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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 would you want to use reflections in your nighttime photos? There are many reasons, but in this article I want to concentrate on two.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!