Photographing Glass: Highly Reflective Black Objects, Part 1

A note about this series of articles: 

Since 2015, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has hosted 2+3D: Practice and Prophecies, a biennial international conference on 2D and 3D digital photography for museum and cultural heritage professionals. In 2017, I was invited to lead workshops, in collaboration with Rijksmuseum photographer Frans Pegt, on photographic lighting techniques for transparent glass. During the workshops, someone asked about photographing highly reflective black objects, often called mirror black. Both Frans and I said: “That’s a whole different workshop!” Photographing mirror black objects is one of the most difficult and humbling challenges photographers face, but Frans and I decided we should attempt to document successful approaches. 

So, in May 2019, I led workshops at the 2+3D conference on lighting techniques for highly reflective black objects. Frans was already committed to giving workshops on the 360° capture of a masterwork in silver (another very difficult subject), so I was on my own this time. However, The Rijksmuseum had generously funded Frans to come to Corning in March of this year for an intensive week in The Corning Museum of Glass photography studios where together we documented lighting solutions for several objects that will appear in Part 2 of this series. 

Part 1 will demonstrate techniques using a photo table with a translucent white acrylic surface that allows for both backlighting and surface lighting. 

Part 2 will demonstrate techniques using a photo table with an opaque gray surface using only surface lighting. 

I admit I was rather apprehensive about being able to document generalized lighting solutions for mirror black objects because each object brings with it a unique set of challenges, but there are certain consistent problems to solve. As the name implies, mirror black objects act as mirrors, meaning absolutely everything in the studio reflects in the object. They are also, of course, black, which makes properly exposing them in a photographic capture difficult—they need to appear black, but also be properly exposed to reveal subtle details. 

There is a basic approach for all the examples in this series: 

  • Create contrast between background and dark object to control contrast and exposure. 
  • Use fill cards/tent to block reflections but keep uncontrolled spill light off cards and foreground. 
  • Use strong focusable frontal hard light over the camera. 
  • Control specular reflections. 
  • Caveat: Every object is an exception. 

The first example object is the vessel base of a cigarette lighter designed by Frederick Carder for Steuben (CMoG L.812.4.2001). 

Even in low ambient light, this object works very well as a convex mirror, revealing everything in the studio, including me. 

The first step is to use the backlights under the table to set the overall contrast level between the background and the object. 

Next, a white foam board tent provides subtle fill and blocks distracting reflections of the studio. 

A focusable hard light with barn doors to control the beam is then added directly over the camera. 

A black dowel with black masking tape selectively blocks the light source to reduce specular (spot) reflections. 

Finally, a black velvet panel is placed behind the camera to block unwanted studio reflections. 

The shape of this large bowl, possibly by Steuben (CMoG 2010.4.58), makes it a bit more challenging. Even in low ambient light, the table surface reflects strongly in the outside of the bowl, and the inside reflects everything in the studio. 

Note: like many glass “black” objects, this bowl is not actually true black. It is actually a very deep amethyst color that appears black unless very strong light is transmitted through it. For this demonstration, I am treating it as if it were fully opaque. 

Backlights again set the overall contrast between the background and object. 

As with the first example, the tent provides subtle fill and blocks distracting reflections of the studio, but the shape of the object causes light to flare up the sides and it looks matte instead of shiny. There is also an inadequate separation between the interior and exterior of the bowl.

Black cards control light flare and restore the shiny black.

A strong frontal hard light properly exposes front and interior of the bowl, while adding defining reflections. Barn doors control light spill on the foreground. 

A focusable hard light aimed at underside of the tent provides defining reflections on the rim, but also creates problematic reflections on front.

Black foil selectively blocks the foreground to control light on the front. The clean line makes a crisp reflection edge, which helps the viewer understand the object has a shiny black surface and the lighter area is a reflection of the table surface.

A dull silver card allows for a subtle, soft reflection in the front of the bowl. It also extends out from the front of the table to act as a flag for the reflections caused by the light below the camera. 

For the final image, the object is masked and the background from a previous capture is used.

This goblet by Josh Simpson (CMoG 2018.4.21) has black on black embossed detail as well as metallic color, and a frontal hard light would create too many specular reflections.

A similar approach is used to the previous objects, but a soft box is used with the same hard light. With a smooth surface, this would show up as a white rectangle, but the irregular surface of this goblet breaks up the reflections.

This setup also uses a combination of backlighting and surface lighting to light the background.

When there is a combination of a matte and shiny surface, such as with the etching on this console set by H.P. Sinclaire and Company (CMoG 85.4.4), you must allow reflected light to flare across the surfaces in a controlled way.

A tent is constructed much like for shooting silver, but in this case, the cards are all indirectly lit, and the backlight is the primary source.

For this final stage, a hard light above the camera provides critical front light, especially for the white lip wraps. The combination of soft reflected light from the cards and hard light with specular highlights reveals both the etching and the shiny black quality of the glass. 

While each of these objects has required a different setup, the strategy and approach are the same. First, you must create contrast between background and dark object to control contrast and exposure and to ensure the black object looks both shiny and black, versus matte and gray. Next, fill cards and tents are used to block reflections, and spill light is carefully controlled to keep it off the cards and foreground, so they do not reflect strongly in the object. A strong focusable frontal light is then positioned over the camera to properly expose the object and define shape and detail. Finally, narrow dowels, strips of black foam board, or card stock are used to reduce the specular (spot) reflections in the object. 

In Part 2 of this series, I will demonstrate similar techniques adapted for an opaque background, as well as more traditional object lighting techniques modified for mirror black glass, and finally some hybrid approaches. 

2 comments » Write a comment

  1. Absolutely one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the subject of lighting glass, much less the focus black objects. Thank you for your time and effort, I am patiently awaiting part 2!

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