To order images, prints, or cards, click here

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tips for Photographing Reflections in Nature

Reflections are fascinating, intriguing, and can offer a marvelous way of viewing the world. Reflections can amplify the colors and beauty of a scene, or provide a unique and original approach to viewing it. Photographing reflections in mirrors, windows, or on any reflective surface can be very challenging and produce interesting, appealing, and beautiful results. I have shot reflections in the polished brass of a lamp or a shiny Christmas ornament, even in a water droplet. Here I will focus on reflections of landscapes in nature, which are normally found in a body of water - from a stunning lake landscape, to water in a small pond, pool, or even a puddle. I find the most dramatic reflections often occur when there is light on the landscape being reflected, while the water is in shadow.

Grand Tetons from Schwabacher Landing at sunrise, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. ISO 100 15mm F/22 6/10sec. Tripod. Polarizing filter.

East Canyon, Zion National Park. ISO 500 15mm F/16 1/60thsec. Polarizing filter. Hand-held from a low crouching position where it was not possible to set up a tripod. Captured a striking reflection in a small, stagnant pool of standing water in an otherwise dry stream bed.

Camera, lens & tripod.  It is possible to get pictures with a cell phone or iPad, but the very best images will be made with a digital SLR camera. A wide angle lens is usually best. Using a good quality tripod will reduce camera shake and help you achieve a sharper image especially with longer exposures in the dim light around dawn and dusk. I use a tripod for nearly all my landscape shots.
Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park. Broke our own rules! iPhone panorama, shot just after dawn in perfect mirror-like conditions. The clouds added drama to both the sky and reflection.

Shoot at dawn or dusk: Usually the best light is during the “magic hours” of the day - the first two hours after dawn and before sunset. There is often less wind to ruffle the reflection at these times of day. Ideally there will be clouds in the sky for the beautiful colors of sunrise and sunset. 

Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Canada, on Icefield Parkway. Zooming in slightly to frame just this mountain and its reflection emphasizes the abstract patterns and textures in the scene. Shot just after dawn, on a tripod, with a polarizing filter. ISO 100 24mm F/22 1/13 sec. This image was made just as the sun hit the mountains. A half hour later the reflection disappeared when the morning wind rose to ruffle the water.

Mt Rundle reflected in Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park, Canada, is a well-known reflection photo opportunity. We were here on a slightly windy evening when the traditional reflection in Vermilion Lakes was not possible. So we headed for a small, more protected pond at the west end of the lakes and were able to capture this shot. Mt. Rundle is the mountain in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, not the more prominent closer mountain. We took many shots, and liked this view best, taken after sunset as the colors deepened in the sky. Two-second exposure on a tripod, with polarizing filter and split neutral density filter. ISO 100 24mm .67ev F/22 2 sec. Processed as a pseudo-HDR to bring out the detail in the deep shadows. 

Camera settings: Avoid using the Auto setting. Instead use aperture priority or full manual settings. Study your manual and practice in advance if you need to learn how to do this. I nearly always use Aperture priority for landscape shots in order to control the depth of field. Others would recommend using full manual settings nearly all the time. A camera set on Auto it will likely select a large aperture to let in more light, compromising the depth of field in the image - and resulting in a shot that does not have both foreground and distance in focus. A small aperture (F stop of 16 or 22) will give you much greater depth of field so that your entire image may be in focus. The smaller aperture also lets in less light, requiring a longer exposure to take in more light. At dawn or dusk you may need a long exposure of several seconds to even 20 or 30 seconds or more, making a tripod essential for avoiding blur from camera shake.
Here are two different images of Denali (Mt. McKinley) viewed across Reflection Pond, near Wonder Lake. Both images were shot at mid-day but on two different days. It is very difficult to be here at sunrise unless you camp here or stay in one of the lodges in the Kantishna area, 90 miles in on the Denali Road and otherwise reached only by the park shuttle bus. Of course I want to go back and stay here to experience sunset and sunrise on the mountain!

A famous location, a  mountain magnificent beyond words. Being in the presence of this mountain takes your breath away. Its grandeur is impossible to capture with a camera, but everyone who sees it tries to do just that. The reflection was not perfect, as there was a breeze both days, but the mountain is famous for hiding in the clouds, so we felt privileged to see it at all.

Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Reflection Pond, Denali National Park, Alaska. Wide angle image at 24mm. ISO 400 to allow faster shutter speed of 1/200th sec to stop camera shake for hand-held shots. Aperture of F/18 afforded enough depth of field to get both the mountain and the foreground grasses in focus. Circular polarizing filter. Hand held while lying on the ground on my stomach to get low enough to capture the reflection with the foreground grasses, no room for a tripod. (A tourist watching nearby remarked "she's really serious" - Yes that's true! Very difficult lighting conditions with lots of contrast at mid-day and back-light on the mountain. Processed as HDR from three hand-held exposures to deal with the high contrast.

Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Reflection Pond, Denali National Park, Alaska. ISO 400, F/22 at 1/80th sec. Circular polarizing filter. Hand held at ground level. Processed as HDR from three exposures to deal with high contrast. The clouds add an interesting element to this view and the shot is framed differently than above, at 47mm, to capture more of the detail of the mountain range partially shrouded in clouds.

Below is slightly different view of Denali, reflected in a small kettle pond near where the above two images were made. The reflection appears more intimate in this smaller pond.

Denali (Mt. McKinley), reflected in a small kettle pond near Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska.  ISO 400 55mm F/18 1/100. Polarizing filter. Tripod.

Filters: Filters are especially useful and important for photographing reflections. Most important is a polarizing filter, which reduces glare on water, capturing a richer and more clear reflection, and will bring out the saturation of colors in sky and water. Except for the iPhone shot near the top of this post, all the images here were made using a circular polarizing filter. If the sky is much brighter than the land, a split neutral density filter will help reduce the contrast between light sky and dark land, producing a more even effect in the image.

Moon Lake, Moon Lake State Recreation Area, Alaska. A simple lake in the woods, but a dramatic sky and reflection in mid afternoon made for a gorgeous view. ISO 100, 24mm, f/16 at 1/40th sec. on tripod. Circular polarizing filter, 2-stop neutral density filter, processed as pseudo-HDR to bring out the detail in the shadow.

Composition: Look for striking landforms or other compositional elements that can be captured in a reflection. Try to get away from the predictable shot of a reflection in a beautiful lake, taken from a standing position. Small ponds, puddles, or small pools of still water in a stream offer endless and more original possibilities. Try shooting from different angles for different effects. Get down low to capture more of the reflection. Include a foreground element like flowers, grass or rocks in the composition for a feeling of greater depth. Experiment with close-up views of the detail of a reflection. Look for reflections in unexpected places - I have seen dramatic reflection shots in a puddle on a city street after a rain. Below is an image captured in a puddle on a popular trail in Zion National Park. For this image I had to lie on my stomach on the ground in order to get low enough to capture the full reflection.

Pa'rus Trail, Zion National Park, Utah. Capturing this reflection in a rain puddle on the trail required lying prone on the trail with the camera almost at water level. ISO 800, 24mm, f/8, 1/250th sec. Almost any small body of water can create a striking reflection if the reflected image is dramatic. Just get close to the water to magnify the reflection.

Zion east canyon reflection, Zion National Park, Utah. The colorful reflected cliffs on one side of the image, and the pattern of mud on two sides, nicely framed the reflection in this close-up. ISO 500 24mm f/16 1/25. Polarizing filter. Tripod.

Pine Creek, Zion National Park, Utah. When I glimpsed this  pool from the road, I clambered down and across the stream as quickly as possible, to capture the reflection of the setting sun on the mountain above.  ISO 100 15mm f/18 1/16. Polarizing filter. Tripod. Processed as HDR from five exposures due to the high contrast of the scene.

The upside-down mirror view of the mountains and trees in this close-up reflection attracts the attention. Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Shot at dawn, just as the first light struck the grasses by this little pond. ISO 640 90mm f/14 1/100. Polarizing filter. Tripod.

Hiker reflected in pool, Zion east canyon, Zion National Park, Utah.  The sun on the rocks, on the cliff above, and on the hiker, while the pool is in shadow, creates a nice color contrast and enhances the dramatic effect.  ISO 800 15mm F/16 1/100. Polarizing filter. Tripod. 

Wind is your enemy: Ideally, your reflective surface, which is usually water, is completely still. If you find a whole lake that is mirror smooth, take advantage of it immediately - the calm may not last for long. If there is a breeze, look for smaller bodies of water, which are more likely to be still. Look for water that is protected behind trees, rocks, or a log. If a breeze is ruffling the water, sometimes waiting awhile will bring a moment when there is a lull in the wind. 

Amazingly there was no wind when we first arrived at Moon Lake, Alaska, in mid afternoon. The water surface was so still that even a small insect lighting on it, made ripples that affected the reflection. However, the stillness only added a short time before wind ruined the beautiful mirror surface reflection.  ISO 100 24mm F/16 1/15th sec. Circular polarizing filter, 2-stop split neutral density filter, tripod.

Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. We almost passed up this very small pond as it looked from the road more like a mud puddle. But drawing closer, and getting down at a low angle to capture just the more photogenic corner of the pond, resulted in this view. The morning sun was just beginning to touch the trees and grasses around the pond, and the water remained mostly in shadow, while the distant mountains were fully lit by sunlight. The water was completely still in this small, protected piece of water. ISO 640 24mm f/14 1/60. Polarizing filter. Tripod.

Note: Some of the shots posted in this blog were processed from multiple exposures as HDR  (high dynamic range) images, or as "pseudo-HDRs" from a single exposure. This requires a separate software like Photomatix and is beyond the scope of this blog post. Many photographers have posted tips on how to shoot and process HDR images. Trey Ratcliffe offers an excellent, free HDR tutorial.