Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Through a Glass Sharply

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Last spring my wife Judy and I took two of our grandkids to the Baltimore Aquarium to see a great display of seahorses.

I had no idea these creatures came in so many sizes and colors. It was a wonderful show and Max and Anna loved it. What I didn't love-but which no longer surprises me-is how many amateur photographers wasted shot after shot by taking flash pictures of these exotic creatures through the aquarium glass.

I used to offer advice to folks when I saw stuff like this, but after a while figured I'd just come off as some obnoxious photo know-it-all. Granted, at weddings–when Judy and I are in full photo-pro mode, lugging bracket mounted cameras and flash and high voltage batteries–I have no qualm about urging folks to, say, get closer with their piddly little point and shoots, or to use the flash on their digicams. I guess that's because with all that gear there's no question that I'm a professional photographer. This saves me all the preliminaries of explaining why they should consider my advice.

But when it's just me, Judy and two toddlers in tow, everyone else is on their own.

It's not that it's difficult to make pictures through glass, only that it requires some forethought. I figure there are about four basic ways to skin this photographic cat, none of which requires a Harvard degree.

Let's take flash pictures first, since those tend to be the ones that most amateurs tend to take and take badly.

The obvious problem is the high reflectivity of the glass through which one is shooting. Shoot flash directly at a pane of glass and the pane of glass will send your flash right back atcha, ruining your picture by degrading the image with flare.

The only way to shoot flash through glass is to make sure the flash hits the glass at an oblique angle–45 degrees is a good rule of thumb. Shooting obliquely will absolutely positively mitigate flash "blowback." If you think back to all those news pictures you have seen of suspects, indictees, movie or rock stars in limousines whizzing past a horde of press photographers, you probably will recall that most, if not all, those pix were made with flash and that most if not all were shot indirectly: i.e: with the flash fired from an oblique angle to the car window.

You can shoot flash through glass two ways. The easiest way from a creative standpoint is to have a flash that can be fired off-camera-i.e.: connected to the camera by a flexible PC cord. This way you can frame your picture as you like, then hold the flash at a 45-degree angle to the glass and shoot to your heart's content. This technique can take some getting used to-it does require some manual dexterity–but having your camera set for autofocus can be a big help.

The other, simpler, way is to work with a camera-mounted flash, or even with the flash that is built into a point and shoot camera. This time, instead of making sure that the flash is firing obliquely you simply make sure that you are firing obliquely.

For example...

The first picture here is one that I made several years ago in Venice during Carnevale, when people flock to this gorgeous city and walk around dressed in elaborate costumes and masks for one final blowout before Lent. The nattily dressed folks here are taking their ease in one of, if not the, priciest cafe in all of Italy, the famed Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco. Though it looks as if I were inside the place making pictures (like the obtrusive tourist to the waiter's left making a video) in fact I was outside with a crowd of gawkers looking at the action inside. At the time I was working with one of my favorite medium format cameras: a Mamiya 6 rangefinder with a 50mm wide-angle lens, and a workhorse Vivitar 283 portable flash. Because I hadn't planned to do any oblique off-camera flash pictures that night, my Vivitar was attached snugly to the Mamiya's hot shoe, meaning that this was in effect a stationary flash.

Loaded as I was with 400-speed bxw film I knew I had to use flash if I wanted to make a picture of the costumed merriment(?) going on inside. What to do?

I simply made my way to the front of the plate glass window (very politely, of course) and positioned myself (and therefore my camera and my flash) at a 45-degree angle to the glass. I then made my pictures. On first glance, it's almost impossible to detect any glass at all, much less any reflection from it. And being outside gave me the added advantage of being that much more invisible to the folks inside so I was able to capture a very natural moment.

When shooting by available light, as Judy did for the second photo shown here, there are times when a little reflection can be a good thing. In this photograph, made last winter as we were wandering the streets of Venice looking for pictures, Judy uses the window as a framing device to make the subtle point that the young boy who is perhaps getting his first haircut as his anxious father or brother looks on, is doing so "onstage" in the picture window of the barbershop. In framing the picture, Judy made sure that a few reflections of street light did not obscure her subjects, then made the shot with high-speed bxw film. And in fact, those errant reflections, visible on the left side of the picture, only reinforce the idea that the picture was made through glass.

Finally, what if you are shooting available light and do not want any reflections at all in your picture?

For this fourth category, two possible solutions.

First you might consider placing your lens squarely on the glass of the window or the display case (assuming you're not risking arrest or someone's anger by doing so) and making your shots accordingly.

But another, less intrusive, option is to use a rotating polarizing filter which can minimize reflections remarkably well and keep you in the good graces of museum guards and shopkeepers.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
It helps if the glass is clean. Unless you knew, you probably would assume I was inside Venice's pricey Caffe Florian photographing these costumed swells during the city's storied Carnevale. In fact I was outside with the regular folks and made this flash shot through a plate glass window. By shooting at a 45-degree angle to the glass, however, I eliminated any picture-destroying reflection from the flash, and also lit up my subjects nicely.

© Judith Goodman
But sometimes you want the glass to be an element of your picture, to provide context. Judy's shot of a young boy getting a haircut in Venice last winter while his father (brother?) looks on includes the window as a framing device. She made sure the reflections did not obscure the action, then shot by available light with high-speed black and white film.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Photo Improv

A Fond Farewell - and A New Beginning

'Here is New York' A Staggering Self-Portrait

Building a Portfolio – One Stone at a Time

'This is Huge...'

Wildlife Photography – Shooting Blanks