Intermediate If you've spent any time experimenting with studio lighting, you can probably guess (or maybe you know from first-hand experience) how challenging it is to shoot photos of glass objects. Glass has a highly reflective surface, which means that you can't light it the same way you light other subjects. But if you really want to develop an understanding of light and how to work with it, this is a challenge I urge you to undertake, and to keep working at until you get some good results. The ability to shoot glass objects well is a skill that will also help you in your other photographic pursuits.
[ Top image Cocktail at Sunset by Flickr user Thomas Hawk]
Your frenemy: the reflection
When photographing glass objects, your foe is the reflection. But the reflection is also your friend, because a good reflection can actually make the photograph. And that's why the whole endeavor is such a challenge. To take a photo, you need light. And light reflects off of glass surfaces, but not always in the way you want it to. When you point your light source directly at a glass subject, you create ugly hotspots. The trick is to avoid these hotspots and instead create smooth, pleasing reflections that emphasize the shape and transparency of the object rather than simply bouncing off its surface.
Glass Art macro by Flickr user fdecomite
To start with, you will need a plain, seamless backdrop. Your backdrop can be any color, but black or white will place your viewer's attention on the object itself while another color will change the overall feeling of the shot (as well as the color of the glass). You can also use a backdrop with a graduated shade (black to white, one color to another etc.), but anything busier than that should be reserved for later, after you have mastered the basics of glass object photography.
You don't really need a backdrop designed specifically for studio photography; you can also improvise with a piece of cloth or even a large sheet of paper. Either way, the backdrop should be positioned behind and under the object so there will be no visible seams in the final image.
Prepare your Subject
It's easy to think you are photographing a clean object but then later discover that all your photos feature a giant fingerprint or a million little specs of dust. Before shooting, make sure your glass is clean and that your hands are, too. This means wiping off the glass surface with an anti-static cloth (such as the one you would use for keeping your camera's lens clean) and/or blowing it clean with compressed air. Make sure you wash your hands before touching the glass, and don't use gloves because the gloves themselves will leave dust and other particles on the glass surface.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the key to getting glass object photography right is to get the light right. Direct light is not going to give you the best images. Diffuse light is really the only way to go.
Cocktail at Sunset by Flickr user Thomas Hawk
There are several ways you can create diffuse light for this type of photography. The most basic way is to set up your studio outdoors on an overcast day. The lighting will be perfect for glass product photography, with the only caveat being that you won't have much control over how and where the light falls on your subject.
For more controlled results, go back indoors and put your object inside a light tent, which is essentially just a box made of white fabric with an open front, lit from the back and sides. You can purchase a light tent at Amazon or a photography supply shop or you can make one by cutting out the sides of a simple cardboard box and draping fabric over the back and sides.
Discovery 13/365 by Flickr user Benson Kua
A light tent is a great, beginner place to start since it is fairly simple to get good results this way. The disadvantage to using a light tent, though, is that your glass object might appear a little flat, since it will be lit uniformly from three directions. After a few successful shots you're probably going to want to move away from the light tent and try different setups so that your final images will be a little more interesting. Now it's time to try using a softbox.
You can use a single softbox with pretty good results. The softbox will give you soft reflections, which will help define the shape of the object and give it some dimension without creating any of those blown-out highlights that are so undesirable with this type of photography. Start by positioning the softbox on either side of the object. Do keep in mind, though, that a softbox has a shape as well as hard edges, which may create softbox-shaped reflections and unwanted black spots in your glassware. Many professional product photographers will actually soften the softbox itself by draping a piece of diffuse material between it and the glassware.
You can get a different look by placing the softbox behind your object, which will eliminate reflections altogether. There are disadvantages to backlighting glass, however, that you need to be aware of. The first is that the backlighting puts emphasis on imperfections in the glass, and on any dust or fingerprints that might happen to be there. The second problem is a reduction in contrast, which occurs because the light is shining directly into the lens.
It helps if you can also light your subject from below with a second, smaller light source. You will need to have your glassware positioned on a transparent surface, such as a glass-topped coffee table (your backdrop will further diffuse the light as it comes through the glass).
Brightfield Glass (Red) by Flickr user matthewgriff (EmmGee)
One way of putting back that contrast in a backlit subject is to use the "bright field method," which is a way of creating a dark outline around your subject. This is actually easier than it sounds. Using a diffuse white backdrop, light your subject from behind and below, then place two dark sheets of fabric on either side. The object will reflect the black fabric, which will give it the appearance of having an outline. Alternately, you can try the "dark field method," which is exactly the reverse: use a black backdrop and two white pieces of fabric on either side.
Dentergems dark field experiment by Flickr user Arjan Almekinders
Photographing glass can teach you a lot about the way light works, and about the difference between diffuse light and hard light. It can also give you some great shots for your portfolio. It might take a lot of trial and error to get that one perfect shot, but keep trying. You'll gain some valuable skills along the way, too.
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