Photographing glass: Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrates

A Cirriformia tentaculata sea worm (L.55.3.2015) appears to be in continuous, fluttery motion.

A Cirriformia tentaculata sea worm (L.55.3.2015) appears to 
be in continuous, fluttery motion.

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka’s glass models of marine invertebrates were successful not only because of the accuracy and intricate level of detail that made them excellent for scientific study, but also because, in the right light, they almost appear to be alive. The Blaschkas were able to achieve this incredible level of artistry and realism by exploiting several properties of glass.

Just as we sometimes think of glass in terms of “freezing” a fluid in motion, the Blaschkas “froze” a moment of invertebrate action to suggest movement. This effect is particularly successful with creatures like the sea worm and anemone pictured here; the Blaschkas shaped hundreds of tiny, exquisitely delicate tentacles to create the illusion of constant movement.

The tentacles of this Heteractis crispa anemone (L.17.3.63-71) seem to be gently moving in the current.

The tentacles of this Heteractis crispa anemone (L.17.3.63-71)
seem to be gently moving in the current.

However, it is the unique way in which glass interacts with light that allows us to complete the lifelike effect photographically. Glass can reflect, transmit, refract, and capture light, often all at the same time, very much like the marine creatures themselves. Since the objects are models of living creatures, their photographic lighting also needs to reflect how the actual creatures might look in their environment. Of course, in an invertebrate’s marine environment, light acts quite differently than in air. The light underwater is less obviously directional; it bounces and refracts and, very importantly, it is always moving.

With the Blaschka models, our goal was to capture the effect of that type of light while still isolating the creatures from their surroundings so every detail is rendered clearly. At the same time, the suggestion of underwater lighting should be just that—a suggestion—and the final result still reveals that these creatures are made of glass. Captions for the images that follow describe some of the approaches and processes used in the creation of these photographs.

For this model of Anthea Cereus (L.53.3.2015), multi-directional light is used in conjunction with a dappled lighting effect to subtly suggest movement and underwater light.v

For this model of Anthea Cereus (L.53.3.2015), multi-directional light is used in conjunction with a dappled lighting effect to subtly suggest movement and underwater light.

In this image of a Pelagia tuberculosa jelly (L.17.3.63-476), a low camera angle implies the creature is floating, rather than resting on a surface. A soft, multi-directional light reveals the delicate gelatinous translucency of the model while a single hard light from out front gives a small specular reflection on the bell to reveal just a bit of “glassiness.” Edge lighting is deliberately used on the metal stem to show how the model is actually supported, but kept at a low level in order to not draw too much attention from the jelly itself.

In this image of a Pelagia tuberculosa jelly (L.17.3.63-476), a low camera angle implies the creature is floating, rather than resting on a surface. A soft, multi-directional light reveals the delicate gelatinous translucency of the model while a single hard light from out front gives a small specular reflection on the bell to reveal just a bit of “glassiness.” Edge lighting is deliberately used on the metal stem to show how the model is actually supported, but kept at a low level in order to not draw too much attention from the jelly itself.

With this image of the Porpita mediterranea jelly (L.59.3.2015), a similar lighting approach is used, but instead of a hard light out front, backlight from a reflector card emphasizes the glassiness of the tentacles. Again, subtle edge lighting on the metal stem shows that this is indeed a model supported from a base.

With this image of the Porpita mediterranea jelly (L.59.3.2015), a similar lighting approach is used, but instead of a hard light out front, backlight from a reflector card emphasizes the glassiness of the tentacles. Again, subtle edge lighting on the metal stem shows that this is indeed a model supported from a base.

Photographing the Porpita mediterranea jelly from below reveals more details, while also giving the impression that it is floating.

Photographing the Porpita mediterranea jelly from below reveals more details, while also giving the impression that it is floating.

This setup shot shows that there is actually only one soft light source used. It is well behind the object (and out of the frame of this image). A sheet of diffusion material and a flag made of black cinefoil (black aluminum foil) reduce the amount of direct light on the object. The primary lighting actually comes from reflectors and white cards positioned to reflect the light back onto, under, and through the object.

This setup shot shows that there is actually only one soft light source used. It is well behind the object (and out of the frame of this image). A sheet of diffusion material and a flag made of black cinefoil (black aluminum foil) reduce the amount of direct light on the object. The primary lighting actually comes from reflectors and white cards positioned to reflect the light back onto, under, and through the object.

A similar setup is used for Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267). A single soft light source with ragged diffusion is positioned well behind the object (upper left in this image) and a sheet of diffusion material reduces the amount of direct light on the object. Reflector cards bounce light from that source at and through the object. A hard light at the far left of the frame is used to light through the object in a way that shows more “glassy” reflections.

A similar setup is used for Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267). A single soft light source with ragged diffusion is positioned well behind the object (upper left in this image) and a sheet of diffusion material reduces the amount of direct light on the object. Reflector cards bounce light from that source at and through the object. A hard light at the far left of the frame is used to light through the object in a way that shows more “glassy” reflections.

Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267), photographed on its card. It is more of a challenge to suggest underwater lighting when the model is on a card, but careful use of light sources from different angles results in dappled lighting and shadows to evoke the motion of light underwater.

Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267), photographed on its card. It is more of a challenge to suggest underwater lighting when the model is on a card, but careful use of light sources from different angles results in dappled lighting and shadows to evoke the motion of light underwater.

This view shows an additional back light, as well as two lights out front—all used primarily to create the dappled lighting on the object and shadows on the specimen card. The two front lights in particular, are diffused and were moved slowly during the exposure to keep the shadows less defined.

This view shows an additional back light, as well as two lights out front—all used primarily to create the dappled lighting on the object and shadows on the specimen card. The two front lights in particular, are diffused and were moved slowly during the exposure to keep the shadows less defined.

Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267), photographed without the card

Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267), photographed without the card

Detail of Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267)

Detail of Podocoryne carnea (L.17.3.63-267)


Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf BlaschkaFragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka is on view at The Corning Museum of Glass through January 8, 2017. Learn more about the exhibition.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: