How To Shoot Photos Through A Window :: Digital Photo Secrets
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How To Shoot Photos Through A Window

by David Peterson 9 comments

I usually advise most photographers to avoid taking pictures from outside through windows. The glare tends to distract the eye from what's going on inside, and the dust on the window can lessen the image quality. Nevertheless, there are some cases where shooting through a window can help you get the shot. Sometimes you want a more candid image or perhaps a unique perspective on a familiar scene. In other cases, like shooting from inside an airplane, you have no other option but to shoot through a window. If you need to look through a piece of glass other than your lens, here's what you have to do.


Get a Polarizing Filter


Polarizing filters cut out the extra sunlight that causes glare. They are sort of like sunglasses for your camera. With a polarizing filter (and a few minor adjustments), you can get rid of nearly all of the reflections on the glass you're shooting.

When using your polarized filter, it helps to look through the viewfinder and twist the polarizer until you get rid of as much glare as possible. By twisting the polarizer, you are lining it up with the angle of the glare and blocking it (while keeping the light coming through the glass).

Polarizers work because most of the light comes into your camera from two different angles. The angle of the light coming through the glass is always different from the angle of the light reflected from outside. A polarizer allows you to block one without blocking the other. In this case, we are blocking the reflections by twisting the polarizer until they are gone. The rest of the light still comes through.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. "I don't own a fancy digital SLR camera that lets me use polarizing filters." No problem. You can still get rid of glare by holding a pair of polarizing sunglasses in front of your lens and twisting them. This isn't as precise as using a digital SLR, but it still works.

If you can’t block the reflections, blur them out

Here’s something digital SLR owners can do when a polarizing filter just isn’t doing the job. You can widen your camera’s aperture to blur out the reflections still present in your image. Here’s how it works.

When you increase the size of the aperture, you limit what is known as the depth of field of your image. In basic terms, the depth of field is how far you can see into an image. If the background is blurry, you have a smaller depth of field. If you can see everything in the background, you have a very large depth of field. As f-numbers go down, the depth of field goes down too, so to pull this off you’ll need to pick aperture values near F4.


If you still can’t get rid of the glare, just blur it out.

You’ll probably want to go with manual focus when you use this technique. It’s too easy for your camera to get “confused” from the reflections. Manual focus also gives you more control over the final product. You can see exactly what will be in focus before you take the picture (though there’s no harm in double checking afterwards!).

This is the quintessential if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em-technique. A third option requires a little more gear, but it will definitely give you the results you want.

The cloth technique (assistant or duct tape needed)

This trick will definitely make your presence as a street photographer known, but it is really useful for taking photos in aquariums or out of airplane windows. Go buy yourself a nice big piece of black felt cloth and a cut a lens-sized hole in the middle of it.

The next time you need to take a picture through some glass, simply poke your lens through the hole in the cloth and press your lens up to the glass. Now drape the cloth over the lens and the glass to block out the light from behind you that's causing all of the reflections.

It almost goes without saying that you will need some tape or an assistant when you do this. You need something to hold the cloth up to the glass.

It also helps to have absolutely zero concern for what random passersby might think of you. Pressing anything up to glass looks pretty weird (especially out in public), so smile and act like you were the one hired to photograph the patrons in the café today.

Lighting

Flash is a definite no-no. You're trying to prevent outside light from entering into your photo, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to add in more outside light (especially of the highly intense pinpoint variety your onboard flash makes). It doesn't matter if you use a polarizer or not. It probably won't be strong enough to block out the flash.


Sharks hate flashes, and so do your aquarium photos!
Friends don’t let friends use flash in front of glass.

You should also consider the lighting inside of the place you're trying to shoot. Is it strong enough? Most indoor spaces (aside from aquariums designed to grab your attention) aren't lit well enough for cameras. You might need to consider using a tripod to keep your camera stable. This allows you to use slower shutter speeds and capture more light coming in from the other side of the glass.

Once again, the tripod solution probably isn't ideal for candid photography (you'll get discovered while you’re setting up shop), but it's fine for aquarium photography and other purposes. If you want to do something similar, and you are going for a candid shot, increase your ISO speed in conjunction with using the polarizing filter. A slight ISO speed increase will make your camera more sensitive to light, letting you see more of what's on the other side of the glass (but do be aware that it also makes your images a little more grainy).

Other uses for these techniques

Glass isn't the only reflective surface. You can also use a polarizing filter to get rid of reflections on shiny metal objects and water. Just remember to look through your camera's viewfinder and twist the filter until you've gotten rid of as much glare as you can. Every surface is a little bit different in the way it reflects light. Keep adjusting your polarizing filter until it's just right.

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Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    Trying to shoot bears at night through window within 10 ft of home. No time to go on porch. Need to do it through window. Have canon 50D and 70D. Usually, outside spotlight is on. During daytime, just make sure flash is off.

  2. Barb Feggestad says:

    I have tried taking pix through glass, usually put the lens right on the glass if it's a window, otherwise I shoot at an angle so it doesn't reflect. I do, however enjoy reflections a lot. I love shooting flowers siting in front of a large mirror, or ON a large mirror, reflecting a ceiling fan with a vase of flowers in the middle of it! The mirror increases the amount of flowers you have plus the back side of them. I've used more than two mirrors to get an even better affect. I've put a mirror on the floor with a cat or dog, that usually gets a good reaction of pets, or babies!

    Thanks, David!

  3. Herb Morrison says:

    For taking shots through glass I attach to my lens a rubber shade hood and presss the shade hood up to the glass. I even used my flash to light up an acquarium with the lens hood firmly up to the glass. It works, the flash did not in any way disrubt the image, in fact it added to it.

  4. Frank says:

    Thanks for all your tips I have taken pictures from airplane few times this help ...

  5. Jan says:

    During a trip in South Africa (Addo Elephant park) I made a lot of fotographs both with standard and tele lens throug the window of the touring car. I don't have polarizing filters. I've just put the front of the lens as close as possible against the window allowing for focussing and could avoid refections in this way

  6. behzad says:

    thanks david for your advice and also all the others for their remarks.

  7. Dan says:

    I like taking photos in aquariums but clearly break all of the rules. First, I'm in a wheelchair so I use a monopod. I must use autofocus as my eyesight is so bad, manual focus is out of the question. I try to always shoot the subject critter at an angle to combat reflections. If I must, I do use a flash. Most times, no, not all times, the flash reflection is not in the image due to shooting at an angle. Normally I avoid shooting through glass but will try lower f-stop and polarizing filter.

  8. Peter Beal says:

    When i take pick's that are behaind glass or cages i tend to use manuale focus that way i get the subject n' not the glass or cage.

  9. David Gilbert says:

    David

    You have missed the most improtant advice for taking pictures through glass. Left to its own devices, an auto focus camera will focus on the glass - there is always dust or fingerprints for it to focus on. Sometimes holding the camera very close to the glass will fool the auto-focus, but always better to use the manual focus feature (if your camera has one) to ensure that the camera focusses where you want it to. I also have a cheap Canon camera that can select infinity/normal/macro, and the infinity setting is ideal for taking pictures through glass or a car windscreen (and is much less of a fiddle than using the manual focus facility on my G9).

    Regards
    David

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
8 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.