How To Photograph Really Excellent Reflections

An image with an eerie painterly effect was achieved by photographing this young woman's reflection under a mixture of daylight and incandescent lighting.

Reflections are not only wonderful to behold, they also make great content for the creative photographer. This photo is of Claire, a young woman who attended a workshop I ran on existing light photography.

I like the image’s predominantly warm color palette, most of which is overhead incandescent (i.e., tungsten) light reflected into the mirror. I remember asking Claire to tilt the mirror back slightly so as to bring some of that warm light down into the image frame.

How To Make A Photo With Critical Focus

One of the tricks when photographing reflections is to ensure your camera has focused on the reflection rather than on the surface of the mirror, water or other reflective surface in question.

With the above image as a case in point, focusing on the surface of the mirror (i.e., the glass) would have resulted in marks and scum on its surface coming into focus and Claire’s face rendering out of focus.

As the reflection occurs just underneath the surface you have to focus on the reflection itself to ensure that it's rendered sharp in the photograph. 

How To Ensure Great Focus And Depth Of Field

It’s worthwhile considering what part/s of the image you want to retain a high degree of sharpness in. Critical focusing will only go part way to helping you achieve the result you envisage.

Actually your camera can only focus at one distance at any one time. Assuming neither subject movement nor camera shake occurs that will be the only part of the image that's critically sharp. 

It's important to understand that it's depth of field (i.e., DOF) that determines how much of the image appears relatively sharp both in front of and behind that actual point of critical focus. In the above example options would include the following:

  • Only the actual human subject, in part or whole, in focus
  • Only the reflection of the subject in the mirror in focus, as we see above
  • Both the subject and their reflection in focus

Looking at the image in this post it’s also good to think whether the real Claire should be slightly sharper or, conversely, even more out of focus. The only way to know what’s best is to make a few versions of the same image each of which features a different depth of field. The three elements that determine depth of field are as follows:

  • Aperture selected
  • Camera to subject distance (move closer to create a more shallow DOF, move further back to increase DOF)
  • Lens focal length

I’d encourage you to have fun photographing reflections, whether in a man made or natural environment. For what it’s worth photographing people reflected in mirrors is particularly tricky. If you want to do it consider photographing an inanimate, non-human subject first. A teddy bear, bust of Beethoven, flowers or a bowl of fruit would do fine.

Only once you’ve got the technique down should you bring in the human element. Why? If they lack patience their mood will effect your approach, result and overall experience. And it should be fun. Right?

I made the image of Claire and the mirror with a Canon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f/4 L series lens @ 24 mm. The exposure required a 1/25 second shutter speed and an aperture of f/4.8 at ISO 400. 

Ever wanted to photograph a reflection? How about a warmly lit, snow-capped mountain top reflected in a tarn or stream? What about the reflection of a bride in a mirror at the family home on her wedding day? Then there's a reflection of clouds in a futuristic, glass fronted sky scrapper. These are just a few examples of interesting and visually dynamic opportunities that reflections offer the enthusiastic photographer.

Artwork reflected in mirrors at the Louvre in Paris, France.

The above photo was made at the Louvre in Paris, France. After noticing the ornate nature of the frames I was drawn to the scene by the reflections projected into the mirror from paintings on the surrounding walls and ceiling. 

The warm/cool color contrast between the golden frames and blue sky added and extra visual element to the scene. I positioned myself in such a way to bring a sense of harmony to what would otherwise be an overly complicated scene.

I found this beautiful, still pool of water on a walk in rural Iceland. The golden colors of the rocks contrasted wonderfully with the blue of the water.

How To Photograph Crystal Clear Reflections In Water

The above image was made on my walk back to the car after an all night session photographing two spectacular waterfalls in the north of Iceland. After all the excitement and drama associated with that evening I found the serenity of the rocks reflected in this little pool of water to be a very pleasing way to finish that particular adventure.

Compositionally it's a very simple image exploring the contrast between the golden light, reflected onto the rocks, and the cool blue of the sky reflected into the water. I remember taking caring to ensure the earth and grasses, at the edge of the pond, and the rock wall in the background acted to frame the reflection in the pool of water.

In this case I opted for an aperture of f/16 as I wanted the depth of field to extend from the foreground right through to the background. It's the large depth of field in conjunction with the smooth surface of the water and the softness of the early morning light that has produced such a crystal clear reflection.

It's certainly advantageous to be photographing reflections when there's no wind. While a fast shutter speed will help freeze any movement on the surface of the water, you just can't beat a perfectly still morning for this kind of photography.  

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru