This article is written by Digital Photo Mentor reader Cheryl Belczak. She shared the image above (in a comment on a past article) of the blue glassware and explained that she had created it in her own home. I was so impressed I asked if she could share her setup with us here so you can see how simple it is, and try it too.
If you have ever tried to photograph glassware, you know it is a very challenging subject. After many hours of reading, researching and shooting, I developed a DIY home-made studio setup to photograph glass subjects on a tabletop, still-life style. In this article you will find tips and tricks that will make it easy for you to set up your studio with things you can find around the house. Even if you don’t have any of this stuff in your home it will cost you less than $20 to get everything you need!
This article will show you how to create dark field (black background) images featuring glass subjects, and keep it simple. Bright field (white backgrounds) and still life setups using window light may be covered in a future article. Read on for methods, tips and tricks that will allow you to setup light and photograph glass subjects today:
Subject and props
Choose a glass subject. Clear or dark colored glass will be represented by a line of light (rim light) on the edge of your subject to make it stand out from the background.
Lighter colored glass or frosted glass can also be represented with a glow to the subject.
As you learn and practice you may choose to add items to create a story within your image, but to get started (and minimize frustration) it is best to keep it simple.
Camera and tripod
You will be using a long exposure for these images so you need a sturdy tripod.
Your camera should have manual controls for focus and exposure. A remote release or cable release is helpful, but not necessary. If you don’t have one, use the self-timer to minimize camera movements from pressing the shutter.
Reflectors and background
Foam boards: Two white (for reflectors), one black (for the background)
Mirror: Use one if you would like a reflective surface for your tabletop. The size needs to be big enough to arrange your subject, and have some extra space surrounding it. In the setup shots you may notice the one I used had a beveled edge and a frame. That is a worst case scenario. You can work around it if the mirror is larger than your intended field of view (the area that will be in your final image).
A utility clamp lamp you find at a hardware store for less than $10 can be the primary light source with an incandescent light bulb. Reflecting this light with foam boards and/or small mirrors will give the illusion of more than one light.
Flashlights may also be used for light painting methods. Also be aware that LED flashlights will produce a very blue light compared to the main light and can be used creatively. But, if you don’t want to create color casts, and would like the light to match the main light source, you also need to use an incandescent flashlight.
Some helpful items to have are:
- small L-shaped brackets
- a dish cloth
- a black marker
- black paper
- sticky tack and spring clamps
- binder clips or clothes pins
You will also need to seek out various items to prop up reflectors (books or vases work well) or the subject (a small rock, sticky tack or even your lens cap – just make sure the camera doesn’t see them or you will have to clone them out later).
A handheld mirror, extra pieces of white foam board or small pop-up reflectors may be useful to bring more light into your scene. You may not need all of these things. Keep reading for when and how you will use these items.
Set your stage
A table works well for a comfortable working height, but if you want to set this up in a garage or basement you could use sawhorses and a piece of wood for a makeshift table. In the behind the scenes photo you see my dining table, and I was also able to use our dining chairs to hold the clamp light. If you are using the reflective tabletop, put the mirror on the table first, then use clips with the L-brackets to make the black foam board stand on its own.
If your black foam board has a white core (like mine) you will need to color it with the black marker where it touches the mirror otherwise it will create a white line where they meet. This dish towel is to roll up and place behind the backdrop so light doesn’t leak through underneath. Place the clamp light behind the background with the light directed at it. Prop the two white foam boards (reflectors) next to the backdrop as seen in the photo. Place your subject on the stage.
Control the light – control the reflections
You want to control all the light and how it hits your subject.
Any light that directly hits your subject will show in your photo as a small, bright (specular) highlight and you usually want to avoid that in glassware shots.
Working in a dark room at night is the perfect solution, because there will be no stray light.
The white foam board reflectors will indirectly bring the light from behind the background, around to light the subject. You can change the intensity by changing the distance, and angles, of both the clamp light and the reflectors. For example, to put more light on the daisy flower and help it glow, I placed it on one side (instead of more in the middle) and tilted the clamp light toward the reflector next to it. I also held a small mirror in front of the flower to reflect light back into the center.
