How To Photograph Reflections In Water - Digital Photography School

How To Photograph Reflections In Water


One of my favourite things to do when I travel is to go on a quest to find a body of water that has a reflection of a landmark.

Photographing a reflection creates a unique image of an often photographed subject by adding interest and depth to your photograph.

The next time you travel add these to your shot list and come home with a set of dynamic images to show off your trip.

City Lights at Twilight

When the sky is that cobalt blue colour before night arrives, and lights from nearby buildings reflect off the water, magic happens.

Take this example of a waterfront hotel on a summer evening when the marina in the foreground was full of boats. Just after sunset the coloured lights on the exterior of the hotel reflected off the cobalt blue water making a very energetic image.

The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Calm Lake in the Morning

When you get up early in the morning water on a lake will often be flat calm making a perfect reflection. Capturing a perfect reflection is harder than it sounds because any amount of wind at all will cause ripples and blur the surface of the water.

If you can find a lake in the mountains there will be a better chance of finding still waters in the morning. Your shot will be even better if the morning’s first rays light up the peaks of the mountain which is reflected in the lake.

When you scout your location, take a compass so you can find a subject in the west that will light up when the sun rises. Then put some water between you and that subject and you have the ingredients for a great shot.

Convict Lake, California

Convict Lake, California

The calm lake shot is a good opportunity to break the rule of thirds and go for perfect symmetry in your image. Put the horizon line in the middle of the frame and include the same amount of subject and reflection.

You want to avoid direct light on the water because that causes glare. The best situation is when you have a colourful object that is has direct light on it and that subject is reflected in water which is in the shade. Then the reflection will contain saturated colours and no glare.

Not So Calm Lake

Ripples in the water are not necessarily bad. It just produces a different effect. You can get this effect by waiting for the wind to come up a little or just by using a longer exposure which allows time for the water to move while the shutter is open. Either way it will create a more abstract feel by adding texture to the water.

Convict Lake, California

Convict Lake, California

The Ocean at Sunrise or Sunset

Obviously you will not get a perfect reflection when you photograph the ocean because the water is always moving. But it will still reflect the colour of the sky and if you get a sunrise or sunset with great colour you can multiply that effect by including the reflected light in your composition.

Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia

Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia


Woodstork at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Florida.

Woodstork at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Florida.

I love capturing perfect bird reflections. They can be hard to pull off because you need a number of things to come together to make the image work.

  • First, there can be no wind at all.
  • Second, you need great light (as always).
  • Third, you need a bird (ok that was pretty obvious but easier said than done).

To make this image of a woodstork I had to go back to the location before sunrise three mornings in a row before I got still water. Then I had to find a position first, remain very still, and hope a bird would come. If the bird is there first, and you try to approach, it doesn’t usually work out.

I like images where the bird is moving a bit so there are little ripples around its legs that define the surface of the water.


Look for reeds or other grasses sticking out of the water that can make a great abstract image. If it were not for the lilly pads in this image, it might be hard to tell where the surface of the water is.

Green Point Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada

Green Point Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada

Just the Reflection

The subject receiving the direct light does not necessarily need to be in the frame. Interesting compositions can be found if you leave the main subject out of the frame and only include the reflection in the shot.

In this image of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, the direct light falling on the dome was very harsh so I decided to leave it out of the frame and only include the reflection to create a more abstract impressionist feel.

Reflection of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Reflection of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

To go even more abstract, find reflections of colourful subjects in rippled water. Don’t worry if you cannot identify what the main subject is.

Kayak Reflection

Kayak Reflection

This image is reflections from a stack of kayaks on a dock at a marina. The ripples are caused by fish swimming under the surface.

Fall Foliage in New Hamshire

Fall Foliage in New Hamshire

This image was made in New Hampshire during the very colourful display of fall foliage.

It was a windy day, so photographing the trees wasn’t working out very well. I decided to go for the abstract look by photographing the reflection of the trees in the water which was rippled from the high winds.


Remember your choices: the subject and its reflection; just the reflection; still water; and blurred water.

