Photographing glass: Lighting techniques for transparent glass objects

This is the first of a series of blog posts addressing photographic lighting techniques for transparent glasses.

Goblet, 79.3.993

Goblet, Netherlands, 1760-1770.
Gift of The Ruth Bryan Strauss Memorial
Foundation. 79.3.993.

Most photographers, especially in museum settings, are trained to photograph objects on flat, neutral backgrounds, and yet that approach creates incredible challenges when trying to capture subtle details—like engraving, tooling marks, optic ribbing, etc.—in transparent glasses. Often, it appears as if all detail disappears once the object is placed on the background.

Unlike most any other material, it is impossible to separate our perception of transparent glass from our perception of what we see through the glass. Every curve, every bit of engraving—really every change in the surface—in transparent glasses acts as a lens, however imperfect, and distorts the view through the glass.

Because detail is revealed through contrast of light and shadow, the field of view of each of these “lenses” must also include a contrast of highlight and shadow. If there is little contrast seen through the “lenses,” then there will be little contrast visible in the glass.

The first object covered in this series is an 18th century engraved wineglass from The Netherlands (79.3.993). I chose to begin with this object because it is colorless and has both blown and engraved elements.

Let’s start with some basics about the setup used for this series. All objects are photographed on a photo table with translucent white Acrylic (Plexiglas 2447) with a P95 (smooth matte) finish. This surface works well for both backlighting and surface lighting. Many different lighting types can be used, as long as they have matched color temperature and allow you to shape the light with beam control, flags, or masks. In these case studies, I have used high output LED BR40 lamps under the table and a variety of softlights and Fresnel (focusable spotlights) fixtures above the table. The translucent surface makes all of these techniques easier, but the optical principles remain the same, and lighting techniques controlling the contrast of a scene can be adapted for an opaque surface as well (Only surface lighting will be used for the second object in this series).

Here the object has been placed on the table with broad, soft backlighting and an overhead softlight.

Here the object has been placed on the table with broad, soft backlighting and an overhead softlight.

The image on the right shows the effect of lowering the intensity of the overhead softlight. Introducing even this modest amount of contrast has an immediate effect on the readability of the engraving.

The image on the right shows the effect of lowering the intensity of the overhead softlight. Introducing even this modest amount of contrast has an immediate effect on the readability of the engraving.

In the image on the left, the overhead softlight has been turned off, and in the image on the right, the furthest backlight has been turned off to create an even stronger light falloff and introduce more contrast.

In the image on the left, the overhead softlight has been turned off, and in the image on the right, the furthest backlight has been turned off to create an even stronger light falloff and introduce more contrast.

Notice how the wheel cut engraving appears increasingly dimensional.

Notice how the wheel cut engraving appears increasingly dimensional.

With the increased falloff, the edges of the goblet bowl need a little help to cleanly separate from the background, so shiny reflector cards have been carefully placed to define the edges. A Fresnel spot light behind and to the left also introduces some specular reflections for dimension and “glassiness."

With the increased falloff, the edges of the goblet bowl need a little help to cleanly separate from the background, so shiny reflector cards have been carefully placed to define the edges. A Fresnel spot light behind and to the left also introduces some specular reflections for dimension and “glassiness.”

This screenshot from Adobe Lightroom shows the effect with and without the reflector cards.

This screenshot from Adobe Lightroom shows the effect with and without the reflector cards.

Finally, here is where we started on the left, compared to the final image on the right.

Finally, here is where we started on the left, compared to the final image on the right.

As this first example has demonstrated, our perception of transparent glass is a result of how it transmits, refracts, reflects, and distorts light. Armed with an understanding of these optical properties, we can reveal detail by exploiting the ways glass interacts optically with its surroundings in a carefully controlled lighting environment.

17 comments » Write a comment

    • Hi Mary – Thank you for your question. I checked with Andy and he is hesitant to endorse any one seller but suggests checking out B&H Photo (bhphotovideo.com) for the broadest selection, but then shop around to choose where to buy.

  1. Great demonstration of how to capture the very essence of the material. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. Excellent article. Photography of glass objects is sometims more difficult than the actual engryving.

  3. For those interested in more reading, there is an excellent book with chapters on lighting for glass (as well as other conditions): Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting.

    • Hi Charles – This is from Andrew Fortune, the author of the blog post:
      A snooted light will control light spill, but a light with a Fresnel lens produces a more directional beam. Also, many Fresnel lights allow you to control the beam from flood to spot, making even tighter control of the beam possible.
      Thanks,
      Andy

  4. Andrew, As usual, your work is wonderful. I will be incorporating your new techniques into my always challenging tasks of photographing vacuum tubes for the Museum. All the Best, Charles

  5. Andrew
    What are your reflector cards made from, or are they purchased?
    I love the challenges of photographing glass.
    I did a little schooling in photography in a local college but received
    very little information on how to actually shoot highly reflective material.
    I have taught myself mostly by trial and error.
    You create beautiful images..
    Rachel
    Lotton Art Glass

    • Hi Rachel – This is from Andy:

      Our favorite readymade folding tabletop reflectors are by Lightright (http://www.lightrightreflector.com/). We also buy full sheets of shiny, shiny/matte (Florentine) and dull reflector card stock, as well as white foam board, and cut them to whatever size and shape we need.

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