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Have you ever looked back at the days when you were starting out with photography and everything was fun and thrilling and interesting? Have you ever wondered where all that excitement has gone? Whether you are stuck in a photographic rut or simply looking for some creative photographic ideas, photoelasticity is an easy and fun project you can do. You’ll come up with great artsy pictures, some fresh ideas and give your creativity a boost.

Plastic spoons highlighted with polarized light.

Example of Photoelasticity.

Photoelasticity is also perfect for those long winters. You can come up with indoor photography ideas and conceptual photography projects to keep practicing.

What is Photoelasticity

Photoelasticity determines the stress distribution of a material through experiments. It’s mostly used when mathematical methods become too difficult to put into practice. And so on.

At this point I can almost see the puzzled expression on your face, but remember this. Photography is as close to science as it is to art.

In fact, the study of what happens to light (not necessarily visible light) is one of the most valuable scientific tools. It’s used to investigate everything from the composition of distant stars to the characteristics of everyday materials.

Photoelasticity is interesting because the stress stored inside a material can become a colourful fringe pattern under the right circumstances.

Photoelasticity for a ripped film of clear plastic shows that the unstressed part of the film appears homogeneous in colour. Near the rip, however, a rainbow of colours appears.

This is where all the stress went when I stretched the film past its breaking point.

Photoelasticity effect on torn plastic clingfilm

While stretching and tearing apart this plastic film, a lot of stress was concentrated locally in the material and it can be detected in the form of colourful fringe patterns with photoelasticity.

How to Use Photoelasticity at Home

To play with the artistic side of photoelasticity, you don’t need any fancy equipment.

All you need are some objects made of semitransparent or clear plastic, a polariser filter and a light source able to emit polarised light.

Unfortunately, common light sources such as the sun, bulbs, leds and flash guns do not emit polarised light.

If you are wondering what light source you should use, you are looking at it right now. The LCD screen of your computer, your tablet or your cellphone, all emit light polarised in one plane.

You can easily verify this by looking at your screen through a polariser. You can then observe how it turns darker and then solid black as you rotate the polariser more and more.

Polarizing filters over a laptop LCD screen

The effect of rotating a polariser filter the LCD screen of my laptop.

By rotating the polariser you are selecting different polarisation planes. This blocks more and more the amount of screen light passing through the filter.

When you rotate the polariser 90 degrees, you have effectively suppressed all the screen light.

How to Set Up for Photoelasticity

The images below show the effect of a simple plastic wrap placed on my iPad screen (perfect size for small objects), with and without polariser.

iPad tablet used to provide polarized light

A simple plastic wrap displayed on my iPad screen as seen with and without polariser filter.

To photograph the colourful fringe patterns of larger objects I prefer to use my laptop. I can have the monitor flat on a table and arrange objects directly on top of it or I can place it vertically. Like that, it lights the objects from farther behind (like in the image below).

Using a laptop as a polarized light source for a photo-shoot

To photograph the plastic glasses with the straw I placed my laptop on its side and move it in the background. For this photo, the polariser filter was not used, thus no fringe pattern is visible.

Cameras and Camera Settings for Photoelasticity

For this project any camera will work, including compact cameras and camera phones. If you cannot mount a filter, just hold the polariser in front of your lens and you will be fine.

Or you can buy a filter adapter. The Phot-R 37mm Filter Clip allows you to use 37mm filters with a cameraphone such as the iPhone.

ExpertPhotography recommends: Phot-R 37mm Filter Clip

[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. —Ed.]

Photoelasticity effect on clear plastic cup

By hand holding a polariser in front the lens of my Apple iPhone 7, it was easy to photograph photoelasticity fringe pattern of a plastic glass.


I prefer to work in manual, in order to have consistent exposure throughout the photo session. All the photos presented here were taken with my Sony RX100 Mk2 compact camera.