Direct light on water creates glare – you want the direct light to fall on your subject which is then reflected in water which is in the shade. If there is glare, you can use a polarizing filter to reduce or even remove it.

Try using a graduated neutral density filter. Usually the reflection is a couple of stops darker than the main subject so you can use a graduated neutral density filter to even things out. If you don’t’ have one, you can always try the digital equivalent in Lightroom or Photoshop. But remember the reflection part of the image should still be slightly darker. If you make it as bright as the main subject the image will not look right.

Use a low angle to maximize the amount of reflection in the frame.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • Sunny Flowers

    You didn’t mention one of my favorite reflection subjects, the Moon. The second photo has some special effects added. The third is a “Moon Path.”

  • Gabi

    Same lake, different season and perspective – Copenhagen suburbs

  • Yogi

    i used long exposure in this night shot. Let me know your views on this one.

  • DebinKC

    Tree Shadow in Water….was taken in Southern Missouri this Fall/Autumn.

  • DebinKC

    Taken in Ha Ha Tonka Park in Southern Missouri of Reflection Ripples in Water

  • DebinKC

    Taken in Southern Missouri at Alley Spring

Some Older Comments

  • Todd Katke April 26, 2013 09:22 am

    Thank you , your whole story of leaving the work life behind and Rv ing across the country is so inspirational and photographing/writing. My hats off to you would like to follow suite as well. Again Thank you

  • Giorgio November 22, 2012 04:06 am

    this is what i photographed in past with reflections...:

  • Giorgio November 22, 2012 04:01 am

    great tips...i want to try tomorrow !!!!

  • Brando November 20, 2012 01:52 pm

    How bout that photo with reflecting lights on the water. it looks like mixed paint. ;) all were great by the way. Great photos

    ~ am

  • calvin November 20, 2012 10:47 am

    Beautiful photos thanks formsharing

  • Thomas Schmidt November 20, 2012 05:58 am

    How about a bridge reflecting in a lake and forming a nearly perfect circle?

  • Muhammad November 18, 2012 05:19 pm

    All the photos were superb and i really liked it thanks for giving the tips

  • Bex Jarratt November 18, 2012 10:39 am

    woops, didn't put the first image in right...
    [eimg link='' title='Architecture reflected' url='']

  • Bex Jarratt November 18, 2012 10:38 am

    One of the photos from Dresden:

    and this one too, awkward crop due to people staring at me like I'm mad.

  • Rick Browne November 18, 2012 08:53 am

    Thanks for covering this technique. Here are some examples I've done - one with a mirror-like image and one with distortion on the surface of the water.

    [eimg link='' title='IMG_7657-1 resize' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='IMG_7674-1 resize' url='']

  • Frank Lund November 18, 2012 03:25 am

    I captured this water reflection in a fun fair
    [eimg link='' title='Vandspejling' url='']

  • Brent November 18, 2012 03:11 am

    Really enjoyed this article and love the images in it. Thank You!

  • Ben Kromer November 17, 2012 11:22 pm

    [eimg url='' title='6378581-md.jpg']

  • Dennis Vinh November 17, 2012 04:16 pm

    Annie - Thank you for the tutorial! I will revisit my previous reflection photos and apply what I have learned here...
    Here is a photo that I had taken during my recent trip to Yosemite
    [eimg link='' title='IMG_9945' url='']

  • raghavendra November 17, 2012 03:38 pm

    Little reflections of tree in road

  • Norma Hawthorne November 17, 2012 02:04 pm

    Wow, wonderful. I just did some pond reflections with autumn colors this morning. Usually love doing reflections off store windows to get window displays and cars/passersby on streets. Very surreal effect. Would love to know the metadata of your shots along with type of lenses you use for each. Thanks, Anne.

  • Jeff E Jensen November 17, 2012 09:55 am

    I love a good reflection shot! Always adds some intrigue to the image.

  • Robert Lewis November 17, 2012 06:05 am

    This will help me out tremendously. I've done a few water captures some time ago, and now I have a few more tricks to try out. Thanks!

