Glass Photography: Dark Field Lighting

Glass Lighting techniques for Dark Field Photography "Hair Balsam"
In April 2016 I had the privilege of teaching my methods and tips for lighting glass items on a dark background to a full room of talented photographers at the CanAm Photo Expo in Buffalo, NY.

Thank you to everyone who was there to support me! Hopefully everyone learned something valuable as I shared how I create my images of glass on a black or dark background.

Why “Typical Cheryl?”

Later during the Expo when I shared the link to this blog, I was asked “How did you get that name?” It is a great question! I talk about that here.

Before starting this blog, I thought a lot about the topic. The first choice was photography. It is an interest and passion. It is challenging, exciting and I enjoy sharing what I discover with others who are interested. I share my work, ideas and information to hopefully inspire you to try it yourself.

Although I love photography, something was holding me back. The truth is, sometimes I find photography totally and completely FRUSTRATING!


Sometimes you (and I) just need to take a break from our passion, the activity we enjoy most, because we start to HATE it. Are you with me?

Taking breaks from photography was something I was doing. However, without the insight and understanding of why I needed to take a break, there was a lot of doubt. The inevitable slumps or projects that just wouldn’t work out the way I saw them in my head would cause me to question if I should just sell my camera and focus on being a better person… {sigh.} Dramatic enough?

Then I read this article by Elizabeth Gilbert on discussing the importance of Curiosities.

Now I see these “curiosities” as interests. These interests are the things that fill my days when I can’t (or don’t want to) work on my photography.  When these other interests or facets of my life go well, it makes everything easier. It gives me energy and enthusiasm to pick up my camera again. These are the other topics that are important to me.

  • Parenting: Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I like photography more than my kids! I love my boys more than anything in this world. And sometimes the journey through our day is thoroughly exhausting. I think about their safety, future and whether I am doing everything I can to ensure they enjoy a long, healthy, responsible and successful life. I often study parenting techniques and philosophies to be the best Mommy possible.
  • Crochet: is something else I spend a lot of time doing and love the satisfaction of making things with my hands.
  • Recipes: Trying and finding new and delicious recipes is a part of my life everyday too. After all, we all need to eat!
  • Green Solutions: I also get (perhaps strangely) excited when I find new and better ways to clean or replace chemical cleaning concoctions with simpler, more “green” solutions.
  • Reading: Of course, reading is important when you are interested in learning!

I was really having a hard time choosing just one topic.

Then I realized there is one element that holds all these things together: creativity.

Creativity to find solutions. Creativity to try something new. Creativity to do things differently.

And that is why I decided I wanted to “Share Creativity” here.

Now I hope that makes sense to you – my fellow photographers!

Lighting Glass – Presentation Notes:

Glass Lighting techniques for Dark Field Photography "Orchid Light"For a recap of topic of my presentation you can see a couple of my other articles about lighting glass on a dark background for photography. One of the techniques I shared was my photo “stage.” In this technique I light my glass subject using underlighting from below the tabletop surface which takes a little extra care to direct the light into the subject without it spilling onto the background and tabletop.  We will also still define the edges of the glass with light. The times I have found this to be useful are when I am trying to light a fairly large or densely colored glass item. Another good reason to use this method is when there is a secondary subject (orchid) inside the glass subject (light bulb vase) that you will find out more about (including a diagram of the setup) in this article about how I created the image “Orchid Light v2” here.

There is also an article I wrote for Digital Photo Mentor (Darlene Hildebrandt) featuring glass lighting for photography techniques called “How to Photograph Glassware – DIY Studio Setup under $20” where you will see how to shoot glass on a dark field with a reflective tabletop surface including behind-the-scenes photos of the setup and several images created with that method including supplies and techniques. Read it here.

Many of the dark field glass images that I have created were part of a series for a photo essay. Each of the still images from that project are included in this short video from YouTube.

I am also working on screening useful, photography-related videos on YouTube and creating playlists. There is a lot of great (free) video tutorials out there, but it takes time to sort the truly useful from the rest. I have done some of the screening for you, so please visit and subscribe to my YouTube Channel to see the best of what I’ve found.

For further reading on the subject of lighting glass (or just about any subject) for photography, I highly recommend the book (find it on Amazon here) Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting written by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua and published by Focal Press. Find more information about this book (and others) here.

Thank you!

While preparing for this presentation I discovered a few new pieces of gear to experiment with, thanks to Gary Farber with Hunt’s Photo and Video.  I will be sharing more detailed information about the Rogue Flash modifiers and the Savage Macro Art Adjustable Dual Arm LED Light in an upcoming post too.

