7 Tips for Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography


You’ve have heard of reflections in photography, but have you have tried refraction? When used well, refraction creates compelling images that will leave your audience both wowed and curious. I’ve been approached many times by strangers who are curious about how I photograph with a glass ball. Once you’ve mastered this type of photograph you’ll likely get the same audience. Here are some tips to help you do crystal ball refraction photography.

Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography - house inside glass ball

The subject shows prominently in the ball, and around the ball is bokeh.

So what is refraction?

Refraction happens when light passes through an object of denser mass, such as water or glass. When this occurs, light is bent, and there is a distortion. When refraction occurs with a transparent spherical object something magical happens. An inverted image of the scene behind the ball is seen. The lens elements in your camera actually work this way as well. You can use a glass ball as an extra lens element, one you can move around your scene.

Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

How to do refraction photography

Now you know what refraction is, it’s time to learn how to apply it to your photography. If you follow the guide below you won’t go far wrong with this type of photography.

#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.

Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography - The image inside the ball will be upside down.

The image inside the ball will be upside down.

#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.
This is a wide angle photo of a famous road junction in Shanghai.

This is a wide angle photo of a famous road junction in Shanghai.

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 amazon for 27$. 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.

Natural landscape look great inside the ball. This is a volcanic lake found in Indonesia.

Natural landscapes look great inside the ball. This is a volcanic lake found in Indonesia.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Bond is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured in national newspapers and magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in crystal ball photography Simon is the leading figure in this field, get some great tips by downloading his free e-book! Do you want to learn more about crystal ball photography? He has a video course just for you! Use this code to get 20% off: DPS20.

  • harry little

    Hello E.L

    Thank you for your comments and critique l was blown away, l was able to flip the image in the lens ball after following a utube workshop.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    Hi Harry, could you possibly send us the link on YT? Thanks so much in advance. Really fabulous.

  • harry little

    Hi as requested https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=w1jx0hoQotg
    Let me know if this doesn’t work


  • harry little

    Hi as requested https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=w1jx0hoQotg
    Let me know if this doesn’t work


  • E.L. Bl/Du

    this is great. Looking at the comment section, Rasta has a better way to do this than using the red section. thanks so much, its the best one on there. Still, IMHO YOUR photo wins the prize. Its better than the one in the video. You should think about entering it in a photo contest. Really great, thanks so much. Cant wait to hear what Simon thinks of it.

  • Da

    Two points seem to come out.
    1. The need for close focus (macro?)
    2. How to hold the ball?
    I’m looking at a small platform to sit on a tripod to hold the ball,
    though I think a tripod will be needed for the camera too with the fine focus needed.

    Where is focus? on the ball, or the image through the ball?

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    That is the biggest issue when shooting thru the ball, you nailed what makes it somewhat difficult at first. However, it is not necessary to use a tripod unless your lighting situation requires a longer exposure than the lens you are using to hand hold without movement. Actually when you get the ball in focus, you need to watch if your reflection is in focus or the scene is. That takes some trial and error. As long as the ball is stationary, its pretty easy to hold it, or place it on its holder (set on a fence or a rock or table) anywhere you can get the scene inside the ball. It does come out better if you are not holding it in low light situations. Its definitely a challenge, but do-able. Once you try it, you will get it. It one of those things that you have to see in action to “get it”. Reading about it is good, but nothing replaces the experience. They are inexpensive, $30-60 depending on the size. The mid range size range is the easiest to work with, not too heavy in your gear and till able to get a decent shot. (60mm) Just be really careful in full sun. I burned my fingers first time out. It acts like a magnifying glass and can start a fire very quickly. best of luck.

  • https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/843759bced30eba7ba94bf6953a0e802328e0f30f90693d1ee2e5bed473163b2.jpg Another couple of attempts from me – this time from the cheery blossom season here in London

  • Bill Conway

    Good article. How do you make the crystal ball appear to be floating and unsupported?

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Bill, I’m glad you liked this article. In fact none of the balls in this article are “floating”. They’re all placed on solid ground. Then I’ve used framing (cutting the top of the ball), image rotation, and in some cases reflection to give the illusion of ball suspension. However if you wish to find out more about crystal ball photography techniques I have a very informative course called “Globalise”. It explains how you can make the ball float mid image. If you read my authors bio you can get a link, and a DPS discount for this.

  • Simon Bond

    Very nice photo Inga, I like using branches to hold the ball in place as well. It creates a nice natural looking photo.

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Da, yes you’re correct these are two of the primary concerns. I’ve used a 2 tripod setup at times with my ball, so I can tell you this definitely works. As for focus, you will need to focus on the image in the ball, ideally the area in the centre of the ball. I’d use manual focus and live view here, to best achieve a sharp focus.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    Siobhan. the short answer is editing. Basic programs will have an arrow in shape of a circle, that button flips the whole photo. THere is a program in Photoshop where you can turn ONLY the ball around in post production. That is an advanced prog. and pretty involved. Even in basic editing programs its pos to rotate the entire photo so the ball appears to be rightside up. the trick is to make it look like its floating

  • AlanHartigan

    I can never get mine as clear as the shots you have there, any idea what I might be doing wrong? It could be the lens as I only have the Kit lens I got wit the camera at the moment (18-55mm)

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    I had same prob w/ my kit lenses. 1st one I bought was 50mm, much better resolution, esp compared to the 70-200mm and a good inexpensive place to start, you can pick one up for $125. They use cheap glass in the kit lenses. It makes all the difference in the world to spend (allot) a bit more on your lenses. Sigma and Tamron have good value and excellent quality compared to what you get w/ Canon and Nikon lenses. ( some Canon/Nikon ppl may argue that point) but for the price its better deal. The MM are different so you have to decide what will work for what you are shooting.

  • AlanHartigan

    I see, I didn’t know that about the glass of the lens. Thanks for the info!

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    check out L series Canon makes, they are the best lenses on the market, Youll see some pros using them, they are white and use the most expensive glass made. Even with the same mm (70-200 etc) will be a world of difference and price. they can get up into the thousands. Well we can dream…

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