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As any studio photographer will tell you, photographing translucent and reflective objects like glass for product work can be an ordeal. It’s not impossible, but it sure isn’t easy, with plenty of variables and tricky reflections to minimize and avoid.
Naturally, you can imagine my foray into street photography was both a welcome change and a culture shock. Stepping out of the studio and into the realm of street photography, I went from an incredibly controlled environment to anything but! That’s when I began to view glass in a different light. Yes, the very bane of many a studio photographer’s existence can actually be a street photographer’s blessing.
There aren’t many fixed objects that pose opportunities as readily to a street photographer as glass. As photographers, we all (mostly) use glass in our lenses as its inherent properties focus light and correct optical aberrations, allowing us to record sharp images. Glass surfaces in the street, however, present a variable and volatile abundance of opportunity. It can soften, reflect, highlight, disguise, frame, and transpose. Glass constantly changes with the environment yet it behaves as a physical barrier between the photographer and subject, allowing for a degree of ease between the two.
For the sake of this article, I’ve narrowed the benefits of glass to only the most obvious and dramatic – color, pattern and texture, reflections and depth, glass as a physical barrier, framing and finally, distortion and perspective. Okay, so I combined a few points, but you’ll soon see that glass isn’t just for selfies and reflections. Shooting through glass can actually change up your practice and give you a whole new perspective on street photography.
Color greatly influences how a viewer reads an image. Shooting through colored glass is a great way of adding atmosphere to your photographs without post-production. Red glass, like that found on decals or nightclubs, suggests a sense of intimacy or passion, whereas blue could suggest an aquatic or daylight setting. Color eludes to the time of day a photograph was taken and a highly saturated image can also take on a surreal appearance, distancing the viewer from the photograph and creating a feeling of voyeurism. Try photographing subjects through tinted feature walls at late-night shopping malls or through the aged glass of old windows.
Using pattern and texture in a photograph explores how an image feels as well as how it looks. Textural images appeal to our sense of touch and it allows photographers to form greater connections with an audience. Photographing textured, semi-opaque and reinforced glass divides an image into smaller sections. This prompts a viewer to dissect an image in pieces to gain a greater understanding of the whole.
Different textures are great for images with organic and inorganic subject matter too. Creating juxtapositions that draw attention to subjects that are usually discounted creates engaging subject matter. Texture also affects the way light interacts with glass, softening the subject matter behind it and emphasizing form and shape over content.
Want to add context to a portrait but running low on legroom? Reflective glass windows are a great way to add depth to a photograph. Reflections in glass create a greater sense of atmosphere and give the viewer more information about an image. The characteristics of reflected light add tonal variety to a photograph, drawing a viewer in for a closer look. The closer you are to a glass surface, the less it will reflect, try stepping back or shifting the camera angle. Stepping back also has the added bonus of minimizing your chances of disturbing a potential subject.
In my time as a street photographer, I’ve noticed an interesting psychological phenomenon. When I’m photographing subjects through transparent panes of glass – people are much more at ease. Photographing people through a glass window or panel seems to add a degree of separation. My theory is that when there is a physical barrier between you and the subject, people subconsciously feel more comfortable. Glass reduces noise and light, creating a physical partition that lures people into a sense of security.
I find that when separated by a pane glass people are more likely to look directly into the lens too, allowing their curiosity to run a little freer behind a physical partition. Some of the most natural street portraits I have taken have been through glass partitions and windows. Train rides offer an excellent opportunity for unencumbered street photography.
Emphasizing the photographer’s point of view can lend a voyeuristic atmosphere to an image. Framing is the use of shapes in the environment to guide the viewer’s eye to a point in a photograph. Photographing through glass partitions or windows emphasizes that you have captured a moment without prompting a subject, like looking through a keyhole.
Viewing a subject photographed from above feels different to viewing a photograph taken from below. One great way to take advantage of glass’s transparent nature is to focus on various animals’ attraction to transparent surfaces. Inhabitants of urban landscapes such as lizards, frogs, spiders, snails and insects all negotiate glass surfaces with ease.
A photographer with a keen eye can exploit these opportunities to capture unique perspectives of our fellow city-dwellers. Like humans, animals seem more at ease with a wall of glass to separate them from potential predators, allowing you the chance to capture a more natural photograph.
Light traveling through glass often behaves in surprising and interesting ways. If light touches even the most minute curved surface it refracts, distorting anything viewed through it. Planning a shot in front of a pane of glass can yield fascinating and surrealistic photographs.
Try experimenting with different thicknesses of glass at varying degrees of curvature. Aquariums and aquatic displays are good for honing this technique because the water inside the glass containers amplifies the distortion. Holding variously shaped prisms over the front of your lens can yield some surprisingly effective and interesting results too.
Transparent, opaque, tinted, laminated, textured, reinforced… there are endless varieties of glass and each presents a unique opportunity for you as a photographer. Although I’ve tried to list a few of the more dramatic ways to use glass in street photography, the potential is limitless and exciting.
They key to taking great street photographs is to be open to opportunity and quick on the shutter button. With limited time to capitalize on the moments that are presented to you, focusing on surfaces like glass that can yield fascinating results quickly and is a fool-proof way of enhancing your craft.