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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.