Written by Tom Box
More Than a Lens: Fun with Prisms
Ever since starting up with film photography, I’ve explored the experimental aspects of the hobby: film soup, double exposures, home-made cameras, intentional light leaks… It was this desire to experiment that led me to using prisms in photography.
Using Fractals Filters
My first experience using prisms in my photography was with Fractal Filters. I was introduced to Fractal Filters by an Instagram friend and promptly ordered my own. The set of three consisted of various lumps of angular glass, each attached to what is essentially a knuckleduster for some reason.
One filter has a circular, kaleidoscope effect, the second breaks light up with a repeating diamond pattern, and the third is just a massive glass wedge. It was this leaden mass that I used by far the most out of the three.
Angling the filter in different ways relative to the lens produces a double, or sometimes triple image, distorting the scene and smearing the image across the frame.
The effect can be pronounced or quite subtle depending on the light source and angle of the prism. The shot below used the thick wedge Fractal Filter on a double exposure over some macro of ink in water.
Holding this filter at the right angle can repeat or flip a portion of the image, almost copying and pasting the photo onto itself or producing a mirror image.
DIY Prism Filters
After using the filter for a while, I decided to try out some home-made prism filters to hopefully achieve more diverse and unexpected results. The Fractal Filters are great, but I got used to knowing what to expect when putting them in front of the lens, which kind of spoiled the fun a little bit for me.
I had a root around the house and dismantled an old chandelier to use one of the glass teardrop shapes dangling from it. The tiny piece was a lot harder to hold in front of the camera, but produced more random and subtle results. (Find assorted prism shapes on Amazon.)
Following this success, I decided to rig up a more usable DIY filter setup. I installed two chandelier pieces into an old Cokin filter system. This allowed me to attach the prisms to the camera like any other filter, and rotate it to produce different results. Below are a few shots taken using this little setup.
Prism Photography Tips and Tricks
I’ve discovered a few things from using these prism filters to get the most out of them:
- A 50mm or longer lens works best. The filters are most successful when the glass itself isn’t in focus at all. A longer lens also helps to avoid your fingers appearing in the shot!
- On the point of focus, a wide aperture lens also helps to avoid getting any glass in shot. I try to shoot wide open when using my prisms, as this seems to produce the most pleasing refraction effects.
- Several defined light sources from different angles provide better results than even daylight. I tend to only take my prisms out at night, in urban areas with plenty of individual sources of different coloured light. Daylight or a single strong light can just produce muddy results with lots of glare.
There are plenty of possibilities for shooting through prisms. Old crystal glasses, weird glass ornaments from your grandma’s house, cracked laminated glass panels… The shot below was taken through a *deep breath* defective cross-dichroic RGB beam-splitter prism. Bought cheap from China through Ebay. A little small and fiddly to hold in front of the lens, but great colour splitting on that ‘wait’ sign!