Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

In this article, we’ll be showing you how to get some extraordinary lighting effects using a few ordinary items. The trick lies in harnessing reflections and refraction from shiny and translucent items. For example we’ve used things like a chandelier crystal and an ordinary CD. Learn how to impressively light portraits and more and get an original play of lights and colors into your photos.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Normally we all try to avoid reflections in our photos. But sometimes, they are instead a welcome way to liven things up and can be used to produce some unusual effects. In this article, we’ll be showing you how to use lights and a few everyday items to create beautiful light effects that give portraits a whole new energy.

Glass Objects and Other Shiny Objects

For our shots we tried four shiny objects. The photo below shows them with labels so you can tell in the text what we’re talking about. They are all things that either you’ll already have at home or can buy very inexpensively. But you can certainly find plenty of neat items of your own that will work well too. 

Various glasses and bottles can give effects similar to what we show below, as well as Christmas ornaments, light bulbs, mirrors, and many other things. But the way these things will work is always the same—the object refracts or reflects light in some interesting way, putting interesting effects in your photo. You can use this in two ways:

  • you can put the item in front of the lens, producing an effect by reflecting and refracting light from the surroundings into the lens,
  • or you can shine a light through it and then illuminate the scene using the refracted light.

In this article we’ll be showing you both methods. Besides the items you’ve chosen, you’ll also need a flashlight, a headlamp, or maybe a flashlight app on your phone.

portrait lightning effects

The items used for our shoot.

Watch our video where we explain it all for you!

Refraction and Reflection From an Crystal and a Prism

One simple and effective way to use a chandelier crystal is to place it right in front of your lens and rotate it until something interesting appears in the viewfinder. This could make light sources from outside of a scene be reflected in it—and also be scattered into a spectrum (as you can see in the left part of our picture). Or it could “refract” the image directly in the scene. That way you get a colored “ghost” effect (the right part of the photo). 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Reflections and a mosaic-like scattering of the image.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 100.

It’s good to place the crystal more towards the edge of the picture than towards the middle, to keep from deforming the model’s face. If you’re wondering how we got these effects on both the left and the right: this isn’t possible in one shot with one crystal. That’s why we stitched a panorama out of two photos to create the picture above. The workflow for this is fairly simple, and we’ve written a separate article about how to use panoramas in portraiture

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A backstage photo from the shoot where you can see its two-point lighting using a light stick. Photo: Honza Kurka.

In the next photo, you can see the reflection from the prism. I didn’t reflect my the sharp light direct from my light source, but more the diffuse light a bit away from it. This produced a soft reflection. I also used the reflection to cover up the left part of the photo—it fit the composition well, but it contained nothing interesting. 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A soft reflection of diffused light using a prism.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 200.

You can get interesting effects from other light sources too. For example, the next photo shows one way to make use of Christmas lights. With the help of a prism, we’ve created an eye-catching reflection that’s filled up the photo’s bottom portion.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Christmas lights reflected by a prism.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 200.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A background photo from our prism shoot. Remove the lens hood to get the prism as close to the lens as possible. Photo: Honza Kurka.

A Softer Effect 

We also tried shooting with a single light source from the right. This time all that was produced in the crystal was a dull reflection, because instead of direct light, it was only reflecting soft, reflected light.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A softer reflection from the crystal with a single light.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 100.

Reflections don’t look half-bad in black-and-white either. 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A soft reflection from our crystal in black-and-white.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 100.

Mirroring in a CD

CDs may be an outdated medium, but in a shoot like this, you can still get great use out of them and their interesting shiny surfaces.  Placing a CD right in front of your lens gives you a mirrored reflection. Here I used the reflection to spice up the bottom part of the photo. You can use a hand mirror or a phone similarly. Try doing your own experiments with symmetry here. If you’re going for a completely symmetrical photo, but it doesn’t work out during the shot itself, that’s OK. There’s an easy way for you to get perfect symmetry through edits on a PC.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A model, Christmas lights, and a reflection from a a CD.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 200.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Here’s how I held the CD in front of the lens. Since the CD basically divides the image in two, I decided to hold it as horizontally as I could so I could, to get symmetry. Photo: Honza Kurka.

If we shine a light onto the CD, we can get colorful reflections as well. 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Shine a light onto a CD, and colors will appear as well.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 200.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Shine onto it from a slight angle so that you don’t get overly large reflections. Photo: Honza Kurka.

Shining Light through a Crystal

In this second part of our article, we’ll be looking at a slightly different technique—shining a point light source through a crystal. These are the kinds of patterns produced by the light from a pocket flashlight that I refracted using our crystal. I set the flashlight to the widest light cone available:  

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

The patterns created when shining light into the crystal.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 1000.

And here’s how I held the crystal and the flashlight. It’s less than entirely comfortable to hold a crystal and a flashlight in one hand while holding a camera in the other:

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A backstage photo from when I was shooting through the crystal. I could have also used a flashlight app, but a real flashlight is stronger. Photo: Honza Kurka.

Setting a narrow cone of light gave a sharper effect, and the light was broken up into precise patterns: 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Sharper light from the crystal.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 1000.

Shining Through Larger Colored Glass Objects

And as our last refractor, we used an ashtray made out of thick colored glass. We shone a flashlight through it, gradually turning the light and watching for something interesting to appear.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

The patterns created when shining into a colored ashtray.
Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 800.

You’ll get better effects if you have someone with you to hold the light. For one thing, then you won’t have to concentrate as much on shining and moving the light, and for another, then you can light the model from the side, not from the direction of the camera. That will almost always be a more interesting lighting variant.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

A background photo from the light-through-the-ashtray shot. The lamp has an action-camera mount on it to make it more comfortable to hold. Photo: Honza Kurka.

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

At a certain angle we got a thin light strip, which we then directed at the model’s eyes. But we don’t recommend shining light into your model’s eyes for too long. Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 800.

Side Light Produces Hard Shadows

Glass objects refract light, but they don’t soften it. So when you take your pictures next to a wall, you get a sharp, but rather interesting shadow. 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Make use of shadows to emphasize a darker atmosphere. Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 800.

Colored glass produces interesting light effects at various angles. But you should expect more garbage shots than usual, because often an unflattering spot will be cast across the model’s face and so on. 

Want Truly Original Portrait Lighting? Then Experiment With Reflections and Refraction!

Another pattern on the wall when shining light through glass. Nikon D750, 50mm, 1/125, f/1.4, ISO 800.

Find Other Interesting Items and Experiment!

Just like every interesting effect, these effects become boring if they’re overused. But effects like these are still great for a change of pace and kickstarting creativity. This article is just a small example of what you can create with ordinary glass objects. But the possibilities are far broader! Take a look through your home, and you’ll definitely find something interesting.

Last updated 27. May 2020

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Author: Matej Liska

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