Shattering Glass Myths

Shattering Glass Myths
Steve Meltzer gets "transparent" with these essential tricks for successfully photographing glass artistry.
by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of Handmade Business

On a scale of difficulty from 1 to 10, the photography of glass is right up there at 11 or 12. By comparison, the photography of polished gold jewelry is a mere 9. Photographing glass requires much more attention to detail than with any other craft. On top of issues like form and surface, there is the challenge of translucency. You end up in a photographic juggling act that requires finding just the right balance between the light on the glass and the light coming through it. (Plus, keep in mind, all of this applies to acrylics, like Plexiglas and Lucite, and translucent stones.)

Consequently, when I have to shoot glass, I begin my effort with a strong double espresso and take some time just looking at the work, evaluating its shape, its color, and translucency.

Cracking Your Glass Phobia
When I write about crafts photography, I always emphasize the need to experiment. Every craft object is different and requires special attention. When I can describe a "how to photograph" technique, I am really just presenting you with a starting place. That is exactly how I approached photographing artist Eva Luca’s wonderful, multicolored glass sculpture. It presented a lot of photographic challenges:

1. Getting enough light through the dark colors without washing out the light ones.
2. Creating a rim-light along the top edges of work to separate it from the background.
3. Lighting the front to emphasis its textural qualities.
4. Lighting the front while maintaining a sense of translucency.
5. Avoiding having reflections of the studio in the flat surfaces.
6. Framing the piece to emphasize the intricate upper part without losing the rest of the work.

So I began with the basics. Two large coiled daylight fluorescent lamps in soft boxes. I turned off all the other lights in the room and placed the sculpture on the graduated background. I adjusted the background so that the top of the work was in front of the darker part of the background and then took a lot of time moving the piece position, until I was happy with the gray transitions behind it.

Eva Luca Eva Luca

Left and above: It took Meltzer more than an hour to place and light this sculpture to his satisfaction. Eva Luca's multicolored glass sculpture embodied both the challenge and the reward of glass photography.

With the lights on either side of the sculpture, I tried a test shot. The picture looked mushy; the light was too soft and flat; the colors lacked "pop." I needed to sharpen up the light, so I replaced the soft boxes with umbrellas and took another shot. This was better, but I was still not satisfied. I wanted more gleam and needed harder light. So I removed the umbrellas and put the bulbs into metal reflectors. This time in my test shots, the colors had some sparkle. Now I had to figure out where to put the lights to create a rim light to create a separation between the piece and the background.

I moved/leaned the lights on their stands so that they were almost directly over the piece. I raised one light about four feet over the work and aimed it at the part of background behind the work. Then I lowered the other light until it was directly three feet over the work. This brightly lit up the upper edges of the piece and made the texture of the front surface visible. Texture is the result of the contrast between light and shadow areas and the overheard light produced shadows on the piece’s surface that brought out its texture. You can see this texture effect by looking at the bottom of the piece, where the light reflected off the background reduces the shadows and the surface looks flat. As you move up the front, the shadowing is deeper and the texture becomes more and more prominent.

Shedding Light on Glare
When you think about lighting a shiny object, you always have to consider the issue of glare. Any polished or shiny surface will have some glare and you don’t want to eliminate it all because you need a little glare to give the surface a feeling of shine. Since glare is nothing more than the reflection of your light sources, there are simple ways to deal with it: move the lights around or soften the light by bouncing it off studio umbrellas; shooting it through a soft box panels or placing the object in a light tent.

So to start, let me say that the most important trick I’ve learned photographing glass is to turn out all the lights in the room except the lights you are shooting with. The darker the room, the better--not only do I point the lights at the work, but I reduce accidental light spilling into the studio with poster boards clipped to the sides of the lights. If the studio is very dark, there won’t be anything to reflect in the glass.

Natalie Campagne

Above: Meltzer figured out a way to handle the shooting of this glass-and-feather design by Natalie Campagne. But if you look closely at the bottom of the piece, you can see a few places where there's a little reflection of the studio.

Bess Heitner

Above: The photographer needed some distance between the earrings and the background to allow light to be reflected up into Bess Heitner's jewelry. If he had placed them on the white background, this would not have happened.

The lovely glass-and-feather piece, designed by Natalie Campagne, is an example of a glass object that when placed in front of a black background became a perfect mirror. At first, when I put it on my graduated background, it reflected everything in the studio, including my camera and me. And then, even with the room lights off, it took me half an hour to set up black cardboard light shields to block reflections even further.

Conquering the Color and Light Combo
Light coming through translucent material produces vibrant colors within the object. The pair of earrings by jeweler Bess Heitner illustrates this at its most basic. Nowadays, lots of Web product shots are taken on white backgrounds. For this shot, I needed to do more than simply lay the earrings on a white piece of paper. I put the earrings on a large piece of anti-reflection glass suspended about a foot over a piece of white paper.

Laura Vincenti

Above: Laura Vincenti's glass sculpture "Three Faces" exemplified the technique of lighting up glass against a dark background that is known as "highlighting."

The "Three Faces" glass sculpture by artist Laura Vincenti also illustrates this idea. Because it was not flat but had lots of curves and shapes, it was relatively easier to shoot. I laid out the graduated background so that the vertical dark part reached just about to the horizon and put the sculpture as far from the back as I could. Then I put a single light in a wide soft box high above the work and moved it until I got the light just the way I wanted it.