Road Train !!!!!!!!!!

by Russell McMahon

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I find that I take a lot of pictures through skyscraper and vehicle windows (those that are impractical or impossible to open). There are all kinds of problems with taking photographs through windows: reflections from light inside, dirt on the window, etc. My technique mostly involves placing the lens directly on the window glass and shielding it from lights reflecting from above.

Are there any non-obvious gizmos / techniques for easily shooting through windows? I've heard that a polarizing filter might be used in this situation, but I don't carry one around most of the time. Besides, most of the pictures I am interested in taking are in low light situations (at sunset or in a moving train, etc).

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Start carrying the polarizer? :) Seriously, it will help. (And welcome to photo.SE!) –  Reid Nov 2 '10 at 22:59
    
Similar question: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/3088/… –  chills42 Nov 3 '10 at 12:33

7 Answers 7

There may be a handle that lets you open the window, have you tried that? :)

Other than removing the problem that way, what you are doing is pretty much the best option. By putting the lens close to the window, you are getting any dirt on the window out of focus. Every part of the image usually passes through every part of the front lens, which means that out-of-focus dirt has to be pretty severe to affect the image at all.

There are third-party lens hoods made of rubber; those might work well to make a seal that keeps light from getting in between the window and the lens.

Try to take pictures at a straight angle through the window if possible. If you take an image at a too great angle, you will get light that bounces inside the window glass, causing a displaced ghost image. With double- or triple-glass windows, this effect will be more noticeable.

A polarising filter can be used to reduce some of the reflections in a window, but it does also affect any light from the outside that is reflected somewhere. So sometimes, you will not be able to keep the reflected light that you want from the subject while blocking out reflected light from the window.

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+1 for opening statement, it was my first reaction. :) After that, I also agree with you. –  John Cavan Nov 3 '10 at 3:13
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I would just add: open the aperture in order to maximize the defocusing of the dirt. –  Edgar Bonet Nov 3 '10 at 8:54
15  
For some reason they won't let you open the windows on an airliner... –  Matt Grum Nov 3 '10 at 16:02
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@Matt Grum: But if I promise not to lean out or throw stuff out...? –  Guffa Nov 4 '10 at 13:38
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the third party rubber lens hoods can be a helpful, but I find that with the multiple panes of glass/pastic as you find on airplane windows that it's usually better to just have someone hold a dark blue or black blanket against the wall just above the window and you and the camera slip under it like an old school focusing hood. It's there to block light coming into the window at all from inside and reflecting on any of the layers of window pane. (I tried to gaffer tape a blanket to the wall once, but they were less than happy about that.) –  cabbey Feb 19 '11 at 7:42

Try a rubber lens hood.

Vello hood from B&H

here is an example from B&H

Screw it onto your lens, then literally place the hood onto the glass window. Get the most flexible one you can find, as it will allow you a slight angle against the glass for a touch better composition.

The hood blocks all the reflections and extraneous light from behind, and as a result the glass essentially disappears.

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+1 This would have been my answer :) –  Mike Jul 12 '12 at 12:48

A few shooting-through-window tips:

  • shoot with the lens at a slight angle instead of being directly perpendicular to the window
  • if you know you're going to be shooting through a window, wear dark clothing, which will reflect less in the glass
  • as you mentioned, get your lens as close to the glass as possible
  • in Photoshop or other post-processing, adjust the Levels to remove the glare. Usually the black point will need to be set to remove glare
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I assume that the reason to shoot at an angle is to keep the camera/photographer reflection out of the image? Shooting at an angle increases reflections in the window glass, so that factor would have the opposite effect. –  Guffa Nov 2 '10 at 23:06

Use a large aperture!

If you get close to the window and focus far away but open the lens as wide as possible (I'm talking like f/1.4 here, not f/3.5) any dirt on the window will blur away, and may not even be visible depending on the subject.

Here I focused to infinity then stuck my thumb (which is hopefully a lot larger than the dirt on your windows!) in front of my lens and took consecutive photos at f/1.4 and f/4. At the wider aperture you can actually see through my thumb to the objects on the window sill. This was on a crop body (30D); I imagine the effect would be even more pronounced on a full-frame camera.

f/1.4 to f/4 comparison with object immediately in front of the lens

This technique is less helpful with glare and reflections, though it will help a little.

Of course, a fast, sharp-wide-open lens is expensive and is probably only available as a prime, which is the major downside to this technique.

(Hint: this technique also works well on the baseball diamond: stick your f/2.8 telephoto right up to the chain-link fence (as close as you dare without scratching the lens). At the widest aperture the chain-link fence will start to blur away, although it won't disappear completely; if you shoot centered in one of the diamond-shaped gaps in the fence, the blurred fence makes a just-barely-visible frame, like a setting-appropriate vignetting effect).

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Hint: Lens hoods are good for stopping the fence from scratching your lens. –  fmark May 17 '11 at 13:45

20 months on - I don't see anyone mentioning a method that helps me in extreme cases. You do have to be more than averagely committed (or obsessed) or to come more than averagely prepared.

Use of a dark "hood" over head and camera so you are sealed in your own dark space on your side of the glass will almost completely eliminate the reflections which are otherwise almost impossible to deal with. Taking off your coat or jacket and draping it over your head and sealing it against the glass at the edges works wonders. A proper hood to do the job could be designed to fit just outside the lens - but I've never been prepared enough yet to manage that. The coat etc could be arranged to just seal the camera and lens area against the glass but whole-head plus camera seems easier to manage.

No need to worry about other people looking askance - you can't see them :-).
You may have to weather some curious glances when you emerge.
I've found that most onlookers seem to understand well enough what you are trying to achieve that you don't get adverse comments. Accompanying friends may be less kind.


Related: For looking INTO glass rather than out, such as display cases, getting close to the glass, using a flash and having the camera at a shallow angle (well under 45 degrees) relative to the plane of the glass yields amazingly good results. With a little care and practice the glass can become completely inobvious - in many cases producing results which few expect when objects are in display cases.


Purposeful use of reflections:

Inside-outside: In the case of shop windows, display cases and when looking out,some "fun" shots can be achieved by making purposeful use of inside-outside subject mixes , mixing up reflections, foreground outside the glass and interior material in the one image. On occasion one can achieve images where it is extremely hard to determine what is where. A very good result if it's what you intend - not so good if it wasn't what you were aiming for :-). Image technical quality is liable to not be stunning due to the varied mix of light, focus points, reflections (of course) and more - but can be fun.

Two examples. Both these were purposeful. Out of camera apart from usual colour etc tweaks ie no use of multiple images, layers etc.
Not the ultimate examples (I'd say that, of course :-) ) but to hand - and give an idea of the 'fun' that can be had.

Guangzho arrival:

enter image description here

Ningbo lunchtime:

enter image description here

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Keep as close to the glass as possible, that's all there really is to it. (I don't find that a polariser helps much - by the time you are shooting at 30˚ to the plane of the glass there is so much internal reflection and distortion that removing reducing reflections a little doesn't make a huge difference.)

This will make any artifacts/dirt in the glass less apparent as their effect is averaged out over the size of the front element of the lens.

It will also reduce reflections unless you're in direct sunlight - since the front element itself won't reflect much, and when its up against the glass its reflection will fill the lens.

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Use a polarizing filter. It allows to reduce reflections (or make them more visible, if you want).

Shoot at wider aperture to make the dust on the window less noticeable. Stay close to the glass.

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