How to Photograph Clear, Transparent Subjects

Because you can look right through a transparent subject like glass jewelry, simply trying to light it for a photograph won’t do much good. The way you light your background is more important to transparent subjects than anything else, because what’s behind the subject is what you actually see.

By aiming your key light behind the subject and at the background, you cause the subject itself to appear illuminated. This photograph shows the difference between lighting the subject and lighting the background.

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    100mm, 1/8, f/5.6, 100    100mm, 1/8, f/5.6, 100

Typically, the main goal when photographing transparent subjects is to make them stand out from the background so that viewers can easily see them. A background’s tonality determines how you go about making the subject stand out. A light background and a dark one require opposite techniques.

Creating a high key look with a white background

A transparent object photographed on a white background is going to produce tones that are mostly high key (made of light grey to white tones). This combination offers a clean, fresh, airy look to most subjects, but keep in mind how much detail appears.

The best way to cause your transparent subject to stand out from a white background is to include black cards in your lighting setup to add lowlights. This photograph shows the result of using black cards to photograph a transparent subject. Because most transparent objects (like glass, plastic, crystal, and diamonds) also tend to have reflective qualities, you can use reflective lighting techniques to enhance their appearance in photographs.

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100mm, 1/160, f/16, 100

The black cards cause dark streaks to appear in your transparent subject, making it stand out from the white background. Here, black cards were placed on each side of the necklace to give a symmetrical appearance to its shape, and to maximize its visibility in the image.

Revealing just the highlights with a dark background

When dealing with a dark background, use white cards to create a separation between the transparent subject and its background. You don’t need to create lowlights in this scenario; they just blend in with the background. Instead, create bright highlights in your subject to contrast the dark background.

To photograph the necklace on a black background, a white piece of foam core was placed on each side of to give it an even and symmetrical appearance.

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100mm, 1/160, f/16, 100

Working with transparent subjects in a natural setting

Natural backgrounds (realistic environments with details, such as texture, shapes, lines, and literal elements) can be more difficult to work with than plain, studio backgrounds when you’re photographing transparent subjects. You have to pay attention to the distracting elements in the background and compose your image accordingly.

To give your subject the cleanest representation possible, seek out the area in the background that has the fewest distracting details and compose your image so that area appears directly behind the subject. By doing so, you provide an environment for your subject without interfering with the true appearance of its shape, form, or texture.

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