How to Photograph Still Water

When you photograph a still body of water, you have a mirror-like surface that reflects the beauty of nature. The quality of the reflection depends on your vantage point and whether the water is perfectly still.

You’ll also get better reflections if you shoot during “Golden Hour” or on an overcast day. Harsh overhead light and pretty reflections are like oil and vinegar; they don’t mix. Large lakes on windless days and slow-moving rivers are excellent sources for mirror reflections. You can also capture reflections of nature in puddles after a rainstorm.

If you’re photographing wading birds in still water, you have another opportunity to get a picture with a mirror reflection of your subject. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

When you arrive at a beautiful lake or large river, look around and notice what is reflected in the water. The reflection, not the actual objects being reflected, will be your subject. Therefore, you have to carefully compose your picture. If you do it right, you capture a compelling image that your viewers will take more than a casual glance at. Here are several tips for photographing reflections:

  • Place the sun at your back. If you shoot into the sun, the reflection will be too dark.

  • Shoot in Aperture Priority mode. Choose a small aperture of f/11 or smaller (larger f-stop value). This ensures a large depth of field.

  • Focus on the reflection. This ensures that the reflection is in sharp focus. The rest of the scene will be in focus as well because you’re using a small aperture.

    If you have a polarizing filter on your camera and have it dialed in for photographing clouds in the sky, you’ll minimize reflections or eliminate them altogether. Rotate the outer ring of the polarizer until the reflection is revealed in all its glory. Remember that you get the best effects from a polarizer if you aim your camera 90 degrees from the sun.

  • Place the horizon line for maximum effect. Placement of the horizon line determines the focal point of your image. You have three choices:

    • Place the horizon line in the upper third of the image. This draws the viewer’s attention to the reflection.

    • Place the horizon line in the center of the image. When you choose this treatment, you give equal importance to the scenery and the reflection.

    • Photograph only the reflection. When you choose this treatment, the horizon line isn’t in the picture and your viewer sees only the reflection.

  • Toss a stone in the water. When you toss a stone in a still pond, a concentric pattern of ripples appears and breaks up the reflection.

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