How to Improve Your Lake Photography
Photographers love shooting water, and lake photography can produce some incredible images to add to your portfolio.
The good news is that you don’t have to hunt out the biggest and most remote lakes in order to get photographs with impact.
Small lakes – and even large ponds – can provide the setting for some powerful compositions. In fact, some of my favourite shots have been taken of reflections in ponds rather than grand lakes.
In this article, we’ll look at the ways you can get the most out of your lake photography.
Read more: 4 Steps to Shoot Beautiful Lakes at Sunrise
What to take
As with any style of photography, there are a few key things to take with you when photographing lakes.
Lots of lenses
If you’re heading out to shoot lakes, you’ll need a full range of focal lengths.
Read more: 8 Best Lenses for Landscape Photography
Make sure you bring your filters with you, too. A polarizer is a must-have when shooting near water. You can use one to reduce the glare on wet foreground rocks, for example, and to enhance reflections.
Polarizers are easy to use: simply place it on the lens and rotate the element while looking through the viewfinder. Sheen and reflections will come and go as you rotate it, so just continue until you see the effect you like.
Neutral density filters
This is another essential filter when shooting lakes.
In the ideal world, when you arrive at your chosen location, there won’t be a breath of wind, and the surface of the lake will be mirror-calm. However, the world is seldom ideal, and it could well be that there is a bit of a breeze disturbing the water.
With a long exposure of 30 seconds or more, ripples on the surface of the water won’t be recorded, and it will appear smooth. Reflections will be soft rather than sharp, but the overall effect is usually more attractive than choppy water.
Reflections in water are darker than the scene itself. This isn’t necessarily something that we consciously notice when we observe a scene in real-time, but it becomes apparent when we look at a photograph.
You can use a graduated neutral density filter to balance out the exposure between the subject and its reflection, but be careful not to choose a filter that is overly strong. If you make the scene darker than its reflection, it will look unnatural.
Alternatively, rather than using a graduated filter, provided your file has captured the full range of tones in the scene, you can balance the exposure in post-processing. For example, by using Adobe Lightroom’s Linear Gradient filter.
Read more: The Essential Guide to Filters
When to shoot
While lakes can look good at any time of year or any time of day, autumn is one of my favourite times, as you can really make the most of any colourful foliage by including its reflection in the composition.
As the temperature increases after sunrise, it drives air circulation, and the wind tends to increase in strength as the day goes on.
At this time of day, the atmosphere is also clearer, as particles of dust and pollution have settled overnight.
So if you set up before sunrise, there is an increased chance of greater clarity and calmer water for better reflections, together with the possibility of some colour as the sun gets closer to the horizon.
Don’t pack up once the sun has risen, though, as the calm conditions should continue for a while, and the low sun will bathe the scene in golden light.
The other advantages of shooting in the autumn are that the atmosphere tends to be clearer and less hazy than in summer, and there is always the chance of a little atmospheric mist rising off the surface of the water.
Composition and technique for lake photography
When it comes to viewpoints, there are basically two options: shoreline or elevated.
Of course, in some locations, without the use of a drone, you may be restricted to shooting from the shoreline, but many lakes are surrounded by hills and mountains, allowing access to a higher shooting position.
So what factors influence whether you should shoot from the shoreline or climb up for more of a bird’s-eye view?
Well, it’s a bit of a generalization, but it basically depends on whether or not you want to shoot reflections. If the conditions are clear and still, then you may want to prioritize reflections and shoot from the water’s edge.
Experiment with camera heights and see whether a low or high viewpoint gives greater emphasis to the reflection.
The chances are you’ll want to shoot with a wide-angle lens to allow you to give equal emphasis to the scene and its reflection, but sometimes a longer focal length can be useful to isolate one feature – say a distant mountain – and its reflection.
When shooting from the shore, you’ll have the choice of whether or not to include foreground interest.
Landscape photographers tend to be a little obsessed with foregrounds, and while they’re an important component of many compositions, you don’t always need to shoot with a large object close to your lens.
In fact, when shooting reflections, including foreground objects can be detrimental to the composition; if you have a really powerful reflection, why break it up?
In many cases, the image will work better if you put full emphasis on the reflection itself and give it space in the frame.
If using foreground interest, make sure you choose something appropriate. Many lakes feature wooden jetties, which can be useful for leading the eye into the frame and helping to connect foreground and background.
Boats on the shore are also a possibility, especially if they are arranged in an interesting shape that frames the view or leads the eye into the composition.
Reeds can also work well – try to find a shape that provides a frame for the view beyond and choose a camera height that allows for separation between the top of the foreground and any reflections in the water.
If there are towns on the lakeshore, you can also utilize some of the architecture for foreground interest: steps, lampposts, and balustrades can all work well.
Sense of scale
If reflections are less of a priority, then climbing up a hill for a more elevated viewpoint makes sense.
This allows you to put the lake into its context, showing the surrounding hills or mountains; this is an approach that works well with larger bodies of water, as it can give a sense of scale and a clue to the size of the lake.
On still days, reflections can still play a part in the composition, as colourful or dramatic skies will be reflected, but generally speaking, this is the approach you’re more likely to take on days when the weather isn’t so calm and the surface of the water is less still.
Getting to a high vantage point is also a good idea on misty mornings; you can get above the layer of mist hanging over the water and get some atmospheric shots of features breaking through the blanket of fog.
As the mist begins to clear, the surface of the water reveals itself.
Longer focal lengths can be more useful with shots from higher viewpoints, allowing you to pick out details such as islands in the lake or even allowing more abstract treatments such as isolating a reflection from its context.
As with anything, though, this is not a hard and fast rule, and there is often plenty of opportunity for wider views that include foreground interests such as trees or dry stone walls.
With autumn colours just starting to develop, now is the perfect time to get out and about shooting lakes and reflections.
Keep an eye on the forecast, pick a still day and head out to your local lake.