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Reflections on Reflections

Reflections on water always look so photogenic. But that doesn't mean they are always easy to photograph.

Many years ago, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I took my first drive down to photograph Mt. Rainier. I drove the whole loop through Paradise Valley of course, stopping for a quick lunch, back when the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise was the round, squat, spaceship-looking building that dated from the 1960's. The more energy efficient, traditionally shaped Visitor Center with a pitched room opened to replace it in 2008, but that original Visitor Center is still there in many years' worth of my early Rainier memories.

Another stop on that first Rainier trip that sticks in my memory is Reflection Lakes, situated further on down the park road as it winds down from Paradise. Arriving there in mid-afternoon, I found a pleasant enough mountain lake with the peak of Rainier situated behind and above it. What I didn't find that day was any indication of why that lake was given the Reflection Lakes name. There was a lake, and there was a mountain, but no reflection of any significant merit could be found. I dutifully toke several photos (on film back then) of the view. After all, it was pretty enough as it was, even if the "reflection" moniker seemed a bit of a fanciful dream of someone's imagination back when park landmarks were being named.

Of course, Reflection Lakes does have a very nice reflection on its surface if you're there at the right time. Even a light breeze can be enough to ripple the surface of the lake enough to obscure it, but the view of Mt. Rainier reflected in the (aptly named) Reflection Lakes does exist when the conditions are just right.

Mt. Rainier reflected in Reflection LakesThis is a generalization, but I've found the best chance for good reflections is near dawn. Even if there has been a slight breeze at night, it often settles down close to sunrise. A similar situation can less frequently occur around sunset or even mid-day if the weather cooperates and if you are patient enough. During mid-day, convection currents caused by evaporation over warming water and vegetation can frequently cause a breeze. Some days, no amount of waiting will help, but other days can work, if you have the time and the patience to wait for a lull in the wind. In such cases, I'll set the camera up for what seems like a good shot, tinkering with the composition whenever the reflection improves enough to do so. If I get this far, I'll usually snap off at least a few shots. That may really be the best I'll be able to get. If the wind dies down more, I can always shoot more.

You can sometimes find reflections close to shore when the middle of the lake is covered in ripples. The energy of those waves builds as they travel across the lake, just as they do in the ocean, but you know, in much smaller scale. If you take note of the wind direction, you can sometimes find even better prospects near the upwind shore, where the waves are just forming. All this assumes you can still see the reflection from there, of course. As you walk around, the reflection moves too.

Most photographers know that a polarizer can help to reduce or remove reflections, but not all have tried using one for the opposite purpose, to enhance the intensity of a reflection. As you look at a reflection through a polarizer filter while rotating it, there is a point where a that reflection is at its minimum intensity, and a point where it is at its most visible. Keep in mind that polarizers work best when the light source is at right angles to the direction you are facing. If the light (the sun in our examples here) is behind you or directly in front, you may see little to no effect as you rotate the polarizer. I'll usually take my polarizer out and give it a spin even before mounting it to a lens, just to see if it makes any difference. If it helps, and I can live with the stops it will cost me in exposure and shutter speed, then I want to use it. If it's more of a hindrance than a help, I'll put it away and go without. Either way, it cost me little to at least find out.

A reflection will invariably be darker than the object being reflected. That stands to reason since at least some of the light striking the surface will be absorbed and not reflected. The surface of a lake may work like a mirror, but not a perfect one. This can often create exposure challenges, with either the mountain getting burned out (especially one like Rainier that is perpetually covered in bright white snow and ice), or the lake reflection being lost in shadows. Traditionally, photographers used graduated neutral density (GND) filters to equalize exposure across the frame, but these days its increasingly more common to use some form of digital blending to combine multiple shots at different shutter speeds. Whatever you do, don't even out the exposure too much. It's a dead giveaway that an image has been edited if the reflection and the real object are the same exposure. Not everyone may notice, but experienced photographers and some others may.

Compositionally, reflections offer numerous possibilities. If the reflection warrants, you can fill the screen with the classic shot of reality above and reflection below, splitting the frame in half horizontally. This is one situation where its perfectly acceptable to position the horizon in the middle of the frame. Or you can back off with a wider lens and include the entire pond or lake in the foreground, surrounded by shore on all sides. Or you can zoom in close and look for details, even to the point of cropping out everything but the reflection. Photographs that show just reflection can appear impressionistic, almost as if they came from a painter's brush and canvas instead of a camera.

As with all elusive subjects, not every attempt to photograph a reflection will yield a great shot. A clear lake reflection that shows the detail of what lies on the opposite shore is a different thing altogether than one that reveals only the vaguest outlines, rendering its subject as a mere play of light and shadow. Sometimes, you may have to settle for figuring out that a good shot is possible from that spot under better conditions. You can add the location details to the itinerary for your next trip to the area.

Unlike the old, round Jackson Visitor Center at Mt. Rainier, Reflection Lakes with its real but elusive reflection of the peak should be at Mt. Rainier National Park for some time to come. Regardless of how many times I visit the area, I rarely miss the chance to visit Reflection Lakes. I have no doubt I will stop there on future trips as well. When conditions are just right, the reflection is glorious. Tipsoo Lake, near the park's eastern border is equally worth a stop for its reflections of the mountain. On my travels, I've grown to have favorites in other places too. Hopefully you have some favorite reflection locations of your own. If not, I urge you to find some.

Sometimes, reflections can jump out at you seemingly from nowhere, if you have your eye out. As you hike along with your camera with some notable vista is on the horizon, even a small puddle may be all you need to shoot it as a reflection. Puddles and ponds don't really have a fixed size when you're using their surface as a reflecting mirror. What matters is what you can see in their surface. As you move closer to the surface, your angle of view in the reflection grows ever wider. Your distance to the reflection surface can be thought of as akin to your camera's focal length. Shorter distances mean wider views. You get to decide how much of the frame you want the reflection to fill.

Granted, getting closer may reveal just how downright dirty the mud is on the banks of that puddle. In such cases, you may be able to hide the distraction with an intervening bush or leaf, or by cropping out the near shore completely. Of course, if the water itself is too dirty, you may need to give up on that puddle and hope for more favorable subject matter at your next stop. It's only a puddle, and there will hopefully be more ahead.

Indeed, the prospects for future reflection potential seems quite high indeed. If you are up for the challenge.

Date posted: August 12, 2018


Copyright © 2018 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Essential Filters: Polarizers
The Secrets of Photographing Water
The Horizon Line

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