Glass ball photography is a fantastic way to create compelling images, the kind that will leave your audience both wowed and curious.
But how do glass ball photos work? How do you set up beautiful images? And how do you use a simple crystal ball to capture such striking effects?
In this article, I share everything you need to get started, including a lensball recommendation, plenty of tips, and even a few crystal ball photography ideas.
Let’s dive right in.
How does glass ball photography work?
Glass ball photography, also known as crystal ball photography, uses refraction to capture unique images. A crystal ball (lensball) is placed in front of a scene; the scene is then refracted in the ball. Thanks to the magic of physics, you end up with an inverted image in the ball, which you can then capture with your camera.
As the photographer, you have ultimate control over your lensball image. For instance, by repositioning the ball (and by repositioning the camera with respect to the ball), you’ll capture different perspectives. You can also adjust the aperture for shallow depth of field effects (where the ball is framed by a blurry background), and you can change the distance from the camera to the ball for an interesting close-up effect. I discuss these techniques in greater detail below.
1. Consider flipping the upside down image
Thanks to refraction, the image inside a glass ball is flipped. Which means you have two options:
- You can leave the inverted image and incorporate it into the composition. For instance, you can juxtapose the flipped image with the real scene in the background.
- You can rotate the image during post-processing, so that the ball’s image appears right side up. Here, you may want to blur out the background with a wide aperture; that way, the flipped background isn’t obvious.
As you’ll see throughout this article, I use a mix of techniques. Sometimes, I like to keep the inverted crystal ball image. Other times, I flip the image for a less disorienting effect.
By the way, if you want to create a sharp, right side up image but you don’t want to do any rotation in post-processing, there is another option:
You can use the ball to photograph reflections. After all, reflections are naturally upside down, but the ball will invert them for a normal-looking result.
2. Get on a level with your subject
It might be tempting to put your glass ball on the ground and shoot into it, but this will actually cause significant distortion, plus it will create less compositional impact.
Instead, I recommend getting your ball up off the ground and on a level with your subject. The key here is to ensure your subject is centered in the ball, so feel free to move the setup around until you get the composition you’re after.
Note that you’ll want to keep your hands out of the frame, so you can either get up close and only photograph part of the ball, or you can perch the ball on an elevated platform, like a rock, a car, or a bench.
Of course, there are exceptions to this advice. Sometimes, it pays to place the ball on the ground, especially if you plan to photograph puddles or leaf beds.
3. Fill the glass ball with your subject
Unless you get close to your subject, it will appear very small inside the ball. So do what you can to close the distance, until your subject looms large in the ball (and consequently the frame).
This might involve careful planning or even some creativity. The ball is like a wide-angle lens, so try to think about your shot as if you’re photographing it at 16mm or so. Would the scene fill the frame at 16mm? If so, you’re golden!
4. Choose the correct lens
Yes, you can do glass ball photography with literally any lens, from ultra-wide to super-telephoto. But if you want to maximize the impact of the ball, I’d really recommend using a macro lens (or a telephoto lens with significant close-focusing capabilities).
Thanks to a macro lens, you can get close to the ball, which does two things:
- It lets you increase the size of the ball in your shot (in other words, you can get close for lots of detail).
- It helps you create strong background bokeh, which is key if you want to flip the image and keep it natural looking (discussed in Tip 1).
A wide-angle lens can work, too, but only if the scene allows it. I recommend experimenting with a macro lens and a wide-angle lens to determine the effect you like best.
5. Choose the correct aperture
The aperture influences the depth of field (i.e., the amount of the scene that’s in focus).
Set an ultra-wide aperture, and you’ll end up with a beautifully blurred background and a sharp foreground. Set an ultra-narrow aperture, and you’ll end up with a crisp foreground and a crisp background.
Neither is obviously better than the other; it just depends on the effect you want. If you’d prefer to create a blurry background (for example, you want to flip the image without a disorienting result), you might try using an aperture of f/4 or so. This will generally blur out the background while creating a sharp image inside the ball.
But be sure to review the image on your LCD afterward to make sure you get the result you want. If you go too wide, even the ball will be blurred, and everything will become an out-of-focus mess. Also, the depth of field depends on other factors as well, such as the distance between the lensball and the camera, so experimentation is always a good idea.
6. Find a safe place to position the ball
This is very important, especially if you are photographing from a high vantage point. Balls are, well, balls, which means that they like to roll, and you certainly don’t want your crystal ball rolling off a bench (or worse, a building). Best case scenario, it’ll end up with scratches – and worst case scenario, it’ll smash and you’ll need to buy a new one.
That’s why I recommend putting the ball on a flat surface, and a crevice is better (if you can find one). Place the ball carefully, then let it sit for a few seconds. Even if the ball seems stable, keep your (or a friend’s) hands nearby, and watch it like a hawk, especially on windy days. You do not want the ball to blow off in the middle of a photo!
If you can’t find a good resting place, you might just ask a friend to hold the ball for you. Or, with some practice, you can hold the ball yourself (though this is always tricky; unless you’re working with a tripod, you’ll need to hold the ball in one hand while focusing and firing the shutter with the other!).
7. Make sure your subject is well-lit
Pretty much every photo can benefit from a well-lit subject, but it’s especially important for crystal ball photography.
Why? A strongly lit subject will shine through the ball while minimizing reflections. (Yes, those pesky reflections that come from in front of the ball and can show unwanted elements such as the camera lens!)
That’s why I recommend you photograph with the sun behind you and striking your subject directly. Alternatively, you can photograph during the blue hour or at night, but aim to photograph buildings with brightly lit facades.
(On the other hand, reflections can create interesting effects, so don’t be afraid to try out different lighting scenarios if you’re feeling creative.)
Glass ball photography vs standard photography
Are you wondering whether it makes sense to pursue glass ball photography? After all, do you really want to play around with a lensball when you could be capturing a beautiful wide-angle shot of the same scene?
In this section, I’ve put together a quick list of pros and cons – which will help you decide whether crystal ball photography makes sense for you.
Glass ball pros
- A glass ball is cheaper than a lens and allows you to create a unique fisheye effect
- A ball offers flexibility; you can move it to different positions in your scene
- You can use a large aperture in conjunction with the ball to create bokeh
- Scenes created with a crystal ball often have a more artistic feel
- The ball creates a natural frame for your scene
Glass ball cons
- Larger glass balls are heavy to carry (in an already heavy camera bag)
- You need a macro lens to get the best results
- The edge of a glass ball produces distortion
- Getting a sharp image inside the ball can be difficult
- The image in the ball is upside down, which gives you another problem to contend with
In fact, here’s a quick illustration of a crystal ball effect. First, we have a standard wide-angle image of a scene:
And here’s the same scene, but shot with a glass ball:
What do you think? Which shot do you prefer? The choice to use a glass ball is yours to make, though I highly recommend trying it out. Personally, I feel the pros majorly outweigh the cons (plus, you’ve made it this far in the article, which means you know all sorts of helpful tips!)
If you find crystal balls too heavy to carry all the time, you can try scouting scenes in advance, then returning for a second visit with only the equipment you need to get your photo.
Glass ball photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Plenty of tips to get started with crystal ball photography. You will, of course, need a crystal ball – which you can buy easily on Amazon for around $27 USD. Once the ball arrives, head to a local landmark and start experimenting. The list of subjects really is endless; you can start with a lone tree, a church, or even a cityscape scene.
Now over to you:
Have you tried lensball photography? Do you think you’ll start? Share your thoughts and images in the comments below!