How To: Photograph Reflections

By: steve

February 15, 2011

Photographing reflections in lakes or rivers can create visually interesting images. In essence it is quite a simple technique, but by following a few simple rules you can take far more effective pictures.


The most tricky thing is finding a good reflection. A brightly lit subject close to a smooth patch of water will create the best effect. Stillness also helps, of course: if there’s a strong wind, the surface of the water can be too broken.

Okavango mokorro, Botswana. By Steve Davey

Okavango mokorro, Botswana. The image has been cropped to maintain the reflection.


It’s important to choose your angle in order to maximise the effect of the reflection. Shooting from a low angle and including more of the foreground water in the image is a great way to accentuate it. Most of the time you don’t want the horizon of an image in the middle of the frame, but with reflections this can be a great way of emphasising the symmetry. Other times, you might want to just photograph the reflection, and not the actual object in the same image. Be careful when cropping into the reflection or the reflected object though.


Japanese Teashop and modern buildings, Tokyo. By Steve Davey

Japanese Teashop and modern buildings, Tokyo. Composing with the horizon in the centre of the frame, cropping close and using a graduated filter emphasises the symmetry.


A reflection in water can be one or even two ‘stops’ darker than the reflected object. This can create an imbalance in the picture. It’s quite simple to even up the exposures using a program like Photoshop for post processing, or you can use a graduated neutral density filter. This is darker on one side, clear on the other, and with a soft gradation between the two. By placing the filter over the lens you can equalise the two parts of the picture while shooting.

Generally speaking, you’ll want both the reflection and the object to be in focus. The way to achieve this is to use the smallest possible aperture. You might need to use a tripod to enable this, depending on the overall light levels. You’ll also want to select a relatively slow shutter speed to balance the aperture.


Vang Vieng, Laos. By Steve Davey

Vang Vieng, Laos. The reflection here has been lightened slightly in post-production, but not enough to completely mirror the top half of the picture. This still gives the idea that it is water.


Photographing a sunset reflected in water can be very effective. Either have the whole coloured sky reflected in water, or just concentrate on certain spectacular reflections, such as that of the sun. This technique is particularly successful when combined with a silhouetted object.


Sunset, Yasawa Islands, Fiji. By Steve Davey

Sunset, Yasawa Islands, Fiji The light and highlights reflected in the water have lightened the foreground and helped bring out the silhouette of the boat.


Of course, you don’t only get reflections on water. There are a number of ways to photograph reflected things in shiny surfaces to create a visually creative image. The sunglasses, mirrors and even windows you encounter on your travels can all help to make interesting photos.

One of the hardest things about photographing a reflection in an object is avoiding a cameo appearance: you’ll need to adjust your angle in order to avoid showing up in the reflection yourself. That being said, reflections of this type can be a great way to shoot a self-portrait.

You’ll have to focus very carefully on the reflection, and also bias the exposure for it. If you have a DSLR camera, one of the easiest ways to do this is to use the spot meter and meter off just the reflection. It’s often more effective if the picture is cropped quite loosely to include some of the non-reflected area as well to frame the picture.


Montserrat 'Man Shop'. By Steve Davey

Montserrat ‘Man Shop’. Shooting a reflection helps to make a more interesting shot of this relatively dull building.


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