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Best Equipment and Techniques for Crystal Ball Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

If you find yourself in a photographic rut and need to break new creative ground, look for different photography mediums. One way you can do that is by gazing into the future with crystal ball photography.

This is an amazing piece of equipment for any photographer to have. It works like an external lens and is very versatile.

In this article, you’ll learn all about refraction photography, and how to take great crystal ball photography.

[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]

Equipment for Crystal Ball Photography

The equipment you’ll need is simple.

  • Crystal ball – Essential for this form of glass ball photography. There are various sizes and even different colours.
  • Camera body + Macro lens – This is the best combination for crystal ball photography. It allows you to fill your frame with the ball, and also to blur out the background.

Extra Equipment for Easier Crystal Ball Photography

  • Wide-angle lens – More useful when you want to include a wider area of the background in your frame.
  • A crystal ball holder – This can be useful to keep the ball still when the surface has no natural resting place. If you can find a natural resting place this will create a more impressive photo.
  • A bottle top – An alternative to a crystal ball holder. Upturned, this has a circular edge that the ball will sit on without rolling away. The surface the bottle top is placed on must be flat.
  • An old sock – To prevent the ball from getting scratched, place it inside a sock when in transit. Some crystal balls even come with their own pouch!
  • A tripod – This is useful if there isn’t another place to position the ball. You can use the top of your tripod, in combination with a crystal ball holder. Make sure the tripod head is flat!
  • A wine glass filled with water – No crystal ball? No problem! You can also create refraction inside a wine glass filled with water. The more spherical the shape of the glass, the better.
  • Twigs or pebbles – Sometimes the ball will need a little help staying still. Placing a few nearby twigs or pebbles behind the ball prevents it from rolling away.
A beach sunset shot through a crystal ball
Photo by Paul Basel from Pexels

How Does Refraction in Glass Ball Photography Work?

The effect of refraction occurs when light passes through an object of denser mass. This bends the light as it passes through the object of denser mass.

This effect is obvious when you place a pencil inside a water glass. You’ll notice that the pencil is distorted and larger in the area that is in the water. That’s because of refraction.

Now fill a wine glass with water, and you’ll see something special inside. The image is inverted within the wine glass. This is the effect you’re going to use with a crystal ball.

Of course, most crystal balls are actually glass balls made with K9 glass. The glass provides that denser mass though, and you have a lens optic right there.

A person holding a crystal ball infront of a lake and forest
Photo by FOX from Pexels

How Does a Lens Ball Work?

Inside a glass ball, the light is bent until it is inverted within the ball. This creates your upside-down image, one of the key characteristics of refraction in glass ball photography. When used well, this will add to your photo.

The glass ball works in much the same way as the optics in your camera lens do. As such, it can be seen as a very basic lens. In recent times the popularity of this form of photography has seen the name re-branded as a lensball photography.

How Do You Use a Crystal Ball for Photography?

Now that you understand what refraction is, it’s time to show you how to use it. And the factors you need to take when doing this style of glass ball photography.

What Makes a Good Subject?

The general rule of thumb when choosing a subject for your crystal ball photo is, would it fill the frame with a wide-angle lens? If the answer is yes, then you have a good subject for crystal ball photos.

The reason for this is that the optics of a glass ball are not unlike those of a fish-eye lens. Let’s look at a few photography types and see how well they work with crystal ball photography.

  • Landscape – The most common type of crystal ball photography will be landscape. You need to find a good location that would make for good landscape photography with a wide-angle lens. The trick now is to find a suitable location to place the ball, that will capture this scene.
  • Portrait – Portrait glass ball photography is possible. The aim is to avoid a busy background with the model appearing upside down. You can achieve this by blurring the model out using bokeh. Alternatively, you can use the glass ball as more of a prop for your model.
  • Architecture – Architecture is one of the best options. Especially when you can use repeating patterns and leading lines in the background. Using a wider angle lens is often better. You can use those leading lines to lead into the ball.

A rock formation shot through a crystal ball

How to Place Your Crystal Ball

As with all photography, finding a great location to take your photo from is important.

It can be even harder with crystal ball photography though. You need a good location for your subject, and a good location to position the ball.

  • Natural divots – These are places that the ball will sit, without rolling away. This could be rocks, a tree branch or a fence. The more this location compliments your subject, the better.
  • Reflection pools – This solves the problem of the upside down image. A clear reflected image will appear to be “the correct way up” inside the ball. If the water is shallow enough, you might be able to place the ball in the pool. Or you can find a position that shows the reflection inside the ball from the pool.
  • A wall or fence – These are great locations. Placing here will mean the ball is elevated off the ground, usually an advantage. Certain fences might have a natural place you can sit the ball. A wrought iron fence will have curving metal, which may well be a place the ball can sit.
A crystal ball placed on a window frame
Photo by FOX from Pexels

Technical Issues You’ll Need to Overcome

There are various technical issues that you will need to overcome. These range from safety issues, to the practicality of photographing an upside-down image.

Fire Hazard

This is no joke. You need to be careful where you put your ball for storage and when outside. The glass ball works in the same way as a magnifying glass. Given enough time, it can start a fire.

You also need to be careful when handling the ball, as it can burn you if you’re not aware of where the sun is. To avoid this, don’t store the ball in sunlight, and keep it inside a sock so sunlight can’t get to it.

