TECHNIQUE: Capture lens-ball portraits

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Creativity comes in many forms, and for portraits there are a plethora of ways to approach the subject; lighting, pose, clothing, location and special effects are just some of the ways this can be achieved, and it’s the latter that we’ll be looking at using a lens ball to capture surreal-looking portraits.

These glass or crystal balls can be picked up on eBay for as little as £5 for one with an 80mm diameter, which is the perfect size. Any smaller, and it’s difficult to see the image within the ball; any larger, and the ball can be difficult to hold and uncomfortably heavy.

When you’ve spent a small fortune on lenses it seems counter intuitive to shoot portraits through a cheap glass ball. But with
this technique we’re not aiming for optical perfection, it’s about capturing an imperfect and quirky image. The picture that forms within the ball is ultra wide-angle, upside down and will always exhibit distortion, but these three characteristics are part of its charm. There are also few situations where the image within will be pin-sharp but, again, this is part of the appeal.

Additional BTS

Options for positioning the ball include holding it in your own hand and in front of the model, asking the subject to hold the ball out in front of them, or by positioning it on the ground or on an elevated inanimate object.

If the former, you’d need to have the model laying on the ground as well as doing the same yourself to achieve a low viewpoint. It takes some experimentation but the idea is to try different options and have fun. In terms of equipment, you’ll need a camera and a kit lens for basic shots. A 16mm is ideal for APS-C cameras or 24mm with full-frame cameras, which will provide a workable focal length to include your’s or the model’s hand holding the ball in the shot. If, however, you’d prefer to exclude the hand and have just the ball in the picture, you’ll need to shoot with a macro lens.

Set focus mode

If shooting with a standard lens, use single-shot autofocus and have a single AF point active to fit your desired composition; if you shoot a tighter composition that requires a macro lens, you’ll likely achieve better results with manual focus. Set focus
to the distance of roughly the end of your arm and move the ball backwards and forwards until a sharp image can be viewed within.

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Camera settings

Set your camera to aperture-priority mode with aperture set between f/2.8 and f/5.6. When shooting landscapes, you need a narrower aperture such as f/8 to ensure a sharper image throughout the ball, but for portraits you only need the centre of the ball to be sharp so wide apertures work well. Assess exposure and set an ISO rating that allows for a fast enough shutter speed.

Camera setting

Consider subject distance

With the lens ball creating a similar effect to a fisheye lens, it’s important that it isn’t held too close to the model because this will distort facial features out of proportion. Aim for the ball to be around 1m away from the subject to capture them relatively naturally, with the surrounding environment curving around them to create a framing effect that includes the edge of the ball.

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