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Photograph Reflections to Maximum Effect

Tips for capturing the surface of water in your landscape shots

By David Fleet

photograph reflections

(Image Copyright: David Fleet)

Let's take a look at how to photograph reflections on the surface of water in landscape shots. Whatever the body of water you're dealing with, the presence of reflections on its surface can add a tremendous anount of interest and depth to the picture.

But these reflections are both an opportunity and a challenge. If you really want to get the full photographic potential out of them, a little care and attention is needed. So here is my guide to maximizing the impact of those watery reflections...


The Weather Counts For a Lot!


The first step is to find a body of water that you really want to shoot. Now, for a good reflection image, try to find water with a still surface, such as an inland lake. For great reflections you need a smooth glassy surface, so also try heading out on a clear and still day.

If there is too much wind the water will ripple get choppy, making it too difficult to photograph reflections really effectively. This need for stillness is why lakes are so preferable for mirror imaging to oceans or running rivers. Don't neglect little puddles and ponds either - they can be really cool!

photograph reflections

Here's another top piece of advice: get on location at the beginning or end of the day. This is when you are most likely to encounter calm and peaceful weather, as the sun has not had the chance to warm the land, which is a primary cause of wind.


Reflections Are All About Light


photograph reflections

Having chosen your body of water and waited for still conditions, you need to assess the location and the natural light.

Make sure the sun is behind you so as to maximize the vibrant colours reflected by the water, and prevent it from 'burning out' areas of the surface.

While a clear blue sky is arguably best for mirrored images, light cloud cover can also contribute to beautiful reflective landscape photography, acting as a great big diffuser - softening the light.

Reflection images work best when the light is directed towards the thing you want to see reflected rather than on the water's surface itself. Keep this in mind because it generally means that mornings and evenings are ideal - when the light is at a low angle instead of high up and hitting the water straight on. Luckily, these are also the times of day that you are most likely to get still, calm conditions.


You've Gotta Get Some Test Shots


Because the angle and strength of sunlight varies so much throughout the day, you might need to run quite a few test shots until you're able to photograph reflections in a certain location most effectively.

Trial shots, even if they don’t produce the specific photographs you desire, are still very useful. They help you assess the conditions and work out the best angles to use in your finished images.


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What's the Focal Point...?


By David Fleet

photograph reflections

(Image Copyright: David Fleet)

Once you have made sure the sun is coming from over your shoulder (front lit), you can begin to focus your photograph on a more specific part of the water.

Many photographers look for objects that stick out of the surface of the water, as these can add real interest and contrast. Their hard, opaque surfaces interrupt the glassy surface of the water in a really satisfying way.

This is especially true when you capture the water on a long exposure (note: it's can harder to photograph reflections in detail when you allow the water time to move and become blurry though).

Typical objects that you'll find on the water's surface are small islands, logs, trees, jettys, boats, sea defences, mooring buoys and reeds. They can be really useful points to focus your camera on.


Exposure Times


Next, use a tripod to ensure that your camera is steady and still. This is a golden rule of landscape photography and it holds true here.

A tripod also allows you to use a long exposure. What are the benefits of that? Well, an exosure of about 1 - 4 seconds (so not really long!), ensures that ripples on the water are smoothed over, whilst the reflection itself is not lost.

Also, because the light involved in a reflection is relatively weak, an exposure time of this length is also a good way to make sure the mirrored appearance within your image is sufficiently saturated.

The alternative is to use a really fast shutter speed to freeze all movement in the water. This ensures that the reflection is nice and detailed. But, personally, I always prefer to photograph reflections with an exposure time of a few seconds.




So, by following these steps, you'll be able to photograph reflections in your landscapes really effectively. The direction of light, level of wind, brightness of the sky, exposure time and focal point are all crucial in determining how good your final picture turns out. Good luck and have fun!

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