Photographing Glass: Highly Reflective Black Objects, Part 2

This article is Part 2 of a series on photographing highly reflective black objects, often referred to as “mirror black”. Part 1 can be found here.

In May 2019, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam hosted 2+3D: Practice and Prophecies, a biennial international conference on 2D and 3D digital photography for museum and cultural heritage professionals. I was invited to lead workshops on lighting techniques for highly reflective black objects. Frans Pegt, a photographer at the Rijksmuseum, and I originally planned to jointly lead these workshops, but Frans was later asked to give workshops on the 360° capture of a masterwork in silver (another very difficult subject). However, The Rijksmuseum 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 the objects that appear in this post.

Frans Pegt, Rijksmuseum photographer, documenting a setup in the CMoG studio.

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

Part 2 of this series demonstrates 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.

As the name implies, and this picture of me and Frans reflecting in one of the example objects shows, 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.

This first example uses an adaptation of the backlit table and tent approach demonstrated in Part 1. The object is a lamp base designed by Frederick Carder for Steuben (CMoG L.824.4.2001).

Even with ambient lighting, reflections are clearly a problem.

As with previous examples, backlighting sets the initial contrast between background and object, but this time a soft light is used on the surface of the background.

A white foam board tent provides subtle fill and blocks distracting reflections of the studio.

Shiny reflector cards define the edges, but also reveal the shiny nature of the glass.

A focusable hard light is added directly over the camera. Barn doors control the spill.

A pointed strip of black foam board is used as a flag to reduce specular reflections.

The background is then photographed without the object.

For the final image, the background photographed with the object in place is masked out and the “clean” background is used. The original front shadow is allowed to show through the mask.

The next example uses a more traditional lighting approach where the main light is combined with fill lighting. Because the object is glass and highly reflective, though, most of the lighting is indirect. As with most photography of glass, the strategy used is to light the environment and then capture how the glass interacts with it. For this example, the object is a bowl designed by Carlo Scarpa for Venini and Company (CMoG L.257.3.2013).

A soft box is used as the main light from a high ¾ angle.

A second soft box lights the table surface that reflects in the side of the bowl. A black foil flag edged with spun diffusion controls the spill.

One shiny reflector is carefully positioned to create catchlight reflections on the rim and inside the bowl. A second reflector lights the table surface and side of the bowl in the shadow area. Black foil is used to mask much of the reflector surface.

A black card (partially hidden from view by the camera) is used to flag light from the table surface, to reduce the reflection in the upper left side of the bowl.

A piece of black foil is then used to flag light from the table surface to reduce the reflection in the upper right side of the bowl.

The final image reveals a diversity of texture (raised white dots on the outside and dimples on the inside) while communicating that the object is shiny and black.

The next example demonstrates a hybrid approach of the previous two examples. The object is a compote by H.P. Sinclaire and Co. (CMoG 2010.4.5).

Once again, a soft box is used as the main light from a high ¾ angle.

An angled sheet of white foam board is positioned to create a soft reflection across and inside the bowl of the object and overall soft overhead fill light.

A second soft box lights the front table surface and opens up the shadow. A black foil flag edged with spun diffusion controls the spill from lighting too much of the background.

A focusable hardlight lights the table surface that reflects in the right side of the stem and bowl. Barn doors control the spill from lighting the object directly.

A second focusable hard light lights the table surface that reflects in the left side of the stem and bowl. Barn doors again control the spill from lighting the object directly.

The final image reveals the crisp, bright white lip wrap and subtle shape-defining reflections set against the deep, shiny black glass.

The final example object is a portrait bust of Ludwig van Beethoven by Claus Josef Riedel (CMoG 79.3.74). Because it is a portrait, the approach used is an adaptation of portrait lighting, but the emphasis is still on lighting the environment and showing how the glass interacts with it.

A softlight from the side lights a large sheet of diffusion to the left of the object.

Shiny reflectors are placed on both sides of the object to define edges and detail.

An angled sheet of foam board is positioned to create a soft reflection across the top of the object and to add light to the background. A hard light with barndoors lights the card.

An angled sheet of foam board is positioned on the floor to the right of the table and lit by a hard light to create defining reflections on the right side of the object.

A large sheet of white foam board is used as a fill card for front light.

A black foil flag with diffusion knocks down the intensity of the light on the overhead angled card.

Because we are using a long exposure, I am able to use a moving flag to reduce the intensity of the highlights along the cheekbone, forehead, and nose.

In this final image, the black glass seems especially appropriate for Beethoven’s intense, brooding expression.

As with the examples presented in Part 1 of this series, each of these objects has required a different setup. The first example is a straightforward adaptation of the techniques demonstrated in Part 1, but for an opaque gray background versus a backlit table surface. The other examples demonstrate how to adapt more traditional object lighting techniques for mirror black glass, as well as some hybrid approaches.

The common thread throughout is true for almost all glass photography: to effectively photograph glass, you must carefully control the lit environment and then capture how the glass object interacts with its surroundings.

As a final note, I’d like to thank Frans Pegt for his invaluable collaboration documenting this difficult subject, as well as Cecile van der Harten, Head of the Image Department at the Rijksmuseum, for generously supporting this effort by sending Frans to Corning.

Frans Pegt enjoying a brisk March day along Seneca Lake, NY, after a week in the studio.

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