Photographing Glass


Author: David Paterson, Ontario

Originally Posted at: 

Revised: August 03, 2005 

The following article was passed on by Don Niland, who found it on the forum.  It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.  At the end, I've included one response from Mike Firth; be sure to check out Mike's link to his site for more information on photographing glass.

How I Photograph My Glass

I studied glassblowing at Sheridan College, just outside Toronto, for 3 years. During that time, I also took several photography courses, which included very specific yet fairly simple methods of photographing glass. I have always photographed my own glass. Here is what I learned:

(1) Use a 35mm SLR. This is a must, because you have to see the lighting on the glass directly. Older Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, etc. SLRs are available used very cheaply, and were (and still are) excellent cameras.

(2) Use a zoom lens, and a tripod. Position the camera several feet back from the glass, and use the magnifying power of the zoom to 'get close' to the piece. A zoom in the range of 50-150 or 200 should work well.

The reason for this, which I consider mandatory for many pieces, is

(a) using a zoom at a substantial distance, both the front and back of the piece are effectively in focus at most apertures, and

(b) most people will actually view the piece in real life at some distance. If you use a regular lens and get up close to a 12" high piece, you may distort what the piece will really look like on display at normal viewing distances, and you run the risk that at some apertures the back of the piece will be out of focus.

(3) A simple way to display many pieces for photography is to cover a table with white or lightly colored cloth or paper, or perhaps a painted piece of MDF, and position the table several feet from a wall. Attach to that wall a large piece of the same material. I would often use white fabric (read sheet) or a white wall with quite good results.

Then put the glass piece on the far (back) edge of the table.

The effect of this simple setup is that the back wall will be out of focus, so that minor creases or flaws in the material aren't noticeable. Also, you would light the back wall separate from the piece, so you can adjust the density of the background relative to the piece.

The quality of the fabric or paper on which the piece sits is more important, as it will be in focus.

Of course there are simple variations on this, such as actually using a white pedestal and positioning it several feet from a white wall.

This technique may create a 'horizon line' behind the piece, which is the transition between what the piece sits on and the back wall. This can be quite an effective technique if done correctly, as it looks like the piece is sitting on a shelf or pedestal with a nondescript and non-intrusive background. By placing the piece closer or farther away from the back edge of the table, you control where the horizon line appears relative to the bottom of the piece. If the piece is right on the back edge of the table and you light the back wall as brightly as the piece, this line shouldnt be noticeable at all.

I learned this technique from Peter Hogan, the photography instructor at Sheridan, and he usually used it to photograph Dan Crighton's work for professional use in magazines, etc.

Another method of course, is to use a large roll of neutral or lightly colored paper or fabric that extends over the surface of a table, and then slopes upwards and away from you to the point where the roll is attached to the back wall, at a point higher than the top of the glass you are photographing. The transition from foreground to background isn't noticeable at all, and I know that this method is often used by many professional photographers.

However I usually use the first method for several reasons. It is easy to set up without any special materials. It gives excellent results. You only have to worry about small flaws in the material the piece sits on, as the back wall is completely out of focus. A roll of paper will get small creases or dirt marks quite quickly that show up quite badly under bright lights. (Of course if you use digital, you can fix this in Photoshop)

(4) Lighting: Here is the simplest technique, that works really well on many pieces of glass. Do your setup outside on a sunny day. (Don't laugh). You want afternoon sun that comes at least slightly from behind you. Also, you want no wind.

If you can get these conditions, you have eliminated setting up any lights at all, which is a huge pain in the ass.

The advantages of sunlight are:

(a) Simplicity!

(b) The vibrant colors of glass are often at their best under sunlight. Under sunlight, many pieces will have a 'punch' that isn't available with any other lighting.

(c) Sunlight is one point source of light that is 93 million miles away. One point source will create the smallest number of glare points on the glass, perhaps only one, if the piece is round, as most blown glass is.

The downside to direct sunlight is that it can create shadows on a complex piece. And some pieces need more subdued lighting for various reasons. However many pieces can be positioned so that the only shadow is directly behind it, and not visible if the glass is opaque or translucent And studio lights also create shadows, with more lights meaning more shadows, and more glare points.

I have taken some of my best photographs outside.