I tend to manually focus the scene. If the objects are displayed directly on to the monitor, I try to shoot with the widest aperture possible. That way, I’ll have minimum depth of field and I’ll be able to blur the screen pixels as much as I can.

The only thing that remains to do is to visualise a white image full screen and to crank up the screen brightness.

ExpertPhotography recommends: Sony RX100 Mk2

[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. —Ed.]

What To Photograph

Homemade photoelasticity kit. Cheap accessible materials for rainbow effects

Some of the plastic objects I have used to explore photoelasticity: filter cases, plastic glasses and food containers, bottles, plastic films used to wrap stuff, cutlery, etc.

I have already said you should photograph objects made of transparent plastic, but plastic is a very generic term. To be honest, I cannot tell you exactly which kinds of plastic will work and which ones will not. You should go grab every object you can find that is made of semitransparent or clear plastic and try for yourself.

This is where most of the fun comes from, and this kind of treasure hunt can get you addicted. The next time you’re at the grocery store, you might end up buying more plastic than food.

Let’s see some results in detail.

Plastic Bottles

One of the first things I tested was a plastic water bottle and I got almost no fringe pattern.

PET drink bottles do not react to polarized light

I was not able to get a good fringe pattern with any of the PET bottles (water, coke, etc.).

Plastic bottles for the food industry are made of PET (polyethylenetereftalate), which is a type of amorphous plastic material.

I suspect the degree of crystallinity and/or the fabrication process of the material do play a role. Some other PET containers show stronger fringe patterns, but I am not an expert on this.

What I know is that this kind of bottle does not work well for this project.

Plastic Cases

Many rigid plastic containers, such as photographic filter cases and CD and DVD cases work very well. If you look carefully at them in the light of your computer screen, you might even see a faint fringe pattern with the naked eye.

Those objects are usually made of polypropylene (PP). This is a much more dense and crystalline plastic than PET.

Sometimes you can know what kind of plastic an object is made of from the recycle symbol. Unfortunately, not all plastic objects have impressed on them the recycle symbol.

Polypropylene objects make wonderful photoelastic effects

The case of my polariser filter shows pretty strong fringe pattern.

Polypropylene items can be found anywhere to make great photoelastic pictures

The case of my Lensmate filter adapter also display a nice pattern.

Plastic Cutlery, Glasses and Straws

Clear plastic cutlery, glasses and straws you usually use for parties or picnics look stunning.

Rainbow effects passing through plastic cutlery with photoelasticity.

Clear plastic knife and spoon arranged on top of my laptop screen.

Rainbow cup effect from photoelasticity

A classic glass gets much more photogenic with photoelasticity.

Lightsaber effect on a plastic drinking straw

A simple straw or a lightsaber?

Plastic Bags, Food Packaging and Other Food Containers

Do not limit yourself to experimenting only with objects made of hard plastic. Plastic bags used to freeze food or for food packaging can can give amazing results creating compelling abstract images.

Gemstone sparkle effect from photoelasticity and a plastic bag

This plastic bag intended for freezing food looks like a precious gem stone.

Food wrapper abstract colour effects. Rainbow colors with household objects.

Plastic food packaging used to wrap some salty corn cakes can also be used to create nice abstract images.

Small food containers usually have lots of stress in them and should display a great, symmetric, fringe pattern.

Photoelasticity shows the stresses through plastic objects.

A small food container made in PP. You can see the recycle symbol with the letters PP in the lowest half of the bottom of the container.

Low Key or High Key?

You may have noticed that, until now, I have shown you only images in low key style. You don’t have to suppress the light of the screen with your polariser for photoelasticity to work.

I like the low key style more, but high key images are great as well.

High key photoelastic effect

High key image of two superposed spoons made from Polypropylene.

Low-key spoons with photoelastic rainbow effect.

Low key image with the spoons in the same configuration as before, but taken from a different angle.

