Learn to Make Water Reflect Your Ideas

In the summer it’s time to head out to the water, no matter whether that means the sea, a pond, or a wading pool. But water’s also good for something else—playing with composition. So let’s go over some tips for taking advantage of reflections on water surfaces.

This mirror effect can make pictures where a landscape or a historical landmark is reflected on the water immediately eye-catching. Use it right, and you can make a picture give a stronger impression overall.

Compose to the Center

The most classic way to compose water surfaces is to put their plane of reflection in the center. Even though typically in photography you’ll want to use the rule of thirds, where the subject is placed one third in from the top, bottom, or one side, this is one case where a center composition is ideal. Along with the reflection in the water, it emphasizes an environment’s majesty and calm.

Another center composition, although here the tree is pushed off to the side. Nevertheless the colors and composition evoke silence and calm. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35/2.8 II, 1/1000 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 35 mm

A center composition, although here is the tree pushed off to the side. Nevertheless, the colors and composition evoke silence and calm.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35/2.8 II, 1/1000 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 35 mm

Troubled Waters Are Interesting Too

But not all your pictures with water reflections have to go this route. Here for illustration we’ll use a picture that first premiered in our article on ultra-wide lenses. Even though this scene also uses a reflection, it feels action-packed. But here that’s due to the events above the water, and the mirrored image only adds a new level to the shot.

An example of an action-filled take on a water picture. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22/3.5–4.5, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 10 mm

An example of an action-filled take on a water picture.
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22/3.5–4.5, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 10 mm

But even the water itself can be used to break up monotony. This especially applies for city scenes, where a reflection on trembling water can break up the geometric shapes of buildings.

A canal in Amsterdam. Notice another rule of composition used here: framing (the leaves at the top). Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22/3.5–4.5, 1/1600 s, f/8, ISO 200, focal length 10 mm

A canal in Amsterdam. Notice another rule of composition used here: framing (the leaves at the top).
Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22/3.5–4.5, 1/1600 s, f/8, ISO 200, focal length 10 mm

In the city, water is a welcome photographic aid in general. That’s especially true at night, because it emphasizes lights and once again gives a scene a little motion.

Night in Amsterdam. If you hid the lower half of the photo, it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive. Canon 40D, Sigma 18–50/2.8, 3,2 s, f/5.6, ISO 200, focal length 18 mm

Night in Amsterdam. If you hid the lower half of the photo, it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.
Canon 40D, Sigma 18–50/2.8, 3,2 s, f/5.6, ISO 200, focal length 18 mm

Altering Reflections

You can change reflections just by how you shoot. In general the closer you are to the water, the truer its reflections (at least if it’s calm). Meanwhile as you draw farther away from it, you can expect reflections to be darker, or even tinted towards blue or brown.

Post-editing in Zoner Photo Studio can also deliberately dramatize this difference, or suppress it almost completely just by darkening the sky, as in this example:

The originally mismatched surface and sky (left) were edited to harmonize them and give a more impressive picture. Canon 350D, Macro-Revuenon 24/4, 1/200 s, approx. f/8, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

The originally mismatched surface and sky (left) were edited to harmonize them and give a more impressive picture.
Canon 350D, Macro-Revuenon 24/4, 1/200 s, approx. f/8, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

Experiments with Composition and Colors

When water is very calm, it’s an almost perfect mirror, and you can take advantage of that for some experiments. Here for example we have a close-up on a garden pool, just a brief attempt at harnessing its colors, where a diagonal composition was chosen to make it more dramatic (or rather, less boring).

pool

A close-up on a pool. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70–200/2.8 II IS, 1/160 s, f/5,6, ISO 400, focal length 200 mm

Another popular thing to do is to capture just a reflection and then use computer edits to deliberately turn it upside down, to make people stop and think a bit about the picture. The final effect of that can vary depending on how calm the surface is.

With the reflection emphasized like this, the scene looks like it was taken from somewhere far below the trees. Canon 350D, Macro-Revuenon 24/4, 1/40 s, approx. f/8, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

With the reflection emphasized like this, the scene looks like it was taken from somewhere far below the trees.
Canon 350D, Macro-Revuenon 24/4, 1/40 s, approx. f/8, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

Using Abstraction

If you’ve had enough of realistic reflections of the world around you, then try mining water surfaces for abstract images.

One simple way is through the heavy blurring you can get by deliberately focusing at the wrong length. Depending on “how wrong” that length is, you can get anything from a still roughly recognizable photo to a bewildering shape full of dancing lights:

Elegant bokeh from a cheap 50/1.8 lens. Canon 40D, Canon 50/1.8 II, 1/8000 s, f/1,8, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

Elegant bokeh from a cheap 50/1.8 lens.
Canon 40D, Canon 50/1.8 II, 1/8000 s, f/1,8, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

Alternatively you can capture details in all their sharpness, but not tell your audience what they really mean, as in this picture by Zonerama user JONGGOLDE:

An abstract reflection by JONGGOLDE

An abstract reflection by JONGGOLDE

Many Possibilities

The road doesn’t stop here, and there’s no limit to how creative you can be. But the important thing is to be observant and to be ready by the water!

 

Last updated 27. June 2017

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Author: Vit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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