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Friday Slide Show: St. Mary's Cathedral Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 May 2015

Although it opened in 1971, we had never been inside St. Mary's Cathedral until last weekend when we had the crazy idea its gift shop would be the ideal place to find a First Communion gift. Crazy indeed. We were shopping the week after First Communion at the Cathedral itself and the shelves were bare.

St. Mary's Cathedral. The interior is intriguing.

There are two St. Mary's cathedrals in San Francisco.

Old St. Mary's, on California at Kearney, was dedicated by Archbishop Alemany at Christmas Midnight Mass 1854 as the first cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. It was also the first church in California to be built as a cathedral and was even the tallest building in California for a while.

Its charm has never faded.

Walk inside and you immediately feel yourself back in the Gold Rush era. It was built to human scale.

The other St. Mary's is simply called St. Mary's Cathedral although it is more formally named Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.

More commonly, it's recognized as the building that resembles a washing machine agitator.

And it's that exterior, we suppose, that kept us from taking a look at the place all these years. It isn't ugly. Or even inappropriate. It must have looked nice on the architectural drawings.

But who wants to walk inside a washing machine agitator?


We had business to do, though, so in we went on a bright Saturday morning just before lunch.

We took along a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm stabilized Nikkor and no polarizer for a change. We wanted as much light as possible to reach the sensor.

We should have brought along a tripod.

In contrast to the exterior of the building, its interior is unusually fascinating for a modern church, which tend to suffer from an infatuation for the abstract, which makes things cold and unwelcoming.

They do inspire reflection but not the kind they intend. It's more a "what were they thinking?" kind of wonder.

The Cathedral is different. Its designed with a square footprint whose corners are glass windows looking out on the city below it. It sits on a slight rise known as Cathedral Hill, so there are views, if not particularly enchanting ones.

As the walls rise, though, they collapse into a cross of stained glass windows. Well, from the outside they appear to collapse. But from inside, they seem to aspire. It's just about the opposite effect of a European cathedral, where the exterior spires do the aspiring and the interior vault reminds one of the grave.

This makes for an extreme tonal range from shadows to highlights in nearly every shot of the interior.

Consequently, every shot would have benefited from multiple images intended for the HDR machine. One to capture the highlights, another to capture the shadows. That's really the only way we could have captured the dynamic range of the interior.

But we didn't. We were just snapshooting.

Our exterior shots are reasonable captures. The sun was behind the building, so the bronze doors in the shade of the building were 1/30 second exposures at f8 and ISO 200, while the sunlit shots were 1/500 second.

But inside, we were glad to have the image stabilized glass as our shutter speeds in Aperture priority mode went down to 1/15 second while auto ISO climbed to as high as 1100.


So the challenge was to recover detail at both ends of the histogram in Lightroom. Shadows and highlights. And while we had some recoverable detail in the shadows, our highlights were often gone.

Those lost highlights were in the outdoor sunlit scenes framed by the corner windows, so we retained the interior detail at the expense of the view. But we really wished we had bought the tripod and taken two exposures with the D300.

In Lightroom, we did use the Upright tool quite a bit to square things up. It always beats carrying a view camera around.

Rarely were we shooting level to the ground and getting parallel verticals. So where you see things nicely lined up, suspect the Upright tool. We're not sure how we ever lived without it.


Now that we've shot and processed these images, we'll know what to do when we go back to make them a bit more compelling. But we think even these "first drafts" are worth sharing because, though its not much visited, its a place worth some attention.

And we're not talking about the gift store.

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