Water reflection photography tips

By Geoff Harris

Now we are (mostly) able to travel freely again, at least in our home countries, it’s a great time to brush up those landscape photography skills. Why not book your place on Michael Freeman's Photography Foundation course and learn how you can create distinctive, meaningful images.

How to photograph water is an important part of this creative repertoire; key skills include reducing glare on water and deepening reflections, and how best to include reflections generally.

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Including reflections in landscapes

Even though this image was taken on quite a dull and overcast day, the reflection of the lone tree adds visual interest. To get the attractive reeds in the foreground, which help to draw the eye towards the tree, I used a wide angle lens (18mm) and a relatively deep depth of field via a narrower aperture. The focus point was also set on the tree.

In Adobe Camera Raw I boosted the texture and contrast, which further helped to keep everything nice and crisp. The scene also works well in black and white, but this time I switched to portrait format.

Dealing with glare

As the day was overcast, glare on the water was not so much of a problem but when shooting in sunny or partially overcast conditions this is likely to be more of an issue.

While you can fix haze and glare to a certain extent using the excellent Dehaze tool in Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom, not everybody has access to these tools, or wants to sit in front of the computer.

A better solution if you regularly shoot landscapes with water is to use a circular polarising filter. These are screw on polarisers, which, like sunglasses, help to reduce glare, reflections and haze.

If the mention of filters evokes images of fiddly, annoying glass squares and clanking filter holders, relax – circular polarisers screw on to your lens and you simply turn them to increase or reduce the polarising effect. You can see the radical effect they have in the image of algae on water below – they retrieve a lot of detail and boost contrast.

Before
After

Some photographers leave them on all the time as the amount of polarising can easily be adjusted, and they can provide a useful extra layer of protection for your lens (if you are anything like me, losing lens caps is annoying easy).

Circular polarisers are cheap too: I picked up a basic K&F Concept one in the Amazon Prime Day sale for just over a tenner, and they are regularly reduced. It’s worth paying a bit more for a decent brand.

Again much more detail is retrieved and glare reduced on the water with the filter on

To use a circular polariser, you screw it on your main lens and then rotate the polarising section for the desired effect. There are a few caveats here.

1. Make sure it’s screwed on tightly: If not, you can end up moving the whole filter instead of the polarising part, and you might not get the desired effect

2. Make sure you aren’t turning the focus ring on your lens too, particularly if you are focussing manually.

3. For the best results, try to shoot at 90 degrees to the sun. If you want to shoot head on to the sun, such as with a sunrise or sunset, you are better taking the filter off. Otherwise you can end up with unwanted flare. It is a similar principle when shooting the sun reflected on water – you might need to change your shooting angle.

4. As the circular polariser is absorbing some of the available light you might find you need to bump up the exposure to avoid your pictures coming out too dark: widen the aperture, slow the shutter speed, or just dial in more positive (+) exposure compensation.

Yes, you can often fix underexposure in software, but you can end up with more digital noise as a result. Some filters can remove up to three stops of light, so be prepared to have to work around this – you might have to use a tripod, for example.

Circular polarisers can boost blue skies but they can also reduce available light so watch out for underexposure when shooting landscapes

5. We mentioned that some photographers leave them on for convenience, but you might need to take the polariser off in certain situations, bearing in mind the above caveats.

6. Circular polarisers are also useful for deepening the blue in blue skies but this effect might not appear evenly if you are using a wider angle lens. A blue sky can shift from normal looking to a very deep, indigo blue very quickly so you might need to carefully edit the image to stop this looking distracting.

Last but not least, you don’t always need a broad expanse of water to make the most of water reflection photography – puddles, for examples, can be great for adding a creative visual twist to a shot of a famous building or landmark, for instance. See this shot from Venice, below.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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