Rolling Risk

The fact the ball is not flat means it can roll away. When the ball is on the ground this isn’t a huge problem. When the ball is placed on a wall or even the balcony of a tall building, then it becomes a serious issue.

Make sure the ball is secure in its position before moving away from it, especially on a windy day. The damage a falling glass ball can do to property or another person could land you in serious trouble.

A sunset shot through a crystal ball
Photo by Daniel Fawcett from Pexels

Upside Down Image

When you look through the glass ball, the image will be upside down. You may choose to leave the image this way.

But those wanting to address this issue have the following options available:

  • Flip the image – Once you have the photo onto your computer rotate the image 180 degrees. The background will now be upside down of course, and that’s another problem you need to deal with.
  • Reflection – Reflection works very well in combination with refraction. Whether you use a pool of water or another reflective surface is up to you. The effect with a clean reflection will be that the reflected image will be the correct way up.
  • Post-processing – Finally you may choose to select the area inside the ball in post-processing, and rotate this area only. In this case, both the background and the image inside the ball will be the correct way up.

Background

The main subject is, of course, the crystal ball, but neglect the background and your photo will fall flat. Avoid ugly shapes in the background that draw the eye away from the crystal ball itself.

The background is going to be controlled by the type of lens you use, either long focal length or width.

  • Long focal length – This means lenses over 50mm, and the likeliest lens is a macro lens. When using this type of lens, you will be compressing the scene. Only concentrate on a small area of the background, while the larger scene is displayed in the ball. Using a large aperture to blur out the background is a great solution for removing it from your frame. A slight change of angle can also change the background.
  • Wider angle lenses – Using a wide-angle lens means you intend to show much of the background in your photo. When doing this you need to be aware of how background lines and shapes interact with the ball. The best situation is when leading lines direct the eye to the ball. Placing the ball at the centre of an infinity point can look great. An alternative to this is making the ball more of an accent in your scene, with landscape glass ball photography – by including the ball in the scene.

A pink sunset shot through a crystal ball

Elevation

The position of the ball relative to your subject is important. If the ball is on the ground half the scene will include it, with the other half containing a distorted image of your main subject.

The solution is to raise the ball off the ground. Good location scouting will help with this.

If there are no places you can put the ball down at an elevated angle, then holding the ball is another option. One of the more appealing visual effects the ball creates is when it bisects the horizon line.

Holding the ball up to the horizon line is a good idea for crystal ball photography.

Light

Poor use of light will result in a bad photograph, and this is particularly true of crystal ball photography. The best scenario usually has the sun behind you lighting up the subject.

You then place the ball somewhere in the shade to avoid reflection from the sun. The aim is to have a brighter light in front of you than behind you.

This means photographing the sunset or blue hour sky will also work well because the sky is brighter in front of you than behind.

Aperture

Aperture is an important function for controlling the background. As mentioned above it will blur the background out with a large aperture.

The catch with using a large aperture is that this will create a shallow depth of field within the ball, making it harder to make the image in the ball sharp.

This is where a balance must be reached. Too large an aperture and the image in the ball isn’t sharp. Too small an aperture and the details in the background become too prominent.

If you’re using a macro lens then an aperture of around f6.3 will usually blur the background enough, while keeping the image in the ball sharp.

A person shot through a crystal ball

What Is the Best Crystal Ball for Photography?

Even if you have a glass ball already, there are always reasons to pick up other ones!

What if your ball gets scratched? Having a backup is always a good idea. There are quite a few variants of the glass ball, which you can buy online. Let’s look at a few things to consider when buying a new crystal ball.

  • The size – This can have quite an impact on your photo. The smaller the ball, the more pronounced the distortions will be. On the other hand, these balls can be heavy to carry. The size most photographers are using is either 60 or 80mm. The larger size is the better option. In fact, the majority of photos in this article were taken with an even larger sized ball.
  • The color – The glass doesn’t have to be clear. Colored glass can be nice when using contrasting colors. Having a colored ball also allows the frame to centre more on the ball, as the color will stand out more in the photo.
  • The quantity – Crystal ball photography need not be about one ball. Using several balls in the frame can add interest, not least because repetition always works well in photography. With this in mind, why not buy both the 60 and the 80mm balls!
Crystal ball on a newspaper
Photo by Jan Kroon from Pexels

Conclusion

Crystal ball photography is a great thing to try out and it will lead to a lot of creativity in your work. This article has equipped you with a great grounding to go out and get the best photos with your crystal ball.

Examples of Crystal Ball photography

Crystal ball photography is one of the topics we cover in our creative photography course, Wow Factor Photography. Below are some of the photos taken by our students. If you’d like to learn more, check out the course here.

Crystal Ball Photography by Trina Thorwald
Crystal Ball Photography by Trina Thorwald
Crystal Ball Photography by Alain Chardon
Crystal Ball Photography by Alain Chardon
Crystal Ball Photography by Bobbie E Stephens
Crystal Ball Photography by Bobbie E Stephens
Crystal Ball Photography by Joanne Luciani
Crystal Ball Photography by Joanne Luciani
Crystal Ball Photography by Mary Moranville
Crystal Ball Photography by Mary Moranville
Crystal Ball Photography by Shirley Smith
Crystal Ball Photography by Shirley Smith
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