Some practical and creative tips on how to approach a popular photographic subject.
Reflections are all around us and are found in many situations and guises, ranging from the mirror images you see in the landscape to those bounced back from city office blocks. Design-wise they satisfy two important parameters: repetition and symmetry. They also introduce light and a sense of spaciousness into built environments, which is why architects and interior designers often use reflective surfaces.
Capitalising on the benefits of reflective surfaces in your pictures isn’t quite as easy as simply pointing the camera at the subject and tripping the shutter. You have to train yourself to see potential in each situation that presents itself and decide how you will approach each subject.
Essentially, there are two approaches you can take. The most straightforward simply involves recording the reflection in a naturalistic way. This usually involves making the reflection a part of a larger subject, as shown in the illustrations below.
This shot, taken in the foyer of the Harpa Concert hall in Reykjavik, which was opened in August 2011, shows how reflective surfaces have been used to emulate the crystalline shapes and patterns that inspired the design, while introducing light and emphasising the spaciousness of the building.
An example of the naturalistic approach to photographing reflections, this shot was taken in Bell Gorge in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The second approach is to see the graphical elements in the reflection and concentrate upon them. The end result will often be an abstract picture that may not necessarily be initially recognisable as a reflection. Whichever approach you take, some essential requirements are necessary to obtain good shots.
1. Watch the Weather.
Mirror-like reflections in the landscape can seldom be found when it’s windy as even a slight breeze will ruffle the surface of the water. You’re most likely to find them early in the morning before the sun’s heat begins to generate air movements. They can also be found in places where the breeze can’t reach the water.
Act quickly when the right conditions appear because they are often fleeting. A breeze can spring up in seconds and the perfect reflection will be lost ““ although the shot may still be worth taking.
These shots were taken 17 seconds apart and show how even a slight breeze can change the appearance of the reflections. Photographed at Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island on the west coast of Greenland.
2. Find the Right Angle.
It can often take a while to find the shooting angle that displays the reflection to its best advantage. Be prepared to shift your shooting position and take a number of different exposures to get the most aesthetically pleasing results.
Remember the angle of the light changes constantly throughout the day. Waiting for 30 minutes or coming back at a later time (or on the next morning) could give you the shot you want.
Reflections from large glass windows can produce interesting pictures ““ and enable you to include human figures without attracting attention. this shot used the north-facing windows of Sydney’s Opera House. Note how the reflection is darker than the ambient lighting.
3. Focusing and Exposure.
Focus depends a lot on the distance between the subject and the reflection. Be prepared to experiment until you find the right balance ““ and consider using a smaller aperture setting (such as f/11 or f/16) if there’s a wide distance between the nearest and farthest points in the scene where you want optimal sharpness. Experiment by focusing first on the subject, then on the reflection. You will probably see slightly varied results, and your preference will depend on where you want to direct the viewer’s attention.
In most situations, reflected light has a similar intensity to the subject that creates the reflection. However, when the reflecting surface is darker than the subject it can make the picture appear unbalanced.
Try taking a spot meter reading on an area that doesn’t contain the actual reflection, yet is still close to some part of it. Then before taking the shot, focus your camera on the reflection and press the shutter button. The result should be an exposure with a good balance between the subject and the reflection.
An aperture of f/8 and shutter speed of 1/45 second were used for this shot of an iceberg near midnight on the approach to Ilulissat in Greenland. In this case, the camera was focused on the iceberg. Because the shot was taken from a moving boat, features in the foreground are slightly more blurred than they would have been if a smaller aperture was used. Another instance where the reflection is darker than the ambient lighting.
A polarising filter can help you to control the amount of surface shine from the water, and a graduated neutral density filter will help ensure that the sky isn’t overexposed. But both must be used with caution. At one angle, a polariser can remove a reflection completely; rotate it a little more and the reflection can appear stronger, with its colours more intense.
Graduated ND filters can help you balance exposures but may also produce slightly unnatural images. Coloured graduates can work well with abstract images but diminish the viewer’s impressions when you’re striving to create a faithful recording of a natural scene.
The image on the left was shot without a polariser, while the one on the right was captured through a circular polarising filter. Note the differences in the transparency of the water and also the way the polariser emphasises the colours in the image, particularly in the blue sky.
Shooting reflections on their own can produce some interesting images. Look for patterns created by moving ripples, remembering these will change quickly. Take plenty of shots to record these changes, thereby increasing your chances of finding at least one image that ‘works’.
A good example of an abstract shot featuring repetition with variation. It shows reflections from a rock wall disturbed by the wake of a passing boat. The curved patterns in the water contrast well with the largely linear patterns above them.
Sometimes a reflection is strong enough to stand on its own as an image. Shots of this type can inject a sense of mystery, compelling the viewer to look more closely and become drawn into the composition. Colours, shapes and linear properties are important in such compositions and you may need to boost contrast and saturation to make them more compelling.
A reflection of clouds on the surface of a lake makes an intriguing graphical design that is enhanced by a slight boost to contrast and saturation at the editing stage.
Subduing unwanted reflections
Sometimes you don’t want reflections to interfere with your photograph because they detract viewers’ attention from the main subject. Polarisers can be handy for suppressing reflections from the surfaces of water and will also work quite well with reflections on glass and plastic. They are particularly useful when you want your shots to show what’s beneath the surface of a stream or lake and when you’re photographing a subject behind glass. Avoid using polarisers when photographing reflections from metallic surfaces as they are usually ineffective.
One of the hardest things about photographing subjects containing strongly-reflecting surfaces like mirrors and glass windows is avoiding showing up in the reflection yourself. Professional architectural photographers use tilt/shift lenses to change the relationship between the optical axis of the lens and the plane of the image sensor so they aren’t included in the shot.
Without a tilt/shift lens you need to adjust your shooting angle to minimise the reflection. It may be impossible to subdue it completely without introducing rectilinear distortions that can be difficult to correct when you’re editing shots.
This is an excerpt from Photo Review Issue 50.