Presenting in the Macro (and Close up photography) track gave me the great fortune to meet Lisa and Tom Cuchara who are very enthusiastic, energetic and generous with their knowledge and teaching approach. They present photography programs to clubs, organizations and conferences and teach camera and post-processing techniques (find out more here) and own a Portrait Studio in Hamden, CT

Belczak-Cheryl-Dark-Field-GlassA special thank you to Mary Lou Frost who suggested my presentation be included in the 2016 CanAm Photo Expo and Doug Hansgate, the Convention Chairman who gave me the opportunity to be part of this awesome event. Thank you also to Robert Carey and Dave Valvo who kindly captured and shared photos for me during the presentation!

I will be presenting this program again at The Am-Center Camera Club and possibly a few more dates and places too. I will let you know when the details have been finalized. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions about the presentation or would like to schedule a presentation for your organization.

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Behind the Shot: The “Orchid Light” Image Evolution

A friend and I were wandering around Hobby Lobby one evening… We actually make “dates” to do this. Our husbands and kids stay home. Sometimes we have a list of things to collect for projects we are working on and we always browse for materials and inspiration. Usually I try to hold myself to only buying something only if I can dream up a specific purpose or a project for the item while I’m still in the store.

Orchid light_evolutionWhen I discovered this little flat bottomed light bulb vase I made an exception. I knew I wanted to stick something inside it and take a photo. Usually that isn’t enough. I could make a case for almost anything if I just told myself I wanted to take a photo of it, but it seemed unique and it was $1.99.

After it came home with me it just collected dust for months. My “lightbulb moment” (sorry for the bad pun) came when I had the incredible opportunity to attend a Mike Moats Macro Boot Camp. One of the participants brought an orchid to share and get some guidance about shooting them. I was one of the last few people to leave and saw a single flower that had been pinched from the plant. Again I brought it home with nothing more than the intention to photograph it. Then it hit me! And I devised a plan to shoot these two items together.

Thankfully I was able to come up with an effective shooting methodology pretty quickly because I had devised a method for lighting the inside of a vase before. Strange – I know, but true.

diagram_vase lit belowMy plan put the orchid and water inside the lightbulb vase. On my tabletop, I placed a cardboard box that held my accessory flash lying on its back connected to a sync cord so the light would be directed into the bottom of the vase to light the flower. (If I tried to light the flower from any other angle you would see small white – specular – highlights reflecting the light source in the glass).

Next I placed a piece of black posterboard with a hole slightly smaller than the bottom of the vase cut into it and a piece of glass from a picture frame on top of that. That is the stage (or floor) set up for the original shot. The vase was placed over the hole (to let the light from the flash through) and the flash. There was a piece of black foam core propped up behind the stage acting as the background. I used two pieces of white foam core board (one on each side) to reflect and indirectly bring the light from the primary light source around to light the glass and metal.

Both the glass and metal are highly reflective materials that produce a bright white hotspot (specular highlight) on the surface if there is a light source hitting them directly at an angle the camera can see. For this reason I work in a dark room and my primary light source (a utility clamp lamp with an incandescent light bulb) is placed behind the black foam core background. The two white pieces of foam core act as reflectors and become larger sources of indirect light. They are responsible for the bright rim light around the edge of the glass. The rim light allows the form of the vase to be seen within the dark field or black background.

The exposure time needs to be fairly long to record the rim light, so a tripod is also necessary. The tripod is also helpful for holding the exact camera position too if you need to tweak the lighting and reshoot.

Orchid Light: Version 1 was created by rotating the original photo 180 degrees then building the top of the lightbulb in Photoshop (copying, pasting and cloning). I also cloned out many tiny bubbles that resulted from the water in the vase… Maybe I should have tried this without the water first! A valuable tip if you want to try something similar.

Although I was mostly happy with Version 1, something still didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the fact that the lightbulb was just floating in air? Probably. Anyway I belong to a camera club and participate in monthly competitions. After a busy month I found myself at the deadline without a submission plan, so Version 1 made the cut. The feedback I received in competition was that the subject did not seem to be perfectly vertical. That was quite noticeable when it was projected at a few feet wide. Although I was disappointed that the score didn’t reflect my effort that went into this image (all those BUBBLES!), showing the image to others and getting another perspective gave me an idea to rework the image.

This time I placed a horizontal guide line in the Photoshop file as a reference to create at virtual table top. I rotated the image until the light bulb lined up as though it was sitting on the guide. Then I copied the lightbulb, flipped it horizontally, lowered the opacity, added a gradient mask to fade the copy at the bottom of the image and skewed it slightly to make the copy look like a reflection on a shiny surface. This made Orchid Light: v.2.Orchid Light v.2

Maybe at some point there will be v.3 if the mood or idea strikes. If you have any questions about this project please leave a comment below.