Refractograph Tutorial

About 12 months ago I stumbled upon some really nice abstract photographs while browsing flickr called Refractographs..

I thought they were so awesome I had to learn how to do it.. given there is very limited information on the Internet about how to do it I went about experimenting. I tried so many different things without getting very good results.. but with a bit of effort and guidance from the flickr community I finally figured out how to do them and have been improving my technique ever since. It’s mind blowing to see the results on the back of the camera and gives me immediate artistic satisfaction.

So, after loads of people asking me how to do them I have put together a tutorial to give you a look at how I create them, so please enjoy.

Also check out the Refractography Flickr group:


22 thoughts on “Refractograph Tutorial

  1. Hi,
    I am doing an exam in photography and your tutorial has been really helpful for me. I have been trying to get this technique but most of photographs result in being out of focus and blurry.
    I was wondering if you had this problem and if there was a way in which you resolved it.
    I hope you can help!

  2. Saw this in the popular photography magazine! I wanted to try it. So tonight I tried, followed all your steps, step by step. It was a great tutorial and very straight forward but for some reason when I try doing it it’s just a big black nothing or a big white something! I tried changing the iOS very high and and changing the shutter speed but nothing was showing up. I use the canon t3i. I had just a tiny hole like you said to make but unless I took all the tape off it showed no trace of light. Maybe my light wasn’t bright enough? I had thought it was extremely bright. Any tips on helping maybe? I’d love to master this skill! Thanks! 🙂

    • Hi Ashley, sorry to hear you had no luck on your first go. Not sure what is going on for you. Happy to help – email me a description of your setup or you can send me some pics of your setup (e.g light source and positioning with glass and camera) and I will help anyway I can to get you going.

      • I am also having the same problem, they are coming out blurry. I am using bulb and I am using a cable release but I can tell the the camera is shaking from the shutter. Was wondering if you managed to help ….Ashley? . I would really love to do this technique I am very fascinated. Thanks.

        • Hi Pamela, good to see you giving it a go.
          I am not sure what camera you are using but to eliminate issues with camera shake and the shutter (/mirror) you can see if your camera has a feature called mirror lockup.
          I use mirror lockup in general when taking any type of photo as helps a lot with sharpness.
          That said sharp Refractographs are usually not a result of this issue and are related to something else.. I have helped out a few people via email so if you are still having issues send me an email and I will help you out.

          Cheers, Rob

    • Yes you can add the colors in Photoshop if you like – this will change the photograph/light painting into more computer art in my view.

  3. Hi Rob,
    I am trying this for the first time for a school project. So my questions may sound dumb lol…..I do not have a camera with bulb exposure or live view. I have a Nikon D60 would I still be able to do this? Camera will not shoot with out a lens attached. What kind of camera is needed for a Refractograph? Thank You Jane T

    • Hi Jane, you don’t need Liveview to shoot refractographs – many of my images are composed using just the viewfinder.
      Also you can use a lens on the camera and get some interesting caustic patterns, but they will look a little different to my style. I shoot with a Canon 5D II and a 6D both of which you can shoot without a lens, I am surprise you cannot shoot without a lens on the D60, have a play with it and see if you can force it without a lens (e.g. open shutter then remove lens??)


  4. Hi Rob,
    Just now reading my Febraury Issue but its the end of March.
    My question is, where do I get a liqued gel? Is it a store purchase product? Something handy around the home? It looks as if you are using a ribbon but I know that’s not true.
    Any hints to ad color?
    Thanks so much for posting your tutorial and your time with my question.

  5. Hi Rob, I’ve tried your set up several times with no success ..I shall keep trying
    I’ve been trying since the Feb issues of PP I’ll turn that glass til I change colour trying ..Thanks for the great Tut ..

  6. Hi Rob, I am doing light refraction for my photography unit. I can get some nice patterns and colours but having a problem with the sharpness of them. Do you have any advice that may help with this issue?

    • Hi Thomas, sorry for the late response. Sharpness is directly related to the size of the light source, the smaller the point of light the sharper the image and the further the point of light is the smaller it will appear to the object. Hope that helps.

  7. Rob I follow you tutorial and it worked great for me. My question is I want to shoot some smaller objects and I’m wondering how to hold them so I can take a shot. I was thinking some form of putty?

    • Hi Tom, you should be able to hold most things in a small clamp of some sort. I have not tried putty but it should work, the only thing to consider is the color of the putty -if it is light colored it will reflect the light and interfere with the shot. Good luck.

  8. Rob when I watch your video when you paint the shot how do you do that? With the camera I have 5d mark 3 when in live view I am not able to see when I take the shot.How are you doing this? And is this possible to do with my camera? I hope you can answer may question.
    Thanks Tom

    • I use canon DSLRs to take most of my photographs so you should have no issues with the 5D mark 3. In liveview you can see the image on the screen but when you take the photo the liveview will go black during exposure, this is normal. On my video I am using an old film camera just for demonstration purposes and to give you an idea of what it looks like. YOu should see the same thing but on the back of your camera in liveview.

  9. Hi Rob,

    This is Mario. I’ve been trying for some weeks your technique and it’s really amazing. Thanks a lot for sharing it.
    I don´t get the same results as you, obviously you’ve done it thousands of times.
    My problem is sharpness and distance. I mean, my images are not as sharp as other ones and also, they seem to be cropped. I use an APS-C camera and I’m not sure if it matters. I would like to send you some pictures of my gadgets, flashlight, pinhole, camera and glass position, etc…Is it possible??

    Thanks a lot for reading me and answering when possible.

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