Paris

Tips for Photographing the Catacombs of Paris by Neal Auch

I recently added a new gallery to my website cataloguing my portraits of the dead buried in the catacombs of Paris.  It occurred to me that it might be useful to write up a short post with advice for other photographers who are hoping to shoot in the catacombs, since you might not necessarily know exactly what to expect when you get there.  If that's you then I hope you can find something helpful here.  Happy shooting!

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Buy your tickets in advance.

Before visiting the catacombs I would strongly recommend that purchase your tickets in advance.  (You can buy tickets online here.  I wasn't able to find an English version of that page, but even if you don't speak French the fields are pretty straightforward to interpret.)  Purchasing advanced tickets will allow you to skip most of the queue, which is a huge advantage.  When I visited the line of people snaked around several blocks, and I understand that typical wait times without advanced tickets are at least several hours.  

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Don't be an asshole.

While I was in the catacombs I saw many skulls that had been tagged with graffiti.  I saw tourists handling the bones and rearranging them.  I saw people eating junk food (why anybody would want to snack next to a wall of corpses is beyond me).  Don't be that asshole.  I realize that the catacombs is a tourist destination, but it's also a fucking grave site filled with human remains.  Try to show a little respect for the dead.

More specific to photographers: flash is not permitted, nor is the use of tripods.  This means that light will be a challenge (more on this later) and your job as a photographer is to rise to that challenge, not to be an asshole and break the rules.  During my visit I saw a number of people shooting with flash.  Again: don't be that asshole.  It's worth noting that every person I saw using flash was using the little pop-up flash that comes with the camera body.  There is almost no scenario where using the pop-up flash without a modifier is going to improve your photo.  The light from the pop-up flash is harsh and unflattering, not to mention the fact that lighting the subject along the same axis as the camera's line of sight will produce flat, boring, shitty images.  If you turn off the pop-up flash then you will not only get a better picture, but you will also be doing your part to help preserve the catacombs for future generations.  

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It is very dark down there.

The catacombs is a very low light environment and, as I mentioned above, you are not allowed to use a flash or any other lighting rig.  To get decent shots you're going to want to use the fastest lens you own, and you will probably find yourself shooting mostly with the aperture wide open. 

Tripods are not permitted, so you will need to shoot handheld.  That means you need to keep your shutter speed fast enough to get shots that don't suffer from motion blur.  The standard bit of advice here is the reciprocal rule: when shooting handheld you want to set your shutter speed to at least as fast as the inverse of your focal length.  This means that, for example, if you're using a 50mm lens then you want the shutter speed to be 1/50 seconds, or faster.  (Dear fellow math nerds: yes I'm aware of the abuse of units that's going on here, but this way of stating the "rule" is conventional amongst photographers.)  Many cameras have an auto ISO setting that allows you to set a minimum shutter speed; I'd suggest using that feature if you have it.  Also, know that the reciprocal rule is really a rough guideline and you might be able to get away with slightly slower shutter speeds if your hands are very steady, or you might require faster if your hands tremble.  If you haven't already done so, experiment with different minimum shutter speeds to see what works for you.  

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Pay attention to the available light.

Of course this is advice that could apply equally well to any photo shoot, but it's particularly salient in the catacombs.  Not only is the available lighting dim, it's also harsh and unflattering.  This is a very constrained situation, the only way to move the light relative to your subject is by adjusting your angle.  So pay careful attention to your line of site and keep an eye out for scenes where the light is interesting.  You will also want to pay  special attention to photographically interesting scenes that are as close as possible to a light source.  Remember the standard rule of photography: the closer you bring the light to the subject, the softer the light, the better the image.

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Consider bringing a grey card.

The available lights in the catacombs are not only dim and harsh, they also have a rather odd hue.  If you set your camera to auto white balance the images will come out very yellow.  You might want to bring a grey card to calibrate the white balance, assuming if you're hoping to get realistic-looking colours in post production.  Personally I seldom have much interest in getting the white balance "correct"; I view colour temperature as a creative choice.  But even if you're planning to opt for non-realistic colours at the end of the day you might still find it helpful to have calibrated the white balance before you start editing.  

