Reflections can be great things to add to your photographs at any time, but they are particularly cool at night. Adding reflections can solve compositional problems you face at night. Further, the steps you have to take to capture photos at night – such as having your camera on a tripod and using a slow shutter speed – actually make it easier to capture reflections.
How so? I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at the use of reflections in night photography.
Why use reflections in your night photography?
Why would you want to use reflections in your nighttime photos? There are many reasons, but in this article I want to concentrate on two.
1 – Adding a reflection adds interest to the composition
First adding a reflection allows you to turn a straight-ahead photo of a single thing, into an interesting composition. For example, common subjects of nighttime photos are things like well-lit buildings, bridges, and fountains. If you take a picture of just a building, it might not be terribly interesting. It’s just a building. The same goes for pictures of bridges and fountains.
Adding other items to the picture can be a challenge. Everything around the subject is likely to be very dark. Adding more space just results in a sea of blackness around your subject that doesn’t add anything to your photo, it just detracts from your subject. If you add a reflection, however, it adds a compositional element to your picture. Now your picture isn’t just a single thing (like a building, bridge, or fountain). The reflection adds interest to the photo.
2 – Adding a reflection gives you a good foreground element
Secondly, adding a reflection to your picture also solves a common problem for all pictures. That problem is what to do with the foreground. Often the subject and background are clear, but the foreground can be difficult to ascertain. However, particularly when you are using water to create the reflection, the reflection will be on the bottom portion of the picture. Therefore it provide you with a ready-made foreground. Problem solved.
When to use reflections
You could use reflections in your nighttime photos whenever possible. The limitation on their use is typically not lack of desire, but lack of opportunity. There isn’t always a large shiny surface for you to use to capture a reflection.
Note: if that is the case, you can always create one in Photoshop!
So what circumstances create the opportunity to use reflections? Obviously, water works great. It is available for you to use in a lot of different contexts. Here are some of them:
- Skylines: Most cities are built on a bay or a river that you can use to create a reflection. (By the way, don’t worry about making it a sharp reflection – just a blurry set of lights in the water can provide what you need.)
- Bridges: A common nighttime photographic subject are bridges, which are almost always over water.
- Lakes: There are lakes everywhere. You can capture reflections of nearby objects. On clear nights you can also capture the reflections of the stars.
- Puddles: They provide a great opportunity for using reflections where you might not otherwise expect them. Keep in mind there doesn’t actually need to be a puddle but often a wet surface will reflect light from nearby sources. See Using Rain Puddles to Create Unique Reflection Photos.
- Fountains: Since fountains are filled with water, they also provide great opportunities for making reflections.
Besides water, any shiny surface will do. Most cities have many modern office buildings built of steel and glass. While not generally sought out as photographic subjects in and of themselves, they do provide great opportunities for capturing reflections of anything nearby.
How to capture reflections
Here is some good news: you probably don’t need to do anything different in terms of exposure to capture reflections in your picture. For reflections of most shiny surfaces, you simply set the exposure as you normally would, and take the picture. While using water to create the reflection does require that you smooth the water out, this is probably already happening because of the inherent challenges of exposure in night photography.
Night photography requires slow shutter speeds. Because it is dark, your camera needs to hold the shutter open a long time in order to gather sufficient light for the exposure. This is true even if you are using a wide aperture and high ISO. This long shutter speed is what smooths out the water. Therefore, the mere fact that you are taking the photo at night, probably means you are already creating a picture with smooth water. If not, just be sure to slow down your shutter speed.
Enhancing the effect
The most common problem when using reflections in your nighttime photos, is that the reflection does not show up as much as you would like. The way to fix that is to brighten the reflection. If you apply a global brightening to the picture, however, you risk blowing out the highlights of other parts of your picture. In any case, you will probably end up brightening other parts of the picture more than you want. Therefore, you will need to apply selective brightening to the photo. Here is how to do that, depending on the software you are using:
- Lightroom: In Lightroom, use the Adjustment Brush (keyboard shortcut K) to apply selective brightening to the reflection. Select the brush, and using the controls that appear, increase either the Exposure or the Whites slider (or both) to make the reflection stand out. At the same time, you will need to maintain contrast in your picture. Do that by decreasing the blacks in the picture (pull the Black slider to the left). Just paint it in and you are all set. You can also adjust the effect after you have painted it in.
- Photoshop: In Photoshop or Photoshop Elements you can use the same process as described above in the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) screen that pops up when you open the picture. Once you are in Photoshop, the best way is to use Curves adjustment layers and then mask out the effect everywhere except in the reflection. To do that, just create a Curves adjustment layer, then pull up the line on the right side of the curve (or pull in the white point) to increase the brightness of the reflection. To maintain contrast, pull down the left side of the line (or pull your black point to the right). If you’re not familiar with Curves adjustment layers or masking check out this or this tutorial to get you started with the process.
The other common problem when using reflections in your night photography, is enhancing the clarity or sharpness of the reflection. Much of the work here is done in the capture phase, and keep in mind that you cannot fix a blurry picture. But you can enhance the effects a bit. Here are some ways to go about that:
- Lightroom: As with the selective brightening above, use the Adjustment Brush (either in the same step or as a separate step as the brightening). Within the controls of the brush, increase the Clarity slider. Brush in the area of the reflection to add the clarity. You can also increase the Sharpness slider, but beware of doing this too much as it tends to increase digital noise.
- Photoshop: Within Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, you can use the ACR screens to increase the clarity of the reflection. Once the image is opened in Photoshop though, there is no Clarity slider. The best way to increase clarity is to use the High Pass filter. This article explains how to increase clarity and walks you through the use of the High Pass filter.
- Plug-Ins: There is also third-party software available that allows you to increase the clarity of your photos. One such program is , which works really well. For the best results, apply this effect on a new layer within Photoshop so that you can use masking to apply the effect exactly where and how you want.
Of course, there will probably be other edits you want to make to the photo in addition to these. You can, and should apply your standard workflow to your pictures. These are just the common issues you will experience when you add reflections to your photos.
Reflections can add great compositional interest to your pictures. They also allow you to add context to your nighttime photos, which is not always easy since much of the surrounding area will be dark. They are readily available once you start looking for them. In addition, they are easy to apply. Once you start adding reflections, I think you will find they will help add interest to your night photos, and might even take them to the next level.
** NOTE ** If you’d like to know more about this subject, learn more about my brand new course on night photography here, so you can take stunning night photos too!