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How to Photograph Glass: Step-by-Step Tutorial

Glassware is one of the hardest subjects you can work with. Photographing reflective items is already tricky enough. But add in transparent glass and you’ve got trouble.
Here we’re going to cover the basics of glass photography and also see step-by-step how to shoot a creative still life with broken glass.
A creative glass photography triptych

1. Use Backlight to Combat Reflections

The biggest problem with photographing glass objects are reflections. Not all reflections are bad, mind you. Just like shadows, we use them to show the form of our subject.
But in glass photography, we like to avoid reflections.
And just like front light kills most of the shadows, backlight kills most of the reflections. The difference being that backlight is gorgeous.

Diptych of a photo of leaf in a glass jar and a diagram explaining the glass photography lighting setting
I used one speedlight behind a diffuser to light this jar

A photo of a champagne glass on white background - glass photography tips
And that’s how the same setup looks with a champagne glass

If you’re not sure where you’d like to go with a particular glass photo, start with setting a backlight.
It looks great. Especially if you’re photographing wine glasses or perfume bottles. Backlight will make the liquid shine.

2. Why You Don’t Need Any Fancy Equipment

To create backlight, you can use different methods. Not all of them require fancy photography equipment. In fact, you can get away with a rather simple lighting setup and simple techniques.
You can take a large sheet of white plastic (or even white paper) and light it with two speedlights.
In that case, your object would be lit not with the speedlights themselves, but with reflected light from a background.

A diptych showing a glass photography studio setup
This is how my setup looks like with the speedlight on and off

If you have a softbox, use it as a white background. This is very common in product photography.
I used a large diffuser with a speedlight behind it. The farther the speedlight is from the diffuser, the softer the light.
If you see a round spot of light and would like more even light on the background, place your light farther from a diffuser. Or add one more layer of diffusing material (a special white cloth or even a sheet of vellum paper).

3. How to Get Away With Not Photographing a Reflection

If you want a traditional symmetrical glassware shot with a reflection below, you can place your glass on a sheet of plastic and photograph a real reflection. But that adds one more surface to worry about.
You need to be careful about particles of dust on that surface. And you need to watch for unwanted reflections that surface can bring to a picture.
Shooting wine glass photography against white background
Instead, you can try a different approach. Namely, stacking glasses upside down to fake reflections.
Get two identical glasses, and simply place one on top of another. Voila!

4. Photograph Glass on a Black Background to Add Drama

To get the same shot, but on a black background, add a sheet of black paper right behind the glass.
The sheet should be wide enough to cover the area right behind the glass. But also narrow enough to keep the edges of your light source visible.
This creates a white glowing outline that looks really beautiful!
Diptych of a photo of a wineglass and a diagram explaining the glass photography lighting setting
In my case, the black background is two connected sheets of A4 paper. I could glue them to a cardboard to make them stand on their own, but actually, I just attached them to my diffusor with tape.

Shooting wine glass photography against a black background
Two sheets of black paper are enough for a black background. The softbox here creates a reflection you can see further away. 

5. Use Two Light Sources to Add Depth

The image with only one backlight looks clear and minimalist, but it may lack depth. Especially if you have a non-transparent object in the frame as well. In that case, place one more light source on the side of your object.
In my case, it’s a strip box with another speedlight. But reflector work as well.

Diptych of a photo of a wineglass and a diagram explaining the glass photography lighting setting
Champagne glass with an additional reflection

Shooting wine glass photography against black background
Compare the first setup (with on backlight) and the setup with a second strip-box

You can see how this strip-box adds a vertical reflection on the jar and lights the shadows of a plant inside it. The glass on the black background gets an additional reflection that compliments its shape.
Ideally, there should be another strip-box on the right side, to make it look symmetrical.
Diptych of a photo of a glass jar and a diagram explaining the glass photography lighting setting
An additional strip-box helps to reveal the texture and shape of a non-transparent plant

In my case, the additional strip-box is mostly useful to make a plant look not like a flat silhouette, but like a normal object. But that’s only one example.
An additional light source also helps when you’re shooting, say, a wine bottle with a label on the front.
Glass photography diptych comparing photos shot with and without another light source
Photos with and without another light source

A glass photography photo session setup
Setup from the scheme above in real life

Bright and airy photo of plants in glass jars
Use this lighting scheme for clear and light pictures like this one

6. Why Lenses With a Long Focal Length Work Best

For this shot, I used 105 mm lenses. A focal length like this has two advantages. First, you can get further from the scene. That minimizes the chance of getting your own reflection on the glass.
Second, you can use a smaller background. Lenses with long focal lengths compress the space in a way that the camera sees less space behind the subject. 

