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Reflection photography is one of the basic forms of photography, mostly because reflections on different surfaces are all around us and can give an excellent range of effects with comparatively little effort. Reflective images are particularly powerful, and can add an emotional dimension to your photography, whether it be loneliness expressed through an image reflected in a window or the magnificence of sunset on a lake.
Using reflective surfaces can change an image from just a mundane photo into a work of art with wonderful images and effects, and have the ability to raise a simple image into something far greater - more complex, abstract and richer.
Water is one of the most commonly photographed reflective mediums, probably because it is easily found and gives reliably spectacular results. Skyscapes give the double benefit of colour and symmetry on a large scale. Sometimes the reflection forms the background rather than the focus of the shot, such as when a feature such as a pier, boat or human is incorporated, or shares importance with a natural feature of the landscape, like a headland, the curve of a bay, or an unusually shaped group of rocks. In these instances the reflection is not necessarily diminished by sharing or not being the main focus of the shot, but adds an extra dimension to what may have been a fairly ordinary photo without it. It is difficult not to have a good result when you incorporate reflected skyscape into your shot. At either sunrise or sunset, colours and cloud formations are dramatic and the water is often calm, providing the best reflective surface. It is a good idea to scout locations likely to give you the shots you want beforehand.
Whilst large bodies of water give easy but spectacular results, man made surfaces abound; outdoors they are found mostly on the glass of modern buildings, but keep your eyes open for other surfaces, such as chrome which is also very reflective. Many building surfaces, too, can give a half reflection, which has its own special effect – clouds, for example, look great when photographed as reflections on tall buildings. Glass on many buildings is given a film which provides more effective reflection than does plain glass, but shooting through plain glass can add a surreal dimension to your photography, as you capture images which are inside, outside and reflected.
Taking a walk around city streets with an eye open for interesting reflections can be surprisingly worthwhile. Different scenes may be stacked together through partial reflections from several sources, sometimes in unusual juxtaposition. Dirty glass is common in the city, but if you view it as something to add texture to your composition it takes on a new, interesting attribute which can add something to your photo.
Reflective surfaces aren’t always flat, but flat surfaces give more complete images. The curve of a shaped surface can create distorted images which are not accurate representations of the original form, potentially giving you another interesting effect. Droplets of water left after rain, or the morning dew, can refract and reflect light, and in their own miniature way can be as spectacular as the sunset shot. You can shoot individual droplets or groups; in focus or out of focus; emphasize the sparkle; add other things to add interest. There is a lot of creative potential, but technically it is more difficult to do than the big skyscape.
Some basic knowledge of macro photography, especially f-stop and aperture is important. You will need to be patient, changing angles to get the reflection exactly as you want it – but the effort will be worth it. The reflective effect will be heightened by using a high f–stop (at least 11). By flattening the subjects, they appear closer, which enhances the effect. Reflection can be used as an alternate source of lighting, and can greatly improve the quality of available light, either as a highlight or as your main source of light. Reflection is an excellent way to diffuse light, which is often better for photography.
Sometimes you don’t want the reflection that is present. Reflections are not always artistic and creative – the view of you and your camera in the sunglasses or the glare reflected from something shining in the sun may not give your shots the extra ‘something’ you are looking for. At these times, reflections are just annoying. You may be trying to photograph something on the other side of clear glass or under water. A polarizing lens, which decreases surface reflectivity, may work – otherwise you may have to try at a duller time of day, or adjusting the angle of your shot may reduce glare. A graduated neutral density filter can help make sure the colour and texture of the sky doesn’t come out looking over-exposed. When photographing over water, practice with longer shutter speeds, which can help smooth water. Focussing on the water rather than the sky adds drama to your shot, but you must make sure you have allowed for the depth of the field and the angle of the light.
Mirrors, the most obvious reflective surfaces, can be difficult to work with: they must be very clean, you must be careful about light sources and avoid using flash (if you do, stand well off to the side). If you are using artificial lighting, you must be careful about the amount and angles relative to your reflective surface – indirect lighting from behind or above may work best. You need to decide whether the reflection or the subject will be your focus (the one not chosen will be slightly blurred) and you need to select a subject with distinct shapes to give definition to your photo. Another consideration is what can be seen in the mirror besides your subject – you don’t want things like messy beds to detract from your main composition.
Your photographic skills will be greatly extended if you can learn to use reflections effectively, whether as a light source or to give creative images.