Sometimes Nature delivers us something that’s so beautiful, it just has to be a gift. When we think of Nature’s gifts, it’s often in terms of locations, like Yosemite or Grand Canyon (gifts indeed!). But today I’m thinking about Nature’s transient beauty: the perfect arc and vivid colors of a rainbow, a brilliant crimson sunrise or sunset, or an aurora dancing among the stars (I could go on)—beauty that can simultaneously surprise and wow us.
Underrated on Nature’s list of gifts are reflections. Doubling the scene, reflections signal tranquility. And like a metaphor that engages the brain in ways different than we’re accustomed, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double. Rather than allowing us to process the scene directly, a reflection challenges us to mentally reassemble its reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections can feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural phenomena we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections and how they’re revealed by a camera enables photographers to anticipate their appearance and craft their relationship to the surrounding landscape in an image.
Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) that doesn’t generate its own light, comes to us courtesy of reflected light. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from the object itself, then by the water).
For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce back into our eyes, and there it is. But other photons head off in different directions—some to be captured by different sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River far below. A few of these photons penetrate the water, illuminating leaves and rocks on the submerged riverbed, while others carom off the water at the same angle at which they struck—only in the other direction, much the way a pool ball ricochets off the pool table’s cushion. When our eyes are in the path of these bounced photons, we see a reflection.
The recipe for a mirror reflection
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain peak glistening atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Both have their place in creative photography.
The ideal recipe for a mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle at which the sunlight struck the water’s surface. And while a sunlit subject and shaded surface aren’t essential, the more photons striking the reflected subject, and the fewer non-reflected photons (ambient light) striking the reflective surface, the greater the contrast that helps the reflection stand out.
El Capitan Autumn Leaves, Yosemite: With El Capitan getting direct sunlight and the slow moving Merced River still shaded, I had the sharp reflection I hoped for. With just a little bit of searching, I positioned myself to include nearby floating autumn leaves.
Playing the angles
Just because you don’t see a reflection in the still water in front of you, doesn’t mean there’s no reflection—it just means you’re viewing from the wrong angle.
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis player anticipates the ball’s bounce to get in position—allows us to position ourselves to photograph the reflection we want. For example, if the angle from your subject to the water is 40 degrees, its reflection will bounce off the water at 40 degrees in the other direction.
To locate the reflection, set your camera aside and move up/down, backward/forward, and left/right until you see find it. Then bring your camera back in and position it exactly where your eyes were when you saw the reflection.
Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite: One summer evening I found myself atop Sentinel Dome shortly after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, reflective pools. Seeing the potential for a spectacular sunset above Half Dome, I wanted to include the colorful clouds reflected in the pools. At eye-level the pools reflected nothing but empty sky, so I dropped my tripod almost to granite level until my lens found the angle that intercepted the red clouds just above Half Dome bouncing off the still water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, still water mirror reflection is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, and to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it.
While a crisp reflection can dominate an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can beautifully accent a striking primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears as a soft outline when a long exposure smooths the water’s surface into a gauzy haze.
South Tufa, Mono Lake: In this sunrise image, all the ingredients were in place for a special reflection. Just as the color arrived, a light breeze stirred the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. I used a 6-stop neutral density filter to enable a multi-second exposure that completely smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though counterintuitive to some, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection’s subject, not the surface it reflects on. This isn’t a big deal when the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your distant subject’s reflection and the nearby rocks or leaves on or in the water surface to be sharp.
Photographing a distant subject reflecting in a pool of leaves requires the same hyperfocal depth of field approach you’d use for any other close-to-distant image: small aperture and a focus point slightly beyond the closest thing that needs to be sharp.
El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite: Photographing autumn leaves atop El Capitan’s reflection required impossible depth of field to capture sharpness throughout. Even though the leaves and reflection were just a few feet in front of me, focusing for a sharp reflection would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused toward the back of the closest group of leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan’s reflection is slightly soft, a soft reflection is almost always more forgivable than a soft foreground.
Put simply, a polarizer cuts reflections. Most photographers use a polarizer to darken the sky, and while that can be a nice effect, the polarizer’s value is far greater than that. More than to darken the sky, polarizers remove subtle reflective sheen that washes out color on foliage and rocks.
An underappreciated polarizer use is to erase a reflection to reveal submerged rocks, leaves, and texture. After photographing a reflection with no polarizer or polarization minimized (maximum reflection), rotate the polarizer to minimize the reflection (maximum polarization) and capture submerged features hidden by the reflection. You might be surprised by how different the two images are, and how much you like both versions.
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand: But a polarizer isn’t an all or nothing tool. When photographing the solitary willow tree in Lake Wanaka, I carefully watched the reflection in my viewfinder while rotating my polarizer, stopping when I reached a polarization midpoint that included some reflection, while still revealing the mosaic of stones just beneath the lake’s surface.
Rainbows are a very special kind of reflection that happens when light is refracted (separated into its colorful wavelengths) upon entering airborne water droplets. This refracted light reflects off the back of the droplet to create a rainbow.
Because the laws of physics apply to all reflections, we know that a rainbow would actually form a full, 42 degree circle if it didn’t encounter the horizon. The center of this circle is at the anti-solar point—the point exactly opposite the sun (with your back to the sun, imagine a line from the sun through the back of your head and exiting between your eyes). That means that your shadow will always point at the rainbow’s apex. And the lower the sun, the higher the apex will be. Read more about rainbows.
Double Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon: Understanding rainbow physics allowed me to anticipate a rainbow despite a black cloud blocking the sun and drenching everyone in my raft trip group. When I saw that the sun was about to pop out of the cloud and into a large patch of blue sky, I rallied my group and pointed to where the rainbow would appear. A few minutes later their skepticism turned to ecstasy when we all started capturing images of a double rainbow bridging the Grand Canyon.
Outside the box
Reflections also provide wonderful creative opportunities. An often overlooked opportunity is the potential found in reflections that aren’t mirror-like. And, in addition to the more conventional reflection composition that’s split somewhere near the middle to give more or less equal frame real estate to the subject and its reflection, some of the most creative reflection images concentrate entirely, or almost entirely, on the reflection.
I found this El Capitan reflection at Cathedral Beach on the final afternoon of last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. After capturing a crisp, top-to-bottom El Capitan reflection, I repositioned myself to juxtapose much of El Capitan against the faceted veneer of ice topping the river. An added bonus of water still enough for ice to form was that it allowed drifting, recently fallen autumn leaves to settle and accumulate on the river-bottom here.
Finding the best spot combine the reflection, ice, and leaves in a single frame, I dropped low enough to get a sharp reflection El Capitan’s nose in the still, iceless water close to the shore. To ensure sharpness in the ice and the reflection (as well as the distant trees and El Capitan), I stopped down to f/18 and focused midway into the ice.
Almost all of the foreground was shaded, but with bright, direct sunlight brightening the clouds and El Capitan, this scene’s dynamic range was a real factor. But my reflection-centric composition eliminated the clouds brightest granite, making the exposure much easier. Finally, I tried multiple polarizer positions until I found the one with the best combination of reflection and submerged leaves.
I was so focused on the other visual elements in this scene, I didn’t fully appreciate the bare trees across the river. But when I started processing the image and viewed it on my large monitor, I was pleased by how much they add to the wintry feel of this image.
Double your pleasure
Whether it’s a shimmering mirror, a gauzy haze of color and shape, or a colorful rainbow, reflections are a gift from Nature—camera or not. By doubling the beauty surrounding us, reflections have the power to elevate ordinary to beautiful, and beautiful to extraordinary.
For photographers, reflections provide boundless creative opportunities. When exploring outdoors with a camera, some reflections seem to jump out and grab us by the eyeballs, while others require a little more work. Either way, when properly conceived and executed, a reflection image possesses a visual synergy, conveying beauty that more than doubles the scene’s two halves.
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I can not believe how beautifully you can capture landscapes. Really appreciate your IG as well! Thanks for sharing, and believe me, I wish I would love to live some thousands of miles closed to attend a workshop, or 2, or 3….
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