The Story of the "Unintended" Illegal HDR Photo


Last June I wrote a post called “The Story of the Illegal HDR” (link). It was a story about how I captured my HDR photo of St. Patricks Cathedral in New York City. It spurred over 400 comments in 2 days and some of them got pretty heated. Most people were on my side, but there was a good portion of people that thought what I did was dead wrong (to put it lightly) :)

Fast forward to last week. I was asked by Adobe to come be the keynote speaker at Professional Imaging 2011 in the Netherlands. My wife came with me and we decided to make a small vacation out of it. We took the train to Paris after the event for a few days. Unfortunately the weather was pretty bad. Absolute blah gray skies (no clouds or contrast) and it was cold and windy. It made being creative outside nearly impossible because you just wanted to get back inside as soon as possible. Since Paris has just as much beauty indoors as it does out, I figured I’d do my best to come back with some photos that captured that beauty. HDR photos seem to do that well.

One morning we set out to Notre Dame. I walked in with my camera backpack and tripod across my shoulder. The only signs I saw prohibited large luggage inside. But I carefully looked and never saw anything prohibiting tripods. So my wife did the tour of the church (I’m not much for museums and tours) and I set out to the front of the church. I opened the tripod, attached the camera and waited for the area to clear in front of the altar. Once it was clear, I put the tripod down and started a 9-shot bracket.

Since it was indoors with bright light shining through in areas, I needed the -4 EV and +4 EV that the 9-shot bracket (on a Nikon that is) offers. After the bracket was done, the longest shutter speed I got to was 30 seconds and the photo was still too dark. It was probably due to the fact I had the aperture set to f/16 because I love when the lights have those little starbursts (mmmmm…. Starbursts) on them. At this point, I hadn’t captured all of the detail that I wanted in the shadows so I put the camera on BULB mode and grabbed a 60 and 90 second exposure too. All totaled, one HDR photo took me about 3-4 minutes. I moved once to let some other folks get the center photo, and when it cleared I went in again to get a different angle. I did this two more times. So basically, I camped out right in the middle of the altar for about 15 minutes. Seriously, I might as well have set up a tent and a camp fire I was there so long. And no one said a word to me. I saw people moving things on the altar, walking around yet nobody said a thing about the tripod so I figured I was OK.

Here’s my favorite one processed with Photomatix 4. I took it into Lightroom where I adjusted the white balance, exposure, blacks, along with some detailed brushing with the Adjustment Brush to darken some areas. I also used the Lens Correction panel a little but I personally like the vertical perspective here so I didn’t correct it all the way. Finally, I finished it off in Photoshop with Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro Tonal Contrast and the Smart Sharpen filter.

(Click for a larger version)

(Taken with a Nikon D3 with a Nikon 14-24mm lens at f/16)

Later that day, I met up with a friend of the blog, Serge (who kindly offered to show me around Paris to his favorite photo spots). When I told him about Notre Dame he was really surprised because he said tripods were prohibited. Even living there, he was never able to bring a tripod in. When I got back to my room, I did some searching on the internet and found plenty of stories about people not being able to use tripods in the church. Oops :)

I guess I got away with it. Now, I wasn’t trying to get away with anything mind you. I really did look for signs or anything that prohibited tripods and found nothing. Maybe they’re there, but I sure didn’t see them.

But now it begs the question… if I had seen a “no tripods allowed sign”, would I have taken the photo anyway? ;-)

Author: Matt K

Matt is a full time Education Director for the NAPP and Kelby Training. He's a best-selling author of various books on Photoshop and Photography co-hosts the live weekly photography talk show "The Grid" and is co-host of "Photoshop User TV". In his spare time he practices as a 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo and enjoys spending time with his family in Tampa, FL.

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91 Comments

  1. GREAT picture. I listened to Grid today, and was looking forward to this story. I have “stretched” the law before to take pictures. Not often, mind you, but I have done it.

