How To Make a Kaleidoscope Lens for just a few dollars
 
and take cool and unusual photos.
 

 

A few years ago I took a class on photography at a local community college. While there I learned about a famous photographer from a long time ago named Alvin Langdon Coburn. He used a sort of kaleidoscope or mirrors to take some of his photos and they fascinated me.

You can see some of his photos here on the George Eastman site

http://www.geh.prg/

http://www.geh.org/fm/coburn/alcoburn/coburn_sum00001.html

I bought a $5 mirror from KMart exactly like the one pictured below and used a cheap glass cutter tool to cut the mirror into strips.

 

$5 Mirror is twelve inches wide and forty eight inches tall

I have since seen other photographers use mirrors to make teleidoscopes and take stunning color photographs. The Harry Potter book has made the word teleidoscope popular so I guess I should use that word instead of kaleidoscope, but whatever you decide to call it, essentially what I made, and will describe how to make, is a simple mirrored device used to take photos.

The most important thing to remember when making your 'scope is that you will be working with cut glass, which is a danger! It could cut you severely, but also remember that the edges of the cut glass can flake off and possibly fall into your eye if you are unlucky. Wear gloves and other appropriate clothing to protect your body and safety glasses to protect your eyes!

When I made my scope I was aware of the danger of being cut and took appropriate caution, but when holding the teleidoscope up to look at something that was above eye level a piece of glass  flaked off and fell on my face. If the glass had landed in my eye it could have blinded me. 

TAKE PRECAUTIONS AND USE APPROPRIATE CLOTHING AND SAFETY GLASSES WHEN USING THIS ITEM! This is not an item for children to make or use!

When I made my first teleidoscope I didn't know how to make one but it looked pretty simple so I just jumped right in. I have since learned some things that would have given me much better images.

My first and only consideration was that the lens of my camera should fit into the teleidoscope and allow me to take photos. I now know it would have been better to find what size tube would be available for me to use to fit the mirrors into. If you put your mirrors in a tube it helps to keep the light out of the edges plus it makes it so much safer to use and transport. Plus, you can keep a clear end cap on the ends to allow you to look through the scope safely.

After I brought my 1' x 4' $5 dollar  mirror home I cut it in half leaving me with two 1' x 2' sized pieces to work with. My intention was to make a 4 sided teleidoscope but I ended up using only three pieces of mirror.

 

My ugly looking 'scope  is 20 inches long and four inches wide.

When I initially cut the mirror in half it went pretty well so I was overconfident on my next cuts and ended up breaking the next two pieces. It was good I had another half of the mirror left.

It is important to use a straight edge when making your cut and to be very firm when pressing with your cutter. I know a young woman that works in a picture framing shop and she cuts glass all day long without a straight edge. She just eyeballs it and makes the straightest cuts you ever saw in one swoop. She has a good eye and a straight arm, I don't think I would want to shoot pool with her for money. If you have never cut glass before use a straight edge to guide your cutter and press hard while the glass is on a flat hard surface and you will be OK. Use gloves or a rag in your hands to snap the pieces off that you cut, don't forget the safety glasses.

 

The three pieces I cut were twenty inches long and four inches wide. I guessed at the length. The wider your cut pieces are the longer you need to make them.

 I foolishly used clear tape to hold the edges together because I didn't have any black tape. I have since learned it would have been a whole lot better if  I had used black tape to cover the edges to keep out any light coming through the edges. However, after taking one look through the scope I couldn't wait to get started and strapped it onto a tripod with more tape and started shooting right away.

NOTE: The post office also gives away a tall triangular Priority mail shipping box that is 6 inches x 25 inches long. Part # 0-1098s. However, by law, you are only allowed to use them to send items via priority mail.

 

 It would have been simple to put the mirrors in a tube and to make end caps with clear ends so I could look through it easily and only take the ends off for filmingHowever, I would still use safety glasses if there was any possibility of any glass falling off and getting in my eyes.

After I taped my scope to a tripod I propped up whatever I wanted to shoot in front of the mirrors. I experimented with the lighting and placement of the items. You can see how the image in most of the photos shown is degraded the farther you get out from the middle. That is due in part to the light leaking in at the edges plus the quality of the mirror. Each reflection will be a little more degraded than the previous one which is why you want to use the best mirror you can get. Overall, for $5, I am pretty pleased with the  mirror I used.

 A different type of mirror to use is what is called a front surface mirror. The reflective part is on the front surface of the mirror, not the back. This type of mirror is a lot more expensive but will guarantee you the highest quality images. You will also be a lot more happier with your images in color, although in some cases the black and white images will be just as fascinating, in particular those done of people.

The number of mirrors to use in your teleidiscope can vary from two, to as many as you can cut and fit. They don't have to be straight sided either, they can be tapered which makes for some extraordinary photos, but tapered mirrors are a lot harder to make.

To make a two mirrored scope you would use two mirrors and the third side would be a piece of stiff black cardstock identical in size the other two mirrors.

 

The two sided mirror scope is the easiest and quickest to make. If you need help aligning your two mirrors you can put a pencil or straw across the front and look at the image it makes inside the scope. If it is uneven you can move the mirrors until the image of your reflected pencil is aligned perfectly with the real pencil.

 

If you already have a tube you want to use for housing your mirrors a simple formula to determine the width of your mirrors is:

First, measure the inside diameter (ID) of your tube.

If your mirror is 1/8 inches thick

for a 3 sided mirror

ID X 0.68 = width needed for your cut mirror

for a two sided mirror

ID X 0.75 = width needed for your cut mirror 

for a 4 sided mirror

ID X 0.60 = width needed for your cut mirror

Example:

If I have a round tube with an ID of 2 inches and am making a 3 sided scope then,

2 x 0.68 = 1.36 inches.

0.36 inches is approximately 22/64 inch, so I will need my strips of mirror to be approximately 1 and 22/64 of an inch wide.

If you have forgotten how to convert decimals to fraction a good online source for converting is at

http://www.csstips.com/charts/inches-decimal/

If you have a half an hour  and a glass cutter and a $5 mirror I think you will really enjoy the fun you get out of making these types of photos. 

The photos I took are not great, but are shown only to let you see what can be done extremely quick and cheap. If better mirror is used and the cuts are made more precise and the edges are blocked from letting light leak in I guarantee that you will be able to make some extraordinary photos, especially in color. I hope you have found the information useful and you try making some of these photos yourself.


The photos below were all taken by me with B/W Tri-X film and a Canon Rebel G 35 mm. Most are photos taken of other photos. All were taken the same afternoon I made the 'scope.

 

 

 

a photo of a photo

originally Eikoh Hosoe

Embrace # 60

 

 

a photo of a photo

David Douglas Duncan

Capt.Ike Fenton No Name Ridge, Korea 1950

 

 

Taken on the railroad bridge over the Miami River as a plane flew over the tracks. The plane made a neat triangle in the sky. 1999

 

 

 

a photo of a photo

originally Richard Avedon

Isak Dinesn 1958 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a photo of a photo

originally Arnold Newman

portrait of Yasuo Kuniyoshi 1941

 

 

 

 

Just me, looking out the window. 1999


 

 

Robert Moffett © 2004

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