Refraction photography and a glass of water

Balance by Mary Licanin Fine Art Photography
“Balance” by Mary Licanin Nikon D7100 Tokina 100mm 2.8 macro EXIF 1/250s f18 ISO100

If you’d like to learn how to create a refraction photography, with a glass of water and a few basic tools, I’ll explain in this article how you can create something like what I’ve done in the photo “Balance“.

This is not a photoshop composited photo. The photo was minimally adjusted in Lightroom, with a slight crop to correct the horizon, a slight deepening of the shadows, and some spot removal. No tricks, no magic, just a lot of study and patience will get this shot. From my initial shot to the final shot (having never done this kind of shot before) I spent 4 hours. Photo correction took me about 5 minutes.

I set up this”simple” exercise on my kitchen table, my cat Brownie assisted, mostly holding down the floor.

Tools you’ll need go get this refraction photo:

  • A camera – It doesn’t matter what camera or what lens, as long as you can fit the scene in your shot. I shoot with a Nikon D7100, and my lens was a Tokina 100mm 2.8 macro because it seems to be permanently attached to my camera these days.
  • A light – I used an SB700 speedlight set to about 1/4 power. It doesn’t matter what name is on the speedlight – light is light.  (Don’t use the pop-up flash on your camera, it sends light from the wrong direction for this shot)
    If you don’t have a speedlight, you could replicate this with a household lamp, a flashlight or iphone light. The difference will be your shutter speed – less light means you need a longer shutter speed. You may need to push your black background further back if you use continuous lighting, or use a bigger flag (explained in a moment) to make sure the black background doesn’t catch falloff from your light source so you keep your blacks black.
  • Black background – this can be most easily accomplished by getting a piece of black foam core board from the dollar store or craft store. They’re usually stocked in the stationary aisle, near the colored paper and poster papers. Poster paper works too, but is flimsy so you’ll need something to make it stand up on edge. If you don’t have either, you can also accomplish getting a black background by moving your subject and setup away from what’s naturally in the background (ie., my kitchen wall). You need to experiment more to get the right camera settings so your background is completely black.
  • Black base  – I used a sheet of poster paper for this. Again, you can pick this up at the dollar or craft store.
  • White diffuser/background – I used a piece of printer paper. It’s thin enough that the light from my speedlight can come through, diffuses the light, and is solid white with no patterns, edges, marks, etc. The beauty of this part is, when it gets crinkled, just take another sheet. I folded it in on one side (the side outside of the frame) to help it stand up by itself.
  • White base  – I used a sheet of poster paper for this. Guess where you can get it!
  • A flag or two … or ??? – A flag is something that is used to block light from falling where you don’t want it. In my case, I used one flag, which was a broken down Amazon box I grabbed out of our recycling bin. With it I created a boundary between the side and top of my speedlight  so that the light only spilled forward and to the white side of the shot. It needs to be big enough to extend around the speedlight so that it doesn’t hit your black background. You may find after taking a shot there’s light leaking somewhere, just grab another flag.
  • A glass. Mine was from the dollar store and I bought it specifically for photography, because we don’t own a set of wine glasses. Use what you have. The key is to find a glass with few imperfections. Yes I looked like a silly snob inspecting a glass at the dollar store, holding it up to the light, etc. Get used to looking a little weird sometimes when you’re a photographer – it doesn’t matter what people think! Make sure to wash off the sticky, annoying label that comes with the 99c price tag on your glass, and wash off and wipe away any spots and flecks or lint. Take time to get this part right. Handle the glass with a lint free cloth. It’s far less time consuming to avoid spots, smudges and lint now than it is to correct in post-processing.
  • Tripod (Marginally optional, but very handy)
  • More white poster paper or a tri-fold presentation board (optional). You know, the ones kids use for school projects. They stand up by themselves and they’re white on the inside. Good to have on hand if you need a white background…and you can get them at the dollar or craft store.

Setting up the shot:

Here’s a diagram I created using this lighting diagram creator.Refraction Photography how to

  • Fill your glass – Using cold water will help keep bubbles out of your water. You can also use vodka but don’t drink it until after the shoot! Fill up the glass as much as you’d like and put it aside to let it settle if there are any bubbles.
  • Create the base – Lay down the black and white sheets of poster paper, overlapping them or making sure to touch the edges so the surface underneath doesn’t show.
  • Set your speedlight – set it to remote mode if you have that option available, so you can control the power from the camera and don’t have to move the speedlight once it’s in place. Put it in the location shown in the diagram. It should be on top of the white portion of the base. From the camera’s perspective, on the left side of the frame. It should be standing up on using the feet, and pointing toward the camera. (If you’re using a flashlight, find something to lay the front of the flashlight on so that the light source is pointing upwards slightly, shining above where the stem of the glass will be).
  • If your walls aren’t white, surround the left and back of the speedlight with white board or poster paper.
  • Cover the right and top side of the speedlight with your cardboard flag(s). I only show the right side in the diagram, because the top should cover the top of the speedlight completely. The right side will keep light from spilling onto your black background directly. The top cover will keep the light from spilling out the top, and keeps it directed forward, towards the glass.
  • Place the sheet of paper in front of the speedlight (leave at least a few inches in between – remember the further away your light source is from the diffusion, the softer and more spread out your light will be).
  • Place the glass in the middle of the seam on the base.
  • Now the fun starts….this shot is very ‘pipavo’, as my husband would say. Tedious, delicate, at times frustrating.
    Move your camera around to get it level with the horizon line, and also get the seam where black meets white both in the base and in the background in the center of your frame.
    Adjust the glass and move the paper and flag until you see the black and white sections crossing in the center. You should be able to see the refraction in the glass before you take the shot. It really helps to have someone assist while you’re looking through the viewfinder to move your paper ‘toward the wall a bit’, ‘away from the wall a bit’, etc. Tethering live view would also be helpful for this shot. I spent a lot of time going back and forth to adjust, check the camera, adjust again. It was much easier when Goran came and did the adjustments as I watched how they were changing.
  • HAVE FUN. If you stop having fun, it’s time to put down the camera and come back to it another time.

Have you tried this? Share your results with me; I’d love to see what you accomplished!

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