Lake Lorraine, ©Efren Yanes. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

How to Photograph Reflections on Water

The best photographers are always looking for creative ways to add impact to their images. Photographing reflections on a body of water is a very versatile way. You can use them in many ways, from creating symmetry to framing part of a subject, to “fooling” your viewers. While the concept is simple, we’re going to offer a few tips to help you create successful water reflection images during your first attempts.

Opening Image: ©Efrén Yanes. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4

Almost any water will work.

Clever use of a reflection in a puddle. Photo by Benjamin Suter from Pexels

You don’t need a pristine lake or lagoon to capture a beautiful reflection. Puddles in potholes, wet tile surfaces, and even murky or muddy water will produce a suitable reflection if the lighting, angle and your settings are right. While still water creates a better “mirror”, ripples can add interest, too, so don’t let a little breeze keep you from trying.

Shoot when the light is low.

The sun overhead will create glare that will wash out or eliminate reflections on the water outdoors. A very bright full moon at night may do the same thing. Try to capture reflections when the light is at a low angle, as the sun would be during the Golden Hours. In fact, Golden Hour lighting will add nice warmth to the colors in your reflection photography.


©Allain Rappeneau. Captured with the Irix 15mm on a Pentax K-1

Use a tripod.

With the low light and the fact that you’re often going to want to use a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field in your images, a tripod or other stabilizing device is a necessity. Even the slightest movement may ruin your shot.

A tripod will also help keep your hands free to focus, change and lock in exposure settings without worrying about moving the camera.

It’s all about the angle.

Your camera angle will determine what part of the scene reflects in the water. Basically, to see more of the sky above the water, raise your camera and shoot more at a downward angle. Keeping your camera low and shooting at a shallower angle will capture more of the scene close to the horizon. Your distance from the surface of the water will also make a difference, of course.

Cheonjeyeon  (première partie)

©Patrick Gerber. Captured with the Irix 15mm on a Sony Alpha A7 III

Take a little time to move around and see how the composition changes. Shoot the scene from several angles and choose the ones you like most when you’re processing the images.

Remember the rules of composition.

If your image has a horizon, don’t be tempted to center it in all of your reflection photos. If your main goal is to create pure symmetry in a particular shot, a centered horizon may work. In most cases, however, you’ll want to consider using the Rule of Thirds or even a more radical placement for the horizon. This tends to make your image more dynamic and avoid the “split” image effect.

“Clean Slate”, by Chad Umberger. ©C. U. Fotography. The USS Constellation moored in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 on a Nikon D750.

Composing your photo shouldn’t stop with just horizon placement. Take the time to consider all the elements in the scene and use leading lines, perspective, and any other principle of composition to create something more than the “tourist” shot.

Focal length matters.

While you’re composing your shots, keep in mind that the focal length you use can make a noticeable difference in the framing. If you’re working with wide subjects, like bridges or buildings, a shorter focal length will allow you to get more in the frame.

For situations like this, the Irix 11mm f/4 and the Irix 15mm f/2.4 are both excellent choices. Both provide the wide field of view you’ll need. Both are also designed to provide near-zero distortion. These two are available in the rugged Blackstone model and the lightweight Firefly model. Take a closer look at the links below:

Irix 11mm f/2.4 wide angle lens Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone wide angle lens
Irix 11mm f/4.0 (Firefly pictured) Irix 15.. f/2.4 (Blackstone pictured)

When you want to get in closer to a subject and its reflection, you’ll want to move up to a “normal” or telephoto focal length. Irix has you covered there, too. Our brand-new 45mm f/1.4 is an outstanding normal lens. It’s fast and will let you create nice bokeh with the right background. The 150mm f/2.8 1:1 macro Dragonfly gets you in even closer and can shorten your depth of field even more to help isolate the subject. Both of these lenses are available in our new, hybrid Dragonfly finish. Take a good look at these lenses by using the links below:

Irix 45mm f/1.4 Dragonfly
Irix 45mm f/1.4 Dragonfly Irix 150mm f/2.8 macro Dragonfly

Keep your aperture small, but not too small.

To get good depth of field in a landscape with water, you’ll want to keep your f-number high. Remember, however, that stopping down too much can create diffraction that will reduce the sharpness of your image.

For shots with a lot of depth, stay close to the sweet spot of your lens, but toward the smaller end of the scale. An aperture setting of f/11 to f/16 may be a good choice in these instances. For smaller subjects like drinking birds or waterfowl, you may want to open up a bit more, around f/5.6 to f/8 to blur the background and help isolate the subject and its reflection.

Focus on the reflection.

In most instances, focusing on the reflection in the water will give you the best results. Even if the water is moving, as long as your aperture is small enough to preserve the details in the reflected subject, you’ll get better sharpness in the reflection. You’ll often pick up better detail in the water, too.

Expose for the water – usually.

Setting your exposure for the sky, horizon or subject will often result in dark reflections. To avoid that, use your exposure lock (or exposure meter in manual) to set the exposure for an area near the reflection with the same brightness as the main body of water.

Exposing for the brighter sky darkened the shadows in this image, enhancing the colors of the reflection in a murky lake. ©Dana O. Crandell

Don’t be afraid to ignore this piece of advice when the situation calls for it. For instance, exposing for a bright spot in the sky may lower the overall shadows and create a more colorful effect on the water when shooting a sunset. Bracketing your exposure is always a good idea.

Have some fun with filters.

When you’re ready to get really creative with your water reflection photos, consider adding a filter to your lens. There are a number of types to choose from, of course, but there are 3 in particular we recommend trying.

A Polarizing Filter (CPL) is normally used to eliminate reflections. You might think that would make it useless for this type of project. When used at the correct angle to the sun, however, a CPL will also enhance the blue in the sky and help eliminate glare. That makes it worth considering.

Irix Edge Circular Polarizer
Irix Edge Circular Polarizer (Click for details)

Neutral Density (ND) filters and Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters can be used to lengthen exposure times. This gives you the opportunity to add motion blur to the image or a portion of the image. You can create smooth, silky water and an ethereal appearance to the reflections, along with blurred clouds in the sky. With a GND, you can darken one area of the frame while leaving the other portion unmodified. For instance, you might want to darken the sky to enhance clouds, while leaving the water reflections brighter.

Irix Edge ND1000 Filter Irix Edge 100 Soft GND FIlter Irix Edge 100 Filter Holder Rear View
Irix Edge Threaded ND filters (Click for details) Irix Edge Graduated ND filters (Click for details) Irix IFH-100 Filter Holder (Click for Details)

As you can see from the selection above, Irix has a full line of high-quality filters available for all common filter thread sizes and adapters are available for the IFH-100 Filter Holder, to make the entire system fit your other lenses as well as ours. Check the details above and we think you’ll be impressed.

Let your creativity run wild.

Don’t be afraid to throw out the rules of composition or any of the suggestions we’ve offered. It’s a creative process and your imagination should is as important as any of the guidelines we’ve provided in this article. Water reflection photography is a great way to “get in touch with your muse”.

Clouds and the Milky Way reflected on the surface of a small lake. ©Dana O. Crandell. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 on a Canon 6D MkII

Show us your stuff!

We always love to see what our loyal Irix shooters create. Share your water reflection photos with us so we can show the world! Tag @irixusa on Instagram or Twitter, or send them to us using messenger on Facebook:

See you next time!

Written by Dana Crandell

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