9 Tips for Photographing Mountain Lake Reflections

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How to Photograph Mountain Landscapes

There’s something ultimately alluring about lake and river reflections in landscape photography, especially when surrounded by majestic snow capped mountains that glow hot from the light of the setting sun.

Here’s a little time-lapse video I put together using some of my recent lake reflection still shots in Alberta, Canada. Each frame is from a still image shot with a small mirrorless digital camera. Read on to learn the methods I use when trying to capture stunning lake and river reflections in my photography.

1 – Don’t shoot super wide

Regardless of whether your camera is full frame, APS-C or MFT (micro four thirds), it’s important to realize that when shooting mountain reflections you might not need your widest lens to capture the most pleasing composition.

A lot of the time I shoot in the super wide realm but that doesn’t work so well when shooting mountain reflections. A super wide lens tends to reduce the epic size of the distant mountains and magnifies the foreground.

That’s great when you can get fairly close to my central subject, but when that subject is a snow capped mountain a few kilometers away, it’s time to strap on a lens that gets you closer to the action.

At my most recent visit to Banff and Jasper in Alberta I found that I rarely shot with anything wider than 35mm on full frame. In many cases I was zoomed in past 50mm, and often beyond 100mm. Here’s an example.

This first shot is at a focal length of 70mm.

How to shoot mountain lake reflections

This second shot is at 16mm, super wide. There are a few minutes of light change in between the shots but otherwise it’s the exact same scene, from almost exactly the same position. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer the simpler, cleaner composition of the first, zoomed image.

How to shoot mountain river scenes

2 – Fill your frame with what’s cool

This is good advice for any kind of photography but with mountain lake reflections it’s easy to get wowed by the colourful clouds that are reflecting in the mirror surface lake. If they really are doing something impressive then by all means, devote some frame space to the clouds.

You’ll find however, that when you zoom closer to fill your frame with your most impressive mountain range and reflection, your image may have much more impact. At times this isn’t too obvious when you look through the viewfinder or LCD but when you view that zoomed image back on a large computer screen it often has more wow factor than your wider, cloud filled image.

How to Photograph River Landscapes

3 – Waiting for the wind to stop

If you’re out on a gale force windy day, don’t expect any lake reflections. You need that water to be perfectly still for good reflections. A mild, occasional wind is fine, just stick around and wait for it to periodically die down. You only need a few minutes. Bring a camp chair and thermos, then chill out while you wait for the perfect moment. It’ll come.

4 – Shoot two versions – adjust the polarizer

If you shoot lake scenes without a polarizer you’ll get a lovely mirror-like reflection, but you might be missing out on some interesting details under the water in the foreground. I like to take at least two shots with my polarizer in different positions. One shot will give me the maximum reflection while the other shot will reduce that reflection to reveal the details under the water.

I can then easily blend these two exposures in Photoshop to get the best mixture of reflection and water detail.

5 – Interrupt the reflection

Vermillion Lakes, Banff - Mirror World by Gavin Hardcastle

I have a thing for the interrupted reflection. I find it more interesting to have my mountain reflection interrupted by ice formations, river bends, rocks and branches as apposed to a completely whole and perfect reflection. Try and avoid that obvious BAM reflection. Be a bit clever and put some thought into how you can make the reflection more interesting.

6 – Get down low

I like to pick the most interesting point of my mountain range then find a spot in my foreground that reflects that interesting point. I often need to get the camera down lower to achieve this, sometimes adjusting the tripod to its lowest point. At times you might not need to get so low and maybe just step back a few feet to place your reflection where you need it to be.

You can’t change where the mountain is, but you can change your position relative to it to capture the most interesting foreground and reflection.

7 – Look for framing elements in the foreground

If possible, try to incorporate elements in your foreground than frame the scene. It creates a window into your scene that we humans find very appealing.

8 – Look for leading lines in your foreground

Lake Photography Tutorial

Try and find foreground elements that suck the eye in to the centre of your image. Use rocks, logs and branches to blatantly point at the mountain scene in your image. Obviously you’ve got to work with what you have but there’s almost always something there.

9 – Star reflections are gold

If you’ve got a calm, clear night that is the perfect chance to capture the Milky Way or star trails in your lake reflection. Place a colossal mountain range in the centre of that and you’ve got yourself a killer shot. For tips on how to shoot star trails like this, view my tutorial How to Shoot a Star Trails Selfie.

Star Trails Selfie Tutorial

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • Great article Gavin!

    About your advice “Don’t shoot super wide, I would say it depends on the “size” of your landscape and on how far you are from you subject.

    For instance the picture below was taken in french alps from a small lake and the mountains were pretty close so I had to shoot super wide (16mm on full frame)

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/15173310617/in/set-72157601442298541

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Jean. Nice shot. It really depends on the scene. If you’d stood further back and used a longer focal length that mountain in the centre would have loomed much larger in the frame. This would have resulted in having less of the ridge lines either side of that mountain which I believe would have made a more pleasing composition.

    There is no right or wrong though and what matters most is that you are happy your shot. If super wide gives you the look you want – go for it.

  • very good photos collection
    images

  • Scott S

    Teton National Park, Mt. St. John reflected in String Lake.

  • Knowing your local weather and landscape is a huge piece of “equipment for me”. I take a lot of photos from the shores of Lake Tahoe (middle one with fall colors is Fallen Leaf Lake), and the water levels are constantly changing. Knowing where the reflective pools are, knowing where the wind breaks are (to stop ripples), and knowing how shallow the water all help me. I know exactly where to go each time I head out without hoping or guessing. (but nature doesn’t always agree, I might get a great reflection, but no clouds). I rarely have to wait for the wind to stop. If it’s more than 10-15mph in Tahoe I’m not getting any reflections in the shallowest of pools.

    As far as shooting wide goes, I zoomed to abt 70mm in the fall colors shot because the sky was so boring, and the wide one I show wide because the sky was more interesting than the mountains. The first one is kind of a combo of the two (there wasn’t much more color outside the frame).

    I’m obviously very passionate about reflections 🙂 Great article Gavin! I really need to start doing #5 a little bit more. (Interrupt the reflection)

  • Good advice, I really enjoyed the video. Were you actually moving the camera for those or was the movement created by cropping for the video?

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    The movement was made during editing.

  • abhijeet joshi

    reflection of trees on the water. Request your suggestions/critics which will help me improve my photography.

  • Henry

    Beautiful timelapse! What mirrorless camera did you use?

  • Toni

    Hey Gavin, you forgot the two first tips without which it is very difficult to get a stunning mountain lake reflection. That is to live near nice lakes and mountains. Indeed, if you live in British Colombia or Alberta, wow that is a privilege for mountain lake reflections! I am heading to there this summer holidays.

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