How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces for Abstract Photography

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When I mention that one of my favorite subjects to photograph is foggy surfaces, I get a few weird looks. To the uninitiated, the subject is an unusual one and most likely a boring one too. Photographers in-the-know furrow their brow, recalling the dreaded lens fog plaguing important shoot days and holidays photos.

Nevertheless, diffused glass is a beautiful and extremely diverse tool, great for adding an atmospheric layer to any image.

How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces in Photography

How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces in Photography

What is a foggy surface?

First of all, “foggy surfaces” (or fogged) is a term I use to encompass a whole wealth of surfaces that render softly focused images. Office partitions, shower doors, windows – there are hundreds of different sources of glass diffused organically by weather or intentionally by the manufacturer.

Frosted glass is an artificially diffused surface material. Created by sandblasting annealed glass, frosted glass is used to separate environments without sacrificing light. It suggests a sense of openness without sacrificing privacy. These surfaces diffuse and soften subjects to create dense, otherworldly subject matter that investigates form as much as they obscure.

How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces in Photography

Due to scratches and reflections, this image has an extra layer of depth.

Where to find fogged surfaces

A great source of fogged glass is through your everyday exterior office window. Decorative or plain sheets of frosted glass are used as partitions, making use of natural light. Photographing objects through these types of glass creates beautiful, isolated studies of subjects matter.

Plant leaves pressed against the glass plays with light and form, unusual office chairs take on a new life framed by a foggy canvas. It’s amazing how little it takes to re-imagine form in a whole new way with something as simple as a thin layer of glass.

One of my favorite times for taking photographs is on a rainy day. The heavy atmosphere, the movement, the transformation of color and light – it’s all enticing to me and nothing illustrates this more than the view through a damp, slowly fogging window.

On a cold and wet day, warmer moisture in the air turns into condensation upon contact with cold air. Inside a vehicle, warm air brushes against the coldness of a window and this begin to collect as condensation on the glass. This fogs the window and the pane of glass frames and reflects the environment while housing the subject itself beyond the glass. It’s a bit of a mixture of art and science, and the results are really beautiful if you’re willing to brave the wet conditions.

How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces in Photography

This photograph was taken through a tram window on a cold and rainy night. Commuter’s coats and the lights in the tram create a surreal landscape of color.

The bad type of fog

Seeking out subjects in the rain as can also lead to “camera fog”. This is a type of fog you want to avoid. Transferring a camera from a warmer environment to a cooler one causes condensation inside the camera too. While a few rounds of camera fog won’t destroy a camera, taking steps to acclimatize your camera will prevent extra wear.

Before heading out for a rainy day photography walk, minimize the issue by putting your camera inside a plastic zip-lock bag until the temperature inside the bag and out have equalized. Depending on the difference in temperatures, you may need to leave your gear in the bag for a few hours to acclimatize. While it’s a bit of a pain, but it’s better to keep the fog outside of the camera!

How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces in Photography

Fogged glass can create beautiful abstract effects.

How to Make Use of Foggy Surfaces in Photography

Photographing fogged surfaces rely on the light coming through the glass. Different times of the day can render completely different results.

How to photograph fogged surfaces

Photographing fogged surfaces is very similar to photographing transparent surfaces like glass. The strength of the light behind the subject will dictate how your subject will look. As you probably don’t have an opportunity to adjust the backlight, try taking photographs of subjects at different times of the day. The morning may depict an office plant in detail, but the light in the evening will lend more of a silhouette effect.

The result of an image taken through fogged glass also relies heavily on the proximity the subject to the glass itself. However, most subjects will be tucked behind a window or a building security system. Like street photography, this means that you’ll have to make the most of what you have.

From the exterior, closer objects, or even objects leaning against the glass will be the sharpest subjects. Distant subjects like faraway light sources are dispersed into the cloudy shades of the surface. It’s like having your focusing done for you. Try a few different angles and change your distance in relation to the subject.

Try to focus on detail rather than quantity, that way you will have a frame full of information rather than an empty frame of a faraway scene. If possible, try setting up a tripod so you’ll be able to use slower shutter speeds to capture the image. This isn’t ideal in every circumstance, however.

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Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.

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