Refraction Photography: 4 Practical Tips (+ Examples)

by John Stapel

refraction photography techniques

Refraction photography is a ton of fun, but how does it work? How can you get started capturing gorgeous refraction photos?

In this article, I’m going to share plenty of tips and ideas for stunning refraction shots, including both glass refraction and water refraction photography. I’ll also share plenty of examples, so you know exactly what you can achieve!

So if you’re ready to capture some photos just like this…

british flag reflection in water doplet

…then let’s get started!

What is refraction photography?

Refraction photography refers to photos that capture a refraction  effect, where light is bent in glass, water, or some other surface to make a subject appear very large, very small, or otherwise distorted.

Here’s a simple refraction photo, which uses a marble to refract the light and make a house look tiny (note that the image is flipped upside down!):

lens ball photo flipped upside down

Refraction photos can be creative, mind-bending, and just all-around cool. It’s a great way to get out of your comfort zone as a photographer, and the effect is insanely easy to pull off once you know a few tricks.

Getting started with refraction photography: find a refractive object

To take a refraction photo, you’ll need an object that produces the refraction effect.

Any transparent object with a mass different than that of air will cause refraction, though the most useful refractive objects are spherical. And while it’s possible to get refraction through transparent plastic objects, for the best image quality, I recommend you shoot through glass or water.

Here are a few of my favorite refractive objects:

  • Marbles
  • Crystal balls (sometimes referred to as lens balls by photographers)
  • Water droplets
  • Sheets of glass
  • Wine glasses
  • Fish tanks

refracted in a droplet

This photo was taken through the bottom of a drinking glass. The bubbles at the bottom refracted the light.

Now let’s take a closer look at some of your options (I share plenty of tips along the way!).

1. Try refraction photography using a glass ball

If someone says “refraction photography,” most photographers will immediately think of a glass ball – because it’s easy to use, gets great results, and is (probably) the most popular object used for this type of image. Glass balls are a great piece of extra kit to have in your camera bag, and offer all sorts of creative benefits (and they’re relatively cheap, too!).

I like to use glass balls for landscape photography; you can perch them on a rock, a car, or even your hand, then capture a stunning “tiny world” shot. The glass ball is also perfect for architecture and even portrait photos if you use it properly.

I’d recommend thinking of the ball as an external fisheye lens. It shrinks and bends the scene, though it appears to magnify objects close to its surface. You should always find a stable surface – I recommend a wall of some sort – and make sure the ball is on the same level as the object you’re shooting. Whenever you go to take a picture, watch the ball carefully. You don’t want it to roll away and break!

the lens ball flipped upside down

The Ferris wheel is refracted inside this glass ball, and the bokeh shapes complement the scene well. I’ve flipped the image upside down, too!

2. Use marbles for a distorted effect

If you like the idea of wild distortion in your refraction photography, then I’d recommend using a marble. This is similar to shooting a glass ball (discussed above), but marbles offer a few unique advantages:

  • The glass may not be as good quality, which gives a grungier image
  • There will be more distortion and a smaller sweet spot where the image is clear
  • They’re significantly lighter, making them easier to carry around
  • They’re easier to position on a surface without falling off, thanks to the smaller size

Also, because marbles are so small and light, you can carry two, three, or even a handful with you into the field or the studio, which allows you to incorporate several into a single shot:

marbles on a line

Now, marble photography does come with a clear disadvantage: marbles are small, so if you want to make the most of the refracted image, you should really use a macro lens, or at least a lens that focuses close.

Of course, you’re also free to get creative with wider lenses and incorporate the marble(s) into the scene – it’s all up to you!

3. Go crazy with water droplets

Water droplet photography is done by pretty much every close-up photographer, and for good reason:

It looks gorgeous, and you can get great results from the comfort of your kitchen!

The key here is to create large water droplets and/or use a macro lens. The drops will refract the scene behind them, so you can have lots of fun positioning different objects in the background, such as flags, flowers, and more.

Really, when it comes to water refraction photography, the sky is the limit, so here are just a few ideas:

  1. Water droplets on a glass surface. Spritz water onto a transparent surface with a spray bottle or a syringe, then add an interesting item underneath, such as a flag or a flower. Get as close as you can with a macro lens, then shoot!
  2. Droplets falling from a tap. Here, the goal is to run a faucet, add an interesting background element (such as a sheet of colored paper or – yet again! – a flag), then capture refractive droplets in mid-flight. Here are some great examples of this type of photo. It might take a lot of trial and error, but the results will be worth it.
  3. Naturally occurring water droplets. You can always hunt around in nature for interesting droplets – such as water drops on spider webs just after sunrise, or water drops on grass or flowers after a rainstorm. Of course, if you like the idea of shooting out in nature but can’t wait for rain, just use a spray bottle or syringe!
  4. Water droplets on CDs. Place water drops onto a CD using a syringe. The larger the water droplets, the better! Then photograph the mini-rainbows that appear. For a creative result, try turning the lights off, then using a flashlight to light paint while capturing a long exposure.

Hopefully one or two of those refraction picture ideas tickled your fancy! Here are a few examples:

7 Tips for Doing Crystal Ball Refraction Photography

I placed droplets onto a translucent surface, then slipped the Malaysian flag underneath!

water droplet refraction

The drop of water from a tap is caught mid-flight.

water droplets on a CD

Water droplets look amazing when captured on a CD!

4. Fill a wine glass with water to create some mind-bending results

Wine glasses are spherical, so if you fill them with water, you’ll get a refracted image inside the glass. And wine glasses don’t roll away, so they’re safer than glass balls when placed on surfaces.

You can use a wine glass for purely creative images, or you can use it for portraits, landscapes, and more. You might even use the wine glass as a prop – held by a portrait subject, but refracting the entire scene.

Try positioning a filled glass in front of colored paper, like this:

refraction photography cup with paper in background

Cool, right?

Refraction photography: final words

Refraction photography is all about creativity, plus it makes for very interesting photo projects. So head out with your camera and a glass ball, grab a few marbles, or try water refraction photography.

The options are endless, so go wild!

Now over to you:

Are there other refractive objects you can recommend? Which of these suggestions is your favorite? Share your thoughts (and refraction photos!) in the comments below!

Refraction Photography: 4 Practical Tips (+ Examples)