Anything Could Work for Photoelasticity

Once again, this project is all about fun and you should not be take it too seriously. Look around you and don’t be afraid to experiment and test wild ideas. Worst case, you lose a few seconds of your life trying something that did not work.

When things work, though, the reward can be huge. I had this Lego model of the ISS (International Space Station) hanging around at work. It has a great array of solar panels that are made of clear plastic. Needless to say, I promptly tested it.

Transparent LEGO - Rainbow photoelastic effect

My Lego ISS model gets more interesting thanks to photoelasticity.

Getting Creative With Photoelasticity

As I said, photoelasticity is so easy and fun to do that you will soon begin asking yourself: “Now what? I want more!”

Once you have experimented with different objects and saw how they respond to photoelasticity, it is time to get more creative. You can combine different objects together, while also playing with the composition and message of your photos.

Composite Images

The previous photo of the ISS is great because it looks like it really is in space. I could have stop there, but I am into astrophotography as well. I decided to do a composite image using a shot I took of the moon, the ISS and the space shuttle approaching it.

Composite - Photoelastic LEGO space station and the Moon

Composite image of an old photo I took of the Moon and one taken while playing with my ISS model.

Go With The Flow and Be Creative

Water has a refractive index quite different from that of air. If you partially submerge something in it, like a stick, the stick will look broken. The part of the stick outside the glass, and that submerged in water will appear to be in different positions.

Here I did the same, just using a straw instead of a stick. Air bubbles were a welcome accident.


Rainbow effect on a plastic spoon and drinking straw.

A glass, water and a straw. This is the result obtained with the setup shown earlier in the post.

Usually, the creative process is a continuous flow of ideas, each one based on what you did before. Wouldn’t it be nice to have two glasses forming a heart with their straws? Yes, it would!

Rainbow heart effect from two plastic glasses and drinking straws

Two glasses with straws arranged to form a heart-like shape.

The next results were so unexpected that they looked like magic to me. A spherical food container turned into a magic ball floating in the hand of a wizard.

Homemade fantasy magic orb effect - Plastic container and photoelasticity

The colourful spherical fringe pattern on this food container makes it the perfect props for a photo with some magic feelings.

Two Artistic Practical Uses For Photoelasticity

All these images are nice and can wake up your photographic enthusiasm and creativity. They will also get you quite a bit of likes on social media. But their usefulness ends there.

Or does it?

Before concluding this post I want to give you a couple of examples for when this kind of work has a practical use.

If you are good at drawings (which I am not, unfortunately), you can craft your art for yourself. You could get something different by creating a mask of your drawing to put in front of plastic wrap. This will show strong, colourful fringe patterns.

Black paper filter mask - Homemade photography tools

The masks for the images below were carved directly into a black sheet of paper.

Photoelasticity over a handmade black paper filter mask.

Rainbow effect photoelastic image. Ship on a moonlit sea

While I am not good at drawings, I had some ideas, like this hot-air balloon rising into the night with a Moon and a star and a boat sailing into the Full Moon night.

Finally, if you are a graphic artist, you can put photoelasticity to good use. It provides you with the tools to easily create colourful abstractions you can use to fill in a text.

Expertphotgraphy logo enhanced with photoelastic texturing

I used the photo of the corn cakes packaging to fill in this text in Adobe Photoshop.


I hope this post has ignited your curiosity and that you will give photoelasticity a try.

Just remember: don’t overthink it and never stop having fun and experimenting with materials and ideas.

Looking for more fun photography activities to do with children?

If you’re getting colourful effects you didn’t plan for, perhaps you should take a look at our guide to Chromatic Aberration and how to deal with it?

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Andrea Minoia

Andrea Minoia is an enthusiast photographer based in Brussels, Belgium. He is mainly active in portraiture and table top photography, but he does enjoy to get busy with astrophotography and infrared photography. You can follow his work on his regularly updated photo stream on 500px and follow him on google+.You can also get in touch with him via his personal website .

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