The Challenge of Spiral Staircases by Scott Stulberg
For as long as I can remember, photographing travel and architecture is what I love the most. High on the list of my favorite parts of this type of shooting is trying to capture spiral staircases all over the world.
The unique beauty that they convey and the astounding amount of designs is beyond belief. Everywhere I go I’m constantly searching for these beautiful visual treats, but trying to find them is only half the battle. Some of them present a pretty incredible challenge to photograph, but the end result can be incredibly gratifying and worth all of the hassles. I wanted to share some of the thought processes that I’ve had to devise while capturing these beautiful walkways — and that’s why I wanted to write this article.
I will start off with the easiest ways to capture certain spiral staircases and finish with a method that I use to capture many staircases that is rather difficult. It almost always takes more than one person. There is no better part of the world than Europe if you want to capture spiral staircases —Paris being my favorite of all.
In the image above, after looking long and hard for this particular staircase, we knew that it was inside of an apartment building in Paris. When we arrived after finally finding its whereabouts, the doors to the apartment building were locked. My wife and I refused to give up because I had wanted to shoot this particular staircase for a very long time. We decided to wait outside in hopes that someone might exit the building. After about an hour, we were rewarded with one of the tenants giving us permission to go inside and photograph. It was definitely a moment I will never forget.
There were different angles of this gorgeous spiral staircase that I wanted to capture, but the main look that I was going for was a front view and a complete different look than what you might normally see. I realized that I needed my 15 mm Canon fish-eye to capture exactly what I envisioned between the second and third floors. I set up my tripod just far enough back to capture the stairs winding up but also heading down.
I could only capture this feeling with a fish-eye and that’s exactly why I brought it to Paris. It was pretty easy to capture, but I did have to deal with the bright light from the chandelier hanging in the middle of the photograph.
People ask me how often I use my fish-eye because I teach classes showing the differences between fish-eye, wide-angle, and panorama photography. I tell them that sometimes using a fish-eye is the only real way to capture a particular subject, and for this particular set up, I think there was no other way to convey the feeling that I wanted to capture.
When my wife and I captured the feeling we wanted with our fish-eye lens, we walked upstairs inside the apartment building to the top floor for a different view. I placed my tripod close to the railing at an angle where my lens was hanging over, and shot again vertically. I wanted to capture something very special that included the front door of the apartment on this floor while looking straight down.
The building was pure eye candy with the incredible black and white tile flooring and the marble painted walls. A nice bonus was the soft light that poured in from small windows giving a beautiful serene feeling to the entire inside of the building. This helped tremendously.
I wanted to capture as much as possible of the staircase from this position, so once again I opted for my 15mm fish-eye. It gave me a totally different look than one I would’ve captured with any other lens, and I knew that my cool little fish-eye (that packs so small) would come to the rescue with great results! Sometimes you just have to try something different and think outside of the box. The distorted and surreal look was just what I was after in this amazing building.
One of the problems that you face when shooting up at the bottom of a spiral staircase is the composition. I would never shoot something like this handheld. Positioning your tripod is key, but you also want as much of the staircase as possible in the image, which means setting up the tripod can be pretty difficult.
In the image above, you have to determine whether horizontal or vertical works best, and figure out which composition is the most powerful. You want to shoot straight up to get the center, but you also want to include as much of everything you see in the final image. From the steps, to the railing, and to the walls. When I set this one up, I saw that I could actually work with the corners of the image and put part of the railing going through the top right corner of the image, and part of the railing going to the bottom left corner of the image.
It just felt right. Like there was a definite reason for me composing it this way — composition is what it’s all about when capturing spiral staircases. Of course a high f-stop helps with depth of field and a good exposure is key too. I’ve occasionally had to shoot a few stops over and under to capture the dynamic range because it’s easy to blow out images like this, or lose lots of detail in the shadows. Shooting with HDR or a very good sensor is definitely key in capturing some of these staircases indoors.
While in Iceland teaching a photo workshop a little over a year ago, we stayed at the Reykjavik Hilton. I knew that they had an amazing spiral staircase in the hotel and one night I took our group to the top. We had tripods standing all over the top floor. The view from the left was completely different than the view from the right, and having multiple tripods set up capturing this beautiful staircase was a pretty fun time for everyone.
I made sure everyone had a camera strap around their heads and that their cameras were peering in front of the top railing — just over enough so that you could capture as much as possible.
What really helps getting this angle is to set the two legs in front shorter than the back leg. It gives your camera a great angle to shoot from over the top railing. After you set this up, keep your right foot on the bottom of the outside tripod leg to make sure it stays in place.
I always do this when I’m angling over in this particular fashion, as you can manipulate your tripod in different ways that really help capture the shot. The red carpeting in this hotel was pretty amazing and gave it a pretty wild look, especially with the angles of the metal.
In the image above, the world famous Momo Staircase in the Vatican may very well be the most famous spiral staircase in the world. I had never photographed it during previous visits to Italy; I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it and that my final product would be converted to black and white. I also knew that I did not want any people in the staircase because it’s one of the busiest walkways you can imagine. The staircase is at the exit of the Vatican and absolutely mesmerizing to not only look at from above or below, but also to walk on. You almost have to experience it in slow motion to take it all in. I flew into Rome right before my Italy workshops for this one shot. When I look at the end result, I know it was worth it.
I love traveling with my Really Right Stuff TFA-01 Pocket Pod as it is absolutely indispensable for things like laying on my stomach at Horseshoe Bend to peer over with my super wide. I knew it would be exactly what the doctor ordered for this one of a kind staircase. I could put the Pocket Pod on top of the railing and let it hold my Canon 5D Mark 4 and my super wide 11-24mm lens looking almost straight down.
