Reflections – whether wildly distorted or perfectly rendered – are a lot of fun to explore.
Reflections can appear in many places in both natural and man-made environments and they can be grand and dramatic as well as small and detailed. This feature covers the fundamental techniques that will help you achieve correct exposures and better compositions when photographing reflections.
Where to Find Them
Photographically, most reflections are mirror images in which the main subject is replicated ““ usually in a dimensionally reversed format ““ in a shiny surface, which can be as varied as water, glass or polished metal. They are popular with photographers because they can be used to create interesting and intriguing compositions.
Calm water is the most common photographic subject, probably because it is easiest to find. Whether it’s in a lake, a bay, a pond or a puddle, reflections in water have a magic of their own that is relatively easy to exploit.
Shiny surfaces are also often easy to find, whether they be city buildings with glass ‘curtain walls’, mirrors, chrome, polished metal or simply shiny ceramics or wood. These can be more challenging to photograph as they often depend on precise lighting conditions and careful selection of shooting angles.
Tips and Techniques
Think carefully about the angle of the light; how it affects the reflection and what you can do to create interesting compositions. You will probably need to experiment with different viewpoints to find the angle at which the reflection looks best and the composition is most engaging.
The ripples become the main subject in this shot, which shows disruptions caused by a moving boat.
A polarising filter can be a useful aid for controlling the amount of surface shine (see polarising article, page 50), while a graduated neutral density filter can help prevent the sky from becoming washed-out. However, filters must be used with care to prevent the reflection from being over-emphasised or excessively suppressed. When using ND filters, pay attention to the tonal values in different parts of the shot and avoid blocked-up shadow areas.
Check the weather. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sunny or cloudy, but if you want mirror-like reflections the wind must be negligible.
The best times of the day to photograph reflections in landscapes are early in the morning or in the evening as the sun is setting, since these times are least likely to be windy. Early morning should be calmer than the evening if you want to take shots when the water is really flat.
Often a few ripples can add interest to the shot and there may be times when the ripples themselves become the focus of the composition. If necessary, you can reduce the impact of small ripples by using a slower shutter speed.
Ripples can produce some great abstract compositions on their own when there is something interesting ““ and probably colourful ““ that can be reflected in the water. The reflections will contrast with the stationary subject and can add dynamism to the shot.
The reflections on other shiny surfaces can also produce interesting compositions. Everyday objects like mirrors, glass, metal, ceramic tiles and even varnished wood have potential for creative exploitation. Flat surfaces are easier to work with, as they will give more complete reflections. Surfaces should be clear of scratches and fingerprints, especially when you want to focus on detail within the reflection.
Reflections are often darker than the object that produces them. Sometimes the difference is subtle but at other times the difference can amount to a couple of f-stops. Each photographer should decide whether compensation is required and how to go about it, based on the scale of the difference and the result she/he wants to achieve.
If a graduated ND filter doesn’t solve the problem, you may need to adjust part of the image at the editing stage, bearing in mind the end result you wish to achieve. Slightly lighter or darker reflections can direct the viewer’s eye to a specific area in the scene, purely on the basis of the difference in brightness. If you want the viewer’s eyes to shuttle back and forth between scene and reflection, brightness differences should be minimal.
Night can be a great time to photograph reflections of bright city lights in wave-disrupted water.
Distorting mirrors at fun fairs can become interesting subjects in themselves and are worth seeking out.
Where to put the horizon? Truly mirror-like reflections argue in favour of symmetry, which means composing the shot with the horizon at or close to the centre or the frame. But this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; there are times when a high or low horizon will make a more satisfying picture. It all depends on the subject and the effect you wish to achieve.
Late afternoon and early evening can be a good time to photograph reflections of light on buildings, particularly when there is a spectacular sunset that produces interesting colours when reflected in modern glass. Buildings can also produce interesting reflections around the middle of the day, particularly when the sky is blue with interesting white cloud patterns. However, it can be challenging to find the best angle for an interesting composition.
Don’t be put off by converging verticals; sometimes they will produce more interesting compositions. If you have problems with excessive glare, either change your shooting position or use a polariser to control it.
Careful choice of shooting angles is essential when photographing reflections from smaller objects, such as parts of cars and other polished surfaces. Flat surfaces are easier to work with, as they provide more complete reflections ““ but curved and irregular surfaces can produce more interesting shapes.
Using a tripod will ensure your camera is kept rock steady and enable you to use slow shutter speeds to eliminate movement. When exposures are long enough, even people passing through the camera’s field of view can be eliminated. (You will probably require at least a 4x ND filter.)
Shooting with the camera hand-held gives you more flexibility in your angle of approach. Low shooting angles can be difficult to use with some tripods. A stabilised lens combined with a relatively fast shutter speed usually delivers a blur-free shot.
Deciding where to focus can be a critical issue as it will determine where the viewer’s attention is directed. Because it depends a lot upon the distance between the subject and the reflection, this decision is more important when photographing small subjects than for landscape shots.
When in doubt, take two shots; the first focused upon the subject and the second upon the reflection. This should produce slightly varying results and enable you to make the best decision for the subject. (You can sometimes combine these shots later to get the best aspects from both.)
Distortions created by a curved surface on a vehicle produce an interesting composition. Shooting with the camera hand-held made it easy to obtain the best angles to capture it.
A near-perfect reflection, contained within a scene that provides an interesting frame to the main subject.
For landscapes, focusing at the hyperfocal distance (roughly one third of the distance between the camera and the visible horizon) and stopping the lens down to between f/8 and f/11 usually yields the best results. It also ensures the subject and reflection will be more closely related in focus, which will enhance the ‘mirroring’ effect.
Experiment and Enjoy
Most of the fun derived from photographing reflections comes through experimentation. Be prepared to challenge your own capabilities and pre-conceived ideas. Try different angles, explore lighting opportunities (and create your own with reflectors and other sources of light).
Interesting pictures result from multiple choices made by each photographer; some when the image is captured, others resulting from editing. Each decision you make will express your vision of the subject you saw and wanted to capture.
A classic late afternoon shot with ripples and a pair of paddlers breaking up the symmetry of the reflections.
The small ripples spreading out from the hunting plover lead the viewer’s eyes out from the main subject making this more than just a picture of a reflection.
This article is an excerpt from Photo Review magazine Issue 61
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