For many people, myself included, landscape photography is borne from a love of the natural world and is usually combined with a drive to explore the world as far and as wide as possible. As a result, social media platforms are replete with attempts at unique interpretations of increasingly familiar subjects ranging from Icelandic waterfalls and Japanese lakes to North American canyons and Scottish mountains. Don’t get me wrong; these images are, more often than not, a pleasure to see and I would never turn up the opportunity of having a go myself; take below as an example of my complicity.
But, with this bombardment of epic images, it is easy to forget that a more localised outlook on photography, where the context of “place” is removed, can also offer up opportunities. This truth was brought home to me recently when I found myself living in a small, dull town near Paris, France. With no access to a car and no disposable income to speak of, I resigned myself to a photographic-free year.
Luckily, the demands of dog-walking still had me out and about and I soon discovered a small nature reserve very close to my home. The reserve features a series of ponds (probably man-made) fed by a river that runs along its western boundary. Initial explorations, dog in tow, were a little disappointing as the woodland around the ponds is fairly young and quite scrappy, whilst the ponds are difficult to access due to thick vegetation on most of their banks.
Finding specific subjects to photograph proved difficult and my initial excitement at finding the site began to diminish. Then it occurred to me that maybe such a low-impact site might be better suited to a more thematic approach to photography; one not dependent on subjects per se but that, instead, seeks to capture the essence of the area. Thinking about what the reserve had to offer, the choice seemed obvious and, so, I began regularly walking the reserve in search of examples of the interplay between land and water; more commonly referred to as reflections.
One of the distinct advantages of photographing locally is the ability to regularly revisit a location, at varying times of day (or night) to discover and uncover its hidden subjects. Similarly, taking a thematic approach to photography encourages experimentation with how we use the camera to best represent the theme. This, in turn, leads to growth in both your technical abilities and, perhaps more importantly, your creative initiative. So, here’s what I have learned, over the past six months, about photographing reflections.
Firstly, a quick word on equipment. A circular polariser is vital as it offers some degree of control over how the camera “sees” the water. As well as removing any glare on the waters’ surfaces, it can enhance a reflection by adding contrast and depth. In situations where a wide-angle view is being photographed, it may be necessary to use a graduated filter to help balance the exposure between sky and water (the sky is typically brighter than its’ reflected counterpart), keeping the viewer's attention with the reflection. Neutral-density filters (and, therefore, a tripod) can also be useful and I will speak more about this a little further down the page.
Composition is, obviously, important and, traditionally, the transition line (effectively, a horizon-line) between the reflection and the subject is placed dead centre in the frame, to emphasise that “mirror” effect. However, I have often found that by pushing the line-up, so that more of the water is visible, a sense of depth can be added to the image.
A higher “horizon-line” gives a more defined sense of depth as if the viewer is moving through the water to the opposite bank, whilst a 2-stop medium-edge filter darkens the sky and lightens the shadows
It is this mirror effect that most reflection images seek to record but this requires near-perfect conditions as the slightest wind will disturb the waters’ surface, resulting in an uneven and “broken” reflection. This can be countered by slowing down the shutter speed, with the use of a neutral-density filter, “smoothing” out the water and making the reflection more stable (with a long-enough exposure, it will also remove distractions, such as floating leaves, from the water). However, be aware that it will also give you blurred foliage as any trees in the picture are moved by the wind. It all depends how much emphasis you want on the reflection itself.
For a “mirror image” reflection, there must be no wind to disturb the surface of the water (above). When wind can’t be avoided, slowing down the shutter speed will “fix” the reflections but, of course, the leaves of the trees will blur (below).
When looking for specific subjects, there are a few things that can help an image. Stretches along the water's edge with distinct points of interest, such as a spot of colourful foliage, can add interest and depth. Here, the bright orange cluster of leaves to the left is balanced by the yellow-leaved silver birch on the right; together, these spots of colour add interest to the image.
Distinct features, such as spots of colour, can be used to add interest to a reflective image
Of course, the exact opposite approach can have equally stunning results; adding to the monochromatic effect presented by a line of trees in full late summer foliage, a well-placed reflection can create an impenetrable wall of green.
A wall of green, interlaced with the vertical white lines
Perhaps the most compelling abstract images use patterns in nature to create something unusual and, therefore, striking. This is where reflections can really come into their own. Where, for example, a tree has fallen and lies half-submerged in the water, some incredible geometric patterns can be formed.
A cluster of dead-wood, half-submerged, reflects a complex geometric pattern for an abstract interpretation of the woodland
As with woodland photography generally, mist can really help cut out some of the inherent chaos that typically dominates a woodland scene. By simplifying the image, a thick mist can emphasise the subject whilst adding drama.
An early morning, thick mist separates this tree-covered island from the tree-lined bank behind it
Similarly, the soft light of a low sun, either at the start or the end of the day, helps to reduce contrast in the image which otherwise may distract from the subject; the relationship between the world and its reflection.
The soft, golden light of an early morning helps simplify a complex scene, allowing the subject to dominate
Without a doubt, my passion for photography is borne from a love for, and fascination with the natural world. It has also shaped my professional life as a conservation biologist. Working for various international NGOs has taken me to some fascinating and beautiful parts of the world and, when I started on this path, it seemed only natural to try and capture some of this beauty. Photography was an obvious format to use and so, about twenty years ago, I bought a Canon EOS 300 camera (a film camera which I still have but, sadly, no longer use) and began trying to translate the world around me onto film.
I stuck with that camera for about 10 years and there is a cupboard in my parent’s house that is full of old slides and negatives. However, when I met some photographers (far better than me) in Malaysia, I was persuaded to go digital and so, sticking with Canon, I bought a 50D and a 100-400mm lens. Since then, I have upgraded to a 6D (which was stolen last year from the base-camp on Mount Kazbeg, in Georgia) and then, about a year ago, to the impressive (but pricey) 5D Mark IV. Most of the images here were taken in the mountainous region of the Caucasus where I lived and worked for eight years.
Currently, I find myself taking some time-out from work in order to build a portfolio and evolve my photography skills. This hiatus from a regular income cannot last forever (or, indeed, much longer) and I am looking for ways to bring photography into my professional life in a more formal way; a way for my photographs to become a tool for helping biodiversity conservation. Any suggestions are welcomed.