The Case of the “Picture” Window
Taking high-quality pictures through a window is an achievement only skilled photographers have seemed to master. Why is it so difficult to take pictures through windows? The Glass Detective explores characteristics of the regular residential window.
Dear Glass Detective,
I would like to sit in my den and take pictures of birds in the backyard, but the window glass is wavy and produces irremediably unsharp images. Is this an inherent nature of glass, or is there a super clear/sharp alternative?
If so, is it super expensive?
Let me begin by thanking you for contacting the Glass.com® Glass Detective with your question regarding the problems you are encountering when trying to take pictures through your glass window. Specifically, you said that you like to sit in your den and take pictures of birds in your backyard, but the window glass is wavy and produces irremediably “unsharp” results. You then go on to ask if this is “an inherent nature of glass, or is there a super clear/sharp alternative? If so, is it super expensive?”
I appreciate your question because I too am an amateur photographer- amateur in the sense that I don’t work as a professional in the field, although I have done one wedding. I have also had three magazine covers to my credit, as well as several photos that appeared in either magazines or newsletters of one kind or another. I am not necessarily a good photographer, but some years ago, I found that if I take enough pictures, sooner or later, I’ll come up with a good one. Digital cameras have allowed me to pursue this approach. I think for every picture I keep, I have probably erased 50-100. I would also like to quickly add that I could have done a few more weddings, but I just couldn’t take dealing with the pressure. I tell you this only to let you know that I think I understand your frustration. It is very difficult to shoot good pictures through glass windows. Here is why:
- The type of glass found in residential windows varies quite a bit. Because glass lasts so long, older homes that have not had window replacements or upgrades may have what is known as sheet glass in their windows. This process is, to the best of my knowledge, no longer used for windows, but it was the predominant type of glass in residential windows for decades. It can be much wavier than other forms of glass. Prior to both sheet glass and ground plate glass processing methods, glass was cast. This type of glass was notorious for inconsistencies in flatness and quality. Today, almost all residential windows are made using high-quality float glass fabricated into insulating glass units. These units are actually two pieces of glass with an air space between them. This type of assembly dramatically improves the thermal performance of a window in comparison to a single piece of glass.
- Glass is inherently reflective. You will get some reflectance coming back at you when you try to take a picture through a piece of glass. The more light on the photo-taking side of the glass, the greater the reflectance. While there are coatings that can be applied to glass to reduce reflectance and glare, they may not solve your problem. I personally have experimented with different techniques when shooting through glass and found that in certain conditions, shutter speed changes might help. But it is a bit hit or miss for the most part.
- Glass used in residential applications often has a coating or treatment applied to it. Almost all new residential windows have a low-emissivity (Low-E) coating on one of the glass surfaces for energy conservation purposes. So if the window is relatively new, you are not only trying to shoot through two pieces of glass but also through an energy coating of some type.
As far as clearer or sharper alternatives that you asked about, there is what is known as “low-iron” glass which is clearer than what we can refer to as ordinary glass. The improvement in the clarity of this type of glass, as its name suggests, comes from the reduction/elimination of iron in the glass-making process. This type of glass is a bit more expensive than what might be called “ordinary” glass but not a great deal more. However, the use of “low-iron” glass in a residential window will still have reflectance and will also most likely be made into a two-pane unit and have an energy coating.
In reality, the typical residential window is being made without any consideration for that person who may want to take pictures through it. These glass windows are manufactured to certain standards and code requirements and are produced in quantities that allow them to be sold at competitive prices. This means that anything considered nonstandard could be expensive. And even at a certain price, you may not get the desired result you are seeking.
While I don’t know where you live or what other conditions you may have to consider, the best way to take those pictures of the birds in your yard is going to be to get outside and patiently wait for them to come along and pose for you. I have been sitting on my balcony off and on for two summers now with my camera ready to take a picture of a couple of hummingbirds that appear about once a week when the weather is good. Because I live in a condo that does not allow bird feeders on balconies, I have to be more patient than I would like. But sooner or later, I think I’ll get my picture. I hope you can get the ones you want as well. I hope this response has been of some value to you, and I again thank you for contacting Glass.com® with your question.
-The Glass Detective