top of page

The Cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral

Click on the image to view it full screen

In 2018 I entered the above image of The Cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral in the annual Wiki Loves Monuments (WLM) competition which attracted over 260,000 entries. The outcome was that it was awarded 

1st place in the England category

1st place in the U.K. category

3rd place in the International category and 

1st place in the Special Awards for the European Year of Cultural Heritage

(click on the award title to see the official WLM announcement)

I’ll never be able to match that, so will probably never enter another photography competition again!

If you'd like to read all about what was involved (spare time and a strong constitution required), read on ...

Otherwise click here to return to the home page.

Behind the Camera

In the Summer of 2017, as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, I took part in a performance of Berlioz' Grande Messe des Morts in Gloucester Cathedral. As moving as this experience was, the sight of the Cloisters to the North of the Cathedral proper completely blew my mind. That such beauty could be wrought by the hand of Man just defies the imagination. I had seen it in photographs before and, of course, in the Harry Potter movies, but nothing had quite prepared me for how it looked and felt in reality. At that time, however, I had little time to just stand and stare, but it sowed the seed in my mind: I'll be back.

It was only later that year that, having reached a turning point in my life, I decided to start to take photography more seriously and invested in both equipment and training. There certainly was a great deal to learn (and there still is).

It was in the following January, on a bright, but very cold Winter's day, that I took it in my mind to go and drink in the sights and atmosphere of Gloucester Cathedral, this time in an unhurried and unstressed way. That didn't quite happen. My visit started out in a very stressed way indeed because, having arrived at the Cathedral and going to pay my "photographers fee" at the entrance, I realised that my wallet was no longer in my pocket; I must have dropped it somewhere between the multi-storey car park and the Cathedral, a walk of about 1/2 mile, right through the city centre. I retraced my steps all the way back to the car, scanning the ground all the while for any sign of my missing wallet, to no avail. I asked at the car park office if anything had been handed in, but no. It was only when I got back to the car itself that I found it, on the floor, right underneath the driver's door. Phew!!!

Back at the Cathedral, buoyed up with waves of relief, I paid my fee and immediately set off into the Cloisters. Walking all around, I eventually scouted out the shot that I wanted: a symmetrical shot from the South-West corner, taking in both the West and South walks. The positive side of this location was the view: beautiful, ancient stained glass along the top of both corridors with more down at the extreme end of the West walk, a wonderful, old, wooden door in the foreground and, stretching along the length of the South walk, the "carrels", a row of 20 niche-like spaces which would have originally housed desks at which the monks would study. The "problems" with this location from which to shoot were several: the West walk contains, in the distance, the entrance to the Cathedral café and so is a path much-trodden by hordes of tourists; the angle to be captured is somewhat over 45º, so either a pretty wide-angle lens would be required, or a multi-shot panorama. Both have their challenges, with the panorama option requiring much more effort (and time) but potentially yielding a much higher-resolution image. However, I wasn't constrained on time, so the panorama option it was (though I did take some wide-angle shots, just for insurance). The other challenge was the sheer range of light levels that day, with the sun streaming through the stained glass and the pretty dark shadows within the depths of the stonework.

None-daunted, I set up my tripod (yes, they are allowed) in the appropriate place and composed my panorama. It was to be a sequence of four separate images with the camera panned from left to right (with significant overlap), to be "stitched" together in software once back at home to create a single, seamless, wide image. That was the theory anyway.   

But nothing is that simple. The issues with a) the "dynamic range" of light and b) the constant flow of tourists to and from the café, which I really didn't want in the final image, needed to be addressed.


