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How to Shoot Ships in Bottles
and Other Artifacts Under Glass

by Ralph Preston

Ships in bottles and other objects behind glass, particularly when the glass is curved, have always been vexing to photograph. Lights are often reflected into the camera's lens, forming regions of glare - "hot spots" - and these reflections frequently come from two or more locations. Placing a polarizing filter in front of both light and lens works quite well for a flat surface. However, if you introduce a curved surface with secondary reflections from the back of the bottle - and then use more than one light - the polarizing solution is lost. Building a "light tent" produces a beautiful picture of the bottle, but not its contents.

As seen in the May 2000 issue of Popular Photography

Cover: Popular Photography, May 2000

Article reproduced  with the kind permission of Popular Photography

The solution: 
Click for larger image. Clear through-bottle shot of ship Atlantic was made on Kodak Ektachrome 100, 100mm f/3.5 Vivitar Macro AF, Hoya 80B filter, 8 sec at f/22 with Minolta XG-M camera, 150-watt spotlights. After some thought, I realized that the hot spot, as seen through the viewfinder, comprised a very small part of the bottle's surface. The rest of the bottle admitted light that illuminated the subject very well, but this also created some secondary reflections from the back side of the bottle.

I found that a small disk inserted between the light and the offending hot spot (as seen through the viewfinder) completely eclipsed the hot spot (see drawing at left); professionals call such a disk a "gobo," an abbreviation for "go-between." A similar gobo could also be used to remove the reflection from the back of the bottle or glass case, or I could move the light slightly to bring the subject into a position to block this reflection This tactic turned out to be very useful.

Click for larger image. HOw do you get rid of hot spots? With gobos!Another effect of using the gobo was to introduce a shadow, usually slightly outside a region of major interest; there was also an area of substantial illumination surrounding the shadow. However, if I aimed the light directly at an interesting area and the light was not too close to the camera, then this shadow would not be centered on either the main or central area of interest.

To reduce the shadows, I next added another light with its own gobo and moved the light to cut out any secondary reflection, as previously noted. (The more convoluted the bottle, the more gobos needed.) I mounted this second light not too far from the first. The idea was to have the shadow of one gobo in the light of a neighbor.

Three lights best 
Click for larger image. OK, let's make a few gobos. I made eight. While two lights didn't provide quite enough light to erase either shadow, using three lights in a triangular formation worked quite well - each shadow was then in the light of two of its neighbors. Aiming all three lights at the same part of the bottle insured that the shadows were not too far apart and, hence, were in a fairly bright region of the neighboring lights.

I tried four lights and got a very slight improvement - or was it my imagination? My spotmeter indicated a variation of illumination across the region in both the "three light" and "four light" instances, proving that if you aim for perfection, you ain't ever gonna get it! At this rate I was about to start manufacturing gobos.

Generally it was easier to mount the gobos remote from the lights. I placed the lights to the camera's left and stationed a rack for the gobos at the camera's right, making sure that the platform on which the gobos were mounted was substantially above the subject. This kept the "rabbit ear" gobo supports out of view of the camera.

To verify that the gobos were placed correctly, I removed the subject and replaced it with a sheet of white paper. The No. 1 light and its gobo cast a very fuzzy shadow. When I marked this shadow on the paper, turned the light off, and repeated the procedure for lights Nos. 2 and 3, the three shadow marks on the paper showed a somewhat distorted triangle (since I had to move the lights during adjustment). However, when I turned on all three lights, the three shadows disappeared!

Specifics on equipment Rabbit ear TV antennas: Buy them locally, or from American Science and Surplus, 5316 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60630; 773-763-0313. These antenna are extendible with a mounting hole at the bottom that can be used as a swivel (see drawing above). I didn't paint the shiny shafts of the rabbit ear because the paint scrapes off. Use strips of black cloth to avoid reflections.

Six modified swing-arm lamps fitted with 150-watt spotlights: These are available from most discount stores. (A spotlight concentrates its light more than a flood, and it illuminates the field well.) I also bought four "clamp on" lights and removed the reflectors. When the mounting bench became crowded, the little clamp-ons could be tucked into a restricted region.

To adapt the lamps, I removed most of the screws from the swing-arm lights' joints and replaced each with a 6-32xl-inch-long thumbscrew fitted with a wing nut, a plain washer, and a lock washer; the plain washer went between the wing nut and the lock washer. Each swing-arm lamp took three sets of these. (The extra weight of the spotlights tended to bring down the swing-arm lamps at the wrong moments, proving Murphy's Law.)

A bench to hold everything: 
Click for larger image. Here's my whole setup. Now you can do likewise.Although I had built a fairly large bench to support all this, I quickly ran out of space and had to use additional wooden boxes. The bench was 20 inches high, 42 inches long, and 12 inches wide; I added a stepladder to the right of the camera (see drawing below).

To provide the necessary shadow I've developed a handy tool - a gobo disk glued to a 24-inch dowel - which I've named a gobo probe. It can be easily moved around when trying to establish the location of one of the mounted gobos or to track down a secondary reflection, which tends to be very elusive.

I put my camera on a good tripod and focused on the subject, which was mounted about 10 inches above the Ping-Pong table I used for a stage. I used a low light to illuminate the lower region of the ship's hull.

