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The Secret Behind 'Gravity?' (among other things…)

Published December 6th, 2011

Honestly, my glass photography was born almost completely out of curiosity. I was doing some research while in photo school and stumbled across a photo that had some similar waterline effects to my ‘Gravity?’ image, but it lacked the technical detail to be able to live up to it’s potential visual strength. I tend to be an anal retentive perfectionist and I found myself wondering how awesome a photo like that would look if it was lit well and produced better. I just couldn’t resist giving these things a try.

A good amount of ya’ll have been asking about my glass photography recently. So, I wanted to put together a post with some of the things that I have learned while playing around with this stuff. (Which really is the best way to learn!) I think I’d rather give tips than a tutorial because I know I am most pleased with my personal work when I haven’t followed step by step instructions to get there.

1. Simplify things. It sounds goofy, but I have found that the most powerful glass images seem to take on more of a graphic than photographic feel. Simple lighting, simple composition, simple lines etc. You want your subject to be the only thing your viewer’s eyes could even possibly jump to.

2. Simple lighting is absolutely the key. I’ve tried much more complex lighting layouts but by far, my favorite shots are the ones I lit on a white seamless with just one light. Sometimes it’s necessary to use more than one light but it should be a goal to use as few lights as possible. (Just because you have them doesn’t mean you MUST use them)

3. Especially when you’re using just one light, your placement is critical. Glasses tend to be really reflective and when you’re aiming for a graphic image most reflections/glares can easily detract from the visual impact. The best way I have found to beat this is to NOT light the glasses. Instead, light the background and let the background light your glasses. I put my light under the table that my glasses are on and aim it at the background. There aren’t reflections in a glass that can’t see the light, right? Keep the flash and your glasses a little ways off of your background. That’ll give the light a second to spread before it reaches your background and give you an evenly lit scene.

4. Color can easily add to the visual impact of the shot, especially on a white or black background. My only caution is that you must remember your background is the light source. If you choose a liquid that has too dense of a color, then it won’t allow enough light to bounce back through to the camera and you’ll just get a glass of black liquid. I like to use water and just a drop or two of food coloring. (It takes much less color than you’d think)

5. Pay attention to your camera’s perspective. Like I said earlier, these images (in my opinion) are much stronger when they become more graphic than photographic. One of the ways to aid that graphic appearance is to minimize the amount of lines that are visible in the photo. My favorite thing is to level the camera with the water line. You’ll notice that as you move your camera up or down the front and back of the waterline will come in and out of alignment. When the camera is level with the waterline, it’ll just be one line throughout the photo. Also try to pay attention to the rim and other edges on the glasses. The more you can get these things to line up, the simpler and more graphic your photo will become.

6. Consider your flash’s output duration. If you haven’t heard of flash duration before it is basically the amount of time it takes for your flash to go from completely unlit to hitting the peak of it’s flash and back to being completely unlit. This amount of time becomes important when you are trying out any pouring, splashing or breaking shots. It’s a commonly known fact that flash helps freeze action (and it’s correct). But, when you get into trying to freeze things that are moving this quickly the duration of the flash can actually light the subject long enough to allow the camera to see it blur. One of the bragging points of higher end flashes can usually be their flash duration. But don’t worry, you have a few options even with the flashes you currently own. If you have a studio style strobe, turn it down as low as you can and balance your exposure by opening your aperture. In theory, the lower the power output, the faster the flash duration. If you’re still noticing blur, try using a speedlight. Speedlights tend to have really quick durations which become even faster when you turn their output down as well. Still getting blur? As a last option, try using available light! You could put a white peace of silk in a window and put your glasses in front of it, using the window as your main light source and your background.

7. Be really detailed. Seriously... like, anal retentively detailed. Keep q-tips or paper towels around to get rid of any drops of water that may detract from the shot. Pay attention to your glasses to make sure that they are lined up well. Shooting using lower flash powers means smaller apertures and shallower depth of fields so it’s really important to be checking your focus. Because of how glasses curve, it’s best to focus on the waterline. While I’ve never done tests to prove it, I have always heard that it’s best to focus about 1/3 of the way into your subject. So, I try to focus on the waterline that is out towards the edges of the middle glass instead of the waterline that is directly in the center and I’ve been happy with the results... :-)

8. Edges are really important! Keep an eye on them and make sure they’re as defined as possible. On a black background this means rimming the edges with light. I am going to assume ya’ll are relatively familiar with rim light so I’ll jump to how I flag my edges on a white background. My favorite thing to do is to set up a second set of background stands with a cross bar. Then, I hang black fabric (blankets, towels, cards or flags work too) on either side of the glasses and around 6 inches behind them. The black will reflect on the edges of the glasses and help to define them from the white. The stronger you want the black to be, the more you slide your fabric in towards the glasses. If the black begins to overpower the image or it’s colors, slide the fabric away from the glasses.

9. Make it your goal to use a platform that is attractive but helps direct the viewer’s attention only to the glasses. Mirrors work really well! If you don’t feel like going out and getting a mirror, you can always just get a piece of glass and put a piece of your seamless paper under it. Obviously, white if you’re shooting on white and black with black.

10. I prefer to use a longer focal length. The longer the focal length, the more your scene will be compressed. This will use the smallest amount of your background which will allow you to have the most evenly spread lighting possible. This is a small detail thing, but I think it makes a big difference. The more you pay attention to the small details, the more your photos will stand out.

And lastly, here’s the secret behind my gravity photo. All I did was tilt the mirror and camera at the exact same angle. I think the easiest thing to do is glue the glasses to the mirror. But, if you don’t want to do that, you can photograph the glasses lined up with the mirror level (so you have a clean photo to use for retouching) and then duct-tape the glasses to the mirror. This is actually what I did in my CMYK photo. So, the waterlines that you see in these photos have not been faked or tilted in photoshop. In my photo with waterlines going in separate directions, I photographed it with all four glasses but only two had liquid in them. Because the other two glasses were there, it was easy to flip the liquid horizontally and line it up correctly.

It’s difficult to keep up with all of the questions on each of the photos etc, but I will be keeping an eye on the comments on this post. Feel free to ask any question you like and I will do my best to answer them! And most importantly, play around with these tips but then push yourself to do something new or different. Try not to just duplicate my photo. I don’t say that to protect my photography but instead to encourage your creativity. Start with doing one of my shots to get concepts but then don’t stop there.

- Andrew.


  • March 14th, 2010
  • Nikon D700
  • 86mm / f/14 / 1/160 sec

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