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photo by AdonisVillanueva via iStock
I don’t know about you, but I love photographing water reflections...
The symmetry that results from a perfect water reflection photo seems so calming to me. Besides, why not double up on the beautiful landscape you’re photographing by creating a mirror-image of it in the reflection?!
There are some challenges to photographing water reflections, however.
In particular, when the sky is bright, you have to figure out how to manage that brightness to prevent an overexposed sky. Additionally, you have to manage the brightness of the reflection of the sky as well.
So the question is, how do you do that?
How to Photograph Water Reflections: The Basics
Photo by garrett parker on Unsplash
There are plenty of simple things you can do to enhance the quality of your reflection photos.
From a timing standpoint, sunrise and sunset are hard to beat, as the rich colors of the sky reflected on the surface of the water can help you create something truly dramatic.
Photo by Anubhav Saxena on Unsplash
From a compositional standpoint, adding foreground interest - rocks, plants, leading lines, and so forth - can help ground the shot and give it more depth.
When thinking about framing, water reflection photos can be enhanced by using a frame within a frame, again, to give the photo more perceived depth. You can also experiment with narrow and wide shots to determine whether a tight or wide frame best suits the subject.
photo by mustafagull via iStock
I’m a big fan of adding people to water reflection shots as well.
Not only does adding a person to the shot help the viewer understand the scale of the scene (thanks to a familiar-sized element in the shot), but it also helps the viewer put themselves in that moment. From a storytelling point of view, adding a person to the image makes the image that much more compelling.
photo by SumikoPhoto via iStock
There are gear considerations to make too.
Typically, when discussing gear you need to photograph water reflections, the first thing you think of is a polarizing filter.
As I explain in this primer on polarizing filters, the benefits derived from using a polarizer include minimizing glare off the surface of the water.
Naturally, when learning how to photograph water reflections, it’s important to eliminate glare so the beauty of the reflection shines through.
But there’s another landscape photography trick - one that you might have never heard of - that can really enhance your ability to photograph water reflections.
Best Way to Photograph Water Reflections: Use Two Graduated ND Filters
photo by slavemotion via iStock
Yep, you read that correctly…
You can use two graduated ND filters to make your water reflection photos that much better.
A common problem you encounter when photographing landscapes is a bright sky. The solution for that is to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky to prevent blown out highlights.
While this works great for landscape photos without a reflection in the foreground, it doesn’t exactly help when photographing reflections because the water will be nearly as bright as the sky.
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
The solution to this problem is simple: use two graduated neutral density filters - one for the sky and another for the reflection.
All you have to do is mount the filters together, one right side up for the sky and the other inverted so the darkened area is on the bottom to bring down the brightness of the reflection.
In this Facebook Live video (at the 23.42 mark), Dr. Kah-Wai Lin explains exactly how this is accomplished.
Because the sky is brighter than its reflection, you need a darker filter, like a NiSi 5-stop graduated ND. Then, reverse-mount a NiSi 3-stop graduated ND in front of that to take care of the brightness of the reflection.
In this case, Dr. Lin recommends using soft-edge graduated ND filters, which makes sense given that the sample image he uses does not have a definite horizon. But, if you’re in a situation in which the horizon is very clear, using hard-edge graduated NDs would be warranted.
And that’s it! This is a simple trick to use, but as you can see in Dr. Lin’s example in the video above, it’s a landscape photography trick that can dramatically improve the quality of your water reflection photos.