If you do use indoor lighting, you can get as fancy as your time and money permit. I have seen people build complicated tent like structures that are indirectly lit, to eliminate shadows and glare spots. However nondescript lighting in my opinion, produces a washed out photo without contrast or brilliant colors.

Inside, I usually use quartz halogen flood lights in clamp on lamp holders, that I clip onto one or more tripods or vertical poles of some sort. (I use the same clamp on lights at craft shows). To get good lighting, you need to play with several lights to minimize shadows and glare spots while still providing enough light to get good colors and contrast, and to be able to stop down your lens to or f8 or f11.

The aperture you use is quite important, in my opinion.
At f2.8 or f4, you don't have much depth of field. Also, most lenses are at their best at f8 or 11, and even an inexpensive zoom will give acceptable results. With the camera on a tripod you should be able to use f8 or f11 or f16 with a slow shutter speed.

Now you are at the point of actually taking your first picture. If you are using film, you have to decide on either print or slide film.

I always used slide film for one very important reason. Slide film is developed unaltered, whereas print film is almost always altered in the printing, where some sort of computer analyzes the lighting density of the print, and decides that your white or pale blue background should really be neutral, dismal gray. Unless you want to pay a lot extra for custom printing (and even then I have seen it screwed up), you will get back a whole bunch of useless photos.

Generally, you will be lucky to get a few perfect shots from a whole role of film. If you shoot slides, you take these shots and have them printed or digitized. And at least you get to see what the original shot looked like without any meddling.

If you have a computer with Photoshop or some similar program, and you get the slide scanned, you can clean up any little blemishes quite quickly.

Once you are ready to take your first photographs, you should do three things:

(a) Fine tune the height and position of your camera. Small changes that aren't that noticeable through the viewfinder may appeared to be magnified in the final photo.

(b) Fine tune the lights to get the best balance between contrast, shadows, glare spots etc.

Generally I will shoot the same piece from slightly different angles and with slightly different lighting. I actually do as many as I can afford that day (or feel like affording). After all this hassle, you want at least a few useful photos for your trouble. If buying film, get 36 exposures not 24, for the minimal extra cost. If shooting digital, fill that memory card up.

(c) Bracket your shots. By this I mean that if you are using an aperture of f8, then take one shot at the shutter speed specified by the light meter in the camera's viewfinder, take a second at one shutter speed slower, and a third at one shutter speed faster. This is quite important. Don't skip this step to save film. Buy more film! If you are using a white background that is brightly lit for example, the meter in the camera will at least partially read the background, depending on the size of the piece in relationship to the background, and may give a false reading. After your first session with a particular camera and lighting setup, you should have a better idea of how to expose your shots. But even then, always bracket your shots.

One last thing: Don't forget to to buy the appropriate film for your lighting. Indoor lighting requires film for tungsten lights, and outdoors requires daylight film.

I recently purchased a Canon D60 6 megapixel digital SLR. I am mostly doing other photos besides glass, and still learning the wonderful world of digital, however I did shoot some glass last week, and noticed the quartz lights produced a slight yellow tinge, just like you would expect with outdoor film. I know there is a fairly sophisticated white balance setting in the camera that I havent explored yet, and I was able to more or less fix the results using Photoshop.

I know that all of this may seem a bit complicated, but each step is really quite simple. An old 35mm SLR, an inexpensive zoom and a few minor props can, with minimal practice, produce professional results.

Good Luck!

 Additional note from Mike Firth:

When I went to a class at Corning, one tour was of the photo lab. when I got home, I adapted what I saw there. For me that meant buying a 2x4' sheet of sanded white Plexiglas as the photographer had prescribed and building a frame so that I could support the plex as it was in the studio, with no lines, etc., and so I could store the frame and the plex flat. Shown at

As with David, I shoot outdoors most of the time, rotating the frame to get the lighting I want, usually with a mild telephoto. Unlike David, I am shooting my Nikon Coolpix 995, which gives me a choice of resolutions. I find it much more convenient than the 35mm I still own and use when I need to.

Mike Firth
Hot Glass Bits









  2005 Graydog Services    webmaster:  jim(at)graydog(dot)org


| Graydog Glass | Sandcarver | Contents | Contributors | Forum | Photos | Cutting Edge