Photographing a translucent Sydney Opera House

Photographing a translucent Sydney Opera House

This post is very different from the content you might be used to seeing on this blog. Basically, it covers a particularly interesting commercial job that I took on last year, in a genre very different from cosplay.

The more technically-minded might enjoy reading this post, because I break down the process of preparing and executing for the job in order to minimise the chance of things going wrong.



During the 40th anniversary celebrations at the Sydney Opera House in October 2013, a free exhibition called Danish Design at the House took place at the Western Foyer of the building.

Danish engineering firm Steensen Varming was one of the companies featured in the exhibition, and its plan was to create a series of four translucent acrylic display panels which would be fitted on the large support columns of the Western Foyer.


The panels would outline Steensen Varming’s role in designing, implementing and maintaining the air circulation and cooling system of the Sydney Opera House, as well as its design philosophy.

The system is considered innovative because it was an early working example of cooling large amounts of air using the sea water from the Sydney Harbour.

For the background image of the acrylic panels, Steensen Varming wanted a photograph of Bill Lambert’s transparent model of the Sydney Opera House, which was used in a pre-3D graphics era to work out how the air heating, cooling and ventilation would work within the structure.


Since I had previously provided the firm with an image of their transparent piano from Vivid Festival 2013, the marketing coordinator asked if I would be able to deliver a photograph of said model according to brief.

The aim was to create an image of the model with dark field lighting, using controlled lighting to highlight the transparent architecture of the model, while leaving the background in darkness.

Scoping out the physical limits

At this early stage, I did some research and found the model currently resides in the Sydney Opera House offices at Customs House. I also found its dimensions: 4.5m x 3m x 1.8m – basically the size of a small car.

I decided to scope out the location in person, and found out that the clearances in the room around the model meant limited angles I could shoot from.


A wooden panel serves as the backdrop of one side of the model. The other size is a glossy glass window providing views out to the rest of the Opera House. The ceiling is white.

If I wanted to limit reflections, I’d shoot with my back to the glass. But the wooden panel would also be a bit reflective, and I wanted solid black, not brown, as my background.

At this point, I also found that the lift stops providing public access to the floor the model is on after 5pm.

I then went to the Western Foyer of the Sydney Opera House where the panels would be displayed, and did rough measurements of the columns. From there, I could estimate the size of the four panels, and the total dimensions that my photograph would have to be to cover that area when printed (assuming 300dpi prints to be safe).

I determined that my 12MP D700 would not deliver the details and resolution required for a print that large, even with fractal-based upsizing techniques. So I made arrangements to hire a Nikon D800E for this job, for maximum detail.


Transparent/translucent objects are known to be difficult to photograph, and this difficulty would be compounded by the size of the Opera House model. The main challenges for this shoot:

  • Restricted physical clearances meant I would have to use a fairly wide lens to get the entire structure into the frame. But a wide lens would also capture more of the background/ceiling.
  • This meant I would need a much larger black backdrop than I would otherwise have needed if I was on a telephoto lens.
  • Said physical clearances also meant it would be difficult to control light being reflected off the model onto the wooden background.
  • The translucent model and its glossy surface, plus the white ceilings, would require very controlled lighting.
  • At the same time, the large size of the object would require large light sources to reduce the problem of hard reflections, and deliver even lighting. Large light sources = more spill.

The photographer’s technical manual, Light Science & Magic provided the basic starting point for lighting the shots, but I would upscale the setup to allow me to light a car-sized translucent object – as opposed to a wineglass.

In the end, I decided to bring two studio backdrop kits (complete with black cloth) to cover as much of the background as possible.

I also brought along a large parabolic silver umbrella as key light, and SaberStrips to act as stripboxes to light the edge of model. Light sources consisted of speedlights only, ensuring maximum portability and to make it easier to place them in the limited space available. Grids fitted on the speedlights would constrain any spill as needed.

Executing the shoot

Because I was bringing so much stuff (almost ¾ of my entire arsenal), and using public transport, I asked Gigi to come along to assist. I would have been physically unable to carry out this shoot without her help.


I staggered the transport of the materials across two days, storing one half of it in my office the day before, then bringing the rest on the day. Gigi then met me at the office and we divided the load before taking a bus to the location.

Arriving on location before the cut-off time of 5pm (the marketing coordinator would arrive at around 6pm, and we let her up by pressing the button on the lift), we set to work preparing the environment for the shoot.

This was while the Sydney Opera House staffers in the office were having a end of week party, by the way.

We erected the dual black backdrops and removed the LED display lights from around the model.

I then set up the large parabolic umbrella as key, as well as the SaberStrips. Once this base lighting was established, I could then position additional flashes behind the model, or strategically hide them within the model itself, to bring up the overall brightness, illuminate darker areas to bring out the internal structural details, and overall just add pop to the image.

With the black backdrops in place, I flashed directly through the model, without worrying about light bouncing off the translucent surface onto the background. I did have to take care during composition to ensure the white ceiling did not intersect with any part of the model in the shot.

This meant I could bounce lights off the ceiling to provide additional top-down illumination if needed, and still be assured of a pretty simple retouch afterwards: simply paint the ceiling parts of the image black to get a solid black background.

So it turned out that the shoot was a bit more pain-free than I envisioned it to be – we didn’t run into major problems during execution, and in fact I had a bit more room (in terms of light spillage) than I thought I would have.

Final product

The final files were massive and very detailed. With a clear demarcation of the model’s details against the black background, it was a fairly simple task for the graphic artist to design the panels such that when printed out, the details of the model were see-through.


Image above: copyright Steensen Varming

Danish Design at the House was opened by Crown Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik, where Steensen Varming’s executives showed off the panels to the royals.


Image above: copyright Steensen Varming

A total of two sets of panels were produced, and one of these sets was later displayed by Steensen Varming at its 80th anniversary celebration, at the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen.