11 Top Tips for Reflection Photography

reflection photography

Reflection photography can take your images to new creative and beautiful levels.

Photographers seem to be naturally drawn to water, whether it’s the sea, rivers, lakes, or waterfalls.

reflection photography
Reflections can double the impact of your subject and any colour in the sky.

Water can add drama to an image by injecting a sense of movement and can be the most striking way of showing the raw power of nature; think of big storms, with huge waves crashing against cliffs, or breaking over a lighthouse.

At the other extreme, water can convey stillness and tranquility, particularly on calm days when its surface is reflective. In these conditions, it can dramatically enhance the landscape by mirroring the subject in the foreground and doubling the impact of moody skies or color at sunrise and sunset.

Where to photograph reflections

Any body of water can create reflections, whether that be a lake, pond, river, or even a puddle.

With rivers, the water needs to be slow-moving in order to be still enough to create a reflection, so seek out large bends or, if the river is tidal, time your visit for slack water at high tide, when there will be minimal movement.

reflection photography
Shooting tidal rivers at slack water helps to get a cleaner reflection.

When looking to find reflections for your landscape photography, try to look beyond the obvious: for example, on beaches, you can find reflections in rock pools and tidal pools, as well as in large expanses of wet sand.

If you like urban landscapes, you’ll find reflections everywhere: in windows, fountains, man-made ponds, wet pavements, the wing mirrors of cars, shiny tables, and even in a drinks glass.

Read more: How to Use Water in Your Landscape Photos

Which subjects make good reflections?

Nearly anything that you’d choose for your main subject or the focal point in a landscape photograph will make a good reflection.

Have a look at compositional techniques before heading out to photograph reflections and brush up on the general rules to be aware of – but don’t be afraid to break them, too.

Landscape photography subjects which may work well in reflection compositions include sweeping vistas with mountains in the background, trees, and boats on lakes or rivers.

reflection photography
Floodlit buildings or monuments at twilight make great subjects for reflections in city scenes.

In city scenes, you can go for the wider view and its reflection, or choose to isolate interesting buildings, monuments, or statues and so on; these are subjects which look especially good when floodlit in the ‘blue hour’.

Top Tip: In the end, you don’t even have to have a chosen subject per se: minimalist studies with a powerful sky and just its reflection can work well as a stand-alone composition.

Read more: How to Photograph Minimalist Landscapes

Shooting techniques for reflection photography

Now that you know what subjects to focus on, use these shooting techniques to take your reflection photography to the next level.

1. Plan in advance for a still day

As with all landscape photography, planning is the key to success. Unless you’re shooting in a sheltered spot, you’ll need still conditions for good reflection captures, so keep an eye on the forecast and plan your shoot for a day when the wind speed is as low as possible.

Read more: 8 Ways to Improve Your Landscape Photography Workflow

2. Utilize cloud cover

Reflection shots look best if there is some interest in the sky, so look at the forecast for cloud cover, too – I find around 50 to 70% often produces a dynamic sky, but this is not a hard and fast rule.

Read more: Landscape Photography Settings for Cloudy Days

3. Get up early

You can shoot good reflections at any time of day, although sunrise and sunset are the favorite times for many photographers, as reflections will double the impact of any color in the sky.

reflection photography
The stillest conditions, and therefore the clearest reflections, are often first thing in the morning before the sun warms the land.

You may find you have more success at sunrise, as conditions tend to be calmer first thing before the land heats up, which drives air circulation and increases wind.

Read more: Golden Hour Photography – A Landscape Photographer’s Guide

4. Consider your focal length

The first decision to make when you get to a location is which focal length to shoot at.

If you go wide and get in close, you can make small bodies of water look like vast lakes. Shooting wide with a large vista with a strong background, such as a mountain range, allows you to capture the subject and its reflection in its entirety.

reflection photography
This mountain in Iceland looks as if it’s reflected in a lake, but it’s actually a puddle, shot from short range with a wide angle lens.

Telephotos are useful for isolating a smaller area of landscape, pulling in distant backgrounds and their reflections, or even going for a completely abstract approach, where you shoot just the reflection.

Read more: The Best Focal Length for Landscape Photos

5. Manage your camera height

Camera height is a topic that isn’t discussed enough in landscape photography and is especially important when it comes to shooting reflections.

Depending on how large the body of water (or other reflective surface) is and how big and close to the water the subject is, you may find you have to shoot from a lower or higher viewpoint.

So, when composing your shot, take your camera off the tripod, look through the viewfinder, and view the scene from different heights.

Once you find the ideal camera height, set the camera up on the tripod.

Read more: The Use of Perspective in Landscape Photography

6. Consider the foreground

Generally speaking, landscape photographers are keen on using foreground interest in their compositions.

