“Through this photographic eye you will be able to look out on a new light-world, a world for the most part uncharted and unexplored, a world that lies waiting to be discovered and revealed.” Edward Weston
Yesterday in Spain
Last weekend we arrived in southern Spain. We have settled in a little town on the beach for a while. Travelling with my family has turned out to be nothing like what I thought it would be.
I thought that at this point we’d be running through the jungles of Costa Rica or something like that. But my kids have strongly requested that we stay in Europe to be with some other travelling families – and this little area is a total hub for families who are travelling and worldschooling as we are doing.
Apparently I am not totally in charge 🙂 Maybe I’m not in charge at all.
(Worldschooling sounds pretty cool, but it’s just the term for educating your kids while you travel.)
And you’ll probably relate to this: if the kids are happy (and my wife) then I’m happy.
It’s nice to have sunshine and sea air, and I’m looking forward to exploring the beautiful mountain towns and photographing the sea, and whatever cool wonders I can find.
Today I have some good tips and a challenge focused on one of my favourite things to photograph – reflections!
Reflections are everywhere – in bodies of water, on shiny surfaces, in windows. Once you cast your eyes around, they will be everywhere.
Reflections are intriguing to me – they can bring all kinds of interesting feelings and elements into your images; like abstraction, intrigue, mystery and beautiful patterns. Let’s get to it!
Reflections on water
“I love to watch the movement of light on water, and I love to play in rivers and lakes, swimming or canoeing. I am fascinated by people who work with water – fishermen, boatmen – and by a way of life that is dominated by water.” Berlie Doherty
Water changes everything that’s reflected in it and it influences everything that it comes into contact with. And to be surrounded by mist and sea air when taking photos is reviving.
Sometimes reflections can be very straight forward. Still water will be like a mirror and reflect back what is around you in detail.
Tip: I like to find to good clear patch with minimum amounts of things floating in the water in order to enhance the mirror effect. If there is algae or just bits bobbing on the water it can distract attention and that is not what I want. I want all eyes on what I see!
When using compositional tools and techniques like this you have to make them your own. They are a starting point. Then you add your own elements, play around with them, see what else you can do with them.
Here’s one of my ‘morning in the city’ reflections, in Paris.
This is a common type of shot for me, because most major cities – old ones at least – have a river or are set by the ocean. So you’ll see such city scenes reappearing in my work.
Tip: Take advantage of low ambient and use artificial lighting to create depth in your reflections.
What’s wonderful is that at dawn on many rivers you get the opportunity to shoot the water in its stillness, and consequently you get very clear, very sharp reflections.
Now this shot in Venice, below, is a more subtle reflection – the light of pre-dawn and the lovely atmospheric street lamps in this gorgeous city. But to give it a little more dimension, a little more intrigue, look at the reflections. They create a wonderful symmetry.
Can you see how that very still water is like a mirror? How the small reflections give dimension and depth to the image?
I think the very still water immediately gives a sense of quiet and the peace at dawn.
Of course it doesn’t just have to be rivers or sea; rain on roads and surfaces is also very cool.
I also like to use water in a more abstract sense, using its movement and the elements around it to appear more playful.
What does this photo below look like to you? (Lots of bit and bobs on the water on this one!) For me, the water has given this steely, immovable structure a very fun sense of movement. Only water could do that!
The elements here are simple. The colour of the tower is so cold, but in the water it looks joyful almost, surrounded by that deep ocean of blue. It’s a dancing smoke stack!
Now, one of my favourite things to do with calmly rippling water is to use it to capture reflected light off colourful surroundings. It’s become an ongoing project for me – not an original idea but I feel I’m doing some very beautiful stuff. It will be a stunning printed portfolio eventually.
Here are some of my recent favourites:
It’s all about using the water ripples to play with the surrounding colours and create its own shapes and textures.
Have what you want reflected to be 180 degrees from where you will be taking the shot. This puts the colours on the water.
Try different levels and angles.
The fun part for me is just looking and looking while moving around until an image strikes me. Boom!
These types of photos usually end up looking like abstract paintings which, I feel, is a true compliment for a photo.
Tip: Use your post-processing skills to play with saturation and contrast to really give them some punch. A bit of clarity is nice too.
Now in this one below, I have used the strong block colours of a nearby building:
You’ll notice the droplets too – I timed the water drop ripples, which was a really great idea. It adds a lot to the photo by breaking up the greater pattern.
In the photograph below we can see light reflected water in a more straightforward way by making it part of a scene:
Can you see here how the pink light really reveals the textures of the water? It’s incredible to see that.
How else would the character and feeling of the water be revealed if not in the reflection?
Remember water is always acting as a dynamic mirror and is in touch with everything around it. It is like it is visually conscious or something. It’s alive!
Now let’s jump over to some other types of reflections.
Reflections in glass
This is a pretty standard reflection. What do you think?
Better with the person?
That adds a little humour to the image, I think. I camped out for 30 minutes waiting for and timing shots, ending up with around 20 interesting ones.
