Photographing glass: Using reflectors

An essential, but often underappreciated, bit of photography studio gear is the humble reflector card. In this post, I will show three examples of how we use reflectors with glass objects to demonstrate just how important they are.

What is a reflector card? Simply put, it is piece of card stock, foam board, paper, or foil used to reflect light from a source. It can be shiny, dull, satin, white, gray, etc. For our purposes, we only use neutral colors because, as a museum, we have a responsibility to faithfully reproduce accurate color of the objects we photograph. You can get reflector card stock and cut your own to size or buy assortments of common sizes (most of the reflectors in the examples in this post are made by LightRight). You can even use aluminum foil, which conveniently has a shiny and a dull side, attached to cardboard or foam board. Crinkling the foil and then smoothing it back out creates a third surface type. White card stock or foam board works well for softer fills.

In the three examples that follow, I will show how reflectors can be used to evenly light an entire object, showcase transparency and translucency, and subtly create highlights and define edges.

For the first example I chose the 12th century Islamic pitcher (58.1.6) illustrated below to demonstrate how an object can often be lit with one primary light source while reflectors act as secondary light sources providing fill and detail lighting.

Pitcher with inscription, Near East, probably Persia, 1000-1199. 58.1.6.

This pitcher was originally almost colorless, but the surface has weathered to a metallic, iridescent crust. (To learn about weathering, a phenomenon common in archaeological glasses, read this article.) With direct lighting from multiple light sources, an object like this can quickly become a mess of confusing reflections and iridescent color. My challenge was to show the metallic surface and subtle iridescence without losing detail in the Kufic inscription and other surface elements.

To begin, I positioned one light overhead and slightly in front of the object. Notice how the highlight reflection on the front is overly bright and harsh, the rest of the object is underexposed, and the inscription is illegible.

Here, I mounted a piece of diffusion material on an arm to soften the intense reflection. You can see the diffusion at the top of the frame (the overhead light is not visible in this image). The small piece of diffusion is just enough to soften the reflection. As the next sequence of images shows, it is important the rest of the overhead light is not blocked so it can be used by the reflectors to bounce light back toward the object.

Next, I placed reflector cards with a satin surface called “Florentine” to light the sides of the object and start to define the edges and surface detail.

Two more satin finish reflectors fill in the front.

Next, a small reflector lights the foot and lower part of the body.

Finally, two taller satin reflectors provide broader fill and even out the lighting on the body and neck.

For illustration purposes, I pulled the camera back from the object for this sequence of images so the entire setup could be captured in the frame. When the camera is in the original position all the reflectors are outside of the field of view.

The left image shows the object with only the single overhead light, while the right image shows the final effect after all the reflectors have been placed. All shutter and aperture settings on the camera are exactly the same.

In the first example, I used the cards to reflect light onto the surface of the object. I used reflectors in a quite different way with this Blaschka model of Porpita mediterranea (L.59.3.2015) illustrated below.

Blaschka Nr. 216, Porpita mediterranea, Leopold and Rudolf Blashka, Dresden, Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. RL.59.3.2015.

In this case, I wanted to capture the delicate translucence and transparency of the glass and also emulate the way the actual creature would look under water where the light is less directional. The Blaschkas were masters at creating delicate translucency and implied movement in their models of marine invertebrates, and I wanted to be sure to capture those properties.

The main light is well behind the object and is diffused and flagged so that it barely grazes the top surface of the object. The shiny reflectors are being used to transmit reflected light through the object, emphasizing its translucence. The tall white cards on the sides provide a softer fill light in contrast to the more intense light from the shiny reflector cards.

The first two examples demonstrate how reflectors can be used to reflect light toward or through a glass object. In the third example, an 18th century Dutch goblet (79.3.993), the reflectors are used as elements that reflect in the glass itself.

Because glass is reflective, the shiny reflector cards can be positioned so that, from the camera’s perspective, they show up us linear reflections in the glass along the edges of the bowl of the goblet.

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

These details show the bowl of the goblet with and without reflector cards. In this case, the effect is intentionally very subtle. Notice the goblet on the right has delicate linear highlight reflections along the outer edges that allow them to be more clearly defined so they stand out cleanly from the dark background.

These examples have shown just a few different ways reflectors can be used in glass photography. In fact, it is rare that we have a setup that does not use some kind of reflector card because they are so useful and effective. Glass interacts with its surroundings in ways unlike virtually any other material—reflecting, transmitting, and refracting light—and reflector cards are excellent tools to manipulate the lit environment to better capture great images of glass.

8 comments » Write a comment

  1. Well done, Andy, thanks for your post! I still remember your presentation on photographing palaces in India…
    Best wishes

  2. Andy, Just interested on how long have you been using my LightRIGHT reflectors? I patented them way back in 1988. The Smithsonion purchased several sets back then and finally about 4 years ago reordered. Great article, I’m retired now but still have a few Lightright sets, when these are gone it will be the end. The only thing wrong with my design is that they last way to long. LOL Thank you for your article. If you would like to see my Very old web site and the kind of work that made me design these reflectors, check out http://www.electronfx.com

    Gary Bartholomew

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