How to use prisms for creative photography

First published:
April 12, 2022
July 28, 2023

How to use prisms for creative photography

First published:
April 12, 2022
July 28, 2023

Cover photo by Jakob Owens

If you're looking for an easy and fun way to add something unique to your photos, give glass prism photography a go!

Every photographer knows that understanding and working with light is a skill that can help create fantastic results once mastered. But, even in the best-lit scenarios, there may be times when some shoots, like portraits, still life, or weddings, call for an extra layer of creativity. This is where glass prisms — from simple and affordable ones to professionally designed ones specifically for photographers — come in.

What is a prism?

At the very core, a prism is simply a transparent optical element with at least one angled surface, which refracts the direction of light passing through. When this happens, white light enters a prism, changes direction, and comes out projecting all rainbow colors that you can use creatively.

You probably have already seen this on a sunny day when a glass object, like a chandelier pendant, catches the light and creates playfully colorful shapes on the wall or ceiling. Similarly, you can use prisms to purposefully add a creative light flare, rainbow, or reflection to your images without having to do it in editing.

Most prisms are affordable, and at times, you can already find one in your household. But, if you want to spend a little on a prism created with photographers in mind, you will find several options from retailers.

You'll soon discover that some prism effects are great for slightly softening the photo by adding a subtle light leak or reflection, while others help create a more pronounced stylized effect.

No prism shot can ever be the same because the slightest change in how you hold the prism or how the light catches it will result in a different photo than before. That's part of the fun, though! It takes a great deal of experimenting to get it right, but the results may pleasantly surprise you.

Mostly used to show students the basics of physics, photographers can use prisms for their creative benefit. Photo by Vince Fleming

Different types of prisms

1 Chandelier rings and pendants

One of the smallest and most affordable prisms are chandelier glass rings and teardrop pendants, like those found on suncatchers. Chandelier rings can be used twofold — either by holding them central to your lens to create a blurry and soft light effect on the edges of your photo or by adding a flare on the corner of your frame.

To make it easier to hold the chandelier ring without getting your fingers in the shot, try adding a thread, like a garden twine, to better control and keep it in front of your lens. You can do the same for a pendant, depending on its design.  

Using a chandelier ring, you can add soft edges to your photo but watch out for accidentally including your fingers in the shot! - f/3.2 | 1/1250 | ISO 200

2 Triangle prisms

Generally found in science class, triangle glass prisms also make a great creative accessory for photographers. Usually, they are long enough for you to comfortably hold them in front of your lens without getting your hand in the shot. Some companies now offer triangle prisms with ¼ thread holes to screw on a tripod or a stand to make shooting even more effortless.

With a prism like this, you can create a solid, rectangular rainbow if you catch the sunlight or use it to add reflections in parts of your frame. If you find yourself looking for ideas to shoot close-ups of jewelry, triangle prisms can also come in handy for styling objects.

Triangle prisms are affordable, easily fit in a camera bag, and offer a variety of ways you can use them creatively. Photo by Cottonbro

3 Crystal balls

Try crystal balls if you're looking for an even more abstract effect, but go for those with triangular patterns. Crystal balls will create a series of dreamy and distorted reflections in a single frame, reminiscent of a kaleidoscope. Same as with triangle prisms, you will find some shops that sell crystal balls with a ¼ thread hole for easy mounting.

If you opt for a smooth crystal ball, use it as a photo prop. It will flip the view upside down because of refraction, but you can consider that when you compose. For example, if you plan on flipping it back in post-processing by selecting and rotating it in Photoshop, you may find it helpful to avoid anything distracting foreground elements. 

Smooth crystal balls may not be the best prisms for creative effects but they can be used as props in photos. Photo by Kasper Nymann

4 Professional prisms

If you want to take your creativity a step further, look at professional prisms designed for photographers, like Fractals hand-held prisms and Lensbaby OMNI filters. You'll find that these dedicated photography prisms have holders or can be directly attached to the lens. 

Prisms designed with photographers in mind will have a comfortable grip or a way to attach them to your lens so you can shoot with ease. Photo by Jakob Owens

How to shoot prism photography

1 Use manual focus

Having a transparent object close to your lens will make it difficult for your lens to focus correctly if you rely on autofocus. Put your lens in manual focus mode to ensure you don't end up with numerous missed-focus shots.

This way, you can get the subject in focus every time, regardless of what effect you create with a prism. If you're not used to shooting in manual focus, it may take a while to get to grips with the process, but it's worth it!

If you’re new to manual focus, start with stationary subjects to get a hang of focusing manually and using a prism at the same time - f/2.8 | 1/640 | ISO 400

2 Experiment with different lenses

It's not just the prism that plays a role in changing the look of your photo — the type and size of your lens will also affect the final result.

Consider using larger prisms to accommodate the focal length as the lens gets wider. For example, if you shoot with a wide-angle lens, the creative effect from a prism will be more pronounced. On the other hand, a 50mm lens or longer focal length will give a softer look — ideal for portraits.

The most important thing is not to fully cover the whole of your lens with a prism but to play around using different angles to see what suits your lens.

If you want a softer look, go for a lens that is 50mm or longer and pick a larger prism for a subtle effect - f/3.5 | 1/2000 | ISO 400

3 Transform the background 

Have you got an unflattering background or a distracting section of your shot you want to hide? Using a prism can help you add an organic, ethereal effect to your portraits or still life shots, cleverly disguising unwanted parts of your image without extensive post-processing. All types of prisms will help you do this, but the creative effect will vary. 

To draw instant attention to your subject, use prisms to conceal parts of your image that are not integral to the photo - f/2.5 | 1/250 | ISO 1000

4 Look for light sources

The beauty of using prisms is their ability to change the light creatively. If you shoot indoors and feel underwhelmed with the results, grab your prism and add light sources like lamps, LEDs, fairy lights, or neon. As you twist and move the prism around your lens, you'll soon find the light reflections can add a sparkle effect to your photo.

If you want a truly festive feel, using prisms to photograph Christmas or fairy lights will add a natural sparkle to your photos - f/2 | 1/12 | ISO 800

5 Add reflections

Triangular prisms are great for adding reflections to your photos. Shots like city portraits, street photography, or architecture will likely offer interesting backgrounds that you can reflect on your image. But, if you shoot landscapes or portraits, this technique can work, too.

If you find yourself without a prism on a shoot, you can also use your smartphone as a backup. Same as with a prism, put it near the lens and angle it to get the reflection, for example, of the sky or the subject.

Sometimes, a simple technique using shooting accessories like prisms can take an average photo and turn it into something unique and unrepeatable. Not every image calls for creative effects, but having the right tools on hand can jumpstart creativity and help break out of the rut to create something truly magical. 

For reflections to look natural, make sure they don’t obstruct the subject and instead seamlessly merge by slowly angling your prism. Photo by Tan Kaninthanond

Images by Anete Lusina unless otherwise stated.

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