Affordable Optical Effects for Photographers

On the internet, you can find hundreds of products to give your photographs optical effects, such as filters, Photoshop presets, etc. These are usually pretty pricey and can run you hundreds of dollars. However, it’s really easy to make your own effects with household objects and simple tricks.


Prisms have become a trend in photography now-a-days, but they can really change the mood and composition of a shot! I’ve spent the last year working on my senior thesis project, which heavily relies of the optical effects that you can achieve with prisms. Luckily, these are super cheap and come in a variety of sizes, which makes them portable! Prisms are changing the photography game and I highly recommend buying some to add to your arsenal. I bought mine off of Amazon.


You can spend a lot of money on filters that replicate sepia tones or a specific color wash over a photograph. These can be helpful, but a cheap alternative would be to use sunglasses lenses. Just hold your sunglass lens over your camera lens and use a higher aperture (1.8 - 3.5) to get a toned effect to your photograph. Just make sure you’re not using prescription sunglasses, as it’ll warp your photo!


Buying new mirrored glass isn’t cheap, but mirrors are so accessible that they’re hard to avoid when it comes to optical effects. Mirrors can be utilized in any shape, location, or size! You can use a pocket-sized mirror or a mirrored building, it’s up to whatever your preferences are. Reflections in general can add depth and mystery to a photograph.


Use Your Lens Wide Open

It’s hard to get optical effects or depth when you’re shooting at f/5.6 to f/22. The higher the number of the aperture, the more things are in focus. Having things blurred in the foreground and background makes a photograph look softer and you have more control over what is in focus. When shooting with an aperture between f/1.4 and f/5.6, you can use objects in the foreground to add color and depth to a portrait. For example, if you shoot your model through a tree when using one of these apertures, the trees branches and leaves will be blurred and only the face will be in focus, giving it a completely different feel than if everything was in focus. One of my favorite music photographers, Mary Kang, shoot with a shallow depth of field and uses the crowd to add different colors and shapes to her portraits. Try experimenting with different apertures to see the effects!

Gel Sampler Packs

If you’ve looked at gels for lighting before, you know that they can get pricey. Gels are colored film that you can put over a continuous lighting source or a strobe to change the color of the light. These can make beautiful portraits or still life images, but you have to be specific when buying them when it comes to the color, opacity, and size. If you want to experiment with colored gels but don’t have the budget or clear idea of what you want, buy sampler packs from brands that make gels. These packs can become very handy because of their size and price. Most samplers are smaller than a dollar, but come with a ridiculous amount of colors, materials, and opacities. The second best part of these packs are the size: they fit perfectly over an internal or on-camera flash. The first best part? The price. You can get samplers for around $5 and they can last you a very long time. Here's the pack that I bought: Rosco Cinegel Swatchbook.

Always experiment and try new things! There are so many different techniques you can use in photography and new ones are being discovered every day.

Go discover!