7 Tips for Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

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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.

  • Inga Rasmussen
  • Whatrdafax

    I love the article, but I’m missing something fundamental. In step 1 you state one way to avoid an upside down image (relative to background) is to use reflection. I need a diagram of that technique. For example, I place my crystal ball with a building in the background -how do I set up a refection? I really can’t picture that. Unless you are teferring to your Taj Mahal where the image in the crystal is of a reflection in the water? I’m puzzeled how I might do that with a mirror.
    I would love to capture film image with image in crystal not upside down to background.
    Thanks

  • Simon Bond

    Hi. You can see 2 examples in this article where reflection is used in conjunction with refraction. The Taj Mahal is one of those, and the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur is the other. Generally speaking you’d want to find a scene when there is a reflection of your main object (a building in a pond for example), and then use the ball to refract the reflected and the normal image in the ball. If the reflection is clean, then the viewer may not be able to tell the image in the ball is upside down (and is in fact a reflection). I guess in theory if you put the ball onto a mirror that was large enough to pick up the background as a reflection…. you could do this. In general I’ve looked to find bodies of water (ponds, puddles after it’s rained…. or even make your own puddle by bringing a bottle of water with you).

  • Becky

    So if the ball is on the ground and you are shooting through the ball – I guess you are laying on the ground as well? I just got my crystal ball in the mail and I am hoping to soon get out and try it out but I don’t want to look like an idiot if there is a better way to do it.

  • Paul Hunt
  • Ronda Todd
  • Gábor Szilágyi
  • H Phillip Novotny
  • Jeff Weissman

    I also put a video on youtube, sort of a crystal ball tutorial
    https://youtu.be/st2dufAH4mU

  • Bevlea Ross
  • Simon Bond

    Hi Bevlea, this is a nice photo. I like the natural tones in it a lot, and wedging the ball like this is a great way of suspending the ball I find.

  • Simon Bond

    Great work, those flowers really add a nice punch to this photo, as does the texture of the stones in the foreground. I like that you have lifted the ball off the ground with the rocks the ball has been placed on.

  • Simon Bond

    Thanks for sharing Ronda, the minimalist blue tones are nice in this photo.

  • Simon Bond

    This ones great, I really love the way the ball sits in that leaf, it makes the photo.

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Becky, yes there is a good chance you’d need to lay flat on the ground if the ball was also on the ground. There are some alternatives though. You could buy an anglefinder, it’s a bit like a periscope, but for a camera. The other method is to turn on your camera’s live view, and use this to compose and focus the shot. Either way you’ll be on your hands and knees if the ball is on the ground. You will have had a month to experiment with now though, and I’m sure you’ve notices handheld photos of the ball, and placing the ball in more elevated positions can be more effective.

  • Melissa Raymond
  • Simon Bond

    Thanks for sharing this nice seasonal photo Melissa, have fun using the ball!

  • TomB

    What a super article. I received one as a Christmas gift. I walked outside and took a quick photo with my Galaxy Edge 7 smartphone. Going To https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0e463e5b87999cd4769e2dbc6b0fe3dad3dcaa6f778fb7c993f594646b5dbc49.jpg use these tips and head out on a waterfall hike this weekend.

  • Leslie Abram

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/19a6d8203aff43d287c52b5c1b9e746b0d4cd76646aed95e0d854a50ed376237.jpg Hi there I read your article with great interest as I wanted to try this type of photography. Thank you for the great tips. Last night I took my new little ball down to Lake Ontario at sunset and put it on the ice. Loads of fun!

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Tom, that’s a cool shot. I love that you’re getting out there with the ball and enjoying your photography. Thanks for reading my article as well.

  • Simon Bond

    That’s beautiful Leslie, and what a great location to try out some crystal ball photography!

  • Leslie Abram

    Thank you! The ice down on Lake Ontario is gorgeous right now.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    Linda Bon, Wow, great job, Im still working on mine, yours turned out beautiful. this would make a nice Christmas card. How big is your sphere? mine is the 60mm and its heavy on a hike. Yours is my favorite so far, you should enter this in a photo contest. ALso, I would like to know your etting, and focal lenght, lens used etc….