The problem with very high dynamic range is that camera sensors simply can't cope in a single shot; your own eyes can because, when you look at a bright object, your pupils contract to regulate the "exposure" that you see. The converse is true when you look into the shadows. A camera, however, sees it all at the same time and can't alter the exposure depending on which bit of the scene you're looking at. The result, for a single shot is, therefore, either very over-exposed highlights or under-exposed shadows (or both). The solution is to take multiple, identically composed shots at different exposures to cover the entire dynamic range of the scene, a process known as "exposure bracketing". The shortest exposure should be chosen to have the highlights correctly exposed, accepting that the shadows will be completely black, whilst the longest exposure should reveal all the detail in the shadows, accepting that the highlights will all be "blown-out". Intermediate exposures will bridge the gap between the two, which is important when processing later. In this case, for exposure-bracketing purposes, I took between 5 and 7 shots (depending on how bright/dark that part of the scene was), 1EV apart, in each of the four slices of the panorama. That's a lot of photographs to be dealt-with back at home.

Tourists (I say, somewhat hypocritically, because I probably was one)! How to deal with tourists? Just waiting for zero tourists didn't seem to be an option - there were just too many around. The West walk was a particular hot-spot since it was the location of the access to the café and so saw more or less constant foot-traffic. Rather more extreme options, obviously, would be either impractical or downright illegal (I'll say no more), so I had to content myself with using photographic techniques to achieve my tourist-free ambitions, even in the presence of loads of them. The method I chose to employ relies on the fact that people move, whereas the architecture doesn't. It involves taking lots of shots (all exposure bracketed), whilst ensuring that the people have moved sufficiently so as not to occupy the same area in the frame across the totality of shots, and you're good to go. The only things to be aware of are a) that the light levels don't change drastically (which they didn't) and b) the camera doesn't move at all (hence the use of a tripod), making it possible to successfully align the images later on. Then it's a matter of  "layering-out" the tourists during post-processing back at home.

In the end, I sat there, on a stone ledge, protecting both camera and tripod, taking photographs for well over an hour and a quarter. Remember, it was January and the stone I was perched on was cold!!! - my rear-end was absolutely frozen by the time I was done. But I thought that I had all the raw data I needed to be able to make something of it back at home. Couldn't be 100% sure though, because you never know until you actually try to process it all.

In Front of the Computer

Back at home, with a ton of photographs (data), it was then a matter of seeing what I had got and then putting it all together to realise my vision.

First, for each of the four strips of the panorama, was "blending" the bracketed shots to end up with a single shot in which highlights were not over-exposed and shadows weren't too crushed into pure black. There is software to do this sort of thing quickly and automatically, but it does usually end up yielding a rather fake-looking result which was actually very popular when it first came out (the now, much-reviled "HDR-look"). No, to obtain a natural-looking result requires the manual blending together of each set of exposure brackets in a piece of photographic editing software (I use Photoshop). It's both time-consuming and full of pitfalls, but the result is worth the effort.

Next, the tourists. I had, in fact, taken lots of exposure brackets of the West walk, in particular, because that's where the tourists had been, as explained earlier. Now, having several, exposure-blended images of the western-most slice of the panorama, I was able to take them all into Photoshop once more and carry out "tourist-removal". This involves placing each of the images on its own "layer", accurately aligned one above the other and then applying a visibility "mask" on each layer. Painting white or black onto the mask will either reveal or conceal the corresponding area on the attached layer. Painting black on a layer mask will conceal the corresponding area on the attached layer and allow whatever is in that same area of the layer below to show through. So, for moving tourists, painting black on the layer mask where they were allows the same area in the layer below (where, hopefully, they weren't) to show through. Voila, a tourist gone. It's a bit of a simplification and needed to be done in several stages, but you get the idea.

Now I had a set of four panorama slices, tourist free, with both highlights and shadows in-range, ready to be stitched together. Thankfully, the software to do this is pretty sophisticated and yields excellent results, provided that there is a) enough detail and b) enough overlap between the slices. I had foreseen both of these requirements, so had taken sufficient images whilst in the Cathedral to give me what was needed. The panorama then took just a few clicks to produce. Result!


