How do you photograph glass? Here are some tips. Glass – especially art-glass, is one of my favourite subjects to shoot. It can present an enormous challenge to a photographer, but that challenge almost always comes with unique opportunities as well. The image above is a prime example – this glass ray gun was created by master glass blower Jeff Burnette of Joe Blow Glass. I’ve had the pleasure of shooting a couple of his pieces, and each one is an utterly unique challenge.
There’s no right or wrong way to shoot glass – many people feel that a large soft light source is the best choice. For good reason to – large light sources create beautiful large specular highlights on the glass that shows form extremely well. Those specular highlights can be shaped and formed into fantastic tones on the glass. But small, hard lighting can also work very well on glass – it can give brightness and sparkle to the surface Hard lighting can also highlight liquids inside the glass very effectively.
Here’s a list of what makes glass so wonderful to shoot (if you plan on shooting product photography, you should become very comfortable with this):
Reflectivity: Glass comes in every surface quality imaginable. Most often, it will be smooth and reflective, but glass surfaces can also be uneven, textured and frosted. All of these surfaces will react in completely different ways to your lighting. If I could only give one piece of advice, it would be to experiment with every glass object you shoot. Try different types of lighting and modifiers – you’ll often be surprised by the results.
Translucency: Most glass will be transparent or translucent to some degree, although it is not uncommon to have glass objects that are entirely opaque. Transparent glass can be a real challenge as there is often little substance to clear glass (unless there is a liquid inside it). In the case of clear glass, you will likely be working with scrims and reflectors to create a variety of reflections on the glass to show form.
If the glass is translucent, it will be a lot more interesting to shoot as this means there will be some kind of tone or colour to the glass. With translucent glass, you can create beautiful gradations in the tones of the glass, and backlighting becomes an important technique. Backlighting is when you shine a light source through the glass from the opposite side to the camera. This type of lighting will allow you to control exactly how the tones of the glass read on your camera, and the results can be stunning. It’s best to avoid flat lighting (large light source) when backlighting, as you will really diminish the drama of the light.
The image below of the glass grenade (created by Jeff Burgess) is a great example of both interesting reflective surfaces and translucency. The glass was finished with a metallic surface, which made the glass appear opaque when light from the front. But it had this amazing translucency when backlight, which looked almost like fire – a very appropriate look considering the object!
Curves: Flat glass is boring glass (most of the time), but curvy glass is a thing of beauty. It is also a thing of frustration for many photographers. There is one critical thing to keep in mind – curved glass can act like a 180-degree mirror. Even if it’s something as small as a marble, it will see from one side of your studio to the other. If you plan on soft lighting curvy glass to get big beautiful specular highlights, you’re going to need a large modifier – and I mean really large. I have shot objects as small as a wristwatch with modifiers as large as 6X6 foot scrim because of the curvature to the glass.
Another thing to keep in mind when shooting bottles of drinking glasses – you cannot get a specular highlight to run from the top to the bottom of the bottle when it is sitting on an opaque surface. Say you are shooting a bottle of wine on a wood surface. You could place a huge sift box right beside the bottle and so close to it that it almost shows in the frame of the shot, and your specular highlight will still only go about 2/3 of the way down the bottle.
In order to make a specular highlight run the full length of the bottle, you have to shoot it off the surface of your set. Have the bottle rest on something like small blocks that will allow you to get your soft box or scrim beside and below the bottle. This will allow you to get a specular highlight running the full length of the bottle. This also means you’ll need to composite the image. The shot below of Buffalo Trace is a good example of this.
Colour: I talked about translucency earlier – when that translucency comes in the form of coloured glass, things get really interesting. One of the great things about colour is it changes hue and value as you make it brighter or darker. Over exposing a colour is like adding white to paint – the colour becomes more pastel – under-exposing is like adding black, and the colour becomes more saturated. This is why I rarely use large, flat modifiers when backlighting glass. I may use fabric or paper behind the glass when backlighting, but I will always light that paper or fabric with a small light source that is designed to create fall-off on the scrim. This fall-off will create gradations in the tones of the coloured glass, which creates beautiful variations in the colour.
The shot of the ray gun below is a good example of this.
Light Fall-Off and Specular Gradations: I really try to take advantage of the curves and reflective quality of glass. This is why I almost never use modifiers like soft boxes to light glass – the light from a soft box is just too flat and even. I will almost always use scrims to light glass – actually I likely will use a soft box, but I’ll use it to light my scrim, not the subject. With reflective objects, you spend all your time lighting your modifier, not your subject.
This is also one of the reasons I love using large modifiers when lighting glass. It is much easier for me to create gradations and light fall-off on a large scrim than a small one. With a large scrim, I can create specular highlights with sharp edges or soft gradated edges (or both on one specular.
The detail from the Buffalo Trace shot is a good example of this.
Buffalo Trace specular highlight
Compositing: Every sample image you see in this post is a composited image. In other words, I shot the objects piece by piece and then constructed the final shot in Photoshop. You don’t have to do this with every glass shot – I remember very well the time before Photoshop came along, when a shot had to be completed on a single sheet of large format film.
There are times when you can create absolutely beautiful light on a glass object in a single shot on a conventional image. But if you plan on creating complex lighting, you will likely want to consider doing a composite. This doesn’t mean you’re cheating – you still have to understand how to light glass. But Photoshop gives us an incredibly powerful tool where we can light every section of the glass to perfection and then pull the image together in post.
If you would like to view the full tutorials for the images in this post, the links are below:
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Bluesky is a photography tutorial website created by veteran commercial photographer and college instructor Greg Blue. This site advocates an approach to learning studio & location photography that focuses first on light theory (these are free tutorials). Lighting, camera and post-production techniques are equally important, but should follow the study of lighting theory (these tutorials are also free). The site also offers a host of specific image tutorials that take a mile deep look at theory and technique from the perspective of individual images (these tutorials are members only).