  • Edith Levy November 17, 2012 06:02 am

    Great article Anne. Thank you.

  • Biju Chandroth November 17, 2012 05:11 am

    I love to shoot reflections. I have a similar shot of the Mammoth Lakes, CA that is on the front page of this article...the rocks in the foreground make it a stunner...

    Mirror image

  • Ian November 17, 2012 04:26 am

    Just some other examples
    Another picture of Loch Leven near Ballachulish.


    New York City

  • M Light November 17, 2012 03:31 am

    I love doing reflections of horses.

  • Chuck November 17, 2012 03:27 am

    Great point about the reflection always being darker than the subject. I take a lot of "just the reflection" shots, so I tend to forget that. But here's one where the glare is the best part:

  • James Gonneau November 17, 2012 02:09 am

    Maybe its just our often dual natures, but reflections are always popular:

  • marius2die4 November 17, 2012 01:13 am

    Great pics!

  • Satesh R November 17, 2012 12:00 am

    Wet sand works well too

  • satesh November 16, 2012 11:58 pm

    wet sand also provides some nice reflections

  • Daniel November 16, 2012 07:33 pm

    The "Reflection of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California" is a fantastic composition.

    This is my apportation:


  • Rajan Advani November 16, 2012 04:41 pm

    Congratulations for your great success in generating one million viewers and may the tribe keep on increasing.

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  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri November 16, 2012 04:36 pm

    Great topic!!! I have always wanted to try some reflections but never really had the chance. This one is a great set of points to take note of when going out to shoot reflections. I have tried just once with my iPhone 4S and it was alright. Not what I had in my mind. :)

  • Wayne Bretl November 16, 2012 02:45 pm

    Note that a polarizer can be used to enhance reflections as well as suppress them - just have to turn it a quarter turn to go from minimum reflection to maximum. This can also help minimize the exposure difference between object and reflection.

    [eimg link='' title='IMG_6109cr' url='']

  • Tyler November 16, 2012 01:30 pm

    Beautiful pictures and a great guide. Thank you!

  • Zain Abdullah November 16, 2012 01:10 pm

    Thanks for your informative article and great pictures. Capturing reflection is one of my favourite subjects as well. Do take a look at some of my reflection shots below:
    The Putra Mosque
    A fishing boat and its reflection
    The reflection of the Petronas Twin Towers on the pool nearby
    Kuala Lumpur Skyline and its reflection

  • Cathy November 16, 2012 11:21 am

    I did this only the bird wasn't in the water.[eimg link='' title='Robinson Preserve 11-10-12 173' url='']

  • Ian November 16, 2012 10:11 am

    Love what you've done with your shots . City lights is brilliant photo

  • Scottc November 16, 2012 10:09 am

    One of my favorite subjects, great article.

  • Lorenzo November 16, 2012 09:28 am

    Great article - hopefully I will be able to use some of the tips in my next trip in Dartmoor and Cornwall!!!

    With regards to reflections I took this pictures at Richmond Park, London, last Sunday:

  • Jim Carley November 16, 2012 09:12 am

    Thanks for the article. Great info. I actually got to try this out at a secluded pond near home just as the leaves started turning this fall.

  • Diana Delgado November 16, 2012 08:58 am

    Congratulations Anne !!! I have been following you for some time now and always enjoy not only your images but the great insight of your articles and books. So happy to see you here in DPS.

  • Sandy Boeshart November 16, 2012 08:21 am

    Love all these!! And here's one I took this summer while in Nuremberg. It's of the Third Reich Congress Hall and Hitler built it on this location so that when reflected in the lake it would look bigger. Very somber place.[eimg url='undefined' title='undefined']

  • Becky Lawless November 16, 2012 07:14 am

    Stunning images in the article. Here are a few reflections I've captured near Kentucky creeks.

  • Grant Palin November 16, 2012 06:59 am

    Nice to see an icon of my hometown featured - the Empress Hotel. I've some shots of my own of the Empress, but none like that one. An idea for me!