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  2. Yes you would because people outside the U.S. aren’t so lawsuit happy, so other countries are more lenient about these things. As long as your tripod isn’t really interfering with other people, they probably don’t need to make you take it down. I shot a fashion story in Rome and Milan without a permit and we had the models climbing on statues and generally just working all over the Duomo and the cops just watched us and didn’t say anything. In fact one of them came over and wanted his picture taken with one of the models.
    Now, if you’re wanting to get the blog ratings up we can go into how you’re the devil for setting up a tripod in a cathedral, and then go into Nikon vs, Canon vs. Microsoft vs Apple and why HDR is far superior than a well set up capture. That should get the fire started.
    Paris isn’t New York; at least you can set up a tripod without someone purposely bumping their toe on it and wanting millions of dollars in compensatory damages from you, the property owner, the city, the state and anyone else standing around.
    Still waiting for my print. j/k not really.

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  3. RIGHT ON MATT!

    That’s awesome !

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  4. Wow what a great pic, I really love it. And the Starbursts look really awesome. Really nice shot and a nice story too.

    Cheers,
    Tomi

    PS: maybe the sign was in French? ;-)

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  5. I was there last autumn, but I saw clearly the signs to take no photos ;)

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  6. Welcome to photography in Europe. Grey skies, flat light. But not all the time.
    Back to the tripod…would you have understood the sign anyway if there had been one? ;-)

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  7. Fantastic shot Matt! It’s even better with the story that goes with it :-)
    Having said that Matt Timmons is right, here in Europe people are a lot less lawsuit obsessed. The situation depends pretty much on the city. I managed to get a few shots inside churches using a gorilla tripod, with a D700, but that’s not a tripod, is it :-) So in this way one manages to “bypass” the no tripod signs. Now if you goto places like Venice, Italy, one has to pay to enter most of the churches, at list the big ones, and is even forbidden to take any pictures at all ! It still doesn’t stop people using their mobile phones to take picture but then what kind of thing do you get out of this…
    Anyway, we have a saying in french that goes “there is no worse deaf than the one who doesn’t want to hear”, maybe it also applies to sight and the “no tripod” signs :-)

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  8. Well done with getting the HDR — perfect example of ignoring all the rules of architectural photography. Shame you didn’t have a wider angle rectilinear lens :-)

    Best general advice in Europe is use a monopod, or a Trek-Pod (has a mini tripod at the bottom) as people don’t seem to whine about those, especially if you have a bad leg.

    The real fun, which I presume you avoided, is arriving at the Louvre and being told to check your camera bag AFTER you’ve paid for entry, and asking about their liability insurance. After all they insist on storing let’s see $10k worth of lenses?

    Sorry you were not blessed with bright clear skies, but as someone else said, welcome to normal temperate climate weather — remember most of inhabited Canada is South from the Netherlands or Britain.

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  9. Hm, I guess, you would have tried it at least. :-)

    Anyway: This picture ist outstanding!

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  10. I noticed that Color Efex Pro was used in this image and it got me interested to investigate further. I have notced that Nik Software offer their complete software collection as a Lightroom edition (which is significantly cheaper than the version for photoshop). I am wondering if anyone has any experience of using this, and if there are any real benefits that make it worth the money, over and above what Lightroom 3 already offers….

    Maybe it could be a video tutorial idea ?

    Thanks

    Lawrence

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    • Lawrence,

      The Nik collection for Lightroom is excellent. I would highly recommenced trying it. There is a 30 day free trial so you can see for yourself if you like it. The Photoshop version allows you to brush the effect in layers whereas Lightroom has no layers functionality.

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      • John,

        If I recall correctly, there is a plugin that is coming real soon that will give LR the capability to use layers.

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      • John,

        Thanks for the reply. I will certainly look into downloading the trial software to see what it is like. I had initially played with Silver Efex Pro 2 and quite liked it but when I saw the complete Lightroom collection – it made things even more tempting…

        Thanks again

        Lawrence

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    • Hi Lawrence,

      One other thing is that you get their HDR Efex Pro with the suite. It is excellent for doing HDR photos. If you would like to see some HDR using HDR Efex Pro, click on the link below, which will take you to my NAPP portfolio. There are several HDR photos done with HDR Efex Pro. Also, OnOne is coming out with a Lightroom plug-in that will allow us to do layers in Lightroom. Should be out in April.

      http://www.photoshopuser.com/members/portfolios/view/gallery/1131900

      Take care,

      Dennis

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      • Hi Dennis,

        Thanks for the reply….

