I would like to be able to capture a photo which shows light shafts coming through the window. A famous example is this:

Railway station with shafts of light

I'm guessing this involves a tripod, a long exposure and strong sunlight, but presumably also some particulate in the air to catch the light? Is there a way to reliably replicate this effect in a building like a church?

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    \$\begingroup\$ No long exposure here, or the people would be much more blurry. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would call this a long exposure. Normal exposure is typically under one second. This looks to be a couple of seconds at the very least. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 19, 2011 at 23:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sebastien.b: look closer... there are plenty of blurred people. Non-answer, but how I suspect this image probably got so much particulate: I'd guess smoking was prevalent when this was taken, and extant in this scene. Lots of particulates thus formed. \$\endgroup\$
    – lindes
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 21:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ The technical name of that type of light is volumetric lighting by the way. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ You should be able to see it with your own eyes before even photographing it; after that, just pp it to your licking. \$\endgroup\$
    – Max
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 17:41

4 Answers 4


You've pretty much answered your own question there (except that you don't absolutely need a long exposure, it depends on the situation). The key ingredient is obviously the particulates in the air to reflect the light, but in the shot you've posted also the extreme exposure difference between the incoming sun and ambient light. The greater the difference, the fewer particulates you need in the air as each one will be shining brighter, and the better they will show up against a dark background.

Some post processing will probably help too. The photo you posted has always bothered me as it looks a little fake, I wouldn't be surprised if a little dodging went on in the darkroom to increase the brightness of the light shafts.

Here's an example of the effect caused by haze and precipitation in the atmosphere which I enhanced a little in Photoshop to emphasise the effect:

To do this is a church you might need to ask them to turn the interior lights off to maximize the difference and then wait for the sun to shine directly through a window. Overexpose the shot to best reveal the shafts of light.

To reliably replicate it, assuming you're already cut the power, most churches are quite dusty so you could run around, beat the carpets and pew cusions a bit. That ought to put enough dust in the air to get the effect you're after!

disclaimer: don't acutally do that last part

edit: You're still going to need a lot of dust or very strong contrast to get the effect you want in a church - here are a couple of shots from a recent wedding. Note how much brighter the light from the window is (I even had to darken it in the Raw conversion, the difference was greater than it looked) and yet it's not enough for any shafts of light to be visible:

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    \$\begingroup\$ An option for "how to get particulate into the air" could be a very careful application of a smoke machine... with the facility's approval, of course. Just don't over do it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah a smoke machine is really good for getting shafts of light: flickr.com/photos/matt_grum/2063566821 \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Grum
    Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Speaking as someone who was responsible for setting off a fire alarm and scrambling the fire department at an international airport with a smoke machine I was using during a shoot, you'll wanna make sure that you have lots of permission, and verification that it won't cause trouble for the alarms. :-) Found myself having quite an interesting conversation with a lot of official folks in the aftermath. Makes a great story at parties, though... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 2:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you're shooting in a church, maybe wait for the incense burner to come around? \$\endgroup\$
    – NickAldwin
    Commented May 16, 2011 at 20:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Pretend to help with cleaning the cushions :) Also, in case you use a .22 remote control to turn the lights off (you asked for permission to shoot and got it, so...), there might be some dust shaken up that way.... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 19:59

You don't need long exposure at all. What you need is:

  • smoke, dust or droplets of water in the air for the "air to shine"
  • rays of light that are significantly brigter than the surroundings to make it visible against the background (dark background really helps here)

I have an example of this in church, but if there's strong interest I can try to replicate this with a flash and pot of boiling water.

light in church

update: On the happy occassion of cooking potatoes, I have made two more examples:

available light:
cooking available light

gridded flash (in picture), exposure set to kill the available light: cooking with the flash

I hope this illustrates that if you have dust/smoke/etc to show, all you need for this kind of effect to happen is a dark background and the actual shaft of light.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Voted up this one because you really don't need to know all the "technical things" for shooting this. It's plain observation. Get a shiny light source, spray some dust and BOOM! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Rish
    Commented Nov 24, 2010 at 4:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ so in this shot, the dust was already there, or you made it? \$\endgroup\$
    – Benjol
    Commented Dec 21, 2010 at 12:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Benjol: It was already there; this is just a vacation snapshot :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – che
    Commented Dec 21, 2010 at 17:06

In the top photo it looks like long exposure was used, as you can see many 'ghosts' of people. I'm guessing that the light shafts were so pronounced due to cigarette smoke in the air.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Cigarette smoke - I hadn't thought of that! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 24, 2011 at 7:06

I've shot heaps with this effect with a respectable degree of success and the key points I've found are

  1. The air needs something in it to reflect (water,mist,smoke,dust etc).
  2. The air needs to be backlit (ie light is coming towards the viewer not from behind the viewer) and
  3. The air has darkness behind it

Slow shutter speeds mildly allow the moving particles to appear a more solid mass (like shooting a waterfall at a long exposure v's quick where it freezes all the drops), but I'd suggest the fundamentals are the three above.


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