4 Ways You Can Shoot AMAZING Photos Using an Inexpensive Handheld Prism

All photos © Deborah Sandidge

By definition a prism is a geometrical glass figure with...wait, stop; forget that. Just take a look at the cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album. That's a prism, and that's basically what it does.

What a prism for photography does is provide a creative, spontaneous...oh, forget that, too. Just take a look at the otherworldly photos in this story.

What I'm saying is, get a prism and have some fun. The handheld prism I use for my photography is from Fractal Filters and sells for $99 on Amazon

Prisms come in different forms and shapes, and they differ in specific results. The principle behind them, however, is the same: they bend and shape and play with light and reflection. Hold one in front of your lens and you'll see instantly the effect you're going to get. Make some small changes in angle and distance and you'll see what those changes bring to the image.

Simply, you're going to have a good time and make some dazzling pictures as the magic glass of a prism creates brilliant reflections, accentuates colors and basically changes the dynamic of the photographic experience.

Here are the four ways I use a prism in my photography to get the best results.

1. Get a Grip
Positioning the prism—its distance from the lens and the angle at which you hold it—will determine the results, and there's no right or wrong way to do it; it's pretty much an ongoing experiment.

There are several companies that make these magical looking-glass devices in a variety of shapes and holder choices. I chose the Classic Set ($99) of three prisms—called the Julia, the Penrose and the Pascal—from Fractal Filters (you can check them out here). Each has its own finger-friendly holder, and that was a selling point for me—an easy, comfortable and steady grip. Just add knuckles and you're ready to go.

They do these beautiful decorations every Christmas in Vitruvian Park in Addison, Texas. I shot without the prism with a number of lenses, including a fisheye and a zoom, then went back and re-walked the path with my 50mm and the prism. This photo is a rare exception for me: I used a tripod for a 1/25-second shutter speed.

You should also be ready to attract attention, first when people notice the look of the holder and then when they see the results on the back of your camera. Of the three filters in the set, the Julia is the one I use the most because I like the repeating patterns and spirals it creates. 

2. Look Sharp
Just about any subject is a prism possibility, but in general it's color, shape, and contrast that I look for. Sometimes, though, the main attraction is me thinking, Okay, let's see what the prism will do with this.

I took this at the Asian Lantern Festival at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens in Sanford. There's a walking path through the gardens that's lined with beautiful, hand-crafted lanterns. I photographed first with my zoom, then went through again with the 50mm for prism photos.

First and foremost, though, the subject is something I'm attracted to for its own intrinsic photogenic qualities. I'm always thinking about color, shape, pattern, and the subject's place in the composition.

I set up the sunflower near the pool at my home and used a deep blue deck-chair cushion for the background. I stood about a foot away and used the 105mm micro lens. The prism was so close to the flower that it remains pretty much unaffected; the effect is strongest on the surrounding area.

Something brightly colored, against the background of a dark sky, will usually merit a photograph; then I think, Okay, let me amplify it, make it more striking by using the prism. Single- and multi- color subjects work equally well, and sometimes I create my own backgrounds to suit them.

To ensure precise focus in all of my prism photos, I use single-point AF—without the prism in place—to choose and lock focus.


3. Take a Stand
Most often my subject is something I've seen at a location, or it's the location itself, and getting the shot means getting into position and making adjustments. When I want to photograph something close to or at home to explore it through the prism's view, the first step is to get it to stand up and hold still. 


The Platypod, its accessory goose-neck rod and some painter's tape keep the flower upright. I took this set-up photo before moving the rig into position with the chair cushion as its background.

My method is invariably low tech and highly effective—as in the sunflower photo, for example. Ingredients are the subject itself, my Platypod camera support, its accessory bendable goose-neck rod, and a length of painter's tape. It's also nice to have these items along with me on location in case something catches my eye and imagination, but for the most part this setup is used around the house.

By the way, the painter's tape isn't a casual decision. It's easy to tear, easy to manipulate, easy to remove to re-position the subject, and it leaves no trace.


The brass-knuckles design of the prism holder provides for a firm grip and easy adjustment of distance and angle.

4. Hold Steady
Almost all of my prism photos are taken hand-held in keeping with the spontaneous, fun-factor nature of prism photography. Which means I'll be holding the camera in my right hand, the prism in my left. Which in turn means that I want a lightweight camera-lens combination that'll keep prism photography from turning into a chore.           

My Nikon Z6 is perfect in the role of lightweight camera body, and to keep things simple, spontaneous, and reasonably versatile, I limit my glass for prism photography to a duo of lenses: the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 and, with the FTZ adapter, the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 micro.

This amazing-looking lantern at the zoo and botanical gardens festival was set up at the entrance to a floral path at the exhibit, which meant I could get close and fill the frame with repeating shapes and tones. This is an image that suggests nighttime is the right time for prism photography with my low-light combination of the Z6 and the 50mm f/1.8 lens.

You'll see that a lot of my 50mm prism photos are taken at night, as that lens on my Z6 makes for a great low-light combination. With the 105mm I can get closer to my subject and fill the frame.

It's a heavier lens, so while I tend to shoot wide open with the 50mm, I'll often shoot the 105mm stopped down a bit for depth-of-field sharpness help. My general rule of thumb is 50mm for exterior and lower light/night; 105mm for interior and getting-closer-to-the- subject shots.

Another lantern festival image—because when I find subjects as colorful and accessible, I shoot a lot. I loved this one for its green-and-blue 70's psychedelic vibe, and for the fact that I could stand pretty far back and use the dark of night as the background. I could have spent an hour with this one lantern and the differences the prism makes; each angle a new journey.

Ultimately, prism photography is all about possibilities, and when shot with a mirrorless camera, you'll get to instantly see what's possible—and what happens when you make adjustments. I like it for its freewheeling fun.

 With the holidays coming up, if you're thinking of drive-by captures of neighborhood Christmas lightshows with a prism in front of your lens...well, so am I.

At the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, Florida. The center portion of the photo retains its realism; then the multiplication begins. I loved how the prism was picking up and reflecting all the light.

You can follow Deborah Sandidge and her photography on social media at instagram.com/debsandidge, twitter.com/debsandidge, and facebook.com/debsandidge. Her website, deborahsandidge.com, offers a variety of images as well as photo tips and techniques.