A beginner's guide to photographing reflections

A beginner's guide to photographing reflections

Early morning at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Alberta Canada. Photo by Brian Krouskie

5 top tips for taking photos featuring mirror images

Taking truly great photos can be about capturing something unexpected and even downright unbelievable to the viewer. A conceptually very simple way to do that is to photograph your subject with a reflection. There are several ways you can do this. One is to simply photograph your subject with a reflection below it in a lake, a reservoir of a pond. Another way is to photograph only the reflection.

However, what all reflection photography has in common is that opportunities are all around you, all of the time. It takes a keen eye to notice reflections, but there are several ways of working you can learn that will make sure you never pass up the opportunity for an unusual composition that features an unexpected reflection.

Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 The mirror image

We've all seen arresting landscape or urban photography compositions that feature a superb reflection of a powerful foreground image in a body of water. However, it's tough to do precisely because it's hard to find the right mix of foreground image and background image that’s powerful enough. Reflections in photographs also bring symmetry, which is something else you have to consider. Typically you're going to need a tripod to maximise detail in your image, but just as important is your choice of plans. For landscape photography involving reflections, most likely in bodies of water, choose a mid-range zoom lens that will allow you just enough leeway to compose images from afar. A lens that offers 50mm to 100mm reach is a good choice. Keep your aperture below about f/8 and use fast exposures for detail, experimenting with slower exposures to create a more dreamy-looking reflection.

Dawn and the beautiful reflection of the city skyline in the Nerang River. Surfers Paradise Gold Coast Australia. Photo by Mike Andrew

Author tip:

Be sure not to use a polarising filter, which is very common for landscape photography, but whose main job it is to reduce reflections. Make sure you remove it before attempting any reflection photography. 

2 Turn it on its head

One easy thing you can do to a photograph featuring a reflection is to turn it upside down. The very act of changing the orientation and/or cropping your image will leave viewers slightly confused as they slowly realise that the main focus of the composition is actually a mirror image. Although it's a technique most often used for perfect reflections in a mirror-still lake, it’s arguably more effective when there’s a tiny bit of distortion, perhaps from the leftovers from a slight ripple or a slight wind. That helps keep the reflection looking unreal. You can even find ready-made upside-down reflections in a glass of water.

Puddle reflection taken on Brighton seafront. Photo by Ian Marshall

Author tip:

Taking the perfect reflection of a mountain or a building in a body of water obviously means positioning yourself with the water between you and the subject. More importantly, it means shooting on a perfectly still day, which is something that’s hard to predict. It's therefore best done either at the moment's notice when you happen to be at the location, or to plan your shot in advance in a place you can reach quickly from home, or that you pass by regularly. Note that you're most likely to get still water during the morning. 

3 Mirrors, mirrors on the walls

It's not only water that reflects a reverse image that can be useful in compositions. So do shiny surfaces of highly polished metal, plastic or glass. A great place to find mirrored services is in modern architecture, specifically skyscrapers in big cities. You'll also find standard mirrors in many places that can help with unexpected compositions. The most obvious is perhaps the car wing mirror, which are often used by photographers to catch glimpses of people or cars. Ditto the rearview mirror. However, there are other mirrors out there to consider, such as shaving mirrors in bathrooms, which are often curved concave mirrors that show magnified reflected images.

New York Building Reflections. Photo by David Stephenson - f/5.6 | 1/2000s | ISO 100

Author tip:

Everything we see reflects light – that’s how we can see them – but shiny surfaces show a reversed image of whatever is placed in front of them because each ray of light that hits then bounces back the same way it hits the surface. Note that the reflection will always be slightly darker than the subject, so consider using a tripod and the bracketing technique (three images of differing exposures), which will enable you to produce a HDR composite image. 

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4 Water, water, everywhere

Taking photographs across perfectly still lakes, reservoirs and ponds is not easy. In fact, such photographs are likely to be taken by chance rather than on purpose. However, there is a much easier way of accessing still bodies of water. Look at the ground after rain. You'll see puddles on the streets, which are typically irregular shapes and of varying sizes. Get down low to the ground and you will be able to frame shots of buildings with reflections in the puddles in front of you. Typically this is going to be in cities, where it will be tricky and mostly unnecessary to use a tripod. Either way, if you begin to enjoy taking reflection photography keep your camera bag ready at all times and be prepared to head out after rain.

Reflections from Pembroke Street, Cambridge UK. Photo by Doug Wallace

Author tip:

A fabulous time to take reflection photography is at night after rain. While day is best for capturing reflections of buildings in puddles, night will have those puddles capturing any trace of neon lights, street lights and lights from vehicles.

5 Capturing double stars 

Astrophotography is becoming very popular, but few practitioners attempt to capture reflections of the stars. That could partly be because while searching for compositions in the dark, lakes, reservoirs and ponds don't appear to offer much in the way of foreground subjects of interest. However, if the local pond is very still  then, just as in the day, it will provide a canvas for reflections. The technique here is a little different than in the daytime, of course, because you'll have to use a long exposure of up to about 25 seconds, typically using a higher ISO (figure on ISO 800 for crop sensor cameras, but try higher ISOs for full frame cameras) and as wide an aperture as your lens allows (say, f/1.8 or 2.8). A tripod is essential for this shot.

An interesting addition to a night sky reflection composition is a bright planet, preferably Jupiter or Venus. If you can get either one of those planets into your shot you're likely to get a distinct “planet shine” effect. If they are low on the horizon then it’s possible to capture this surprisingly intense “planet-shine” on water – even the ocean.

The night Sky over Lake Hawera, Queenstown, NZ. Photo by Anupam Hatui

Author tip:

Venus is often low in the sky and Jupiter is low in the east after sunset close to its annual opposition (November 2023, December 2024, January 2025 – the 12-year pattern is simple). Use free planetarium software like Stellarium to check or the PhotoPills app to see rise/set times. For “planet-shine” you'll need to point your camera to the southeast after sunset or to the southwest before sunrise.