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How to photograph inside a dark church 

click to enlarge I got lucky here since the smoke was drifting quickly as I made this photograph of a congregant of the International Church of Cannabis during the church’s grand opening on 4/20, an unofficial holiday for marijuana users. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • I got lucky here since the smoke was drifting quickly as I made this photograph of a congregant of the International Church of Cannabis during the church’s grand opening on 4/20, an unofficial holiday for marijuana users.
The International Church of Cannabis had its grand opening this past April, on the 4/20 marijuana holiday. The church was founded by Elevation Ministries, a religious non-profit that considers marijuana a holy sacrament and its use a religious practice.

Every day at 4:20 p.m. the church holds a religious service — by invite only — and it includes smoking pot. The church opens to the public (21 and up) Thursday through Sunday for non-consumption hours, and on Friday nights plays host to invite-only events for its members — including reasonable consumption, of course.

I knew from my research that the inside of the church is also colorfully painted by a well-known artist, Okuda San Miguel, and would make for some cool pictures.

When I arrived there was just one problem. The space was dark, and making an exposure in a dark church is super challenging. I had two choices; I could use fill-flash, disturb the service for the congregants and make the colorful church ceiling too dark, or I could use the available light or natural light coming into the sanctuary.

I decided to use the available light.
click to enlarge I love this composition of a congregant at the church. I framed it so that he fits squarely in the center of the sanctuary. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • I love this composition of a congregant at the church. I framed it so that he fits squarely in the center of the sanctuary.
To shoot with the available light, the first thing I did was to increase my ISO to 1250. The ISO is a camera setting that controls the light sensitivity and the higher it is, the more sensitive the camera is to light. The tradeoff here is that the higher the ISO, the more noise or grain you can see in the picture. An ISO of 1250 is just about the limit of my camera before things get very grainy.

Next, I slowed down my shutter speed to 1/15 of a second. That is slow enough that if I'm not careful my pictures will be blurry because of camera shake. Hand holding a camera and shooting with a slow shutter causes that and it's one of the most common mistakes I see photographers make.
click to enlarge A nice smile goes a long way. I caught her as she was admiring the ceiling of the church. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A nice smile goes a long way. I caught her as she was admiring the ceiling of the church.

The other problem I have with a slow shutter is capturing movement. If the subject of my photograph is moving too fast, then I will see "ghosting" in the image.

By carefully holding my camera and timing the photograph so that my subject wasn't moving, I came away with several nice portraits of the congregation during the service.

click to enlarge Congregants of the International Church of Cannabis smoke marijuana during the church service on 4.20 p.m. Capturing an action shot with a slow shutter speed and no camera shake is one of the most challenging aspects of photojournalism. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Congregants of the International Church of Cannabis smoke marijuana during the church service on 4.20 p.m. Capturing an action shot with a slow shutter speed and no camera shake is one of the most challenging aspects of photojournalism.

Hope this helps the next time you find yourself in a dark church!

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct misinformation regarding the International Church of Cannabis' consumption policy. The
Indy regrets the error.


Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.

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