I also knew that if there were many people walking up and down I could use a script in Photoshop to take them out very easily. But I didn’t even really want to deal with anyone, so I opted to be one of the first people inside the Vatican. This proved to be a great idea because the three of us (my wife, my student Tom, and myself) were shooting all alone for about a half hour. Just what I had hoped for.
Being rectilinear with no fish-eye curvature, I set my camera to its widest at 11mm, held down my pocket pod, and with no people in the image, was able to capture exactly what I had envisioned. I knew I could capture this image handheld if I needed to, because guards all over Europe will come up to and say, “no tripods allowed.” But I thought I might get away with this mini tripod from Really Right Stuff that has helped me in so many scenarios. After all my editing, I finished it off in Photoshop with Nik Silver Efex Pro.
When I was done with my super wide shot, I decided to try something else. Something special. Something I knew that would not be easy and something that I had never tried before — an HDR handheld vertical panorama.
I knew that capturing the the Momo Vatican staircase from the top to the bottom would not be all that easy.
But I knew that a vertical panorama handheld, would probably do the trick. I also realized that the lighting was very problematic with the glass ceiling high above and all the deep shadows in different places, so I knew that I had to opt for an HDR vertical panorama.
Trying this handheld definitely made it a pretty tough act, and I realized I needed about five different angles and three images for each angle. Multiplying those angles by the three images I had 15 shots overall that gave me my vertical HDR handheld panorama. Definitely not something for the timid, but the final image gave me something very unusual and again thinking outside of the box for this was definitely a plus!
The image above is part of the famous Cubism Museum in Prague. You need to photograph it from above and below and for this particular image.
I first tried to photograph it from below and encountered a lot of difficulty. There’s a table on the bottom where you can put your tripod and then use live view to see what you’re capturing. Although, it is almost impossible to get your head underneath the viewfinder in this position.
But what I did was move the table a little bit and I put my tripod on the floor, and laid on the floor underneath my camera. If there was a guard anywhere near, I know I would have been busted for sure, but I guess I got lucky that day with my wife and my friend Patrik (who was from Prague) on guard duty.
Again, composition was key and it was one of the hardest spiral staircases I’ve ever attempted to capture. I wanted it to curve up into the upper right-hand corner (as you can see in the picture above). You also don’t want to clip the edges of the railing by having it too close to the edges of your image, and being on your back, completely restricted, is incredibly difficult. I also had to try and center the main part of the staircase that looks like a light bulb, on the bottom of the image which was pretty close to impossible, being so confined. But who said photography was easy?
After I was done shooting from below, I walked upstairs with my wife and Patrik and his wife, Monika, to capture the view from above looking down. This is where I knew I had to use a technique that I use on many different spiral staircases that requires more than one person. This entails trying to shoot straight down the staircase and having your lens as centered as possible over the entire staircase. This obviously is pretty close to impossible, but you can fool the eye if you position the camera as close as possible, to the center and away from the railing.
In this image from above this beautiful spiral staircase, I asked Patrik and my wife Holly to help me while Monika photographed the three of us in action. I put my camera on the tripod vertically and placed it across the railing well into the middle of the staircase. Using live view, I could monitor how everything was looking without having to look through the viewfinder.
I also attached a cable release so that I could fire the shots while standing back by the railing. After a few test exposures, I ended up with the settings that I needed. In the next two shots you can see my set up with Holly and Patrik helping me keep the tripod level and far enough into the scene to make this work.
The image below is what I captured after envisioning this exact shot. I could not do this without the aid of both of my helpers…. and also my Really Right Stuff tripod and BH-40 ball head, which were exactly what I needed. The gear is industrial-strength rated, and with my BH-40 ball head and lever release, I trust this set up to hold my cameras in ridiculous situations like this — more than I trust any other ball head. A three-person effort worked out and I was definitely happy with the outcome!
I used the exact same technique in Paris for this powerful metal spiral staircase. Once again my wife held the back of the tripod while I tried to center the camera using live view over the staircase. And of course I used my cable release again, which is pretty much the only way capture shots like this. The person holding the tripod legs on the railing better be somebody that you really trust, as I could have been out a camera and tripod pretty easily!
The image below was also inside the incredible apartment building in Paris. I used the same technique with Holly holding all three legs of the tripod against the railing, as tight as possible. This can be incredible difficult and at times, crazy to attempt. For a split second, she thought I had control of the camera, and let go of the tripod and camera. In that split second, it started to fall to the depths below.
I grabbed it so incredibly fast, but it definitely could have ruined this trip to Paris! Like I said, this is something you have to be on top of because I easily could have lost everything during the shoot. But I love the view from above looking straight down and if you are extremely careful, you can capture some pretty special images of these beautiful staircases.
Like I said at the beginning, finding these beautiful pieces of architecture is half the battle. Deciding on the composition and everything else that this might entail is the other part of the equation. Thinking outside the box with how you frame and decide to capture it can give you some pretty unforgettable results. But as with everything else in photography, as I’ve said before, you get out what you put in!
About Scott Stulberg
Scott Stulberg is a world-traveling photographer & photography instructor and teaches photo workshops all over the world.
His images are in many collections including 5 star resorts, top hospitals, restaurants, department stores & also on permanent display in the United Nations. He is also represented by many agencies including Getty Images.
Words and images ©2019 Scott Stulberg. All rights reserved.