I'm trying out my new DSLR (Nikon 5300) and 18-200 Nikkor lens. Long ago, I had a film SLR, but since then I've had point-and-shoot cameras. It's great to get back into SLRs again.

That said, here's my current obsession: capturing items that have some depth and translucence to them. There is this glass ball hanging in my back yard, and when the light hits it, it's spectacular. I'm having a very tough time capturing that light. My images either come out looking too flat with little depth, or too dark with too much contrast. And none of them really capture the range of colors in the sunlight hitting the glass; yesterday I saw yellows and blues in the white highlights. Couldn't figure out how to get them with my camera.

How do you film translucence and glass? How do you capture both the depth of the glass and the spectrum of light hitting it? Are there processing tweaks that help?

Attempting to attach photos so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about ... (this is my first time doing this here, so please bear with me).

The first is bright but flat; the second is too dark but begins to show depth, although it doesn't capture the brilliance of the light striking the ball.

Bright but flat

Dark but begins to show depth; doesn't capture the brilliance of the light striking the ball, though

  • 1
    Personally, I think the second image looks more flat and the first has more depth.
    – AJ Henderson
    Jan 9 '14 at 19:34
  • Interesting. I think the second image better captures the light that passes through the glass and the ridges on the glass; the first looks like a solid ball rather than a semi-opaque one. But you may be right that the first one looks more like a sphere than the second.
    – Twitchly
    Jan 9 '14 at 21:15
  • You've now got enough rep to upvote answers. Go for it :-)
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 9 '14 at 22:10
  • Wow, that was quick. Done!
    – Twitchly
    Jan 9 '14 at 22:36
  • What would happen if the light was behind the subject? Is the subject nearly opaque? Normally, something that glows from/with translucency has a highlight halo to simulate some sort of glare emanating from the "orb."
    – Stan
    Jun 11 '16 at 23:03

It sounds like you are not getting the level of detail you want due to the limited dynamic range of your camera. You could try shooting RAW to ensure that full usage of the dynamic range occurs (and to adjust the shadows to be dark while keeping the image bright). You could also try using HDR techniques (either in camera or in post production) to expand the dynamic range your camera can capture.

  • Sheesh; of course. I hadn't even thought about shooting RAW. That will be my next step. Thanks.
    – Twitchly
    Jan 9 '14 at 21:05

you have too much dynamic range. First of all shoot raw so you shoot the full dynamic range and can balance the different components to achive your desired depth and light play. Secondly, your highlights will be difficult not to clip. you could try a polariser, and turn it to dampen them a bit, just dont close them off completely, or shoot from a tripod with multiple exposures and blend them in from a darker exposure. I'm deliberately not recommending "HDR", as that most often lead to crazy looks, when people get started with it.

  • Very interesting tutorial. Thanks. I probably should hunt up a polarizer. I did try shooting the ball in HDR, but it didn't provide the richness I was looking for. Then again, I probably don't know what I'm doing yet, either.
    – Twitchly
    Jan 9 '14 at 21:11

The problem here is the lighting and contrast. The first difficulty in capturing spheres in a realistic way is conveying that they are spheres instead of just flat circles. With light placed to the side and forward a bit towards the ball you'll see a light and dark side to the sphere, for example, and this kind of difference will make it feel more like a sphere. Additionally, in your photos you can see that the contrast is high -- some parts are dark while others are blown-out to pure white -- and this large difference is too much for the dynamic range of your camera to capture.

Applying these ideas: a softbox or umbrella and flash would help a lot. You can position the light to make the ball look good, and the added light will brighten the whole ball, reducing contrast.

Now, that will help you capture the sphere but I suspect it won't quite let you capture the translucence very well and it may not show off the colors you see. Honestly, off the top of my head I'm not sure how to approach that. But! The book Light: Science and Magic is exactly the resource you want. I'm not sure where my copy is right now, but I'm sure it has exactly the information about how to capture such detail (and lots of other interesting stuff, too)!

