Photographing reflective items is already tricky enough, then add in being transparent and you’ve got a nightmare.
Glassware is one of the hardest subjects you can work with, but I’m going to walk you through two styles and methods of photographing glassware that you can do at home, with a few simple items to get looks like the images above.
First, you will need to get a few things to do this. You don’t need studio lights or a light tent but if you have those, great. If you want to buy a light tent, I got this one from Amazon for under $100 and it came with different coloured backgrounds, two lights (with simple fluorescent bulbs) and stands, and two Plexiglas tables. If you don’t want to spend any money you can even make your own – check out: DIY light tent on dPS.
The other way to go is to pay a visit to your local art supply store and buy some poster boards. That’s what I did and I spent less than $20. At the minimum you will need one large black one, one large white one, and an extra of each that you can cut in half like I did (I got blue as well but didn’t end up using it so you can skip the blue). You can see how big they are here on my dining room table. I cut both mine into halves and found the background ones were a bit small – so I recommend keeping one of each whole.
As you can see below, the white board has a bent and torn corner. Look for those on purpose, as you can usually get them at a discount because artists can’t use them and the store can’t sell them. So offer to take the damaged ones off their hands and see what kind of deal you can swing.
Just make sure you get boards that are stiff enough to stand up on their own and not flop over. Foam care works great, as does mat board. I found the thinner poster boards (you can see them on top) didn’t work as well for backgrounds but did for other things (keep reading to find out how I used them), so if you get some they will be useful but you may be able to buy smaller ones.
Setup for glassware on a white background
The first one we’ll do is a white background setup. I used the white Plexiglas underneath my glass to start (image below left) but switched it to black as I liked the reflection better (below right).
Okay so compare the two images above. In both shots I have used a white board as the background, so why is the one on the left so gray? That is because it has no light on it. For the image on the right, I turned my lights to face the background and had them not shining directly on the glass. Notice all the little light spots and highlights in the glass in the left image? That is how it looks when you light glassware directly.
The secret to photographing glassware is to not light it directly. Never shine a light directly at glassware.
Now let’s clean it up a little. If you look closely at the glass below left you can still see lots of light spots reflected in the glass. That is the glass picking up the lights from behind. So even though my lights are behind the glass, pointed at the background, the glass still sees it!
Notice I have canned air handy. Make sure all surface are clean and dust free at all times as it will cut down on having to clone them out later in LR or PS.
Compare to the image on the right (above) and see how clean it looks now? I have put up black cards to block the light from hitting the glass. My setup looks like this:
The important things to take note of here are:
- The lights are behind the glassware, pointed at the background not the glass.
- The lights are flagged off or being blocked by black cards so that no direct stray light is hitting the glass. In my room I also had to block a window which was causing reflections. If you do this in a dark room or a night you’ll have less issues with stray ambient light.
- The ISO is low to keep noise to a minimum. Put your camera on a tripod and use a remote release so you can use a longer shutter speed and not get blur from camera shake.
- Aperture is set to f/8 to make sure I get the whole glass sharp. If you use f/4 or a larger aperture you may just get the front edge sharp and the back of the glass would be blurry. Make sure you have enough to cover the whole subject.
Using a light tent for white background
Now let’s see how it’s done using a light tent. Below you can see my setup using the same glass.
Everything here was the same as the setup above, but I was very careful not to light up the sides of the tent. When you are shooting glassware on a white background you want the edges nice and clean, with black reflected on the glass not white. You are going for contrast here, and adding a white highlight will take away from the clean look.
I added small pieces of the black poster board that I cut up, (remember I mentioned it came in handy earlier) and put inside the tent to reflect black onto the glass. Then I put the larger black boards on the outside to keep stray light out. These are the little things that will make a big difference to having a clean look to your glassware shot.
Now let’s try a harder subject – a wine bottle!
A bottle of wine is still glassware but it has the added difficulty of being dark glass, and having a label on the front.
Above left you see what happens when we put the lights directly on the bottle. You get bright specular highlights on the glass and it’s not nice and clean. On the right I’ve aimed the lights at the background again and added in my black boards to block any spill from hitting the bottle. Now the bottle and wine looks great, but the label is almost black and not readable. If you’re doing a product shot for the winery, they would not be impressed.
So how do we fix that? You have a couple options. Depending on your setup and the bottle. See below.
On the left image I have used one of the white boards in really close to the front of the bottle to reflect some light back onto the label. It produces a nice shape highlight on the bottle too.
If that’s not enough light to illuminate the label you can shoot two different images and combine them in Photoshop as I did with the image on the right. The label taken from the first image where the lights were directly on the bottle, and sandwiched with the one above left to make the final image (above right). By using layers and blend modes this is done fairly quickly and easily. I also turned the opacity of the label layer down so it wasn’t overly bright.
Read/watch these tutorials for help with layers and blending:
- Video Tutorial: Photoshop Blending Modes Explained
- Layer Masking in Photoshop – What is it and how do you use it?
