In my ongoing quest to find new and interesting ways to create an interesting photographic composition, I stumbled upon crystal ball photography. I’m sure that many of you have stumbled upon these unusual and intriguing images, and let me tell you from experience that while the photos look deceivingly difficult to capture, the technique is actually quite easy and quite fun. Best of all, by adding this tool to your arsenal, you will once again be forced to look at the world around you with a different artistic vision, and that can do nothing but improve your skills as a photographer!
The idea is fairly simple. You get yourself a crystal ball and you use a wide aperture (how wide will depend upon what you are going for in terms of your artistic vision) to capture the scene that is projected from your backdrop into the crystal. It is quite amazing how tack sharp you can get the image inside of the crystal to be if you use the technique correctly. Contrary to what you might believe, you don’t need an expensive macro lens to get a good shot using a crystal ball; I’ve gotten shots that I am incredibly happy with by using both my 70mm to 300mm telephoto lens as well as my 35mm prime lens...it’s really all about placement, background and focus. So, here are a few general tips to get you started.
Basic Tips for Crystal Ball Photography
1.Purchase yourself a good quality, completely clear genuine crystal ball. They are not expensive (ranging from $10 to $50 depending on size and quality). I recommend you start with the 80mm size because it is easy to transport and set up, but the 110mm is also a fun tool to have in the bag if you want to fill the frame a bit more. Here is a link to help you get started.
2.Once you have your crystal, you need only find yourself an interesting subject and set your ball up on a surface where it will not move. Most crystals come with a small stand, which can be quite handy, but you can also set it up on a fence, wall, in the dirt, on a cup, hold it in your hand (or have someone else hold it), anywhere stable will do. Remember, though, that the resulting picture “inside” of the crystal will be upside down, and so you will need to make the artistic choice of whether or not to flip the photo in post production or leave it in the more abstract natural form. Because of this, choose the way that you set your crystal up carefully so that if you do decide to flip the image you won’t have a crystal hanging oddly from the top of your composition. If you choose to hold the crystal (or have someone hold it for you), I suggest only using your thumb and index finger - the less of your hand on the ball the better the picture inside the crystal will be - and the finger placement looks fairly natural if you decide to flip the image.
3.While shooting in the direct sunlight can create some really amazing shots with interesting mini sun flares, take care in making sure that you are not picking up too much glare, as this is difficult to edit out in post. Once you’ve set up the crystal, make sure you move all the way around it while looking through your viewfinder to see what the best angle with the least glare will be - or shoot in the shade. Also, if the crystal is in the direct sunlight for too long, it can get quite hot (learned this the hard way), so be aware - I bring along a small towel to wrap mine in for transport.
4.Always be sure that your crystal is completely clean before you start shooting; no fingerprints, smudges, sand, dirt, etc. These things will ruin what could otherwise be a great shot.
5.Finally, you have to choose your focal distance and your aperture. The wider the aperture and the farther your crystal is from background objects, the more bokeh you will get. If you want to give the scene inside your crystal some “reference” go for a slightly narrower aperture. Always be sure to use spot focus (single point focusing is my choice for these shots) and focus directly on the center of the crystal to get the best clarity for your “inner image”.
Hopefully this little article gets your creative juices flowing. Remember, anything that you can do to change up your routine and try new things is great for your craft. This type of photography may not be number one in your book, but for a relatively small investment, you can give something a try that will force you to see the world in a different way. As a side note, a crystal ball makes for a really unusual and beautiful prop in portrait sessions. I’d love to see some of your crystal ball shots, so be sure to post them in the comments. Happy shooting!