Using refraction to create minimalist and abstract photographs

For today’s column, I’m building on previous discussions of botanical photography and incorporating new techniques that are still attainable with common household objects.

Last month, I had intended to use refraction through filled water glasses to photograph peonies, inspired by the work of Suzanne Saroff. I quickly realized it was more complicated than I had time to perfect, and shifted to discussing natural light. As a photojournalist, I’m far more comfortable observing and capturing moments as they happen than I am creating a scene to be photographed.

But this week, I decided to try again.

I began by tackling a basic refracted light photograph. I started with a very basic backdrop: two pieces of construction paper taped to the wall above a bookshelf. I filled a wine glass, positioned it in the center of the two colors, and aimed my flash at the ceiling. Reflections cluttered the glass, so I began covering windows with dark blankets, propping pieces of cardboard around the glasses and simply trying different angles for the flash. My exposure also was chosen to limit reflections from ambient light.

Eventually, I positioned a large board over the glasses, balanced on two wine bottles spaced out of the frame. This successfully blocked the flash from reflecting in the bottom of the glasses.

To replicate this at home, you can use an adjustable lamp positioned behind and above the glasses, and use the zoom on your cellphone camera to finesse the composition.

Satisfied with this arrangement, I decided to try something more complex, using orange lilies from the garden and refraction through vases. I used an old paint sample board as a background, placed several flower stems in vases behind the larger glasses and rearranged until I had an interesting composition. The petals swirled into an abstraction, contrasting with the cool navy background.

I’m not fully happy with the final image, but I’ve laid the groundwork for future experiments. An afternoon spent tinkering in the garden and in the studio, using your creative muscles, is never an afternoon wasted.