Refractographs: How to Take Photos of Light Reflections

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Ya know somethin’? We love camera tossing. We love light painting.

But we’ve got a brand new favorite: refractographs!

They look super high-tech, but you just need a flashlight and a piece of clear glass or plastic to make ’em happen.

Shine the light through the glass and take pictures of the patterns that come through!

Try it with marbles, Lite Brite pegs, hyperradial lighthouse-grade fresnel lenses or anything else you have lying around!

Alan Jaras: King O’ Refractographs

Nobody has greater refractograph kung fu than Alan Jaras.

He projects light through art glass or specially shaped plastic to create neon-colored works of art that just don’t look possible. But it’s all analog- no CGI, FX, or BS.

Ogle his Flickr sets and be amazed:

Alan projects his fantabulous light creations directly onto film using all kinds of crazy-shaped plastic and glass, but you can make your own refractographs with much simpler materials.


Photo credits: Reciprocity

What You’ll Need


  • Camera with zoom or macro function
  • Tripod
  • Flashlights, LEDs, and assorted light sources
  • A few pieces of colored paper
  • Transparent glass or plastic objects (see below)

Objects to Try

marbles-smNearly any transparent object can be used to make refractographs. As long as light passes through it, it’s worth a shot. Here are a few items you might want to try:

  • Glass bottles or jars (any size, shape or color)
  • Plastic bottles
  • Drinking glasses
  • Glass vases
  • Bottles of water, soda or wine
  • Transparent plastic beads, buttons or toys
  • Glass marbles
  • Cocktail swizzle sticks

The Setup

flashlight-smA dark room is the best place to shoot refractographs. It doesn’t have to be light-tight or anything like that, just dark enough for the light patterns to show up well.

Set up your transparent object(s) in front of a piece of colored paper. Then shine a light through the object onto the paper.

Spring clamps are handy for holding small lights in position, or you could get a friend to hold them for you.

Set your camera up on a tripod, zoom in on the light pattern projected on the paper, and snap away!

Shooting Tips

greenhorz-smYou’ll be flabbergasted at the different patterns you can get from one simple object.

Move the light closer or farther away from the object. Try shining the light through the object from different angles.

Use multiple light sources, and experiment with different kinds of light. LEDs are very focused and blue-looking, while tungsten flashlights are yellow and diffuse.

Move the object closer or further from the paper. Change the color of the paper to get a completely new color scheme.

Shine multiple lights through multiple objects
! You gettin’ the idea here? The possibilities never end.

More Ideas

bluehorz2-smOnce you start making refractographs, ideas sprout in your head like mushrooms after a rain:

  • Fill your bottles or jars with water- it’s a great light refractor. Add food coloring to the water to change your color scheme.
  • Refract the light onto different surfaces, like foil, marbled paper, or fabric.
  • Collect colored glass bottles or clear plastic objects for your ever-growing stash of refractograph props.
  • Don’t forget to savor the spectacle of bending, twisting and taming light.