A glass photography photo session setup
For example, these two shots were taken with 50 mm and 105 mm lenses, respectively. Nothing else changed. Check out the difference for yourself.

7. Clean the Glasses to Avoid Smudges and Smears

That must go without saying but clean every glass surface really well. Any dirt and fingerprints on the glass will be visible in the image.
This may seem trivial, but holding the glass to the light and checking if it’s clean saves ages of post-processing.
A glass photography photo session setup
A quick note about using gloves. Some photographers highly recommend them, other say that gloves leave more dust particles.
I personally don’t like the feeling of the glove on my hand, so I’m willing to sacrifice tidiness for the sake of utility and comfort.
But if you prefer working with gloves, pay attention to their quality. Make sure they leave no fibre and other unwanted particles.

8. Add Some Action for More Dramatic Photos

If you have your perfect product photo, but still feel it looks a bit boring, try to add some dynamic to it.
Pouring water, bubbles and splashes look incredibly good with transparent glass.
Get ready for an action shot!

A glass photography photo session setup
Action shot in progress

Set your two lights on a low power. That provides a very short speed duration. The scene will be lit only for 1/4000th of a second or less.
This will freeze the liquid in action, not the shutter speed. Pour some water into the glass and take a sequence of shots.
Note how different, but equally beautiful bubbles look on black and white backgrounds.
A glass photography diptych - a wineglass on white background and on black background
Be very careful with your ‘models’. The glass is very light and fragile, so you can accidentally move it even when pouring small amounts of water.
Make sure to fix everything in place, so you won’t break any precious props.
A glass photography photo session setup
It seems I wasn’t careful enough

But if you happen to break a wine glass or a good-looking transparent bottle, here’s an idea. Why not make it the centre of a conceptual still life with splashes and a simple, but strong narrative?
bright and airy glass photography setup
Another example of action bringing life to your composition

Creative Still Life Photos With Broken Glass

Broken things have their own special charm. Every broken cup or wine glass has a story to tell. Sometimes it’s just about their owner being clumsy, but other times it’s about the forces of nature or wanderlust.
Let’s see how we can create a beautiful conceptual photo with broken glass.
a creative exploding glass photo

1. What Props Do You Need

I strongly believe that there’s power in simplicity, so the list of props and equipment we need is pretty short:

  • light source suitable for shooting splashes;
  • broken bottle;
  • small paper boat;
  • additional still life items;
  • glue gun and means to hold the glass smithereens in the air;
  • camera and a tripod.

We’re going for a sea theme here. You can use seashells, maps, notebooks in leather covers that can pass as the captain’s journal, maybe a Jolly Roger from a toy set and a compass.
Make sure that every additional object is not too bright-coloured, so it won’t distract the viewer from our main heroes.
Setting up a creative exploding glass photo - photography equipment

2. How to Break Glass for Photography

I’m planning to create an image of a broken bottle with a boat inside. This will be the main hero.
That’s why I need not just a broken bottle, but a broken bottle that looks interesting and has large parts intact. So, I had to break the bottle myself.
Setting up a creative exploding glass photo
With practice, I learned that you need to apply force the right way. Wrap the bottle with a towel, press it against the wall and hit it with a hammer on the side.
Not on top!
If you hit it on top, the bottle will shatter into small pieces without a hint of their original shape.