        I had a look at your portfolio – some great photos ! I especially liked the F-14 HDR photo.

        Looks like I am getting more tempted by the minute (which is always bad for my wallet) !!

        Lawrence

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    • Hi Lawrence,

      Hey thanks for checking it out! Glad you liked it. One other thing I forgot to mention. If you attend one of Nik’s online Webinars, they will give you a special code that allows you to get 15% off the cost of the program. Check it out. They have some on Saturday if you can’t watch during the week. Could save you some bucks.

      Dennis

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      • Hi Dennis,

        Thanks again for the help. I have been looking at some websites that have been doing reviews on Nik Softwares products and have found the 15% off offers as well – which is tempting me even further. I guess I will have to bite the bullet and download the trial version to see how it goes…

        Thanks again

        Lawrence

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    • Hey Lawrence,

      Go for the Trial! I think you’ll get hooked even further! :-) You can’t loose, right?

      Dennis

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  11. My guess is that the sign was in French. In my experience in Paris, English signs weren’t very plentiful.

    Great picture. Now you have to go to London and do St. Paul’s. They don’t allow tripods there either.

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    • In St Paul’s Cathedral all photography is banned, with or without a tripod. I found out the hard way :-)

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      • Last time I was there you could “buy” a one time photography pass for a few pounds.

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  12. legal or illegal, still a great photo!

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  13. Hey Matt,

    I love the way you whimsically play with these so called “rules”. At least at the moment there are no Matt bashing comments. To me , if its a building and they let you enter, its all public domain.However I do like my perpendicular lines in architectural shots. Did you do further lens correction on another duplicate?

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    • Hey Al. I didn’t do any further correction. Personally, it’s just something I like when I shoot something like a huge church at such a wide angle. Probably not something I would do if shooting a city skyline, but for subjects like this it works for me.

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  14. Lol, Matt … The fact that we, in france, can’t shoot with a tripod in such a beautiful place is to be searched in our general laws in consideration of the principle, and in the regulations taken by the town hall in a more factual way.. The general prohibition refers to “blocks with freedom of movement of the people”. So, as tripod on pavement are seen like elements being able to harm freedom of movement … Sigh.

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  15. Interesting how this always happens to you in churches :)

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  16. Great pic! Now can we see a lens profile correction to compare?

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  17. By the sounds of things you went during a quiet time so maybe the people around took a pragmatic approach. When I went there there was quite a few people around and even without a tripod I was reminded that I couldn’t take photos in some of the chapels.

    It’s very easy to say you didn’t look hard enough for the sign or you had “selective” searching. But in general I don’t agree with no tripod rules anyway. It’s better to be pragmatic. The reality is that most tourist don’t carry a tripod around anyway so I doubt that it’s really an issue.

    Nice pic.

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    • If by “quiet” time you mean there were about 400 people there, then yes. It was packed. I was just so close to the front that no one could walk in front of me. And I occupied such a small space that anyone could stand next to me (as long as they didn’t touch my tripod) and shoot right in the middle as well.

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  18. Hi Matt,

    Great story and just a Fantastic HDR Photograph! Sorry you ran into some bad weather … but that’s the breaks. I really like the star burst of the lights, it really makes the photo. Last year you gave me the info on how to do that. I used it in my vacation to New England last September. Got some great shots of the sun burst coming thru the autumn trees. Thanks again for that info!

    Again, fantastic photo!

    Dennis

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    • Hi Matt,

      One more thing. I’ve learned in my profession (mechanical engineering) that sometimes it’s best to take the shot and ask for forgiveness later. No pun intended.:-) I’ve had to do this several time to keep the project from getting bogged down with indecision from people.

