5 Important Factors for Better Reflections in Landscape Photography

5 Important Factors for Better Reflections in Landscape Photography

Reflections in your landscape foreground always give a satisfying viewing experience because of the depth and symmetry that they create. Here are some steps that can help you achieve a more refined output.

One of the most appealing visual design techniques in landscape photography is the use of symmetry. In a natural setting where shapes and patterns appear and form at random, it is always eye-catching to find views with near perfect symmetry. To be able to find these perspectives that are often not obvious to a random passerby is a strong showcase of vision and artistic intent.

Of course, these symmetrical patterns are created by reflections found on the surfaces of bodies of water. In the natural environment, it is almost impossible to find reflections on other surfaces. No matter how big or small, whether it’s water on the ocean or from a small puddle, they can be used to create symmetry when given the right circumstances.

Quality and Intensity of Light

Backlit reflections result in silhouettes.

The biggest determinant is the direction and quality of light. There are a multitude of factors surrounding this, but generally, you need the landscape or the main landscape element to be brighter than the surface of the water for it to reflect properly. The light (which is pretty much the sun) can be coming from any direction. However, when it is generally behind the landscape, in the same way that the shot will give you a silhouette, the reflection will give you the silhouette as well. The feasibility of this would, of course, depend on the preference of the photographer and their artistic intent.

The Reflective Surface

The surface on which the light will reflect is almost equally as crucial. In natural landscape scenarios, this surface is most of the time water and much of what this article will discuss will be applicable to that. However, other reflective surfaces, such as glass and metal, can still be used commonly in the urban setting. Either way, how clean the surface is plays a key role in the overall aesthetic of the shot. On metal and glass, smudges and cracks can be significant clutter, and on water, floating objects and even the ripples on the surface can take away some attention from the reflection and the main subject itself. How the objects are placed within the frame and relative to the reflection of the landscape will be important, especially in anticipation of cleaning it up in post-processing.

Circular Polarizers

Circular polarizing filters or CPLs can drastically improve and enhance the reflection on water surfaces. CPL filters manipulate and redirect light in such a way that it manages reflection and glare. With this principle, CPL filters can also redirect the glare from reflective particles in the atmosphere, which helps intensify the blue hue of a clear sky and enhance the contrast between the blue sky and illuminated clouds. However, in the context of shooting reflections in the foreground, the filter can actually either decrease the clarity of (or even eliminate) the reflection or improve the contrast depending on the position of the polarizing filter.

Motion Blur

Without motion blur (no filters).

It may seem counterproductive to use motion blur on reflections with the aim of achieving better clarity and contrast, but it actually is the other way around. The water that creates the surface is moving while the reflection is relatively still. By doing long enough exposures to smoothen and flatten the surface of the water, one can achieve a cleaner surface on which the light will be reflected on. The length of the exposure will depend entirely on the rate at which the water is flowing, as well as the movement of the floating clutter, if there is any. More than this, the condition of the water in terms of the abundance of floating clutter takes precedence because if within the duration of the exposure, the object (which can either be trash or even floating leaves, especially when significantly bright colored) can cover important parts of the reflection and ruin the composition.

Motion blur to clean the surface and circular polarizer.

To achieve this, ND filters play a key role since most applicable shooting scenarios are during daytime when there is an abundance of ambient light. It is, however, also possible to shoot reflections at night, even with the night sky in the background, as long as the conditions are conducive for night photography. During daytime, exposures can go very long to ensure the smoothest and cleanest pavement possible in the water. Some scenarios with perfectly still water can be photographed with a fast shutter speed, then later on just retouched for any imperfections. On the other hand, for any scenario with flowing water and any moving elements, the duration of the necessary exposure will depend on how long it will take to achieve the smooth texture and make the clutter disappear, and consequently, this will determine what kind of ND filter is needed.

Refining and Retouching

If and when the process of shooting was done meticulously for reflection foregrounds, retouching may not be entirely necessary. This is the case as well for instances when the perceived clutter in the water is natural objects as well as leaves and flowers. Solid objects in the foreground, such as rocks and driftwood, are not necessarily automatically considered clutter. While they may not entirely contribute to the symmetry created by the water in the foreground, if they are placed in a part of the frame that benefits the overall flow and visual design, they can actually add a sense of depth to the overall image and in turn don’t necessarily need to be removed to achieve a refined output.

Gray dots show all cloned-out clutter on the surface of the water.

The aim of a landscape photographer’s workflow in photographing locations with interesting reflections is to be able to capture the symmetry in as much perfection as possible. It is mostly impossible to achieve perfect symmetry, but a close attempt at it definitely results in an eye-catching and visually satisfying result. This perfection is achieved through meticulous visual design that is done through the many different exposure techniques commonly used in landscape photography.

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Rhonald Rose's picture

Thanks, useful information

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Glad you like it! Thanks Rhonald!

Thomas Jergel's picture

Also, do not forget to get very symmetrical reflections - get even closer to the surface of the water.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Absolutely right!