How to Shoot Through Glass :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Shoot Through Glass

by David Peterson 4 comments

There are lots of things that we photographers have to work around. One of those things is bad light. Another one is reflections. Have you ever tried to shoot a subject that is behind a piece of glass? If you have, you know what I'm talking about. Reflections, glare, even dirty fingerprints can all get in the way of creating a gorgeous picture, even if you're 100 percent sure that a gorgeous picture lies just beyond that piece of glass.

  • Sony DSC-H10
  • 125
  • f/4.0
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 18.1 mm

Martin and descendants through window by Flickr user Martin LaBar

The good news is that photographers have ways of getting around those reflections, though for us it’s not as easy as just imagining what the subject looks like without that piece of glass in front of it. We have to apply workarounds to eliminate those ugly reflections—but the great news is that not only is reflection removal possible, in many cases it's actually quite simple.

Let’s look at an example that you are likely to encounter when you visit a facility such as a zoo or a reptile house. Places like this will often house some or even all of their animals behind glass. This is great for visitors because it means they get a clear view of the animals, unencumbered by wire, concrete or other physical barriers. But it can be bad for photographers because the glass that gives us such an unencumbered view of those animals can also give us a pretty encumbered photograph. Human eyes are actually quite good at filtering out those reflections when we look through a piece of glass—but cameras are notoriously bad at doing the same thing. A camera will always record those reflections (unless you take steps to do otherwise), and then your viewer won’t be able to help but notice them.

  • Fujifilm FinePix S7000
  • 400
  • f/3.0
  • 0.1 sec (1/10)
  • 18 mm

watchoo lookin at by Flickr user Riv

Get close and change your angle

So first thing you need to do when shooting through glass is to simply take notice of the reflections. Look at your subject, but also take some time to look for any reflections that might be present on the glass in front of him. And keep in mind that even reflections that look faint to you may look pretty stark after you've recorded them with your camera, so it's best to take steps to avoid them altogether whenever possible. One simple way to do this is to simply change the angle you’re shooting at. To do this, look through your viewfinder and slowly alter your body or camera position until the worst of the glare disappears from the frame.

You may not get rid of all those reflections this way, so make sure you check your LCD—zoom in if you can and check the image for areas of discoloration or obvious reflection and glare. If you see signs of reflection in your test photo, try moving in a little closer. As a general rule, the closer you are to that piece of glass the easier it will be to avoid reflections (but take note that you may need to use a wide-angle lens in order to capture what’s on the other side in its entirety).

Sometimes if you butt your camera up right against the glass that can be the best way to completely eliminate reflections. I have a rubber lens hood that I use it just for this reason. When you place the rubber lens hood against the glass, not only does it protect your camera from a potential impact between itself and the glass surface, but it also helps create a seal between the lens and glass that can block out 100% of unwanted reflections.

Use a polarizing filter

Another thing you can do is use a polarizing filter, but keep in mind that polarizing filters don’t work indoors, only outdoors. Outdoor light is polarized and indoor/artificial light is not, so your polarizing filter won’t do anything if your reflections are indoors under incandescent or florescent lighting. So that reptile house won’t benefit from a polarizing filter—in fact if you try to use one you may be doing more harm than good since you will effectively be cutting back on the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor, while achieving none of the reflection-reducing benefits of a polarizer. Since reptile houses tend to be only dimly lit, you’re better off using some of the other methods listed above to cut out those reflections.

If the reflection is on a piece of glass outdoors, you may be able to eliminate it altogether with a circular polarizer. There are some tricks to getting this right, so start by standing with the light at a 45-degree angle to your position. In other words, the sun should be on your right on your left rather than in front of you or behind you. Then twist the filter until you see the reflection fade or vanish altogether. That's when you want to take the photo.

Make sure the glass is clean

Remember that the trouble with glass isn't always in the reflection alone. If you're at a zoo, the chances are pretty good that the glass just isn't clean, and all of those fingerprints, spills, and other unidentifiable smudges can really get between you and an awesome picture. So, it doesn't hurt to have a little pack of glass wipes stashed away in your camera bag. You'll almost certainly get some funny looks from people, but on the plus side you will be getting photographs unmarred by the fingerprints and spills of those who came before you.


dirty window by Flickr user demandaj

Don’t use flash

And it hopefully goes without saying that you should never engage your onboard flash when shooting through glass—that bright light will bounce right off of that highly reflective surface and you’ll almost certainly end up with a super bright spot of light where your subject ought to be. I know you might be tempted to do this in the reptile house, where there just doesn’t seem to be enough light to get the photo, but there is more than just one reason why popup flash and reptile houses don’t go well together. First, your flash is going to irritate the reptiles, and probably the people who look after them. Second, even if you are able to crop out that bounce-back, you’re going to get an unnatural looking subject—because direct flash is an unnatural light source. There are better ways to cope with low light—the first is to use a large aperture (bring a 50mm prime lens if you have one, because most 50mm prime lenses are capable of shooting at maximum apertures of f/1.8 or larger), and the second is to turn up your ISO. I know, you’ve probably been told to avoid high ISOs like a plague of serpents, but believe me when I say that limiting yourself to low ISOs just isn’t that necessary with modern camera technology. Yes, there is some reduction in quality at very high ISOs but for the most part, you’re not going to notice it. And it’s always better to take a little reduction in quality instead of that obnoxious flash glare or camera shake.

  • HP pstc4200

You'd think I'd be smarter... by Flickr user danisabella

Embrace the glare

Finally, ask yourself if the glare and reflection is really something you want to avoid. I know that sounds a little crazy, but you can actually get some interesting and artsy effects if you embrace the glare rather than try to avoid it altogether. This is especially true if you’re trying to photograph people through a window in the evening, when there are neon lights or the lights of passing automobiles reflecting in the glass. Stop and think about whether or not you can successfully make the glare a part of your composition, and then you don’t need to try to avoid it at all.

Conclusion

Whether it’s a reptile house, a coffee house or a dollhouse, if your subject is behind a piece of glass you’re going to need to think about those reflections and how you can best avoid them (or incorporate them, as the case may be). Remember that your eyes are not naturally as good at spotting glare and reflection as your camera is, so it’s always going to be good practice to check your LCD after you take a test shot, just to make sure that you didn’t miss anything. And don’t let yourself be so worried about that glare that you fail to take the shot at all—remember a little bit of glare isn’t necessarily a bad thing, what’s important is that you make sure the glare that you do capture isn’t getting in the way of what’s important—your subject.

Summary

  1. Get close
    • Put your lens against the glass
    • Use a rubber lens hood
  2. Change your angle
  3. Use a polarizing filter
    • (This only works outdoors)
  4. Clean the glass
  5. Avoid flash
  6. Embrace the glare

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Comments

  1. Mal says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks for a great site/series of tutorials. I have been reading your hints for a couple of years now and it has helped enormously. Just want to point out on this one that flash can be used through glass under the right circumstances. Just as you can use a rubber hood and put your camera right up against the glass, so you can do with the flash. Either by using it remotely from the camera (even entry level Canon DSLRs do this now) or by building yourself a special flash hood that puts the seal parallel to your lens seal so that you can press the combination against the glass. The latter can even work with on-board flash if you build it right. Hth.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Mal,

      Thanks you are quite correct. A rubber lens hood works perfectly when using a flash through glass.

      David.

  2. Rita Leven says:

    I love reading your articles. Always helpful. Thank you.

  3. Michael Janas says:

    Good article. However, I once had an old Olympus 500 and 750 that had "shoot through glass" modes. I wonder how they did it. Also, if Olympus could do it, why don't other camera makers do it? I wonder if it is proprietary.
    Mike in Mesa Az

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
12 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.