Setup for glassware on a black background
To shoot glassware on a black background you need to just reverse everything above. I found it hard, but not impossible to do it inside a light tent. It will depend on the size of your tent and the size of your subject, but you can probably make it work.
For the two images below the setup was similar, with a few extra twists needed once again for the wine bottle.
The glass was fairly straight forward. Put it in front of a black background. This time however, your lights will need to be pointed at some white cards which get set where you put the black ones in the white background shots above. Like so:
The highlights on the glass come entirely from reflections off the white cards. If you want thinner highlights either angle the boards a little (outward so no light spills onto the background), move them back a bit away from the glass, or cut them smaller.
If you look closely at the wine bottle image above you’ll notice the label has a night bit of light and a highlight on it as well. That was done with a board in front, reflecting light back onto the bottle. But you may also notice that the bottle contents are a bit lit up also. Let me show you how that is done and what it looks like if you don’t do this step.
- Above left: There was a reflector used over top the bottle to light up the top of it. Notice in the other two images it almost blends into the background?
- Above middle: There was a round reflector (the fold out kind) used to bounce some light into the label here. I didn’t like the shape of the highlight it made on the bottle and there was a hot spot from the light directly hitting it too. So. . .
- Above right: Here I used a board again, got a nice square highlight on the bottle and label, and managed to keep any stray light from spilling onto it.
Notice that when I put the reflector in front I lost the highlight on the side of the bottle on the right hand side? I ended up having to sandwich two images in Photoshop once again to make the final image. But there is still one more step – lighting up the liquid inside the bottle!
This is where your white poster boards will get cut up into bits. Cut out a shape that matches the outline of the bottle, but is slightly smaller. Then place it behind the bottle at angle to catch some of the light.
For this shot I knew I was going to combine two or three images in PS later so I just had my helper (aka husband) hold the little bottle cutout for me. But you could also bend the bottom and use some sticky tape or silly putty to hold it in place. Here are the three images I used to make the final image:
Left image for the bottle highlights and edges, middle for the front label, and right image for the inside of the bottle (the wine) – and voila!
Using a light tent for black background
Here’s the same bottle done use the little light tent.
Notice the little bottle shaped card is being held up with the glass, which does not appear in the shot. I just folded the bottom of the card, taped it to the plexi table, and used the glass to prop it upright. You can also see where the lights are placed – almost behind the tent. This is so they do not shine directly through the sides of the tent onto the bottle. Remember, indirect light for glassware will yield the nicest results.
Here are a couple other angles so you can see how it’s all setup.
Here is the final results of the bottle shots from inside the tent.
Look very closely at the two images above, can you see a difference? It’s very subtle but look at the highlights on the sides of the bottle. They are narrower and less intense (not as bright) in the right image. The only difference in the setup is that I moved the lights back a bit more behind the tent in the right image. We’re talking inches here – so pay attention to little things and sometimes really minor adjustments will make a difference to the image.
When you’re doing this kind of photography it’s really helpful to have an assistant, a helper. That way you can look through the camera and have them move the lights, reflectors or subject around (sometimes in minute amounts) and you can see what affect it has. If you are doing it yourself you may spend a lot of time running back and forth, nudging things a tiny bit, checking the shot, and tweaking again before you get it just right.
Photographers who do this kind of work can spend 3-4 hours on a shot like this so don’t let it get you down if you aren’t getting it perfect within the first 10 minutes – have patience!
Now you can see that I have my little bottle cutout working on the left image above (as you can see I didn’t do a very good shape, you can do better!). On the right it all comes together with the reflector in place for the label. In this case I was able to get the shot in a single frame but I noticed something about the images I took before placing the bottle shaped reflector in place – can you see it?
There was a nice orange coloured highlight coming through the wine in the first shots, but the bottle reflector blocked the light and the bottom of the bottle looks duller now. Back to Photoshop!
For this final set I took a slightly higher camera angle so I got more of the top of the bottle in the shot. Then I did two images – one without the bottle back reflector, and one with – and combined the two in Photoshop to get the image on the right above. See that night color in the bottom of the bottle now?
There’s an odd black split in my highlight on the right side of the bottle and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Something was breaking the highlight, could have been the edge of the tent. Look for things like that when you’re doing glassware and make sure you have nice clean highlights and edges.
Some other random glassware photography tips
Lastly here are a few other things to watch out for when shooting glassware:
- Clean the glass carefully looking out for fingerprints, and dust. They will show up and you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle and work later just by being diligent cleaning it.
- Look for flaws and imperfections in the glass. Pick on that is clear and flawless and has no chips or cracks.
- Watch for reflections – remember glassware is the ultimate reflective object so you will see everything in it including potentially yourself and the camera. So wear dark clothes and cover up your tripod with a dark cloth if necessary.
- Use canned air or a rocket blower to blow dust off the glassware and table if you use a reflective surface like I did here.
Now it’s your turn to be brave and give this a try. Even if you never plan to do any commercial photography this is an exercise that can really help you learn about light and how to control it. Share your images and any questions you have in the comments section below.