Walking around cities you will find plenty of opportunities to spy some potential shots in panes of glass.
I think they are most interesting when they are at eye level and not up above me, but maybe you feel differently??
Then we have some really clean reflections:
The above photo has very simple, clean elements. A near perfect mirror effect with the added bonus of wavy lines. Woop!
Another one that is all about reflections and shapes. This kind of shot works much better with loads of stormy clouds and dynamic weather. Blue sky just kills this image.
Now for some more abstraction:
I grabbed this shot one morning. It’s a shop window with some kind of window dressing (always makes me think of Mars) and I caught a portrait.
Tip: I had to quickly use manual focus because I didn’t trust my camera not to focus on the window instead of my subject. I really like it due to its abstract nature and that it was not an easy shot to notice.
“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” Picasso
This shot above seems so eerie to me. You aren’t quite sure what it is, until you look much closer.
These abstract images don’t need to make sense, but the elements are somehow working together. There should be some sense, some clarity, to what you are photographing. You don’t want it to be a giant mess.
Reflections to create symmetry
This shot above – a very, very old one of mine – is a typical reflection shot, one where you are shooting the subject straight on and therefore the reflection makes a symmetrical pattern in the water.
Above is a very classic reflection shot. Using water on the street ,would you believe.
The water creates a symmetry with a building that is already dense with patterns. Now, if that band of colourful chairs wasn’t there – and how convenient that they laid them out in first yellow, then purple – this would be a very boring shot.
Don’t you think?
Symmetry and patterns are awesome – but I often like it when there is another element within the images that brings some imperfection, something else, into the image. Makes it all the more human!
And I think we humans like a little imperfection in our world 🙂
Below I am using a very strong, singular element that already has some cool repetitive elements – the lights, the arches – and using the reflection to add more repetition, and therefore more patterns.
I came at this shot above at an angle, not shooting it straight on. I picked my position carefully, usually trying out a few different angles, but this was pretty awesome because it gives a strong line, some pleasing patterns – and it’s not an obvious shot.
Reflections of Light
Light can be reflected onto all kinds of different surfaces. Look at these two – both lights reflected onto a wet pavement. Great effect.
So even when you don’t have a super reflective surface you can still find reflections. In this case – reflected light…and it’s full of colour!
I have featured some of my favourite ways to photograph reflections, but there are many other ways we can use reflections in our images – and I’d love to see yours.
So I am setting another photo challenge for this! And it was awesome seeing so many people’s images in the last challenge. (Plus there is a cool prize for my favourite image.)
At the end of the challenge period I am going to be doing a live webinar all about my favourite images that you submit – plus giving a whole bunch of tips and techniques.
Here in London the rains have come and autumn has truly pushed summer away. It’s my son’s favourite time of year, increasingly cold and dark days, time to be cosy at home. I must say the cold and the rain are severely testing for me. And so I have to constantly remind myself of what can be found out there in the weather that I instinctively reject. I have to work harder finding the things are that inspiring when it’s grey. I don’t mind the cold; in fact if the light is good, a cold day can be magnificent (any day when the light is good is magnificent.)
BTW – the rains HAD come when I started writing this post which, as you can tell if you are in London, takes me a long time to get together. We are now in the middle of an Indian Summer it seems, but I was too excited about this post about reflections to shelve it, so let’s pretend it’s raining OK?
But what the rains bring to mind the most is…reflections. Where there is water there are reflections. Of course we have other types of reflections too. I will explore as many reflections as my photographs will show, and that is what I want to discuss today.
Because reflections are fun! To me they say – I am playing! And after my recent heavy posts of – get your butt of your couch and get photographing! – I thought it was time for some fun.
So here are some ideas on why I think reflections are so awesome – and some of the myriad of things reflections will do for your photos.
The next six photos are all of things are of things I saw when looking down. When walking around and taking photos, many people don’t look up but even fewer people look down. Basically – you need to look everywhere.
This photo sums up London for me – rain, dirty pavements, a wandering and slightly deformed pigeon – and the promise of mind-bending fun in the form of garish, crazy colours.
This pigeon and I had a lot of fun together:
Until it wandered off, and I was left with just the floor.
See how much fun you can have with a reflections! And we have barely started….
Playing with light
My favourite thing, light. So here is a simple light reflection (simple always the hardest, right?)
Look at how the water becomes just a texture. An undulating texture. By being narrow and cutting it out of the context of what it’s really made of. It’s like staring at your hand for ages and becoming totally tripped out on the texture of your skin, the bones beneath it, the blood… Focusing on the details do crazy things to your eyes, so photograph them!
Let us all remember that it doesn’t require big light, dramatic weather events, to play with reflections. Very subtle light, very small events can create interesting photos.
Another opportunity to drill that point in: the simple illumination of the human footprint by some (artificial) light.
I like that reflections can trick the eye and create really abstract images. Here I’ve just got a couple of elements – the shapes, the texture of the background with its holes and the look – of confusion? sadness? – on the man’s face.
