As landscape photographers, one skill that always requires honing is composition. Essentially, we seek to find a bit of beauty in the chaos of nature and then capture it in a frame. Finding and capturing reflections is a great way to portray order and symmetry. Here I’ve compiled some tips and tricks that can help you master your reflection compositions.
1. Use a Circular Polarizer Filter (In Reverse)
Most photographers know that a polarizer filter can help reduce reflections, but many aren’t aware that they can be used to enhance reflections as well. Simply turn the filter in the opposite direction that you would to cut back on the reflected light and you will see the reflection grow stronger! My favorite CPL I’ve owned is the Breakthrough Photography X4 CPL for its excellent optical quality and it’s knobbed brass ring. Brass filters don’t get stuck to one another as easily as aluminum filters, and the extra grip on the ring makes it a pleasure to use.
2. Use a Slow Shutter Speed
Sometimes you will get your perfect composition set up and ready to go, and the moment that perfect sunrise light starts to hit your majestic mountain peak, a duck or some other wildlife will casually swim into your frame. Calmly resist the urge to toss a pebble at the critter, and instead dial your shutter speed back to 3 seconds or longer. The longer exposure will blur out the water and clean up the ripples in your reflection.
This method isn’t foolproof, however. Sometimes the slow shutter speed will result in too bright a final exposure, even if you are stopped down all the way. I always try to carry a few Neutral Density filters in case I need to bring down the exposure. If you aren’t familiar with ND filters, think of them as sunglasses for your lens. A 3-stop or 6-stop ND filter should be all it takes to get a long enough exposure to smooth out the water in most cases.
3. Median Stacking
This method is only for users of Photoshop or other image editing programs that are capable of aligning and stacking multiple images, and the technical steps here will only apply to Photoshop users. It essentially mimics the long exposure effect, without the slow shutter speed. This is useful if you are shooting handheld, if you forgot your ND filters, or if you are on a boat or other vessel. It can even be used with multiple long exposures to smooth things out even more.
Start by finding the longest shutter speed you can get away with given your current shooting scenario. Next, fire away, capturing as many images as you think it might take to get a nice smooth blend. Just how many images it will take is a tricky thing to nail down, so it’s better to capture more rather than less. I start with 5 if I can already manage a decently slow shutter speed (0.5s or 1s), and move up from there if the shutter speed needs to be faster. More images will result in better blending and a cleaner reflection, so don’t hesitate to take as many as 10 or 20. Storage is cheap, after all.
Next, open all of your images into Photoshop as layers within the same project. If using Lightroom, select all of the images ->Right Click -> “Edit In” -> “Open as Layers in Photoshop”.
Select all of the layers and align them (Edit -> “Auto-Align Layers”). In the Auto-Align dialogue box, I like to stick with “Auto” and turn off “Vignette Removal” and “Geometric Distortion”. Keep in mind that the images need to be fairly similar for Photoshop to do a great job with this function. If shooting on a tripod, the images will probably be 99% aligned already. If shooting handheld, try to keep as still as you can so the images are mostly the same framing.
After you check that Photoshop did a good job aligning your images, select each layer, right click -> “Convert to Smart Object”. Finally, blend the images using the “median stack” method (Layer -> Smart Objects -> Stack Mode -> Median). The resulting image should resemble a long exposure with a nice clean reflection! Below is an example image from a trip to Zion when I forgot my ND filters. Notice how the reflection is smooth and clean, but it doesn’t quite have the mirror-like look that can only be achieved with still, glassy water.
4. Get Low
Getting lower to the ground is often a good method to improve a composition, and reflections are no exception. Getting down low enables you to find a reflection in the smallest puddles where others might not think to look. This is is especially useful in the desert where there are very few bodies of water. Many compositional opportunities arise when puddles form after rainfall in places like Arches National Park, or White Pocket in Arizona. It can be useful to carry a miniature tripod for such shooting scenarios, as many traditional tripods (especially those with a center column) can’t get low enough to find a reflection in the smallest desert puddles. Check out this cool composition in Arches National Park. Note the difference in the crisp edges of the reflection compared to the image above. Still waters make for the best reflections, which brings us to our next tip.
5. Find Still Water
Puddles are ideal because the water isn’t flowing and the wind doesn’t affect the surface as easily as a larger body of water. However, when there is no puddle to be found, seek out the still edges of a stream, river, or lake. In a stream or river, the widest sections are going to be shallower, with slower moving water and possibly small “eddies” where the water is nearly still. Lakes also tend to have small sections of the shore where the waters aren’t as disturbed. Seeking these areas carefully will always result in a better reflection, especially when there is lots of movement in the water due to heavy flow or high winds.
6. Check the Wind Forecast
If winds are especially heavy, finding a reflection can be difficult or impossible. Hiking all the way up to an alpine lake only to find the water hopelessly wind-tossed is always frustrating, so do your research in advance to maximize your chances of finding a nice reflection. There are many online resources for checking the wind forecast and many of them take elevation into account. I prefer to use Windy.com and Mountain-Forecast.com.
7. Carry an Umbrella
I always carry a compact umbrella in my photography bag. Raindrops wreak havoc on reflections, and if you are very low to the water, holding an umbrella over your tripod will sometimes provide cover for the reflection. This won’t help when the reflection is further out in the water, however. Regardless, there have been many instances where I was glad to have an umbrella in general, not just for reflection photography. Even if your camera and lens are weather sealed, an umbrella keeps raindrops off the front element and allows you to focus on your photography rather than wonder how good your weather sealing really is.
8. Include Foreground Elements
The best images invoke the illusion that the viewer is “there” in the scene. An important element to maintaining this illusion is a sense of depth. One easy way to create depth is to include foreground elements in the scene, between the viewer and the reflection. Not only does this provide depth, but it also “grounds” the image, so the reflection scene feels less like an abstraction and more like reality. See the following image for a good example of this technique.
9. Don’t Cut Off Your Subject
This one should be obvious but I still see otherwise gorgeous reflection images where the tip of the mountain is cut off in the reflection, either by the edge of the frame or by a foreground element. Though not always the case, most compositions are better off including the full reflection. This tip is important for maximizing the benefit of the reflection composition, which is to introduce order and symmetry to the image.
10. Use Horizontal Symmetry Brushing
This is another one for Photoshop users only, though other programs may include similar features. If you are planning to dodge and burn the subject of the reflection, this is a handy tool to ensure you affect both halves of the reflection equally. After selecting the Brush tool in Photoshop, look toward the top of your screen for a little icon that looks like a butterfly. Click on the icon and select “Horizontal”. A horizontal axis will appear. This will serve as the center point where Photoshop will “reflect” any brush strokes on either side of the axis. Try to place it right in the center of your reflection so your brush strokes mirror accurately. This may require some trial and error, but when you get it working it will do wonders for keeping your image looking natural. Nothing screams “Photoshopped” like processing only the upper half of a reflection, especially if you do this with a vertical stretch. We’ve all seen those images where the mountains in the upper half of the reflection are stretched to make them dramatic and the bottom half remains neglected. Or maybe that’s just me, spending way too much time on Instagram! Anyways, keep in mind, this tip may have varying degrees of success, depending on how close you were to the water for the reflection. It should work fine as long as you weren’t up high on some hill looking down at the body of water, in which case the visible portion of the reflection won’t be very symmetrical to begin with.