Benedictine Monasteries: The Gorgeous Melk Abbey
While visiting Vienna for eight days last December, we decided to take two day trips…one to Bratislava, Slovakia, and the other to Melk, Austria. If you are intrigued by Benedictine Monasteries, seeing the abbey at Melk is well worth your time. The Melk Abbey, one of the most famous monastic sites in the world, sits due west of Vienna and is easily accessible in about an hour by train and a short walk from the Melk station. You can also reach the abbey by cruising down the Danube River in the summer. Sounds good doesn’t it?
The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089 and was rebuilt between 1702 and 1736. Today, it stands impressively restored in all of its ornate baroque glory. The quality of the restoration of the abbey is among the finest I have seen anywhere in Europe. It seemed every detail of the abbey has been painstakingly attended to from the exterior, to the dramatic interiors, and even the presentation at the museum and guided tour itself.
The church at the abbey and its stunning ceiling of frescoes was the cake topper of our visit. In December, the only way to see the church was by guided tour. From March through November, guided tours are not required but I recommend taking the tour to enhance your experience. Our guide spoke with good authority considering he had once attended the school at the abbey among the nearly 900 pupils studying there today.
I have seen many sites in Europe and I have to say that viewing the ceiling of the church was a jaw-dropping experience for me. The photograph at the top of the post is my attempt to bring the beauty of the ceiling back to you. The photograph is a five-shot vertical panorama that I stitched together in Photoshop. I was able to use some of the automated tools in Photoshop to assemble some the images, but also had to do a fair amount of hand tweaking and editing to correct distortion. In all, it was about three hours of work to pull the image together.
Shooting the vertical panorama
The five shots for the vertical panorama were taken handheld with my Canon 5D Mark III equipped with a Canon 24-105mm f/4.0 lens. Shooting at a 24mm focal length, my camera settings were an aperture of f/4.0, shutter speed of 1/80th of a second, and an ISO of 3200. The 24-105mm lens is image stabilized, which came in really handy in this shooting situation. The combination of 1/80th of a second and image stabilization allowed me to take handheld images free of camera shake.
It is best to shoot in manual for panoramas so you have a consistent exposure across all of the frames. It makes them easier to stitch them together later. To find the manual exposure setting, I first set my camera to manual mode and then set the ISO to 3200 to make sure my shutter speed would be high enough to eliminate camera shake. That was just a guess. The ISO should be as low as possible to keep image noise at bay without forcing the shutter speed too slow for handheld shots.
After setting the ISO, I selected the widest aperture for my lens, which was f/4.0, to let the most light through the lens as possible. Then, I started with a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second and scanned the entire ceiling while watching the light meter float to the left and right of center through the viewfinder. This was to see if the scene was under or over exposed. If the meter stayed mostly to the left of center, the scene was under exposed, and if the meter stayed to the right of center, the scene was overexposed.
It turned out that 1/125th forced my meter indicator to left of center, which said that I needed to slow my shutter speed down a bit. I dialed in 1/80th of a second and scanned the ceiling again. 1/80th of a second got the the meter indicator to float very close to center across the entire ceiling, which told me I had found my exposure! After shooting my first batch of images, I previewed the histograms of the images to make sure the exposures were, in fact, all within acceptable limits.
As for actually shooting the photos for the panorama, I stood perfectly in the center isle of the church. I then shot level and straight forward for the first shot and then took successive shots arching upwards and behind me with a 50% overlap in each of my frames. Think of me shooting straight on at 0 degrees, then 45 degrees, then straight up at 90 degrees, then arching my back to get 135, and finally near 180 degrees looking upside down and behind me. All the time I kept my feet in the same position and kept the camera as straight as possible. Don’t fall over during the procedure or you are likely to become the laughing stock of the tourists around you. In the end, this method provided a fair amount of overlap between the images so they could be successfully stitched together once I arrived home.
The rest of the photos below are to give you a feel for the rest of our tour. As I said, the trip was well worth our time and feel that I made some of the best images of our entire trip to Vienna while visiting the abbey.