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7 Tips for Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

Here’s at Photography Crystal Ball we’re all about refraction photography. Sure you take photos of reflections in lakes, puddles, etc but what is refraction photography? Refraction, when used correctly, will leave your audience both curious and wow’d by this neat technique. Shooting with refraction is a bit different then shooting with reflections. Once you master this you will get a whole new niche of photography under your belt. Here is some tips to shoot better with your lens ball.

What is refraction?

Have you ever sat by a fish pond and placed a stick in the water. The stick appears bent? When light passes through an object that is more dense such as glass or water you get refraction. A distortion occurs by the bending of light. When refraction occurs with a transparent spherical object (such as a lens ball) something magical happens. An upside down view of the scene that’s behind the ball is seen. The elements in our camera lenses work almost the same way. Using a high quality glass ball you can add this extra element to move around the scene creating a new dynamic.

Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

How to shoot with a lens ball.

With the little introduction into refraction we can now teach you how to use it to get a new perspective in photography. Follow this guide to gain an edge to your photography endeavors.

#1 – Dealing with the upside down image

There are instances where it works to have an upside down image in the background or inside the ball. If you want to avoid this, the best way to deal with an upside down background is to blur it out using bokeh. An alternative to blurring out the background is to use reflection since the reflected image will be the right way up inside the ball.

#2 – Get above your subject

You should get the ball off the ground so it’s level with the subject you’re photographing. A centered subject in the ball will have less distortion and more impact in the frame. There are always exceptions, of course, as leaf beds or puddles work well when the ball is placed right in them.

#3 – Fill the glass ball with your subject

You have to get close to your subject, or it (they) will appear very small inside the ball. The best advice I can give here is to see if your scene would fill a wide angle lens. If so you’re gold.

Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

In this photo, the cityscape is captured inside the ball, and a closer framing was employed.

#4 – Choose the correct lens

The best option here is to use a macro lens or a telephoto lens with macro capability. The macro lens will allow you to get close to the ball, making it easier to create bokeh around the ball. Using a wider angle lens can also work if your scene allows it.

#5 – Choose the correct aperture

You need to get the correct aperture for your scene. An aperture that’s too small won’t blur out the background. One that’s too large will make it hard to get a sharp image inside the ball. I would choose an aperture of around f/4, it depends on the scene you are photographing, though.

Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

One of the best ways of dealing with the upside down image is to use reflection in the photo.

#6 – Find a safe place to position the ball

This is very important, especially if you are photographing from a high vantage point. The ball needs to sit on a flat surface, finding a crevice to sit the ball on is better. Once you have placed the ball ensure it isn’t going to fall and keep your hands near it during this time.

If there is no place to rest the ball you can ask a friend if they’ll hold the ball for you. You need to be especially careful on a windy day, a strong gust of wind can move the ball if it’s not in a secure position.

In this photo of the Taj Mahal there is reflection in the background, and this reflected image is in fact upside down.

In this photo of the Taj Mahal, there is a reflection in the background, and this reflected image is in fact upside down.

#7 – Lighting the subject in front of the ball

You should have a well-lit subject in any kind of photo, but it’s even more important with refraction photographs. A strongly lit subject will shine through the ball with less reflection appearing on the ball. Look to photograph when the sun is behind you or during blue hour shooting towards lit buildings.

Refraction photography versus a standard landscape

A lot of locations that suit refraction photography with a glass ball will also be good for regular landscapes. The question is why photograph a refraction photo when you could take a wide-angle shot of the same scene? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of crystal ball refraction photography.

Pros of refraction

  • A glass ball is cheaper than a lens and allows you to create a fish-eye like effect.
  • You can move the ball to different positions in your scene.
  • Using a large aperture in conjunction with the ball to create bokeh, is great for minimalism.
  • Scenes created with a crystal ball often have a more artistic feel.
  • The ball creates a natural frame for your photo.
Images that work well as a wide angle photo also work well inside a crystal ball.

Scenes that are well suited for a wide-angle photo also often work well inside a crystal ball.

Cons of refraction

  • The larger glass balls are heavy to carry, in an already heavy camera bag.
  • You need a macro lens, something a landscape photographer may not normally carry.
  • Distortion on the edge of the ball.
  • It’s difficult to get a sharp image inside the ball.
  • The image in the ball is upside down.

The choice of taking a glass ball is yours to make, I highly recommend experimenting with it, though.  The pros really outweigh the cons, and following the tips in this article will help. You may also find weight an issue, so I recommend scouting a location before shooting with the ball. Then return for a second visit with just the equipment you need to take the photo, this will reduce the weight somewhat.

Experiment with the ball

The first thing you’ll need of course is a crystal ball, you can buy them easily through our web shop. While you wait you can try filling a wine glass with water, you’ll get the refraction effect this way too.

Now you’re ready to get started, so head to a local landmark and start experimenting. The list of subjects is really endless; you can start with a lone tree, a church, or a cityscape scene. If you have any photos that show refraction please add them to the comments below, it would be great to see them.


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