Prisming 101: How To Use Prisms for Eye-Popping Photography

A prism, yes, the geometrical and transparent figure that features polished surfaces known for refracting light, is probably not at the top of your list of things to pack into your camera bag. By the time you finish reading this article, you may reconsider your position on that. We guarantee it, in fact.

You’d be surprised at just how handy a prism will be when you’re photographing various scenes. The way a prism bends light can have some amazingly stunning effects on your shots – and your audience will be impressed as a bonus.

photo by 韓 承燁

To be sure, other objects are more popularly used to reflect light to try to create mind-bending images. Some examples are basic mirrors and even smartphone screens. However, using a prism elevates this technique to another level.

Here’s our quick and insightful guide to “prisming” experimentation with your camera.

What Size of Prism to Use?

Don’t go overboard with the size of prism that you’ll use. Remember that you want to be able to easily manipulate it in front of your camera lens by holding it up to said lens and then reflecting things in the environment off it. The prism should be big enough to comfortably hold in one hand, but still compact enough not to exceed the size of your lens and camera body.

Something as basic as this 6-inch prism from Amazon is well-suited for your “prisming” photography. Feel free to experiment with prisms of different sizes just to feel more comfortable with this new technique, but photographers have found that the 6-inch variety works best.

Where Did “Prisming” Come From?

While prisms have been around for a long time, the use of a prism for photography and the coining of the term “prisming” are relatively new developments. Credit for this nifty and creative approach has to be given to Washington, D.C., wedding photographer Sam Hurd. He described his adventures and explorations in “prisming” in a blog post he wrote on his blog a couple of years ago. If you want, go ahead and call it “hurding!”

He pioneered this technique during the 2012 wedding season. To his surprise, after trying various sizes of prisms, he found that the aforementioned, 6-inch size worked best for his shots. Hurd also found that he liked using prisms in front of his lens because they lent his shots a much-welcome sense of reality, even though neat effects were being added into each frame.

Photographers who want a more natural look to spruced-up images should give “prisming” a try because its images don’t have an overly artificial look like Photoshop sometimes produces in shots.

How Should You Use the Prism?

Unfortunately, getting the most impressive results from this technique involves more than just holding the prism up in front of the camera lens and hoping for the best. For one thing, you have to use a 6-inch prism since smaller models fail to cover the entire lens. This will usually result in you getting your fingers in the way of the shot – and you don’t want any weird effects that come from your digits.

Focus exactly on where the light source is coming from when you position the prism in front of your lens. The direction of any light sources will make a huge difference in how your shots turn out when “prisming.” In moments when light comes directly toward the camera, you’ll get lucky enough to get light leaks, but significant side light will result in unusually interesting reflections.

Okay, now for something a little bit more advanced. Ready? If you use a prism that’s turned on its side in front of your lends and shine some light on it, you’ll be rewarded with triangular-shaped flares! Now how cool is that?

Of course, never feel limited when it comes to photography. These are just some of Hurd’s findings when he was playing around with “prisming,” yet who knows? Maybe when you experiment with this technique, you’ll discover other strategies that work even better. So go ahead and don’t be afraid to explore your prism, the light and various angles in shots.

Anything Else You Should Know?

Some tactics involving gear and other issues work better with “prisming” than other approaches, so we thought you’d want to know about them, too.

For one thing, it’s all about the type of lens you use. Photographers have gotten good results with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, yet a 24mm wide-angle lens is also a solid choice.

Here’s a hot tip as well: Make sure that you utilize the live view mode of your camera, so that you can see the actual exposure when you switch between settings. Doing so will afford you more control and increase your confidence, allowing you to know exactly how your shots will come out.

Finally, textures work well when “prisming,” so look for them in compositions. For instance, the prism can be used to reflect leaves and branches from the top of the frame down into the frame’s lower half. Such an approach can envelop your subject for a memorable shot.

A New Experience

To stay sharp with their skills, photographers should always be looking to try something new. Hey, it also helps to keep the boredom and creative block away, so why not? “Prisming” is a relatively new attempt to put a spin on the old tactic of having light reflect off of mirrors in images. It’s a neat challenge for photographers of all levels.

The beauty of this technique is that you don’t need extensive photography experience or expertise to try your hand at this. Just break out your 6-inch prism, attach a suitable lens, and then begin experimenting with what angles and incoming light create the nicest results in your images.

While Hurd used this method primarily for wedding photography, don’t let that deter your freedom. Feel free to use this technique for all sorts of shots. Let yourself only be limited by your imagination, and have an exciting time mastering “prisming.”

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