      Keep up the great work!

      Dennis

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      • Hi Dennis,

        Thanks again for the help. I have been looking at some websites that have been doing reviews on Nik Softwares products and have found the 15% off offers as well – which is tempting me even further. I guess I will have to bite the bullet and download the trial version to see how it goes…

        Thanks again

        Lawrence

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      • Hey Dennis,
        That’s actually been my motto through life. I’ve always been the “ask for forgiveness” type of person. As a result, may good things have happened. At the same time, I’ve probably had to ask for forgiveness more than anyone I know ;-)

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  19. In this case, I would have done the same as you. Unless I’m approached and asked not to use a tripod or I see signs indicating that they are not allowed, I assume I can use one. If I am approached or there are signs, I will respect them and not used the tripod. I will, however, break out the gorillapod and use this instead – you can get some great angles when the camera is attached to the back of a pew and I’ve never yet had a problem using the gorillapod even in places where “real” tripods are outlawed.

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  20. How could you not ?

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  21. You did nothing wrong.

    You looked for signs to see if tripods were prohibited. There were none. That’s all the church folks can reasonable expect.

    Say you pulled into a church parking lot and looked for signs indicating if it was illegal to park in that lot. No signs? Park it. No one would expect you to sit in your car, googling on your laptop for restrictions for that parking lot.

    I absolve you of your guilt. You have not sinned. (Anyway – there’s “no hell below us…”)

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  22. My rule in photography is do what I need to do to get the picture unless I’m asked not to or a sign is posted stating not to. In your case nobody approached you and you saw no signs. Granted you may have gotten lucky as the tripod police may have had other responsibilities during your photographing time. Needless to say I would have done what you did.

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  23. Love, love, love this! I would have done the same as you and I did while in London.Lovely Cathedrals. I also wanted to take a picture of the underground but one of the members of my party said it was not allowed but if I had not known I would have as I could not see any signs of the contrary posted. But I did see the local surveillance cameras go crazy when another tourist was taking shots oblivious to the rule.

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  24. Beautiful photo. I bet you would have – but then again after the controversy from your last post you probably would have thought twice. Glad you were able to get this shot it is absolutely gorgeous.

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  25. What? No perspective adjustment?

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  26. When I lived in Paris at the turn of the last century I would occasioally get moved on by the Police for not having a tripod permit from the city, but usually only if I was obviously impeding others or creating a hazard on the sidewalk. Not sure if they’ve changed the rules since.

    You question reminds me of an encounter with an auditor when I lived in South Africa. Always make the claim because the worst that will happen is it will be rejected. So I think, looking at the result, you would have tried the HDR and feigned ignorance if challenged.

    I love your image, by the way – so much color, in the way churches are reported to have looked in the middle ages when they were the information hubs of that age.

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  27. Why shouldn’t you be able to use a tripod in a cathedral? Annoys me – you can just as easy fall over a handbag/purse (if not more likely – a tripod is more visible) if safety is the reason.

    If it’s a financial reason, why not do what the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool do and levy a charge for photography? That way everyone wins – it’s 5 pounds to take a tripod and camera in and you can photo to your hearts content – for example http://blog.formidablephotography.com/anglican-interior/

    Always seems a much more practical way to do things – photographer gets there shot, church/cathedral get a donation and no need for staff to spend their time shooinh erstwhile photographers away!

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  28. God wanted you to get the shot. ;)

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  29. Matt,

    I guess you were lucky. When I was in the Notre Dame last summer, they allmost took my tripod. I had t shoot with a Gorrillapod. It works, but not as good as a tripod.

    Love your HDR BTW.

    Greetz Joost (from Holland)

    Ps. Thanks for signing my Photobag.

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  30. I love the picture Matt – thanks for being daring and taking it ;)

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  31. Hey Matt-

    Great shot, and glad you and your wife had a great vacation. I’d like to comment on the weather, though:

    “Absolute blah gray skies (no clouds or contrast) and it was cold and windy. It made being creative outside nearly impossible because you just wanted to get back inside as soon as possible.”