  • Jai Catalano November 16, 2012 06:55 am

    Direct sunlight always gets a bad rap.

    Inspirational stuff for sure.

  • Becky Lawless November 16, 2012 06:46 am

    Stunning images in the article. Here are a few reflections I've captured near some Kentucky creeks.

  • J. Brown November 16, 2012 06:07 am

    Sorry for the double triple post

  • Bex Jarratt November 16, 2012 06:00 am

    Ha, this reminds me when I was in Dresden a couple of weeks ago. I got all excited about a reflection in a pond and was walking around staring intently into the water. Lots of people came over and stared into the water, I think they were trying to see what I was looking at. Bet they weren't as excited as me at what they saw.

  • Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead November 16, 2012 05:44 am

    Anne - I would be really interested to know the camera settings for that fantabulous Empress Hotel shot.
    Warm regards from Mauritius.

  • Jessica November 16, 2012 05:24 am

    Stunning pictures! Great tips. Thank you!

  • David Mine November 16, 2012 05:20 am

    You are one helluva good photographer!

  • Chuck November 16, 2012 05:02 am

    Here's a sunset in a puddle:

  • Mphotog November 16, 2012 04:55 am

    The city lights and the bird shots are GORGEOUS! Thanks for sharing!
    (I just noticed that someone else already said exactly the same thing, but that's just proof that they really are stellar!)

  • J. Brown November 16, 2012 04:22 am

    [eimg link='' title='Little Cultus at dawn' url='']
    Thanks for the inspiration!!! I try, but usually dont do well with these. This is my only moderate success.

  • Cynthe Brush November 16, 2012 04:20 am

    Enjoyed your article and suggestions. City lights, mountain lake, and reeds images are gorgeous!

    I really enjoy photographing reflections on water surfaces large or small, including raindrops, puddles, condensed steam on cooking pots, etc. It's fun to push the images in an abstract direction. Have taken several shots like that in our rainy California winters. Here's one:

    [eimg url='' title='photo.php?fbid=3230617816469&set=a.2485250822760.2127509.1597341733&type=3&theater']

  • SnookyBC November 16, 2012 04:19 am

    [eimg url='TurkeyPoint.jpeg' title='TurkeyPoint.jpeg']

  • J. Brown November 16, 2012 04:19 am

    I try to get nice shots like that...thanks for giving me more ideas! I only have one shot that I have been pleased with so far :)

  • michele morgan November 16, 2012 04:11 am

    Thank you much, Anne. I enjoyed your article and its useful tips!

  • gipukan November 16, 2012 03:49 am

    Made this a few days ago, not the obvious but direct reflex in water marking a time :)

  • Matt Jones November 16, 2012 03:49 am

    This one caught my eye while I was walking through Gent, Belgium. I looked a bit odd to passers-by, but I was OK with it.

    Here is one from a while back. It's a reflection in my coffee, but that's made of water, right?

  • Steve November 16, 2012 03:33 am

    Mirror reflection - fun :)

  • Jocuri November 16, 2012 02:50 am

    There are some great photos in this article thr second is the best

  • Halvorsen November 16, 2012 02:45 am

    Great ideas and a good guide! Thx!

  • Mridula November 16, 2012 02:43 am

    The mountain photo the second one, just took my breath away!

  • Wayne November 16, 2012 02:32 am

    Good stuff! If there's motion in the water and you add a 10-stop (or higher) ND filter and leave the shutter open for a long time, it gives a dreamy quality to the reflection. I have such a photo posting to my blog tomorrow.

  • Jim Carley November 16, 2012 02:16 am

    Thanks for the great article. Reflection images always amaze me. I got the chance to try this out for myself earlier this fall as the leaves just started turning at a tiny little pond near home.

  • NicoDem November 16, 2012 01:49 am

    I also love doing reflections..... There is some magic in the images of a landscape with water reflection.

    In my favorites:

  • Mei Teng November 16, 2012 01:04 am

    Great set of images and tips. Love the city lights at twilight and bird reflection.

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