The best way to see the differences is to make changes and compare the results on the computer.
Looking at your images on the computer is important to see things you may not notice on a small camera screen.
Remember the mirror platform will reflect what it sees, so be sure the white foam boards are not reflected in it. You want the camera to see only the black background and subject reflected.
Set up your camera
Whatever lens you have will work – no excuses.
We are going to go full manual (exposure mode and focus setting) here because your camera will have trouble focusing in the dark and will try to lighten the black background.
You will notice that these images use a wide depth of field to get as much of the subject in focus as possible.
To do this you want to use a narrow aperture (high f-number). I used a prime (non-zooming, fixed focal length) 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera. The smallest aperture on that lens is f/16.
Keep your ISO at the lowest setting to minimize noise.
If you are thinking ahead you’ve realized that: Dark Room + One Indirect Light Source + Small Aperture + Low ISO = Really Long Exposure Time!
Exposure times will probably be from one to five seconds. It will vary based on many factors including your subject, the intensity of the lights, and your intention or vision for the image.
Long shutter speeds are best handled with a remote trigger to fire the camera, because that will minimize camera movement that may happen when you press the shutter release on the camera. If you don’t have a remote, use a 10 second self-timer, so that any vibrations or camera shake introduced by touching the camera will have time to stop before the image is recorded.
Using your Mirror LockUp function will also help keep your photos sharp by minimizing internal camera movement while shooting. Using the LiveView function on your DSLR automatically locks up the mirror and allows you to zoom in to check your focus. If you would like to use autofocus you could turn on an overhead light, allow autofocus to work its magic, then switch the camera to manual focus and turn off the extra light. Just be aware that the camera may not focus precisely where you want, so you may want to refine it. Set your White Balance to Incandescent to match the light source.
This is a great project for insomniacs and night owls, or in the winter when the nights are long and you may not feel like braving the weather outside. I began experimenting with this method because I have two small children, and the best time for me to concentrate is when they are sleeping. As you work on these projects you will be refining your understanding of lighting and composition to make you a stronger photographer in all situations.
If you have a space where you can set up your shot and leave it, this can be really helpful. Sometimes you need a little time away from the shot to see how small tweaks in subject position, or camera angles, can make a big difference. For example, propping up the top of the subject in this photo was an important change. I used my lens cap and it added just enough of an angle so its reflection was more prominent in the image.
Experimentation is the key!
Ask yourself “What if?” Change the position of the subject(s), the lighting, the camera angle… You can’t always guess what will work until you see it. Also something that doesn’t work may lead to a great idea. An advantage with the long exposures in this technique is you can also experiment with light painting (where you use a flashlight to illuminate part of the scene).
In the Daisy Satin Glass photo (blue bowls above) the glass spheres inside the bowl were lit with a LED flashlight giving them a blue glow. You can also see the small white specular highlights in each bead as I held the light above the bowl (out of frame). Care was needed to be sure the light didn’t stray onto other parts of the scene, so I wrapped a folded piece of black construction paper around the end of the flashlight (my low-budget snoot) to carefully direct the stream of light. I also held the flashlight at an angle toward the back of the bowl so the bright highlights wouldn’t show in the reflection.
As you can see, so many things can affect the lighting in your scene and I can’t possibly cover all different scenarios. So again, the best way to learn is to experiment. Please check out this short video of the images I created while exploring this technique. Hopefully it will inspire you to get started. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask.
Cheryl Belczak began her career in marketing planning and copywriting. Viewing marketing as business-centered-art brought a transition to graphic design. It became clear that strong, custom, creative images to support business, products and marketing efforts are important. Learning photography, experimenting and sharing her work, ideas and methods have become a passion. She lives with her husband and two boys while using any spare second to shoot, share and teach photography. Find her blogging at TypicalCheryl.com