Reflections are one of my favorite things to photograph.
The above photograph is one of the first photos I took that prodded me down this path of exploring the artistic possibilities in reflection. I was stopped along a road trying to figure a creative way to shoot the nice golden light coming from the setting sun. The shot started off as a standard sunset shot over water, but at a certain point I realized that if I filled the frame with the puddle and flipped it, it would give the effect of the reflection being right side up and looking clear, but deteriorating, so to speak, into just the edge of the puddle, closer to the camera at the top of the frame.
I liked the effect. It was surreal and pleasant to look at. It wasn’t too far out there that one couldn’t figure it out with some thought, but a unique enough perspective that it gave the viewer pause.
It’s worth noting, actually, that every single bit of photography is reflections. Photography can be thought of as the end of a journey of countless photons. From the sun or from some artificial light source, photons travel and are reflected. They bounce off and pass through various things and end up hitting a silver halide crystal or a charge coupled device and leaving some physical mark or affecting some circuit in a sensible manner. The end result is a photo, but the process of photography is, fundamentally, recording how light bounced off of and passed through things.
The study of how light bounces off this and that, creating values, hues, tones, textures and really everything we see falls under the purview of physics more than art, but it’s useful to remember that every surface is reflective to some degree. Some surfaces become more reflective or produce a clearer image based on the angle you shoot them at, some surfaces only become reflective under certain lighting conditions. Remembering this and looking for it in the world can be an enriching experience and a boon to your photography.
Ever since the puddle shot was taken in November of 2011, I’ve found a variety of purposes for reflections. Whether it’s finding them naturally in the world, “encouraging” them, or simply bringing my own mirrors to a scene or in the studio, I’ve enjoyed exploring the creative potential of reflections in photography for the past two years. Below are some of the uses I’ve found along with my own pictures serving as examples to go with them.
Accenting the subject
This should be the most familiar and simple use of reflections to any viewer. Anything shot over placid water will feature a reflection, simply put. With control of where the camera is in relation to the water or the reflective surface, the size of the subject in the reflection can be controlled. Similarly, the focal length and subsequent angle of view will have a great effect on the appearance of the subject in the reflection. Take care and pay as much (if not more) to the reflected image of the subject as the subject itself.
“Amplify” available light
Every now and then I get the strong itch to do night photography. The challenge and unique opportunities of shooting at night are incredibly fun in their own right, and I’ll probably write more about them soon. But it’s useful to bring up in this discussion the fact that, if a light source is reflected, you now in essence have two sources of light. Seems simple enough, but when it comes to filling up the frame with whatever tiny bit of light there is, it’s useful to remember. Be it shooting a light near a reflective surface in order to spread out the light in the frame or finding a wet surface in order to light an otherwise dark area, the need to find reflective more reflective surfaces increases as the amount of ambient light goes down.
Distortion of subject
One of my favorite applications of the idea of reflections is finding contrast between placid and running water and filling up the frame with a subject on the other side. The effect is a surreal one, especially when the subject itself is not visible. The key to accomplishing this effect well is to remove as many distractions as possible, or leave just enough in to really draw in the viewer and make them wonder what’s going on. One of the best examples of this, I think, is the above photo of the line of houses. There are sticks here and there dotting out of the pond I shot the photo into, and the sky fades to black incredibly quickly as the darker edges of the pond nearer to my camera lose their reflective quality.
Creation of symmetry/ abstraction
Another one of my favorite applications of reflections it their use as a line of symmetry for very abstract looking compositions. The key to achieving this effect is getting as close as possible to the reflective surface and balancing the composition on both sides. If it were possible, the ideal arrangement would actually be to have your camera flush with the water or mirror or whatever you’re using. However since this is not possible, the best way to achieve symmetry is to place the camera as close as is safely possible to the reflective surface.
Another benefit of this is, because the composition should be very balanced and symmetrical, you have a fair amount of discretion to rotate the composition. This further adds to the “abstract” quality of photos such as this, essentially breaking a photograph down into the elements of design rather than a literal portrayal of something in the world. The skill of photography and specifically visualization is being able to find these objects and the reflective surfaces in the world and then visualizing the final, abstract image composed from literal objects in the world.
Framing of the subject
I’ve found this to be an especially helpful technique in cities with glass faced buildings. Really, any reflective surface in a city is very helpful to move buildings around, so to speak. While there’s only so much you can do in terms of framing massive buildings in each other, it’s fun to explore the possibilities in a city with framing and creating sometimes surreal and interesting effects.
Other: Have fun!
While all of the previous examples are some of the most frequent and useful ways I’ve employed reflections, there are endless ways in which reflections can be used creatively. Occasionally I’ve taken mirrors with me out into nature and played around with their arrangement. Mirrors used in the studio can be further used for a variety of purposes and interesting effects. Reflections can stretch out your understanding of light and how it interacts with surfaces. Careful study of and practice with these concepts can lead to a greater control over creative photography and, simply, can be a lot of fun.