bound to come up with at least one or two decent images – there is always at least one church with good light upon it.San Fransicso de Asis, Rancho de Taos

My biggest question concerning the adobe churches I photographed was how best to portray them – in color or in black and white?  I leave it to you to decide, providing most images in this post with both versions.

I think they look good both ways, but if forced to make a choice, I’d generally chose the black and white versions. There are exceptions, of course; ever photograph is different.  In the examples given here, I do like the black and white images better; they generally do a better job of conveying what I want the to convey. I love the look of a cross on a church really standing out – and that works well with these images except for the image of the San Juan de Los Lagos steeple and black cross, there the color version portrays my vision better. I also love the high contrast of the black and white images. However, I’d like to hear your comments – color or black and white?

For those who care – these black and white conversions were all done rather quickly in Lightroom. If I get serious about any of these, I’ll probably redo the conversions in Photoshop. I like both programs for how easy they make black and white conversions and the ability to adjust the brightness of each color in the images separately. This makes it very easy to turn an all blue sky dark (and make those crosses really stand out).

San Juan de Los Lagos, Talpa

San Juan de Los Lagos, Talpa

San Juan de Los Lagos, Talpa

Sacred Heart Church, Nambe

Sacred Heart Church, Nambe

Sacred Heart Church, Nambe

San Jose De Gracia, Las Trampas

San Jose De Gracia, Las Trampas

San Jose De Gracia, Las Trampas

San Juan de Las Lagos, Talpa

San Juan de Las Lagos, Talpa

San Juan de Las Lagos, Talpa

San Geronimo, or St. Jerome, Church, Taos Pueblo

San Geronimo, or St. Jerome, Church, Taos Pueblo

San Geronimo ( St. Jerome) Church, Taos Pueblo

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6 responses

  1. hmunro

    “How best to portray them – in color or in black and white?” I like the black and white images better. As beautiful as those saturated colors may be, they distract from the geometrical elements that make these buildings (and your photos) so interesting. Gorgeous work, Joe.

    November 3, 2011 at 7:08 am

    • Thanks hmunro. And yes, you make a good point about the color distracting from the geometric elements. I am attracted by the clean lines and shapes, which show better in B&W.

      November 3, 2011 at 9:29 am

  2. Lovely images, Joe. As a Catholic priest, I love churches. I live in them. We photograph what we love, and, hence, I have a lot of photos of churches. Can you share any thoughts on composing images of churches? What do you look for? How do you try to see them?

    November 4, 2011 at 3:36 am

    • Thank you for the comment Father Cox (or do you go by Father Chris?). I’ve been to a lot of churches too, though I haven’t lived in them. I was raised Catholic and spent several years as an altar boy. Every year my parents loaded us all into the car and took a road trip somewhere in the West (think big, old Ford station wagon loaded with kids pulling a tent trailer). When on the road, we usually visited the local church on Sunday. Plus, of course, we saw a lot of churches as tourists. So, I have many years of taking photos of churches.

      There are basically two types churches I like to photograph. The ones shown here all fall in one type – those that show simple, pleasing geometries. I look for geometric forms, cubes, squares, arcs, crosses, etc. And I like contrast and texture. When taking an image, I try to isolate the geometric forms that attract me so not to clutter up the photograph. That often means taking images of just portions of the church building. Crosses are often easy to isolate against the sky. Such isolation can also be done with color or contrast (white cross against a dark background for example). I also like the symbolism of the cross (being a spiritual person), though showing the symbolism isn’t required because a cross makes a nice graphic element within the frame. Overall, my composition is to emphasis the geometric forms.

      The other type of church I like to shoot is ornate ones, such as cathedrals. These I also try to isolate from distracting surroundings. . They also have lots of geometric elements to incorporated into the photographic frame, but because these churches have so much complexity, it can be harder to do. Often with these types of churches I’ll look for details to emphasis, such as a statue or stone carvings on the sides or roof. Of course, detail shots also work well for simpler churches as well. Doors and windows are details I often shoot. I like to include doors in an image because it adds an element of humanity to the image without actually incorporating people in. I’m not opposed to having people in the frame, but they need to be doing something to give the image life – not just standing around like tourists. Look here for an example. Open doors are a particular thing I look for, since they invite the viewer into the photo.

      One more thought, when photographing a church you need to look at it from all sides and see what the light is giving you. As I mentioned, I like to show contrast and texture. Often the light falling on one side of a church will show this much better than an other. Not all the best shots are from the front. For example, perhaps the most famous shot of the San Fransicso de Asis mission in Rancho de Taos is not from the front like mine above, but shot from the back (by Ansel Adams).

      I hope this gives you an idea of how I approach composing shots with churches. They really are one of my favorite subjects.

      November 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm

  3. Thanks, Joe, for a very thoughtful reply. Recently, i was asked by the Archdiocese to photograph the five historic churches of Santiago. They want a catalog of images, so, in itself, it is not the most exciting assignment. However, I get free reign and can take the photographs that I want. Also, in some of the churches, the staff take me everywhere (literally). I was on the roof and in the bell tower of one. I have been given a very wide access.

    I particularly try to capture, if I can, people interacting with the place. A hand dipped into a holy water font. (Although the light is often low, making for a difficult shot as the hand moves relatively quickly.) I do not use flash, and I try not to interrupt, as they are places of prayer. I also love the ornate detail on candles and statues and chalices.

    I am drawn to your exterior photography, as I find my photos outside of churches are boring. I have yet to really get the angle right. I sometimes think that the daylight may be the wrong time of day, too. At the same time, it has provided some interesting adventures. I got on the roof of a tall building that overlooks the Cathedral in Osorno, Chile. I had a flight on a police helicopter in Santiago, able to catch some photos while they ran their patrol route.

    Again, thank you for your generous reply! (And I go by Fr. Chris or just Chris, whatever seems most comfortable to you.)

    November 8, 2011 at 4:09 am

  4. Pingback: Santa Fe Revisited « joebeckerphoto

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