Photographing Milk Glass

by Dee Sacherich

Everyone, even professional photographers, agrees that milk white glass is extremely difficult to photograph. If all you care about is a quick shot simply for the shape and general features of a piece, then a Polaroid camera is fine, but it is not good for details or close ups. If your main purpose is primarily to keep a pictorial record of your collection, say for insurance purposes, a video camera is ideal. But if you want to create and present a fine photo album of your pieces, you need a fairly good camera, some trial and error practice, and lots of patience.

I use a 35 mm camera focusing manually with the macro setting. I prefer a film speed of 100, but regardless of the speed of the film you buy, a tripod is essential to keep the camera steady. It also allows you time to position the piece exactly the way you want it, and to fiddle around arranging it in various perspectives before you are satisfied with the angle and distance. For small pieces, I use a close up lens to enhance details.

Unless you want your photos to include other features, such as display areas and cabinetry, or festive flowers and seasonal decorations, it is best to keep the milk glass piece free of other distractions by using a plain, solid background. I purchased a special brown light-weight paper from a camera shop, but you can use any non-glare backdrop in any subdued color which helps show off the milk glass. Others tell me they get good results using a solid black or gray fine-textured cloth.

Lighting is extremely important. Some people have success with flash photography, and under favorable conditions, natural light works quite well. But to have complete control over your lighting, I have found artificial light preferable. I have several spot lights on adjustable bases, placed on both sides of the table which I use to photograph my milk glass. By careful positioning, I can create the least amount of shadow on the glass. Depending upon the piece, I might also put the light directly above it to get good sharp details of any embossed patterns or surface features.

Experiment with your lighting. Find the combination that works best for you. Each piece of milk glass will photograph differently. But once you find the "combination" it only gets easier. You will go through several rolls of film at first - just don't give up! Filtering the light to diffuse it sometimes helps. Dip tissue paper loosely over the light being careful not to get the paper directly on the bulb.

The environment I use is my laundry room table which, being counter top high, saves my having to bend over to get shots, The background paper gets placed over the table top, up over the wall (in my case, a peg board), and attached. I clip one spotlight on a pole hanging from the ceiling, The other lighting is on bases and swivel arms so I can bring the light in closer, or move it up or down to erase or minimize shadows. All this is seen through the camera viewer.

One thing that sometimes is lost sight of is the strange way artificial light will produce unwanted red or yellow overtones in your pictures, causing your milk glass to look pink or yellowish. To avoid this, it is essential that you use a blue filter which you can purchase from any camera shop to fit your lens. Most cameras of at least moderate quality will have behind-lhe-lens metering and will automatically compensate for the filter so you need not worry about the proper exposure. But if your camera does not have automatic metering, you should increase the exposure by one aperture f-stop.

Focusing is quite another matter. Although some cameras have automatic focus, as I said at the start, I much prefer to focus manually using the macro setting for great close up shots. Move the milk glass piece until you have the sharpest image while at the same time adjusting the lighting for the best definition of the details.

I am usually able to get good close-up shots that are crisp and show all the detail we love so much in milk glass. If I can do it, I'm sure you can, too - just practice and have patience.