In our last Slow Travel Tours blog, Magrit and I wrote about photographing doors and windows — one of our favorite photographic subjects. Right up there with doors and windows, we love photographing stairs and stairwells.
So what is it about photographing stairs and stairwells that is so intriguing? Again, like doors and windows, stairs, and stairwells can be amazing compositional elements and often feature great color combinations. Add to that the mystery of where they are leading the viewer. They offer beautiful compositions, regardless of whether the architecture is contemporary or rustic, historic, and time-worn. Plus, you can find stairs in just about any country you travel to. If there are people and buildings, there are stairs. We even found some stone stairs on a wilderness trail on our last, overnight backpacking trip in the Olympic National Park.
The history of stairs…
… dates back to the first human structures, which were most likely hewn logs or flat rocks stacked for easier access to the raised entrances of huts or caves. As civilization and building techniques advanced around the world, magnificent staircases took shape in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
We found the images we feature in this post during our travels in Europe where we also conduct our popular Photo Tours. Like many of you, I am missing terribly not to be able to travel and conduct our tours this year. Keeping our fingers crossed for 2021! So let’s do some armchair traveling and visit some of our favorite stairs and stairwells in Europe.
The beauty of the Spiral Staircase
You’ll find one of our favorite stairwells in the Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist in Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic. We visit this location during a day trip on our Czech Republic Photo Tour. The beautiful church and stairwell were designed by Jan Santini Aichel, a famous Czech architect. In combination with a very tasty lunch of local Czech specialties, this makes for a perfect last day of our 9-day photo tour.
One exciting thing about this staircase is that we can photograph it from a few different angles for great compositions. We can shoot this scene straight on, from below, and from above.
As you can see, not all of these photos are of spiral staircases but they are by far my favorite stairwells to photograph. They are such amazing architectural wonders and the compositional aspect is already there, leaving the technical and physical challenges for me to figure out. Stairwells can present challenges. I often find myself contorting my body to get the shot. Whether laying on the floor and looking straight up or leaning over and looking down from above, you need to be patient and practice good, handheld photographic techniques as usually you are not allowed to use a tripod in these locations. I always have my tripod with me and will use it when permitted, as most of these locations feature fairly low light.
If you are not allowed to use a tripod and need to handhold here are a few tips for photographing stairs and stairwells.
Turn on your camera’s or lens’s image stabilization system.
Not all lenses have this, but if available it will greatly benefit the sharpness of your photograph at slow shutter speeds.
Use a shutter speed of at least 1/30th of a second.
To achieve this you may to have raise the ISO and use a wider aperture. Keep in mind, as you raise the ISO, you also raise the possibility of digital noise. I have had good luck with ISO 800-1600. Also, as you open the aperture, the less depth of field you will have. With an ultra-wide lens, say 16 mm on a full-frame, you can most likely achieve good depth of field even at f 5.6. I have had great results with 1/30th of a second, hand-held without image stabilization. Results will vary per individual. Some might find it difficult at this speed while others will even get good results with even slower speeds. It depends a lot on your steadiness and strength.
If you want to photograph a spiral staircase from below…
… as in the example from the stairwell in Kutna Hora, lie on the floor, rest the camera on the bridge of your nose, and place at least one elbow on the floor for extra stability. Calm your breathing and use the 10-second timer on your camera. This will allow you to calm your breathing and to hold steady while waiting for the shutter to trip.
An alternative to using the self-timer…
… for these slower shutter speed situations, is to set your camera’s shutter to high speed continuous or burst mode. When you continue to put your finger on the shutter release, the camera will continue to fire off a series of exposures. Often, at least one of the images will be sharp.
Another alternative is to put your camera on the floor.
In the example below, I placed the camera on a magazine so that I could easily rotate the composition. I used a cable release or you can use the self-timer. I also tethered the camera to my smartphone via the Sony app so that I could view the image while rotating the camera. Many cameras offer this feature. If yours doesn’t have this, you will have to experiment. Take some shots and check the playback for composition, exposure, and proper depth of field/focus. That is the beauty of digital cameras. We can experiment and review our results until we get it right.
In closing, I wanted to share a couple more spiral staircases that we have found on our travels. In both situations, in Porto (Portugal), and Naples (Italy), we found these amazing staircases while walking around the city and poking our heads into open doorways. The lesson here is to be a bit bold and to venture through those open portals. The worse that could happen is that you will be told to leave, which I have experienced many times. On the flip-side, nothing ventured, nothing gained. When I am allowed to enter I often get very rewarding photographic treasures.
|Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.|
They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.
The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.
Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (http://photographytraveltours.com/about/).
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.