Photographing Water in the Landscape – Reflections

Posted by on June 13, 2012

Snowdon Horseshoe reflection, Llynnau Mymbyr

Snowdon Horseshoe Reflection, Llynnau Mymbyr


Fast flowing rivers and tumbling waterfalls are not the only inland water features that can make a decent landscape photograph. Slow moving shallow streams, canals, lakes and reservoirs all provide great subjects, particularly on still days when reflections come into play. When your subject is illuminated by direct sunlight, the best reflections tend to occur when the sun is low in the sky, so we’re back to sunrise and sunset shooting in most cases. A mirror-like reflection can be appealing, but I don’t worry if a little wind picks up and ruffles the surface of the water, as the softened reflection often works better than the more “chocolate-box” approach. A fairly long exposure can also be effective in smoothing out the reflection a little, and I find this is generally the scenario as I’ll be stopping the lens right down to achieve maximum depth of field, especially where I have something in the foreground, such as reeds or grasses at the water’s edge, which I want to keep in sharp focus. However, reflections can also work well in the diffused light on an overcast day, which is just as well, as this tends to be in plentiful supply during the British summer! This was certainly the case when I found myself on a narrowboat, drifting through the Shropshire countryside one summer, through what seemed like endless drizzle. Photographing canal bridges (pretty though they are) became a little tedious after a dozen or so, so I was pleased when we moored up not far from Ellesmere, in the Shropshire Lake District to find the delightful Colemere a short walk from the towpath. The drizzle had stopped, and the surface of the water was perfectly still making great reflections, but mainly of summer green trees which weren’t too exciting, until I spotted a dead tree on the opposite bank to add a little interest to the reflection and some water lilies near the shore which made a decent foreground for a vertical composition, which I was quite pleased with given the circumstances. Metering can be tricky with reflections, and even here, in flat lighting and with the sky excluded from the shot, I had to take care with my exposure to avoid any burnt out hotspots in the reflection. I just let the evaluative metering in the camera do its thing, but checked the histogram carefully to make sure that the highlights weren’t clipped, and used a bit of exposure compensation where necessary.

Reflection, Hebden Water

Reflection, Hebden Water

Fewston Reflections

Fewston Reservoir Reflections















I think what I liked about the Colemere image the most was the fact that the foreground lilies start to interact with and break up the reflection, which hints towards another approach to photographing reflections – just photograph the reflection itself, without the reflected object. This can work well with sunlit buildings in cities reflected in rippling river water, but in the landscape I like to try to combine the reflection with something else, to produce a more abstract image. When photographing Hebden Water at Hardcastle Crags a while ago I liked the rocks jutting out near the bank, and the fact that I could see the riverbed through the shallow water, so wanted to make an image of those. At first the reflected trees seemed like a distraction, but I changed viewpoint to work them into the composition. The result is a far cry from the formula mountain reflected in a mirror-like lake shot, but in many ways I prefer the ambiguity of this sort of reflection image.

Reflected Sky, River Severn

Reflected Sky, River Severn


Using filters

Polarising filters are generally used to cut reflections, but it may be worth giving one a try as by reducing glare and maybe darkening down a blue sky a bit it can help. An ND grad is probably the most useful filter to consider when shooting a reflection, particularly where the sky is involved in the image and the main subject is very bright. Using the grad over the sky and main subject will allow the reflection to be well-exposed without overexposing the sky.

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