A person holding a lensball above water with a hillside in the far background

Photography

Get creative with crystal ball (lensball) photography.

You can use a crystal ball for more than just telling the future. Crystal balls, sometimes known as lensballs, are great for capturing fresh photographic perspectives and strange effects. Learn how crystal balls work and get some useful tips to take your lensball photography to the next level.

How to get on the ball.

  • Learn why a smaller crystal ball works better for beginners

  • Look for a 60mm, 80mm, or 100mm ball 

  • Find out whether you should use regular glass, leaded glass, or quartz crystal — and why to avoid plastic

What is crystal ball photography?

Crystal ball, or lensball, photography is a creative technique that uses a glass ball to take an inverted image. The ball acts as an external lens that approximates the look of a fish-eye lens with distorted edges and a panoramic angle of view. “As the light passes through from one side to the other, it inverts your image and distorts it, which gives you a different perspective,” says photographer Kevin Vierra.

  

Although the technique is often referred to as crystal ball photography, most lensballs are actually made of glass. Keep this handy photography accessory in your camera bag to effortlessly transform all kinds of scenes.

Refraction photography and crystal balls.

Refraction refers to light bending as it passes through an object of denser mass. Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably already experimented with refraction photography if you’ve ever used a DSLR camera.

 

Crystal ball photography is a type of refraction photography. The image you see when you look through a lensball is upside down because that’s how a spherical shape bends light. The same phenomenon happens with DSLR lenses, due to their structure of concave and convex spherical elements.

Pick the right crystal ball or lensball.

Which lensball size you pick depends on personal preference, but keep in mind that smaller balls are lighter and easier to handle and transport, so they’re more beginner-friendly. A larger ball makes for a larger scene, but the tradeoff is that you can’t hold it in your hand and photograph it at the same time. Three common sizes of crystal ball are 60mm, 80mm, and 100mm — small, medium, and large, respectively. However, they range from marble-sized all the way to melon-sized. An 80mm lensball is the happy medium for many professional photographers.

  

Leaded glass, unleaded glass, and quartz crystal are the three major lensball materials. Photographer Virginia Chase uses a lensball made of K9 crystal, which is popular for its balance of high quality, clarity, and low cost.

A person holding a lensball up to a basketball hoop while a plane flies high above it
Two stacked photos: one of a lensball capturing a forest environment and one of a person lying down next to a lensball

When and where to use your crystal ball.

There’s no right or wrong way to compose your lensball photo. “You can be zoomed in and up close to the lensball or you can zoom out for the whole picture,” says Chase. “Every angle in between is acceptable. It just depends on your preference and what you’re trying to convey. How much of the scene do you want to include? Do you want the viewer to see the background? Do you want more of a bokeh effect?”

  

“I do a lot of night photography and cityscapes,” says Vierra. “The lensball makes the colors in neon lights and water reflections pop. But I’ve seen people use it for landscape photography and creative portraits.”

  

“I like nature photography and wildlife shots,” adds Chase. “But the possibilities are endless. You can photograph anything through a lensball. It comes down to what interests you.”

How to set up your lensball.

You’ve got plenty of options when it comes to positioning your lensball.

Handhold it.

Simply hold the ball in front of you. This is the most obvious option, but it’s not the easiest. You’ll have to manually focus at a shallow depth of field with one hand while balancing the ball in the other.

Get an assistant.

Borrow a friend to be your hand model. “It’s hard to focus your camera while you’re holding the ball,” says Vierra. “So if you have somebody that can be your hand model, it’ll be a lot easier.”

Use a lensball stand.

A lensball stand is a great option to keep your glass steady and safe. Some models screw onto the top of your tripod, while others are made of glass that you can set on a flat surface.

Make your own stand.

Finally, you can use your surroundings to get creative with your placement. One of Vierra’s most memorable shots was taken with the crystal ball in an ice cream cone, refracting a Ferris wheel. “I’ve set mine on a rock or a stone wall, in a tree, in the sand on the beach,” adds Chase. “There’s really no set spot to put your lens.”

A person taking a photo of a lensball that is on top of a table
A lensball that is capturing a lake and forest environment

Handle with care.

“The most crucial thing is to avoid holding it with your bare hands a lot, because the oils in your skin will tarnish the lensball over time,” says Vierra. Clean and care for your crystal ball just like you would your camera lens. Wipe it off with a microfiber cloth and use a glass spray to keep it crystal clear.

  

Don’t leave your lensball out in the sun for too long, and if you put it in your car, keep it in a protective case. “Essentially a lensball is a magnifying glass, so if you’re not careful it can set something on fire,” warns Chase.

How to get crystal-clear shots.

Camera settings.

Lensball photography is one of the rare cases where manual focus is easier to work with than autofocus. “You want the focus to be on the very center of the ball,” says Vierra. “The wider the aperture, the better. A lot of people don’t like to go much higher than f/4. I go all the way to f/1.4 or f/2.8, depending on what lenses I have. I like a blurry background with bokeh better because it really sucks you into the center of your image.”

Camera lenses.

Any focal length or type of lens will work with crystal balls — even your iPhone can take decent shots — but if you want to get really close to the glass, you’ll want a macro lens. If you want to be able to see the background and the scene around the lensball, go with a wide-angle lens.

Know your light source.

“If you’re not in the proper position, your reflection will show up in the lensball,” says Chase. “If the light’s behind me, it shows my reflection.” Position yourself for a side-lit shot or shoot into direct sunlight for the best results. On cloudy days, you don’t have to worry about accidental reflections as much. “Be mindful of where the light is coming from, because that makes a huge difference in the clarity of your shot,” says Chase.

Work your magic in post-processing.

You don’t have to nail your shot in-camera. In crystal ball photography, experimentation and surreal effects are expected and even celebrated. Push your creativity with photo editing tools like Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom and find out what's possible. You can remove your hand or the lensball stand in Photoshop, for example, for a floating ball effect, flip the upside-down image so it’s right side up, or colorize the lensball to make it contrast with the background.

A merry-go-round reflecting in a lensball

Photo by Kevin Vierra

Get the (lens)ball rolling.

Part of the appeal of crystal ball photography is that there’s no prescriptive way you should use it. “Just experiment with it. Figure out what you like to do with it,” says Chase. “I looked at what other people were doing with lensballs to get inspiration and think about how I wanted to set up my shots.” A great way to refine your technique is to try to recreate photos you admire. Load up on lensball photography ideas on Behance or search social media for inspiration.

  

“When I first started using the ball that I have, it was all trial and error,” says Vierra. “The easiest thing for anybody to do when starting out is get discouraged. But you have to just go for it. If you make an image and it doesn’t look right, look at your surroundings and settings and figure out what you can do to make that image more like what you visualize.”

  

Now that you’ve got crystal clarity, it’s time to get out and make the unique images only you can make.



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