So this is a different kind of abstraction in the sense that you can totally see what it is, but I’ve broken down the scene into elements, which move it into the world of the abstract.
One thing about taking things smaller is that I would say everyone can take a photo of a beautiful or interesting scene. Come across a sunset over a valley or a epic cloudy sky over a row of houses: we are good at that. But when I ask people to refine the scale of their beauty, find beauty or something really interesting in a smaller area, then people tend to struggle. It’s not going quite down to single element shots – like taking a photo of a funny looking dog or a nice looking flower. It is somewhere in between – so maybe a door frame, a wall and a human walking past. That sort of scale.
Remember to move and always be asking yourself what’s my angle here?
“Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah-ha’.” Ernst Haas
So let’s look at the photo below. I think most people would have done this photo more of a dead centre, straight reflection. I think playing with your angle can create some really fun results. I like that the reflection looks like it was ripped out of a magazine. Or maybe it’s a subterranean world??
Reflections on glass
I love a big shiny glass building! This is where you can really go to town with reflections. Especially when the sun is low in the sky and reflecting more directly, almost dancing, on the building (this is generally early mornings, evenings and most of winter if you’re somewhere like England)
I love playing with shapes, creating disorder where before there was order. Here we’ve got that great contrast of strong diagonal lines made weaker by the chaotic, persistent bursts of the lights. And in there somewhere is a lady. I am a bit freaked out by this photo, but it intrigues me all the same, so thought you’d like to see it.
You can use a subtle reflection to create the sensation of depth, the feeling of something going on below. Can you see how without it the photo below would be quite flat? There wouldn’t be enough contrasting elements within the photo to make it pop?
In the photo below – I think the subtle reflection is creating a depth to the photo which is what makes it work overall. But the reflection is also reinforcing the interestingness of the original elements. Look at those windows! Look at that odd looking door! And the brick coming through the plaster. And to top it off you have a great street name, worn like the rest of the scene. The cherry on top is the lady walking quickly – it adds a little modernity, a little energy which goes against the old, crumbling Venice architecture.
Great photos are often great because there are two or three good elements playing together. If I see one really interesting element (for me the windows and door would be enough to stop and look around), I’ll look around for something else. Maybe something that reinforces that element (the door, the windows and the sign, yes!) And then hope for something contrasting or different to add something else to the photo (above, of course, the movement AND the rainy reflection.)
That’s when you are taking your photos to another level, when you can start to bring together multiple elements to do something interesting together. Could you say it’s like adding a really amazing sauce to a really good steak (and maybe a really good glass of red wine too?) All really good elements on their own but together – but wow, together, they make your eye/palette jump for joy.
What do you think of the elements I’ve chosen in this photo?
What enhances or detracts? Is there a reason for all of the elements? I think having a look at photos that are good but not amazing is also a great training for the eye. I think this photo has some interesting qualities – but what could have been better? More interesting?
Easy way to create a new perspective
I thought this was a fun photo, and an interesting way to show how reflections can give you an opportunity to photograph something really iconic, but in a different way.
After all that abstraction and interestingness, I would also like to say I also love a good, straight reflection. I do. Very pleasing to the eye. When bodies of water are very still (usually in the night or early early in the morning), when there is no wind rippling the surface or humans interfering with it, you have a perfect surface for very symmetrical and striking reflections. I like that you are creating something strong and ordered in our otherwise chaotic world.
I like what reflections say about the subject. For example, in Paris one beautiful dawn morning I shot this by Canal St Martin.
Paris is a very ordered city I would say. It was rebuilt by Haussmann in the 1850’s. And although I initially felt it was too samey, when you embrace the order of the city it can create something really special.
The history of Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris is super fascinating (here is a 3 minute film explaining the renovation, and look here for a written history. And if you are into Paris the book Parisians is really good. It’s a fun collection of stories about odd things you never knew about the city, like the fact there are hundreds of tunnels and mines under the city that have created tons of sinkholes over the past few hundred years).
In contrast – Istanbul is not what you’d call an ordered city and so the reflection can be used to create order from that more wild side of humanity.
You see how soothing to the eye the reflection of symmetry is, especially when it’s of something super symmetrical?
I had to put this photo – above – in because my daughter said it was her favourite photo ever. I hope that really is ever, and not just of mine. How is this for a reflection, applying it to an insane degree?! (I like that the water is not quite clean, you’ll see at the bottom there is some kind of pink tissue. For those of you who would encourage me to Photoshop this out, I say no. I like to have a bit of human incongruity in my photos. I have a photo where a tiny slit of cloud looks like a bit of dirt, but I refuse to take it out. Imperfection is more compelling that total perfection. Says I. Perfection looks like a computer, not a human.)
OK – so wow, that was a lot on reflections, and I have barely scratched the surface of my reflection archives. I would LOVE to hear if you are a reflection lover – comment below.
And – I am really happy to have heard from some of you with your five best photos from this year. Please carry on sending them in (to firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ll be putting together a gallery of my favourite submissions at the end of November. So be brave, review your photos from this year with a hawk like gaze and send me your very best.