If you find yourself in a photographic rut and need to break new creative ground, we suggest looking 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 surprisingly versatile.
In this article you’ll learn all about refraction photography, and what makes for good crystal ball photography.
This photo shows one of the strengths of crystal ball photography. This is a scene photographed many times in Italy. The glass ball, however, gives it a new twist.
Equipment for Crystal Ball Photography
The equipment you’ll need is fairly simple.
- Crystal ball – Essential for this form of 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 more easily.
The use of a longer focal length lens will allow you to fill the frame with the ball.
- 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 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 can achieve this by preventing it from rolling away.
In this photo a wide angle lens was used, and the ball provided an accent to the photo.
How Does Refraction 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 most easily seen when you place a pencil inside a water glass. You’ll notice that the pencil is distorted and slightly 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 effectively have a lens optic right there.
In this photo you can see the image in the ball is the right way up, and the background is upside down.
The Glass Ball as Your Medium
Inside a glass ball the light is continually bent until it is inverted within the ball. This creates your upside down image, one of the key characteristics of refraction 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 glass ball re-branded as a lensball.
Crystal Ball Creative 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 photography.
Crystal balls can also be used in portrait photography. You need to be creative with your composition to get a good result.
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 photography is certainly 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.
In this photo a reflection pool has been used in the photo.
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 perhaps 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. Alternatively, 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 smaller sized ball was placed on a wrought iron fence for this photo. The lines all lead into the ball.
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.
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 directly in sunlight, and keep it inside a sock so sunlight can’t get to it.
The fact the ball is not flat means it can roll away easily. 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.
In this photo the photo was flipped upside down. The background bokeh works well to lead the eye to the ball.
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. However, 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.
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 largely 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 and only concentrating on a small area of the background, while the larger scene is displayed in the ball. Using an aperture large enough to blur out the background is a great solution for removing the background from your frame. Additionally, a slight change of angle can dramatically change the background the longer your focal length is, without overly changing the image within the crystal ball.
- 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 acutely 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 photography that includes the ball in the scene.
Holding the ball up can be a good solution when you can’t find somewhere to sit the ball. Try to make the hand look nice in the frame when you do this.
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 halfcontaining 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.
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 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 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.
In this photo you can see how bisecting the horizon line makes for a nice background. The use of bokeh has also helped this photo.
Which Crystal Ball is the Right One for You?
Now you know much of what you’ll need to know for refraction photography with a crystal ball. 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. Typically 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 colour – The glass doesn’t have to be clear. Coloured glass can be nice when using contrasting colours. Having a coloured ball also allows the frame to centre more on the ball, as the colour will stand out more in the photo.
- The quantity – Crystal ball photography need not be about just one ball. Using multiple balls in the frame can certainly 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!
The contrasting colours in this photo make the frame pop more. This is stronger with yellow glass.
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 now go out and get the best photos with your crystal ball yourself.
Using more than one glass ball adds an extra level of creativity to your work.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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