How to Take Unique Crystal Ball Portraits

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The search is always on to try something new in photography. That process is often about taking a technique and applying it in a new way. A crystal ball is a great addition to any landscape photographer’s camera bag. In this article, you’ll see why this is also true for portrait photographers.

You’ll learn to take the perfect crystal ball portrait. There are some special characteristics of refraction photography to consider. You will learn the technical side of refraction photography, and how to use this for your portraits.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

In this photo, the model is seated, with her legs near her body. This made it easier to “eclipse” her behind the ball.

What is refraction photography?

Refractions is an effect that is produced when the light is bent upon passing through an object of denser mass. In the case of a crystal ball, this has the effect of inverting the background image inside the ball. This can be great to use for photography, as the ball becomes an external optic for your camera. You can read more about refraction photography in one of my previous articles.

This effect is mostly used for photographing landscapes, as it creates a super wide-angle scene within the glass ball. However, there are occasions you’d use a wide angle lens for portrait work, and the same is true with the crystal ball.

As with all crystal ball photos, try to ensure your subject is well lit, this will enhance the image coming through the ball. If you try to use strobes for this you need to position yourself carefully, the ball will pick up the light from the flash as a reflection very easily. The best advice I can offer is to position the strobes in a parallel line with the glass ball.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

In this, photo the model is silhouetted against the dawn sky. The distance from the model to the crystal ball is quite far, so the person appears small in the ball.

How to create your crystal ball portrait

Now you know what refraction photography is and how to do it, the next step is to apply this to a portrait.

There are three main types of crystal ball portraits you can make, each uses the ball in a slightly different way. The three types of photo are shooting close to the ball, photographing the ball in the scene, and using the ball as a prop. Let’s take a look at each one.

1 – Fill the frame with the crystal ball

This composition type has the crystal ball fill the entire frame, or become the dominant part of the frame. In this photo, your model will be the main subject inside the glass ball, which means they’ll need to be quite close to the ball itself. To succeed with this type of photo look at the following points, and apply them to your portraits.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

You can avoid distortion by placing the model in the center of the ball.

Center the model

  • The model needs to be in the center of the ball so that you avoid ugly distortion of the face on the edges of the ball. To do this consider the following steps.
  • Don’t have your model standing up strait, a sitting position where there body is more compressed will fit better inside the ball.
  • Take the portrait from the chest up, and center the composition on the eyes.

Compress your scene

Use a long focal length to hide the model behind the glass ball, essentially eclipsing the model. The larger the glass ball the easier this will be.

Position the ball

The ball should be level, or a little higher than the model. This will avoid distortions on the edge of the ball, and by having the ball higher than the model, it will focus the viewer’s eye more on the face.

Avoid bad bokeh

The background in a crystal ball photograph can make or break your image. With your model close to the ball, the background is likely to contain some bokeh. Use an appropriate aperture to blur them out, or consider using post-processing to remove them.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

You can enhance your crystal ball portrait by using good light on the model.

A photo of this type is best achieved with a macro lens, or a long telephoto lens. Both these lenses will allow you to fill the frame with the crystal ball, and then it’s simply about avoiding a bad background.

2 – Use the crystal ball as part of the overall picture

The next option for incorporating the crystal ball into your portrait shoot is to include much more of the background, and make the ball a smaller part of the frame. In this type of photo the focus will be on the ball, but the background bokeh will be equally important in telling the story.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

Use the bokeh in the image to create your crystal ball portrait.

  • The ball is smaller – The ball will be more of an accent within the overall frame. It’s likely the ball will be placed on the ground, or perhaps on a wall and will take up between 10-25% of the frame.
  • The background will be bolder – The shape of your model is important, so have them strike an interesting pose. As the focus is on the ball, the focus on the model will be soft.
  • Use the correct aperture – Adjust the aperture to a suitable level, so defined shapes can be seen in the background. The background should be neither to blurred nor too sharp. An aperture of around f/4 is a good place to start.
  • Wider focal length – Now that you are including a large amount of the background a wider lens will be needed to achieve this.

3 – Use it as a prop in your crystal ball portrait

You can also use the ball in the more traditional way, as a prop for your model. In this type of crystal ball portrait your model will be directly interacting with the ball. This will mean that the refraction effect inside the ball may or may not be seen, depending on the way you arrange your photo.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

Have your model hold the ball, and interact with it.

  • Tell the story – As a prop, the ball will be a focal point for your photo. You can use the crystal ball to show tropes like fortunetelling and magic. Use these ideas when composing your photo.
  • Do you refract? –  When using the ball as a prop you don’t have to show it producing refraction; however, it will add more interest if you do so.
  • Using strobes – A glass ball is a very reflective surface. When using strobes you need to decide if you want your strobe light reflecting on the surface of the ball. Moving your strobe to a side light position will eliminate most of the reflection on the ball, so this is a solution.
How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

Using more than one ball gives you more storytelling potential.

Go out and create your magical crystal ball portrait!

Have you ever tried using a crystal ball in portrait work? Let’s see your results if you have. What difficulties did you encounter when you tried this style?

If you bought the ball primarily for landscape photography, how about trying your hand at a portrait?  Give it a go and let us know how it turns out.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

The ball can help you make some unusual portraits.

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

Experiment with your crystal ball portrait, how about using other techniques like light painting?

How to Take Perfect Crystal Ball Portraits

When your model looks into a crystal ball, there is a story to that photo.

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.

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