Glass is both a joy and a nuisance to photograph. It has three wonderful properties that captivate the imagination and have the potential to transform the mundane into the magical. These same properties, however, can also be frustrating aspects of the material.
Working with Transparency and Reflectivity
The first appealing property of glass is its transparency. Who hasn’t been tempted to take photographs through windows, museum dioramas, aquarium glass, and shop displays? Besides shooting from the outside in, there are photo opportunities when you are on the inside looking out—such as observing a street scene from inside a café or restaurant.
As shutterbugs, we are so taken by our ability to see through glass that we often forget it is there. That is when glass begins to play its tricks on us, luring us into photographic traps. For example, we fail to notice reflections that interfere with our ability to capture what interest us on the other side. Sometimes we even activate our flash units, forgetting that the bright light will bounce right back at us.
A second enchanting quality of glass is its very reflectivity. While we don’t always notice reflections or want them in our image, they can become subjects in their own right. The sheen of a modern glass office tower can mirror all sorts of interesting city sights, sometimes with abstract twists and distortions. Reflections can also be combined with whatever is on the other side of the glass to create highly individual interpretations of the scene.
Clearly, marvelous images can be made photographing through glass. But to do successfully, we have to be objective in our looking and take a few simple precautions:
Move close to the subject. By standing close to the glass surface, you will reduce unwanted reflections that may interfere with your picture. The lens can even touch the glass, preferably with a collapsible rubber lens shade as a buffer.
Polarize. Use a polarizing filter to eliminate reflections, or if you have no choice but to shoot at an angle that retains some reflections. If you want some but not all of the reflections, watch carefully through the lens as you rotate the polarizing filter and turn it to just the point that satisfies you. Of course, if the reflections interest you, be sure you are not polarizing them out of the photograph.
Also read: Do you still need a polarizing filter? Yes!
Do not use flash. The light will only bounce off the glass, leaving a bright glare spot and little else. If a display is dimly lit, steady your camera on a tripod or nearby ledge and take as long an exposure as necessary. In museums that don’t allow tripods, just push your ISO up so you can get a sharp image with your camera hand-held using a shutter speed of at least 1/60th of a second. (Fortunately, a growing number of modern DSLRs, such as the Canon 7D, Nikon D5100, and Sony A55, can deliver outstanding image quality at high ISO settings.)
Use a wide-angle lens. Anything that’s behind glass is in fairly confined quarters, whether it’s a museum display case, a diorama, a store window or even an aquarium. A wide-angle lens allows you to take in a broader expanse than other lenses and lets you work at closer range.
Check exposure carefully. Whether you are shooting from the inside out or the outside in, there may be a considerable light differential between the two sides of the glass. To get good exposure on both sides of the glass, meter the brightest and darkest areas within the frame. If the difference is several f/stops, you may have to opt for proper exposure on only one side, leaving the other extreme either under- or over-exposed. If you want both extremes well exposed, you can use an HDR computer program to combine three or more separate, bracketed shots taken at different exposures – but your camera has to be on a tripod so the composition remains identical. After you download these three images, the HDR program sandwiches them into one well-exposed image. Learn more about HDR software.
Playing with Translucency
The third property of glass, its translucency, has made it ideal for the inspired creations of stained-glass artists through the ages. The magnificent windows of Europe’s medieval cathedrals draw crowds to this day, and stained glass touches abound in architecture around the world.
Fortunately, the gemlike beauty of stained glass is not hard to photograph. And there are simple remedies for the problems photographers do encounter:
Watch where you aim. When we look at stained glass, we tend to turn spontaneously toward the brightest light and our eyes have the capacity to accommodate to the disparity between the highlights and more subdued areas. But if we aim our cameras toward the sun, we’re likely to produce a high-contrast image that may distort the true colors of the stained glass. For better results, turn your camera toward an area of stained glass where the light is more uniform.
Compose thoughtfully. Frame your shots so they make sense of the design of the stained glass. Here is a good place to take overviews, vignettes and details using the range of your zoom lens from wide-angle to telephoto. These can show the general setting for the stained glass, such as a chapel; as well as telling segments that reveal elements of the design.
Experiment for good color rendition. Those jewel-like colors we love in stained glass may need different exposures for the truest rendition. Since you probably can’t get the ideal exposure for each color you see, take a series of shots at different settings on your white balance menu. When you see the results, you can decide which variation is best for the colors in your particular shot. Or you may discover some interesting psychedelic effects that enhance your image even if the colors are not exact.
Have fun as you explore the various properties of glass with your camera and, as always, learn how to make them serve your vision.
Allen Rokach and Anne Millman are co-authors of “Focus on Travel: Creating Memorable Photographs of Journeys to New Places” by Abbeville Press. Rokach, a longtime magazine and assignment photographer, now teaches at Workshops@Adorama and other venues. His website is www.allenrokach.com.