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Budget-friendly creativity

25 May 2021

Esther Bunning, one of the country’s top creative photographers, shares her tips for experimental photography techniques that won’t break the bank

Shooting through leaves and branches in the studio

Getting creative doesn’t always require a host of expensive equipment, and sometimes it’s possible to get beautiful and astonishing results from an eclectic range of tools; things that are easy enough to carry in your camera bag, tuck into a pocket or backpack, and take out on location.

I’m a big fan of experimenting and do this for a component of almost every shoot — whether paid or personal work. I particularly love using sunlight to reflect and refract light. There are so many tools you can use with the sun.


Being open to random things occurring is a prerequisite with this style of shooting. Going with the flow and not necessarily having a set idea of what you hope to achieve is what I recommend. The happy accidents can often prove to be the most interesting.


Having a camera that you can use on manual is the key. I’m a fully manual shooter — mostly because of the lenses I tend to use but also the techniques. For example, shooting ‘through’ objects would play havoc with auto focus, but if you switch to manual, you’ll have far more control with the focus and layering.


Watching the light is ideal, as it can change very quickly if you’re working with sunlight. Light at either end of the day is the easiest to work with, as it’s less direct and bright.

Some form of backlighting, while not the easiest light to work with, often gives the most dramatic results, and you’ll need to consider the light source falling on your creative tools, as well as the light on your subject matter. 

If in a studio, I’ll often have a light angled to fall on the object that I’m shooting through and a separate light on my subject.

Double exposure combined in camera


We’re familiar with the term, and the results can be beautiful … or slightly predictable these days. So, how do you know just what to try? Slightly underexposing often gives the best results, but it can depend on whether you’re after detail and information in the shadows or if you would prefer the highlights to carry the main layering information. 

This technique can be extended to shoot three, four, or more frames for one composite image. And it’s a good idea to consider a story when compiling your techniques for a particular subject. For example, you might combine a portrait of a person with a second exposure of a plant, and a third exposure of a personal item filling the frame.


  • When shooting a double exposure, shoot one frame sharp and purposely throw the second shot out of focus.

  • Establish your main content. Say it’s a portrait, shoot your subject first and shoot through fabric for your second frame. 

  • Shoot the first frame using one lens, and shoot the second frame using a different lens with different depth of field. 

  • Shoot a frame of your main subject, then, for the second frame, shoot through a reflection or glass.

  • Try a combination of the above. Consider your composition in camera when you’re compiling the images. Start with a simple strong graphic as your base image, with the other images being supporting layers.

  • When using a Lensbaby creative lens with double exposure, I’ll often shoot one frame with the Lensbaby and the second with, say, a 60mm or 105mm. My preferred shutter speed tends to be 1/125s, 1/250s, or more. The lens is adding the blur/movement effect rather than a slow shutter speed. This, in conjunction with techniques such as using wobbly glass, can give very painterly effects.

Half of frame shot through wobbly glass


Not all cameras are capable of double/multiple exposures, but there are other techniques that can also produce these effects.

I carry around pieces of wobbly glass in my camera bag, and, every few years, I kindly ask for some offcuts from a glass supplier. Not all textured glass gives ideal results, so it’s worth considering and experimenting with what effects you like personally. Often, it’s the less-distorted pieces that give the best results.

Portrait shot through wobbly glass

I once marvelled about a huge piece of shattered reinforced glass in a glass factory that was lying on the bench top and the glazier said, “Like this?” and proceeded to drop a tiny new piece on the concrete floor. I was in raptures and this piece now forms part of my kit (be sure to use duct tape around the edges to avoid lacerations, and handle with care). 

The light refracts beautifully through the cracks when backlit. I tend to manually ‘drag’ these in front of my lens when I’m shooting, and when I look through the lens, it gives me an indication of what the distortion will be. 

Portrait shot through perspex square


One of my favourite pieces of equipment is a square of Perspex. Bringing it partially across the front of the lens can give a double-exposure feel, depending on how you angle it, and you can reflect whatever is above the camera and lens, too (the sky and clouds can throw colours into the mix, or lighting in a room can be random and interesting, for instance). The result can be similar to a double exposure but achieved in a single-capture frame. 

Through the lens, it does require you to keep one eye on your primary subject matter and, to a lesser extent, one on the technique. Move in gradual increments, and angle similarly, as this can give quite varying results.

Some people will be familiar with the water droplet in my images; this effect is achieved by carrying a small water squirter and spraying it on the Perspex (or even glass windows) prior to taking the second frame in a double exposure and can be very effective.

Esther’s gear


There are lots of different shiny surfaces you can experiment with: soft plastics, hard plastics, scratched plastic, frosted plastic. Clear cellophane, slightly scrunched to give creases and segments of reflected light, can be beautiful. 

Look through craft shops (in Wellington and Porirua there are the wonderful Pete’s Emporium shops) and you’ll find so many things to try. Your creative feast might include gold circlets, small diamante sheets, loose-weave sparkly woven ribbons, and sheer fabric with metallic patterns. Twist and turn these in front of the lens and you’ll see what you can achieve in your images. And less is often more; a subtle effect can add a more pleasing result than an busy effect encompassing the whole frame.

Do note, if you pull out techniques like these when you’re photographing people, they will look at you quizzically for the first few frames, but they will get used to it. I tend to warn people these days on what to expect, but the final results should relieve them of any concerns. 

To see more of Esther’s award-winning creative portraiture, visit