Reflections are everywhere, but we don’t always notice them. Our eyes are trained to look past them, especially when we see them in glass, and sometimes we don’t even notice them in the most beautiful of places—in the still water of a mountain lake or a pond, or even in something as small as a puddle. But when you capture a reflection in a photograph, your viewer can’t fail to notice it, because in that static image it is as much a part of the scene as the object that created it.
Reflections are contemplative. They are symmetrical, so they make us feel balanced. They double the natural beauty of a landscape. In short, they are subjects that you should seek out as often as possible.
Capturing beautiful reflections isn’t always easy, though—there are some subtleties and techniques that most photographers learn through trial and error. In this article, I’m going to let you in on some of those tricks so you can start photographing beautiful reflections right away.
Early to bed, early to rise
The best time of day to shoot water—with or without reflections—is in the early hours of the day. Now I’m sure you already know one of the reasons for that, because the early hours of the day are a part of that “golden hour” that photographers love to talk about. The light is soft and golden and it just makes for better pictures overall. Add to that the fact that your reflections are also going to be soft and golden and you’ve got a recipe for a beautiful photo.
Those early hours also have the advantage of favorable weather. Not always, of course, but there does tend to be less wind in the early hours, which means glassy water and unbroken reflections. If there was any overnight fog, it’s likely to stick around during those moments just before and just after dawn, and if you’re patient you can catch it when it’s still lingering in the scene but is not so oppressive that it gets in the way of those reflections. And as an added benefit, in those early moments before sunrise and just afterwards, most of the mosquitos are still asleep.
Now remember that golden hour light is not the same all throughout the hour—the sun is in the process of clearing the horizon, so the light is going to change pretty rapidly especially in those moments just before and just after sunrise. Ideally, you want to shoot in those pre-dawn moments and the moments just before the sun makes its appearance, because you’ll get the most even light. Once the sun peeks out from behind the mountains, hills or ocean you’re going to have to contend with its brilliant-white presence, which means it will appear in your scene as a bright, burned-out white disk which may not be what you want for your shot. Now, if you’re shooting on a cloudy or partly cloudy day then those clouds will act as a filter for the rising sun, so you have more options—but for the most part it’s wise to make sure you’re in place and set up to get a lot of photos before the sun is actually in the sky.
You’ll need a tripod—the light will be pretty low even just before sunrise, and because you’ll almost certainly be using a small aperture (large f-number) to capture all of that beautiful detail from foreground to background, you may find that your camera chooses shutter speeds that are just too slow for you to hand-hold your camera. A tripod will allow you to stabilize your camera and get a shake-free image without having to resort to a higher ISO. High ISOs are great for other subjects, but when you’re shooting a landscape you want to capture a lot of noise-free detail, and the only way to do that is to keep your ISO low.
Car mirrors, sunglasses, and windows
Water isn’t the only place to find a reflection, though it’s the one that we tend to notice the most. You can also find reflections in windows, in your friend’s sunglasses, in your wing mirror, in your car’s paint job or in your child’s eyes. Any time you spot a reflective surface, walk around it and notice how the reflection changes as you change perspecitve. Make a habit of doing this and you’ll become a master at finding cool and unusual reflections in unexpected places.
Mirrors can not only give you some great reflections to photograph, they also act as a frame so that you’ll have an image within an image—the frame helps direct your viewer’s eye to the subject,which is the reflection itself.
And don’t forget that just because you’re shooting a reflection, you aren’t off the hook in adhereing to the usual composition rules—keep the rule of thirds in mind, and make sure that you’re thinking about things like color, tone and composition.
Macro: dewdrops and glass balls
Have you ever seen one of those amazing photographs of a flower or an insect beautifully reproduced on the surface of a drop of water or other spherical object? This is actually called refraction, and it differs from a reflection in that light waves are passing through the surface of the water rather than bouncing off of it. To capture a refracted image in a drop of water, you will need to use your camera’s macro mode or a macro lens. Get very close to that drop of water, and then frame it so that the object you want to be refracted is behind the droplet. Remember that a refracted image will actually show upside down, so if it’s something that needs to be displayed the right way around you may want to invert your image in post processing.
Don’t be afraid to play with refraction in your own home or garden—there’s no need to wait until a rainstorm. You can add water droplets using a spray mister or an eye dropper (hint: add a little dish soap or glycerin to the water to help larger droplets form). Remember that the time of day matters for a shot like this one, too—choose the early morning or the late afternoon to take advantage of the soft, golden light. And don’t forget to play with your aperture to see what kind of effects you can get with a smaller f-stop and a larger one.
Soap bubbles can be another great subject—the next time your kids or grandkids are outside blowing bubbles, turn up your shutter speed (I suggest using 1/500 or sport mode) and try to get close enough to them to see those details. Larger bubbles are better, so if you have one of those giant bubble rings now is the time to break it out. Big bubbles are easier to shoot not only because it’s easier to fill the frame with them, but because they are slower moving. Keep your camera in continuous shooting mode to give yourself the best possible chance of capturing a sharp image amidst all the action, and use a focus-tracking setting if your camera has one. And prepare to do a little running around.
One of the really cool things about reflections is if you invert them, you can get an abstract representation of whatever the reflected object is. This is especially true if you’re capturing those reflections on the surface of the water on a day when there is a little bit of wind—the ripples create an almost painterly, impressionistic look. The effect can be large or small depending on how much wind there is, but if you think carefully about composition your inverted reflection will almost certainly impress your viewer.
This is another lesson in seeing like a photographer—try to notice reflections whenever you’re out and about, whether it’s your intention to take photographs or not. Think like a mockingbird and try to be drawn to anything shiny—a chrome bumper, a car mirror, a shop window—these are all reflective surfaces that you probably walk past every day. Make sure you take the time to stop and look for those reflections, and you’ll soon find yourself seeing them (and photographing them) everywhere.
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