3. Composition for Broken Glass Images

Start with the main object and arrange the other items around it. Keep in mind that you’re going to have splashes in the frame, so leave a lot of space for them.
For a shot like this, it’s better to keep the composition very simple. Just the main object, a couple of items on a background to add depth and support the story line.
And maybe some details like a seashell in the foreground.
Setting up a creative exploding glass photo
To make the remains of my bottle look more dramatic, I tilted it to the left and glued it with a glue gun to a wooden stand.

4. Keep Flying Elements in Place With Knitting Needles and Glue

For a more dynamic shot add a couple of glass smithereens flying in the air. You can hold them separately in the air and shoot each one individually.
If you want to make sure that they interact naturally with the splashes, you need them right in the scene.
Setting up a creative exploding glass photo
To do that I fixed each shard in the air with a glue gun, knitting needles, and a clamp. And I did the same with a paper boat.
That way I have complete control over my composition. And don’t have to worry that I need to change anything in post-processing.
One important thing to remember here is taking a shot without any visible supports. That way you can merge two images later without any trouble.

5. Lighting Setup for Broken Glass Photos

As we have seen above, backlight makes glass look fantastic. That’s why I set a small strip-box with a speedlight right behind and slightly above my scene.
I can have light coming from behind but still keep the black background. This is my key light.
Setting up a creative exploding glass photo
As the feel light, I used a large diffuser with another speedlight behind it. I need this light to lift the shadows slightly.
It also increases overall illumination and allows me to keep the aperture more closed. That provides a wider depth of field and I can keep more of the bottle in sharp focus.

6. Settings for Broken Glass Photography

First of all, make sure that your shutter speed is the sync shutter speed. If you are shooting in a dark setting (and you should!) the flash duration will become your shutter speed.
The light will be hitting the sensor of your camera for only the amount of time the flash is working. It won’t matter if your shutter speed is set for 1/250th of a second or for a half a minute.
If there’s no ambient light available, the flash will be the only visible light source. The camera sensor will still only be exposed to the light for the duration of the flash.
Second, close the aperture as much as you can without underexposing the image. We need it to make sure that we have the entire splash in focus.
Making splashes by hand is tricky because you don’t have the precise control over how the liquid moves. That’s why it’s possible to get a beautiful but out of focus splash. To minimize this, keep the depth of field as deep as possible.
In my case the settings look like these: 105 mm, ƒ/7.1, 1/160 s, ISO 250.
Ideally, I would close my aperture up to ƒ/10 or even ƒ/16, but I wanted to keep the objects in the background a bit blurry.
5. Bring the action!
Finally, it’s time to bring sea waves into your scene! Take a shot glass or sauce dish, fill it with water and quickly pour it on the remains of the bottle.
Take a sequence of shots. Rinse and repeat until you get the shot you really like!

Setting up a creative exploding glass photo
I used a small sauce dish to create splashes

To learn more about the art of frozen liquids, check out our tutorial on splash photography.

6. Post-Processing Glass Photography

Now it’s time to pick the best shot from the series and make it look perfect. For my final image I combined several photos:

  • the shot with a splash I liked the most;
  • the clean shot without visible supports;
  • a couple of photos with splashes on flying glass shards.

If you fixed your camera on a tripod during the entire shoot, merging these images together should be pretty simple. Place all of them on separate layers, like a Photoshop sandwich. Create a Layer Mask for each of them.
And finally, use a soft brush to paint the area you don’t want visible with black and the areas you want to show with white.

A creative exploding glass photo diptych comparing before and after editing
Post-processing and the final image

When I finished merging splashes, I deleted all the supports, retouched the traces of glue on flying shards, increased contrast and deleted the particles of dust from the bottle.
That’s all!
A creative exploding glass photo - how to photograph glass
You can try this trick with different objects. For example, this broken coffee cup and shards of porcelain are flying with the help of the same glue gun and knitting needles.
They are non-transparent, so making a shot like this is even simpler. You don’t have to worry about any visible glue.
An exploding coffee cup - how to photograph glass
The same trick with coffee and a porcelain cup

A creative exploding glass bottle photo
And with another bottle!

Sure, there are more advanced ways you can approach glass photography, but this is a simple, easy to master start.
Now it’s your turn to try this trick, modify it and make your own. Best of luck with your glass photography experiments!

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