  • That book looks great! Will definitely take a look. As you point out, I am less interested in capturing the object's sphereness as I am in capturing that depth and the layered effect of light. And the radiance of the sunlight bouncing off that glass. The book is being added to my list immediately.
    – Twitchly
    Jan 9 '14 at 21:04

Capturing translucency requires the viewer to identify light showing through the object-being-portrayed as coming through the object from the background.

This is not evident in either of your posted images. The object looks opaque due to the dominant lighting you have added from the camera-right side of the shot according to the highlights on the textured object.

When I shoot a glass of beer, I want it to look translucent not transparent as it does sitting on the bar in front of you. To get the visual effect, I put a white card behind the glass of beer trimmed carefully to not appear in the image. Then, I carefully light the card independent of the beer. The effect is a light translucent cool glass of beer. The light travels through the beer. If I take away the card, the background shows through the transparent liquid. It loses its appeal.

Light, itself, is not visible and cannot be photographed.

You cannot take an image of light. You can only capture the effects of the light as it reflects from an object. Similarly, you can capture the effects of light as it passes through an object.

You are photographing a lighted object not the light falling on the object. So you have to make the subject appear as though it's translucent.

Light is electromagnetic energy. It is not a solid, liquid, plasma, or gas. As such it isn't observable, per se. I can see something illuminated by light but I don't see the flow of it toward the object and back in the same sense as I would as with a stream of water from a fire hose, say.

While this is a very FINE point, it is the essence of photography. You must look at the object and how light affects its appearance. Think about how the effect you wish to capture must appear to the viewer in order to portray the effect you wish to communicate. I was taught that this is the process of visualization (an analysis of the subject).

  • Some would say that the only thing that is visible is light, so you may need to explain your point more clearly.
    – Caleb
    Jun 13 '16 at 3:02
  • @Caleb Please see the following sentences which elaborates
    – Stan
    Jun 13 '16 at 3:08
  • Here's the next bit: You cannot take an image of light. You can only capture the effects of the light as it reflects from an object. But that gets it backward. What you see and what you can photograph is the light: where it's coming from, it's color, shape, etc., and how it's affected by the objects in the scene. I think I know what you're trying to say, but the way you're saying it is bound to confuse the heck out of people who don't already understand what you're getting at.
    – Caleb
    Jun 13 '16 at 15:33
  • Well this is actually a great answer. I do not see why someone downvoated it. "Capturing translucency requires the viewer to identify light showing through the object-being-portrayed as coming through the object from the background." This is totally true, so probably some aditional light needs to be "staged".
    – Rafael
    Jun 13 '16 at 17:28
  • @Caleb Thank you for the comment that got me to re-examine my answer. I tried to edit the answer AND add detail AND it got unwieldy.
    – Stan
    Jun 13 '16 at 18:21

With all my respects to some other answers. It has NOTHING to do with dynamic range or RAW. Stan nailed it.

You see your lamp translucent because you interact with it, you see it on the morning, and see it diferently on the evening or during the night.

(Here is a similar situation, where you know there are sparkles because you interact with the real subject How to photograph frost and snow sparkling?)

But on this shoots, where the light looks comming from the front on the first shoot (probably the camera flash) and on the side on the second one (off camera flash) the light is bouncing.

You do not want the light to "bounce" you want the light to go "thru it and disperse" that is the definition of translucent" so put a light either behind or inside it.

It looks like a lamp. Do you have a light inside it? Can you put an off camera flash behind it, probably with a snoot? You then need to balance the ambient light with the artificial light.

  • I will try to post an example, let me find a simmilar object.
    – Rafael
    Jun 13 '16 at 17:43
  • Wow, Thanks. That's pretty nice of you. I wish I could find before and after shots I used for illustrating this which would have made translucency clear.
    – Stan
    Jun 13 '16 at 18:31
  • This question was about translucency. There is transparency, luminescence, iridescence, and luminescence to go. : )
    – Stan
    Jun 13 '16 at 19:45

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