The penultimate stage was a little bit of cloning out of unwanted, static objects, again using Photoshop. There was really only one: a rather intrusive sign on a stand, in the far distance of the West walk, saying something like "Café this way". It was small in the image, being far away, but was polluting the result, so it had to go! 

Last came creative processing of contrast and colour, bearing in mind, all the time, that the aim is to achieve a natural-looking, yet gob-smacking result. And that's not easy, given the entirely subjective nature of such a task. It takes time and many iterations, letting the result at each stage "marinate", during which time you rest your eyes to come back to it with renewed vision. "Why", you may ask, "is this final stage even necessary? Aren't the colours and contrast that come straight out of the camera accurate enough? After all", you may continue, "I don't post-process a scene that I see with my naked eye". Fact is, you do ... or your brain does, certainly. Your brain continuously processes colour and contrast to a degree that a camera or the most sophisticated software can come nowhere near emulating. Even photos taken with your trusty mobile phone are heavily processed, internally, to yield a "wow" degree of colour and contrast. Taking photographs with a "real" camera, however, takes a raw, flat image that will certainly need post-processing to allow the vision to be revealed. Of course, it's entirely possible to take it to extremes and to end up with an entirely unrealistic result, but if that's your artistic goal, that's just fine ... hence the use of the word "creative".

So that was it. My image of the Cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral was complete. In the field, I had taken several dozen shots over the course of well over an hour, I had lost (and found) my wallet and had frozen my bum off. Back at home, I had spent well in excess of six hours in front of the computer, putting it all together. But it was done. I filed it away in my photo album, put it on FaceBook and showed a few friends. I only do this as a hobby, so really there was no more to be done.


Until ...

Later That Year ...

2018 was, for me, a year of post-bereavement reality hitting me ... hard. I responded by staying as busy as possible, filling my time with all sorts of things and pushing grief into the background. However, I have since come to learn that trying to drown it out with frantic activity doesn't actually work, long-term. But that's what I did.

At the time I was in several choirs, notably the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, with whom I did several high profile concerts in Poole, London, Reading and India. There were numerous other, smaller choirs involving concerts both local and abroad, notably in Siena, Tuscany (glorious place). I also auditioned-for, and was accepted into, the Philharmonia Chorus (London) which has subsequently become my major choral outlet and affords opportunities to sing with major international orchestras in some of the most prestigious venues in the world.

In addition to that lot, I overdosed on motorcycle touring (mainly to Germany) and photographic adventures. One of these, in May 2018, was a landscape photography workshop in Tuscany which I combined with a choral week in Siena and a few days in Pisa. It was during that workshop that I met someone who turned out to be instrumental in the success of my Cloisters image. When he saw it on my laptop, which I had taken along for the workshop critique sessions, he encouraged me to enter it into Wikimedia's "Wiki Loves Monuments" competition which runs annually and accepts submissions until September. I'd never entered a photographic competition before (it's not really my thing), but couldn't think of a good reason why I shouldn't. I was sure that nothing would come of it, but the image was done and sitting there in my photo album, so there was nothing to be lost.

But something did come of it ...

It was in October 2018, about a month after entries had closed, that I was informed that my image had been judged to be in the competition's top-20 here in England. Then it became the top-10 and was thus being forwarded to the pan-U.K. competition along with the top entries from Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. In November, I was told that, out of around 13,000 submissions, it had been awarded 1st place in both the England and U.K. categories.

The top-few from the U.K. competition then went on to the Wiki Loves Monuments International competition and, being in the European Union at the time, to a one-off competition for the Special Awards for the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

It was nearly Christmas 2018 when I was informed that my image had been awarded 3rd place in the WLM International competition, from a worldwide submission of nearly 260,000 entires.

And, as if that wasn't enough, with a totally separate panel of judges, in January 2019, it was also awarded 1st place in the said Special Awards for the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

And all from a chance-encounter with a fellow-photographer in Tuscany.

If you got to the bottom of this missive, congratulations ... you deserve an award yourself.

Chris Cherrington

May 2022

bottom of page