Glassblowing: Photographing the Art

Ignite Glass Studio

For almost two years, my wife has enjoyed the hobby of glassblowing…she refers to it as her therapy.  Her “therapy” office is Ignite Glass Studio located at 401 N. Armour Street in Chicago.  On Friday, November 3rd, Ignite held their Glassblowers Ball which gave me and Neale Zingle, friend and fellow instructor, an occasion to photograph the art of glassblowing.  For the past six years, Ignite Studios invites guest artists to demonstrate their skill with shaping molten glass that happens to be at about 2000 degrees.  One of the featured guests this year was Davide Salvadore, an artist from Murano, Italy.

Surveying the Scene

Glassblowers place themselves facing the furnaces so that they can quickly return the glass to the furnace to maintain a workable temperature.  This makes sense for the artist but is challenging to position yourself to capture the details of what they are working on.  Neale and I managed to find a corner next to a furnace that gave us pretty good visibility of the artists and yet remain out of the way of staff walking around with the molten glass.  Next was the lighting, between the fluorescent light in the studio and the bright glow from the furnaces and molten glass, Neale and I knew that the low light and the dynamic range, will be difficult.  This meant that we would have to shoot with higher ISOs (3200 – 8000) and the white balance with the mixed lighting would have to be fixed in post-processing.

Davide (Left) begins his work with a simple ball of molten glass on the end of a blow pipe, a long hollow rod.  f/2.8, 1/30, ISO 6400 ©N. Sinnott


As Davide is manipulating the glass, which looks to have the consistency of taffy, other Ignite staff members are preparing other parts to the piece in furnaces. ©N. Zingle
Josh, Ignite Staff Member, blows through the blow pipe to create a bubble in the glass. ©N. Zingle


As Neale and I continued to watch and photograph Davide, we quickly realized this type of art is not for the procrastinators!  Once the artist begins with the molten glass, they have to finish…there is no putting it down and coming back to it tomorrow.  If the molten glass is left out of the heat for too long and allowed to cool, it will shatter.  The art is a series of quick, no more than 1 minute periods of pulling, blowing, cutting, shaping before the piece has to be returned to the glory hole (heating furnace) to maintain approximately 2,000 degrees.

Davide shaping the upper portion of the piece. ©N. Sinnott
The glass is frequently returned to a glory hole to maintain temperature. ©N. Zingle

Exposing To The Right

Photographing glassblowing is more like a sporting event, the speed of which Davide and the Ignite staff where moving around was mind-blowing.  As such, I had to increase my ISO to 8000 to maintain proper exposure for an appropriate shutter speed.  I also found myself over-exposing the photos working with the practice of Exposing To The Right (ETTR).  The practice of ETTR is over-expose the image by one or two stops and will, in turn, reduce the amount of digital noise in the image.  Because digital noise is mostly found in the shadows of the image, by over-exposing the RAW image, shadows are reduced and noise along with it.  In post-processing, reduce the exposure back down by the one or two stops to the correct exposure and noise will not be introduced.  This practice is taught in our Photo II and Photo III classes.

Davide connecting the two halves of the final piece.   f/2.8, 1/100, ISO 8000 ©N. Sinnott
Davide using a propane torch to maintain glass temperature while shaping.  f/2.8, 1/100, ISO 8000. ©N. Sinnott

White Balance Adjustment

As described earlier, the mixed lighting was awful so we knew that adjusting the white balance in post-processing would have to be completed.  We really couldn’t ask Davide to hold up a gray card for us so we had to make sure to photograph color neutral areas.  Using Adobe Lightroom’s White Balance Eyedropper Tool, I found that balancing off of the white neck of the glass gave me the most appropriate color temperature.

Davide shaping the base of the glass. ©N. Zingle


Flatning the base of the glass. ©N. Sinnott


Davide opening the top of the vase. ©N. Sinnott


The vase is complete but must go into an oven for 72 hours to slowly reduce the temperature. ©N. Sinnott

Final Thoughts

Glassblowing is one of the more interesting events I have ever photographed but it also had challenges to overcome and forced you to think on your feet.  I can now appreciate the amazing work my wife brings home each week and understand that it is therapeutic.  The Glassblower can only think of whats in front of them at that moment in time…all starting with a ball of molten glass.

A big thanks to Neale Zingle for supplying multiple images for this post.





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