    Sheesh, that sort of weather just seems to follow you when you travel, doesn’t it? ;)

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  32. With your name recognition wouldn’t it be easier than others, like myself, to contact the custodians of these places to actually get permission to photograph with tripods? I think it is great that you “got away with it” as I think it is a silly rule so long as you are not causing a hassle for any others. You did move for others to see the altar. :-)

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  33. Great photo. I think as long as one is respectful of place and person then “camping out” for a shot is OK. I also respect the right of those responsible for safety and order to prohibit certain activities. By your account you were respectful and those responsible used their discretion. Isn’t that better than the burden of an edict placed on all?

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  34. Loved the story……and totally love the photo. Spectacular:) All the best.

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  35. Maybe someone in a high place was looking out for you. The picture turned out great.

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  36. I don’t see a problem with anything here. You looked for signs, you didn’t disobey any instructions (as none were given). You have nothing to regret or ponder. Instead, you have a lovely image and a nice memory

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  37. I don’t see any problem in using a tripod if nobody said anything. I was once asked to stop taking pictures in a church in Italy that forbid flash photography, and I wasn’t using flash. I did photograph the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which isn’t allowed. Of course everyone in there was taking pictures.

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  38. I see people it’s saying it’s OK because people outside the US are less lawsuit happy.

    What does this have to do with lawsuits? How about politeness? If there actually is a sign that says “no tripods” then simply show courtesy and respect and don’t use a tripod. What would make your desire more important than the wishes of others?

    NIce shot, though.

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    • I agree with your point, but it doesn’t seem applicable in this particular case. As Matt wrote, he looked for a sign prohibiting tripods and didn’t find one.

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      • It was completely applicable: the question Matt posed was “if I had seen a ‘no tripods allowed sign’, would I have taken the photo anyway,” as well the replies to that–at least one of which straight out said “Yes you would because people outside the U.S. aren’t so lawsuit happy, so other countries are more lenient about these things. As long as your tripod isn’t really interfering with other people, they probably don’t need to make you take it down.”

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  39. Try it at the Dome of the Rock some time

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  40. Altar. I’d hate to think I used to be an “alter boy”.

    Act first, see forgiveness later. Works in churches, gets you more girls, too.

    Maybe I wasn’t such a good altar boy……………

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  41. Great photo. Hate to nitpick, but the ‘altar’ is what you were photographing. You possibly went on to ‘alter’ the image.

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  42. you’re just a boundary pushin’ rebel… James Dean sort.

    Oh, he died young didn’t he….
    ;)

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  43. Great photo. Love the colors :-)
    As far as taking photos in churches. I’d go with the respect. For example in St. Peters basilica in Rome it’s always very crowded and I see no problem if you’re taking photos with a tripod if you’re not bothering anyone (guess that wouldn’t be an option for the Pieta), but in such big churches there is usually a chapel intended for prayer and no metter how beautiful if was I wouldn’t take a photo there as a respect for the people coming there for prayer.

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  44. Without ppl taking a chance and taking photos like this, the rest of us probably wouldnt even know such beautiful places exist! (not just churches) Theres probably some famous photographer, or photography expression regarding this, something about capturing these timeless images for the rest of us to share, but still, glad you did what you did, took the shot to share. Not often I get to see these kinds of images, I’ll never get to Europe, so thanks for the picture, its awesome Matt.

    Cool story too ;)

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  45. Wish I had your luck.
    Everyhere I go it seams like I have a billboard on my back saying
    “Here’s photographer, kick him out!” :(

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  46. It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

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  47. Hey Matt, the way I look at is that since everyone who tries to use a tripod gets stopped except for you, it must mean that you were meant to take this shot. Anyway, “rules” are not the same thing as “laws”. I have no problem with trying to bend “rules” to get good shots. If you get stopped, so be it. If you don’t, good for you.

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  48. Good job. All in all it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Isn’t that why they have those booths?