Here I am, obviously, assuming that you're planning to go for colour images.  If you prefer black & white, then you probably don't care about white balance at all.  Indeed, black & white might be a very natural choice given that the lights are dim (so you can hide ISO noise under grain) and harsh (monochrome processing tends to be more forgiving of harsh light).  I opted for colour images for a number of creative reason, but I suspect that many photographers would have made a different choice.

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Pack lightly.

You are not permitted to take large bulky bags into the catacombs, and the smaller knapsacks that are allowed are supposed to be either carried at your side or else worn over the chest.  (I presume this rule is supposed to keep people from accidentally bumping the fragile skeletal remains with their packs.)  This means that you probably cannot carry very much gear.  I'd suggest sticking to just one or two lenses.  I opted to shoot entirely on a 35mm prime and was generally pretty happy with the perspective I got, but obviously focal length is a creative choice that is quite personal, and there's certainly no "correct" lens to opt for when shooting a scene like this.

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It's a fairly cramped environment; you may want to pack a wider lens.

As I just mentioned, lens choice of subjective and personal.  That being said, you should know that the tunnels are pretty narrow (maybe 2-3 meters wide at most).  If you want to be able to shoot larger structures (like the crosses made of skulls) then you might want to opt for a wide-ish lens.  I found it slightly tight getting some of those shots on a 35mm; if I made the trip again I'd definitely pack something a bit wider.

 

Portraits of the Dead: Photographing The Catacombs of Paris by Neal Auch

 

During a recent trip to Europe I had the great pleasure of visiting and photographing the catacombs, Paris' infamous underground ossuary.  You can have a look at my favourite images from the trip in the slideshow above; there are many more in my new gallery Empire of Death.

 If you're unfamiliar with the catacombs, then perhaps a little history is in order:  The catacombs began as a network of old caves, quarries, and tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles far beneath the bustling streets of Paris.  In 1786 they were blessed and consecrated by the church, and used to house corpses from the overpopulated and overflowing Parisian cemetery Les Innocents, many of which had been improperly buried in open graves leading to concerns over the strong odour of rotting flesh and the spread of disease.  In 1810 the catacombs were renovated to the form they take today: monumental tablets and archways were added, and the skulls and femurs of the dead where stacked along the walls into various decorative patterns.

This new project is a departure from my previous work along several directions.  Firstly the obvious: this is my first time featuring work on my website that isn't about the ethics of eating animals.  This is perhaps an overdue addition.  It had never been my intention to make the page entirely devoted to meat photography and, indeed, I have a couple more non-meat projects in the pipeline, but these are logistically complicated and are taking somewhat longer to complete than I had expected.  

Initially I had planned on making my new gallery Empire of Death rather more succinct than it ended up.  My plan was to display only 10-15 of my favourite shots from the trip; generally I tend to prefer a "less is more" approach to displaying my work, trying to emphasize only the best shots and avoid too much repetition.  But the more I worked on the images, the more I came to realize that this gallery is conceptually distinct from my studio work and calls for a different approach.  The repetition of similar imagery in this gallery serves to convey the enormous scale of the catacombs, something I had not really been prepared for when I visited.  But, more to the point, it was only during the editing process that I came to really see these shots for what they really are: portraiture of the dead.  Every femur and every skull is different; one would no more argue that the repetition of these images is monotonous than one would argue that a series of head-shots of different models becomes monotonous.

From a technical perspective this gallery is also a bit of a departure for me.  This is my first time featuring work on my website that is shot in available light, as opposed my studio work where I always to have complete control over the lighting.  Photographing the catacombs of Paris is a technical challenge for several reasons, but the most salient point here is the fact that the catacombs are a very low light environment.  I found myself shooting almost exclusively with the aperture wide open.  This is a technical choice that I almost never make in my studio work; for aesthetic reasons I tend not to love the shallow depth of field effect that so many other photographers are enamoured with.  Initially I had mixed feelings about this choice; however, while editing these shots I came to find that the softness of the backgrounds/foregrounds adds a sense of mystery to the images that grew on me.

In future blog posts I intend to discuss this project in a bit more detail.  In particular, I'm planning to write in more depth about the technical aspects of shooting in the catacombs and also I'd like to write a short post about my thoughts on colour vs monochrome for imagery like this.  In the meantime, please enjoy the new gallery!