Stained-glass, sun create symphony of light and color inside Cathedral of St. Helena
Even from a distance, it’s easy to recognize the beauty of the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Finished a century ago to stand in Montana’s capitol city of Helena, the Cathedral is a gorgeous building made of Indian limestone. But as writer and photographer Gordon Sullivan told us in the March/April issue, when you step inside the cathedral you’ll be greeted by an incredibly stunning setting thanks to the building’s stained-glass windows.
As the sun moves through the sky, the colorful glass creates a symphony of light and color. It’s a show Sullivan says upstages all the other wonderful elements of beauty inside the cathedral.
It’s no easy task to capture that show with a camera. Sullivan spent hours inside the cathedral to make the images he included in his photo essay in Montana Magazine.
“…for me, as a professional photographer,” Sullivan wrote, “the most outstanding feature revolves around stained-glass light and the sublime tone it casts on marble, polished brass and carved oak. It is the technical challenge this type of light presents and the pleasure of seeing each image suddenly duplicated electronically for others to see.”
What else does Sullivan love about the stained-glass inside the cathedral? He answered some questions for Montana Magazine about his work there.
Do you have a favorite portion of stained glass inside the cathedral?
I guess I have two favorite portions of stained glass inside the cathedral. The first is located on the southeast corner. Here low angle, morning light is particularly interesting. The stained-glass panels featured in this section, from both the higher and lower levels, spread illumination across the interior in colorful bands. It lights up the east facing side of marble pillars and walls and sweeps nicely across the oak pews.
Another of my favorites is the stained-glass panel behind the grated back-alter and crucifix. Here a mixture of brass and stained-glass is vibrant and provides a sense of texture, depth and physical dimension. This panel however is best photographed in low light, allowing just enough illumination of accent color without getting bright enough to wash out detail. Both areas require long exposures, tight metering and a tripod.
What is the best time of day for readers who visit the cathedral to see the splendor of the stained-glass?
The best time of day to visit and witness the splendor of stained-glass light is when the sun’s outside angle is at its greatest, which means early to mid-morning or late afternoon. Morning light enters from the east and in afternoon it comes from the west. The sharper the angle, the better the reflections inside the church and the more possible it will be for the illumination to be contrasted by interior shadows. Best time of year is autumn or early winter.
Another very special “mind blowing” time to visit is the last hour before sunset when the exterior light is low, warm and angled. It is almost unbelievable what goes on inside the cathedral during a vivid sunset. The effect is quick but very impressive.
Tell us about the time it takes to get shots like you did.
Once I set my sights on photographing the stained glass light, I first needed to study the patterns and determine what time of day or year would best demonstrate the effect I was after. This took some time and several dry runs and more or less pointed to times when the outside light was at its greatest angle to the windows. Mid-morning and late afternoon seemed to be prime – especially for the visible bands of light falling on inside attractions like marble pillars, oak pews and high contrast walls.
Working inside the Cathedral of St. Helena requires both patience and planning, simply because a few special shots appear only during certain times during the day and in some cases vanish at a moment’s notice. Some of the shots were planned very carefully while others seemed to appear out of nowhere.