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  49. Matt…
    I went back and read your first post about the St. Patricks Cathedral…. I think both shots are awesome.. good on ya for getting both these shots… just say a couple of
    Hail Mary’s and an Act of Contrition and you should be good to go!! :-)

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  50. Beautiful picture, loved the reflections on the marble floor but think the starbursts are tacky.

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  51. Sweet HDR Matt. No obvious signs posted, I say go for it every time. If no one approached you during the process and told you to take the tripod out, then there is no beef there.
    I’m sure those people that complained about the previous incident have never done anything wrong in their life before. Keep those HDR’s coming!

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  52. I did not shoot an HDR in Nortre Dame but in one of the museums they said no tripods (leaving aside that painters are allowed to set up an easel in the middle of the walkway).. I ended up parking myself on a bench and using my lap as the “tripod”. They were not real happy about that either.. I think it’s more I’m taking a high quality still image than anything else. But I would go back in a heartbeat to Paris to shoot more. Been there three times..

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  53. Matt, everyone now knows you’ll take pictures with tripods where you’re not suppose to. You need to step it up and do something more daring to get a reaction here. Break into someone’s house to get “The PIcure” and you’ll get the flood of comments back.

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  54. I am disappointed that the majority of your readers think it’s okay to “bend” the rules.

    Whether or not the rules seem fair, you (all) are a guest in these cathedrals and should consider the rules to be part of the understanding that allows you to be there.

    It is especially reprehensible to break the rules in a foreign country because that reflects on all Americans and makes it harder for the rest of us to follow. It’s possible the rules which seem too extreme were enacted after a few of you guys created a scene that the authorities don’t want to experience again.

    Matt, I’m disappointed that you apparently just don’t get it.

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    • What rule did he break? There was no sign and he received no warning from the folks in the church itself. All he heard was a comment from someone after the shot was over, and that person wasn’t affiliated with the church.

      I just don’t see a problem with his behavior or any sign if disrespect at all.

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  55. Oh my goodness… your HDR is absolutely amazing.. i hope i can be as good as you…

    I believe good things comes to those you deserve it. It was your day to take that shot.

    God bless!

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  56. Do what you have to do get a great shot. I suppose if one has to break the rules, don’t look for the rules as ignorance is bliss in these cases. By the way, there is nothing SPECIAL about any ‘church’ building…any student of the Holy Bible knows that the church is the PEOPLE not the bricks and mortar. As if a building could contain God anyways. He is much bigger; he made the universe, afterall.

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  57. I gave a class recently to a group of journalist for a Catholic newspaper on being a Catholic Photographer. One of my instructive commandments was Know the Boundaries. Intended more to help photographers understand where they should or shouldn’t go during the liturgy to make sure the sanctity of the event isn’t compromised by their actions, the same notion applies to respecting local boundaries for sacred places. I am a big fan of bringing the beauty of a church to others through photography, especially places they’d never see on their own, but someone put the rules in place for a reason and they should be respected. I personally think it is obnoxious when a photographer knows, or has a pretty good intuition, that they shouldn’t be taking a photograph, but does so anyway. I mean, we’d all like to make ourselves the center of the universe and do whatever pleases us, but then again if 20 of us were at the Cathedral at the same time all setting up our tripods and flash think of what an unpleasant experience that would be for not only those there for spiritual reasons, but all us photographers as well.

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  58. Great Shot Matt. Usually Tripod is forbidden in France even commercial use of picture need formal approval. The paradox is that with your Tripod you probably looked like a professional photographer (like you are) with the right agreement. So try to don’t look like a tourist (the NY Cap, the small point and shot camera, the coke’s can and the french fries) and go ahead with the tripod with a big lens :). Anyway, becareful in Subway, train station, airport…

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  59. I enjoyed this story. I can hardly imagin The church so empty.

    Hey you mentioned Nik filters and that you went to photoshop to run them. I just got the filters and i know they are built to run right from Lightroom. Could you have bypassed Photoshop altogether?

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  60. Wow amazing shot, and was amazed to see nobody on the photo! Well rules are there for a reason, and if you didn’t disturb anyone or cause an accident, then I guess you didn’t do any harm.

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