  • Meyer Sandro
  • Akay

    WOW
    is the best that an incompetent person like me can utter ….

  • Akay

    Wow
    Wow
    Wow

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    Been having allot of fun w. mine, but I dropped it and now have a sm chip. 🙁

  • Simon Bond

    Nice work Meyer, enjoy photographing with the ball!

  • Meyer Sandro
  • Simon Bond

    Great stuff Meyer, I can see you’ve really got the crystal ball bug! Great use of that reflection.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    agreed, well done

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    it looks to me he set the ball on a towel on the diving board by the pool, but I have to say, I like the sun flare at the top, it makes the trees look like its fall, and the grainey diving board looks like snow or something interesting.

  • Siobhan Cosgrove

    I have a digital camera what setting do i use to photo wildlife like Swans?

  • Siobhan Cosgrove

    WOW!!

  • Siobhan Cosgrove

    EXCELLANT!! I hope i can get CLASSIC photos using the Crystal Ball as well

  • Siobhan Cosgrove

    How do you get the photo the right way up using the Crystal Ball?

  • Laura Lea Evans

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/790e5d773327828d391589463801ca3f8ee57fd6491390fb77b2cb0339918362.png

    This image is a composite of two. I extracted the globe from one, and pasted the second as the background to it. Love the crystal globe photography for its imagination. Great article, Simon.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    R U kidding? That ALL depends on how much light there is and WHEN you shoot the photo. What kind of a question is that anyway? REALLY? Try reviewing your manual for settings

  • Siobhan Cosgrove

    Thank you so much for your lovely answer. Very much appreciated. XX

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    your question was so very vague and Unrealistic, how can you EXPECT a serious answer? If your shooting at night? or foggy or full sun? I suggest you try snapping a few photos and practice with the settings and then try to include the swans. It may wash out depending on how much background, there are SO MANY variables you cant possibly expect an EXACT answer. Thats like asking how much water should I boil for tea? Ok well how many ppl are having tea? If you could be a little more specific, you might get a realistic and specific answer. That was my point, I wasnt trying to be short, but you have to be more realistic when asking such a specific question with NO other information.

  • Jaya Thamke

    Hi which size do u used for this photo

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Jaya, are you asking about the photos in the article? Or one of the people who posted their photos in the thread?

  • Farah Pavri

    Hello everyone.. what an awesome link i have stumbled upon. i have a question, in some pictures it seems like the ball is mid air with no one holding it. how is that done? Thank u , Love love love all the pictures and the article the most. plan to get this for my 15 day trip to Thailand in may. Also want to know should i get the crystal balls which come with stand or just the normal one.

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Farah, first of all have a great trip in Thailand. I would get the option that comes with the stand since that will always give you more options. However you can make do with an improvised stand such as a bottle top, a lens cap, or anything that is spherical that the ball can rest on. I would say for the most part you’ll want to avoid showing the stand within the photograph though, and find places withing your scene that the ball will naturally rest in.

  • Gail Jenkins
  • Jax

    Ignore the unnecessarily angry person. Check your camera for an action setting (may show an icon for a person running) to catch swans in motion especially when taking off and landing in a pond. For images where the subject is fairly still and you want them in focus but the background is blurred try the portrait mode.

    Once you feel more comfortable with these you can move onto setting things yourself. When you’re ready I would play around with your manual settings. use Aperture priority for animals at rest and Shutter priority for animals in motion.

    Good luck and have fun and please ignore the people who obviously have some anger issues. I guarantee anyone that angry is unlikely to have the patience or skill to take a worthy photograph anyway.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    Jax,
    Thanks for the digs and after reading YOUR comment, I see you are not a professional, they dont use the auto settings. but good luck selling your prints with your point and shoot on auto. Youll be sure to get the shot just the way you want it Im sure, and learn nothing. Since this is not a site to learn landscape photography its an article about shooting thru a crystal ball, I find BOTH comments are in the wrong place,. Photography takes more than patience, it takes SKILL, which you obvioulsy missed, and depend on your auto settings to. You will NEVER grow in your photography that way, but just wanted to say THANKS for YOUR nasty digs. If you want to give out BOGUS advice just to send a dig towrds me, what does that make YOU? MORE of a jerk giving out BAD advice.

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