At last, let's shoot the picture! 
Here's the method I used to take the photo on the opening page: Placing the cluster of three lights (to the camera's left) high to illuminate the deck area, sails, and regions between the masts, I aimed the first spotlight at the primary area of interest or at the central region, and saw the first hot spot in the viewfinder. I noted where this spot appeared on the subject, then got in front of the camera and moved my head around until I saw the spot appear at the same point on the subject. Then I moved the gobo until this spot was eclipsed, checking it through the viewfinder.

Next I moved the light until the secondary reflections disappeared behind the subject; if the secondary reflections didn't leave, I knew I needed an extra gobo. Once again I moved the gobo until the hot spot disappeared, and I checked this adjustment through the viewfinder. I found that, if possible, it was much easier to first remove the secondary reflections.

Getting a halo of light around an otherwise eclipsed spot meant that my gobo was either too small or it was the wrong distance from the light. For this setup, the best location for a gobo seemed to be about halfway between the light and the subject. When I had a large bottle, the hot spot would be larger than for a small one. For my bottles, the best gobo diameter was about 2 1/2 inches. (I like a gobo that just barely eclipses a hot spot; although it is difficult to adjust, it cuts out the least light.) I placed a piece of a concrete block on each gobo assembly - this held it down, yet left it free to rotate.

After I had made the necessary adjustments for light No. 1, I turned it off, turned on No. 2, and repeated this "gobo dance." Lastly, I did the same with light No. 3. These lights should be about 12 inches apart, and I tried to keep an equilateral triangular formation; but after adjusting for the secondary reflections (and, of course, making sure the subject was well illuminated), the resulting triangle was seriously distorted.

(Note: Not all secondary reflections are objectionable. Some minor reflections give the project an air of reality. In fact, with all such reflections wiped out, the model has an artificial air about it.)

Click for larger image. You may need a light underneath.The support under the neck of the bottle cast a strong shadow on the base. I aimed another spotlight at this shadow from about 18 inches away, which removed it but created two sets of reflections, using up two more gobos. I also wanted to illuminate the lower part of the hull, so I mounted another spot just above the tabletop and aimed it at a point on the hull just beneath the foremast, mounting a gobo to clear the hot spot. This produced lots of secondary reflections because of the light's proximity to the bottle. Also, since the light from the stem of the reflector's spotlight wasn't well silvered, this created reflections of its own. I constructed a visor and slit to block them (see drawing below). The lip on the top front edge intercepted reflections from the underside of the visor.

The gate in front of the low-light assembly should be left loose. I simply leaned it against the front support legs, usually putting some small blocks underneath for adjustment. I had to vary the slit width by this means, which is necessary for each setup.

Click for larger image. Ralph's workshop.With all the junk surrounding the photo scene it looked like a Rube Goldberg setup, from which no good could come! I felt it best to drape some flat black cloth over much of it. During some of the tests I forgot to use the drapes. I found this had little effect except for some spots from the rabbit ears, so I shrouded the offending ears.

My camera was a faithful Minolta XG-M, placed about 6 feet from the subject and about 6 feet 5 inches above the floor. The lens was a highly rated (by PoP's test lab) 100mm f/3.5 Vivitar macro. I bought 200-speed, daylight-balanced, 12-exposure rolls of print film so I could finish test rolls quickly and have them processed. Since I was using incandescent lighting, I made all exposures through a Hoya 80B correction filter. It took a lot of trial and error (mostly error) and I used quite a few of the 12-exposure rolls.

With my lens set at f/3.5 and all lights on, the meter in the camera called for a 1/4-sec exposure. But I needed all the depth of field I could get, so I set the aperture at f/22 and doubled the exposure time at each stop. This brought me to 8 seconds. With a tripod and cable release this was no problem. I also used substantial bracketing; 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 seconds.

When I used this gobo setup for an airplane-in-the-bottle shot, the lights were mounted more to the right or left since the wings shaded some of the overhead light; at least one head was needed to illuminate the wings. The upper wing cast a shadow on much of the plane if all or most lights were mounted high. In this case it was better to mount some lights to the side. Every project has its own special problems.

In general, I found it important to keep the lights - and hence the gobos-away from the axis of the camera lens. This allowed me to move the gobos closer to the subject without getting them into the field of view, and such gobos cast smaller shadows. The secondary reflections off the back of a bottle of poor quality presented similar problems.

Inside surfaces create difficulties Light is always reflected from both the outside and inside surfaces of bottles. This distorts your hot spot. For handblown bottles and Corning's lab glass this effect is barely noticeable, but for other glass the reflected light can have very distorted shapes. This kind of glass is blown into a mold, which results in the outside having a fairly regular shape, but the inside has a very irregular surface. In spite of this, many such bottles are still used for models.

To correct the latter effect I made small cardboard patches to clamp to the perimeter of a standard circular gobo. These add-on gobo probes are very handy in chasing down just where these streaks are coming through. I used whittled-down small wooden clothespins to hold these patches to the gobos. (I refer to the clothespins as precision spring clamps to keep people from thinking my work is unsophisticated, and I call these patches hitchhikers. In part, because of the issue of these secondary reflections, I have become very selective about my glassware. Today I use only hand-blown glassware and Corning's Pyrex.)

While these photos required a lot of patience in the setup, this gobo technique proved successful for photographing models in bottles, and it should also work very well for glass cases, etc. Remember, this procedure is not the final word. If you see a good reason to change some of the preceding methods, go ahead; you'll probably make an improvement.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Popular Photography

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~~~ Hit the bottle! ~~~