Photographing Glass for Texture

The challenges unique to photographing stained glass have been the subject of books, articles and seminars. Beyond the basics of understanding photography, there are definite "tricks of the trade" when it comes to capturing the beauty of stained glass on film. Still, how often do you hear (or have to say) "the photo just doesn't do the window justice?"

And, as we espouse over and over in this publication, you must document your work with quality photography. When it comes to publicity, or to demonstrating your abilities to potential clients, the impact of the photo is at least as important as the work itself. Unfortunately, bad photos of great glass work abound.

Most of what you will read on stained glass photography dwells on lighting. Here, we share some techniques we've learned to accentuate glass texture in photography.

First we need to make an important point. Get a piece of textured cathedral glass and place it on a diffusing light box. Assuming that there is nothing visible behind the glass, the texture will virtually disappear. The point: you need something visible behind the glass for texture in the glass to be evident. Grab a piece of Waterglass. Hold it up and look through it at a flat, uniform wall. Then slowly move around the room, noting the change in apparent texture as various objects become visible through the glass.

The challenge is to bring out texture in your photo, using something visible behind the glass, without that something detracting from the photograph. You want to shoot the window, not what's behind it, but you need what's behind it to highlight the texture. Your background must not attract the eye, but be indefinite, nebulous. If you can create areas of light and shadow, interspersed in apparent randomness behind your window, you're on your way to a great photograph.

In the accompanying photos, you'll see our friend Linda Svendsen preparing a backdrop for stained glass photography. She uses a simple neutral colored tarp (a bedsheet will do). The neutral color is important; you don't want it to influence the colors in your window. Hang the backdrop on a wall, leaving plenty of slack between the edges. Then, using neutral push pins or tape, create drapes and folds in the fabric, as randomly as possible, across enough area to cover the background of your photograph. When you light this backdrop from one side, you create a random series of bright spots and shadows, just the thing to make glass texture pop.

Look at Linda's photo of the Little/Raidl Carousel Horse, "Whirligirl." We've placed it here uncropped so you can see Linda's backdrop. The indefinite but varied background makes this photograph, emphasizing the Baroque™ glass texture without drawing the eye away from the window itself.

Michael Kennedy's "Boldly Going" was shot by Roger Schreiber. It represents an early "learning experience" in shooting texture. When we initially lit the window for photography, it looked awful—flat and lifeless against a plain wall. Roger happened to walk behind the window to adjust his strobe, and pow!—the glass came to life. His own image behind the window dramatically enhanced the impact of the glass texture to onlookers. From there, we set out to create shadow precisely where we needed it, using crumpled bits of paper strategically placed on the back wall. We took a snapshot of our "masterpiece" (the wall behind the window) after the photo session—it's shown here.

The more obscure the glass texture, the easier it is to shoot in this manner, because the texture distorts the background. The less obscure the glass, the harder it becomes to disguise your background so that it is not obvious in the final photo. With very transparent textured products, like GNA and Artíque®, it can be very difficult. Here's another trick: Decrease the distance from film plane (camera) to subject (glass) and increase the distance between subject and backdrop. Then, shoot at as low an F-stop as you can get away with (as wide a lens opening). The physical distances and F-stop combination will decrease your depth of focus, effectively blurring the background, adding to it's vague, faraway and unimportant feeling.

Remember, if texture is important in your subject, it's critical in your photograph. Experiment. If you're shooting outdoors or through an interior window, seek a background that accomplishes what we've described here. The lights and darks of distant trees can work, but avoid a horizon line if possible. Take the time to try multiple backgrounds. Film is cheap, so is processing. A great photo will last as long as the glass art itself, and can create lot's more business.

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