It’s a useful device for creating a sense of perspective in a two-dimensional medium: by getting in close to foreground objects – especially when shooting with a wide-angle lens – the apparent distance between the foreground and background is stretched, thus creating the illusion of depth.

reflection photography
If including objects in the foreground, try to make sure they don’t disturb the reflection of the main subject.

Including foreground interest in landscape photographs can become a bit of a habit, but one that may be worth breaking when shooting reflections.

If you have a strong, mirror-like reflection, this may be all the foreground you need, and including objects such as reeds, rocks, or branches runs the risk of interrupting the reflection and lessening the overall impact of the composition.

Read more: Choosing the Best Foreground and Background

7. Emphasize symmetry

Another compositional point is how to divide the frame when shooting reflections. One of the first ‘rules’ of composition which photographers learn is the rule of thirds, which often leads them to compose shots with approximately two-thirds land and one-third sky.

reflection photography
Rather than sticking to the rule of thirds, place your horizon in the centre of the frame to maximise the natural symmetry of reflected scenes.

There are other popular ways of dividing the frame, such as the Golden Section; what these have in common is that they all avoid centred horizons.

However, when shooting reflections, these proportions are often best ignored: placing the horizon in the center of the frame emphasizes the natural symmetry present with reflections and can also suggest a calm, tranquil atmosphere, which suits many reflection pictures.

Read more: How to Find Balance in Photography Compositions

8. Use texture

If the weather isn’t playing to your favor, remember that you don’t necessarily need mirror calm water in order to shoot reflections.

Rippled surfaces can create interesting textures, and some photographers even like to throw a pebble into water to create ripples. Rippled water also makes for interesting abstract studies, where you isolate the reflection and ignore the ‘real’ subject.

The results can be quite painterly and impressionistic. Not all ripples are attractive, however, and if this is the case, try using an extreme ND filter and long exposure.

The result will be that the surface of the water is smoothed out. The reflection will be somewhat softened compared to what you would see in genuinely still water, but still more attractive than choppy water.

Read more: The Essential Guide to Filters for Landscape Photography

Technical considerations

Technically speaking, there are a couple of points to keep in mind for reflection photography:

1. Managing exposure

Exposure-wise, it’s worth remembering that reflections are naturally darker than the subject they reflect. In some situations, this can lead to quite a range of tonal contrast in a scene and you may find you are unable to capture the full range of tones.

reflection photography
Reflections are naturally darker than the actual subject, so bear this in mind when choosing filtration and when processing images.

If this is the case, consider darkening a bright sky with a graduated filter, or bracketing your shots in order to blend exposures in post-production.

Make sure you don’t overdo it, though; while you may want to reduce the contrast between the subject and its reflection, the reflection should still remain slightly darker, otherwise it will look unnatural.

Read more: How to Find and Use Light in Landscape Photography

2. Focusing techniques

When focusing, you don’t need to consider how close the surface of the water is; the reflection is the same distance from the lens as the actual subject is from the reflective surface.

Often, the reflection you are shooting is effectively at infinity, which is where you should focus. However, if you have included other objects in the foreground, you’ll need to focus so as to keep these sharp, as well as the more ‘distant’ reflection behind them.

In this instance, you could use hyperfocal focusing techniques, or ‘double distance’ focusing, where you focus on double the distance of the nearest object you want to keep sharp.

Both of these techniques will usually ensure that everything in the scene is sharp from the foreground object to the background subject and reflection.

Read more: Hyperfocal Distance – Focusing in Landscape Photos

3. Consider using filters

I have heard photographers advise against using polarizing filters when shooting reflections, arguing that polarizers remove reflections, so it therefore doesn’t make sense to use one.

reflection photography
A polariser helped to enhance the reflection in this image.

This isn’t necessarily true, though: they help to control reflections, rather than remove them completely and in some situations by reducing glare, you can actually intensify reflections.

The best thing to do is fit a polarizer and rotate it while looking through the viewfinder. You’ll see the reflection increase and reduce in intensity; simply set it to the effect you find most pleasing.

Read more: The Essential Guide to Filters

In conclusion

Reflections are everywhere, both in the natural world and the man-made. They can enhance the atmosphere of a scene and double the impact of a landscape scene or nature photography subject.

Photographing reflections successfully doesn’t require any specialist equipment or esoteric techniques, just a bit of planning and creative thinking.

Why not give it a go?

Visit Mark's website

Mark Bauer has been a professional landscape photographer for over 10 years. He is the author of 4 books, his most recent being ‘The Art of Landscape Photography’ (co-authored with Ross Hoddinott), and has won a number of awards in various competitions, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, International Garden Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year and International Landscape Photographer of the Year.

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