Coutances Cathedral is located in northwest France. Though it is not one of the “storied” cathedrals of France (such as Notre Dame or Amiens) it is a marvelous structure.
I visited the cathedral in 1999 on a 10-day trip through Normandy, prior to presenting a workshop in the south of France. The portion of the soaring structure that resonated with me the most was the east end of the cathedral, its rounded apse. The cylindrical columns holding up the magnificent vaults, as they curved gently around the eastern end was a truly amazing sight.
Fortunately, I had a great deal of experience photographing structures like this, for in 1980 and 1981 I had done a major study of the cathedrals of England. The lighting within these marvelous, ancient cathedrals is extraordinarily deceptive, as I had previously learned. They seem to be bright and evenly illuminated throughout. Yet light meter readings tell a very different story. The light levels are low, except immediately around the windows.
Dealing with uneven light
Furthermore, what often seems like very even lighting throughout the structure is, in fact, quite uneven and quite contrasty: very bright near the windows; quite dark away from them. The low light levels require long exposures, so reciprocity failure effects come into play, which further increases the contrast. For some reason the eye (at least my eye) fails to see these problems. So, having encountered them nearly 20 years earlier in England, I immediately decided to mistrust my own eyes, instead relying on a set of careful meter readings. Sure enough, the light levels were generally low, and the light was remarkably uneven. I would have missed all that if I had relied on my eyes, exclusively. Your eyes can fool you (and mine certainly have on many occasions), so the light meter—the truth teller—can be an extremely valuable tool at those times.