First Light, Last Light Reflections
Fleeting Opportuntities For Unique Photos

A low sun reflecting on the ocean creates a characteristic silhouette of these Torrey Pines.
Photos © 2001, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

No matter what tourist-saturated locale I find myself at, I can't help but notice all the cameras getting packed away just before sundown (unless, of course, there's a spectacular sunset brewing). If water, in its myriad forms, is present, photographers are shortchanging themselves in terms of some unique picture opportunities.

While water certainly provides attractive possibilities for incorporating reflections in your compositions at any time of day, the brief period just before and after sunrise and sunset can be especially rewarding. Before sunrise, after sunset, the relatively bright sky serves as another plane of depth, as well as contributing a tone-graduated splash of color to the background, the reflection itself, or both.

Just after sunrise or just before sunset, the extremely low sun angle results in bodies of water being mostly or totally in shadow; the dark water picks up reflections of brightly lit objects in the vicinity, mirroring an inverted image with an appealing element of contrast.

A calm ocean, lake, river, pond, or puddle can all be effective foils for creative seeing. Often a reflective composition will be obvious, practically shouting for your attention. At other times, recognizing a potential image may prove more elusive. Since the angle of reflection relative to your viewpoint can be quite critical, it is important to fully explore any and all alignment possibilities. When I find myself in the presence of water under early/late lighting conditions, I check for suitable objects that could serve as reflection subjects. With small bodies of water, I may walk completely around them in search of the proper angle where everything coincides successfully. With larger bodies of water, your main options will be a higher or lower camera angle. Before sunrise/after sunset, look for easily recognizable objects to show in silhouette within, or in front of, the brighter reflection.

A long lens compressed the elements of this Mono Lake composition.

Depending on how early or late you are shooting, a tripod or monopod may be necessary to deal with the slow shutter speeds dictated by the diminished light levels. Another option is to load up with fast film in the ISO 800 realm and shoot handheld. Since shadow detail is seldom an issue in these instances, you'd be surprised at how dim the lighting can be, yet be photographed sans tripod with high-speed film. The ISO 800 color negative films that I've tried are amazingly sharp and tight-grained for their speed, but color saturation isn't their strong point; if vivid color is a major element of your reflection shots, then stick to ISO 100 films and use a 'pod.

Once you've isolated a reflective composition, there are still other creative choices to make. The first is lens focal length. You can use a long lens to isolate a reflection that is beyond convenient reach, thereby helping to fill the frame. To a certain extent, and conditional upon the relative sizes of the reflecting water surface and the subject reflected object, you can use different focal lengths to "fit" one to the other.

Your second tool is depth of field. With the aid of a tripod and small apertures, both an object and its reflection can be rendered sharply. Size relationship permitting, a wider angle lens helps in this regard. Shooting with larger apertures (often your only option with a handheld camera) lets you employ a selective focus treatment, usually with the reflection sharp and the background subject soft (but preferably still identifiable as the "donor" object of the reflection). Again, image sizes permitting, a short telephoto is a useful tool here. Wedding photographers love to pose the bride and groom by a reflecting pool, toasting each other, of course, in this manner; it sells a lot of extra prints.

The shadowed water in the foreground provided an ideal reflecting surface for the sunlit dune.

Tool number three is filtration. Most often this involves warming filters. If a reflected sky, for example, is too blue or bland, warming filtration, whether color conversion or an orange filter normally used for tone control with black and white films, can give you an instant fiery sunset. A mild diffusion filter can take the hard edge off reality, lending a dreamy mood to the picture. Overdoing the degree of filtration can result in an obviously hokey look, although extreme filters occasionally hit pay dirt, so don't be afraid to experiment. Polarizers are generally enemies of reflections rather than enhancers, and as a practical matter are of little use very early or late in the day, mostly just adding ISO-robbing neutral density. Also keep in mind that using a graduated density filter to "feather" a background sky will appear less than believable to the sharp-eyed, as the feathering effect, if included, won't be duplicated in the reflection; you can use a second grad mounted upside-down, but you need to be framed fairly tight on the reflection and with a dark surround area in order not to give the trick away. Besides, it's easier and more precise to scan and massage it in Photoshop after the fact!

This after-the-storm shot in Grand Canyon would be merely gloomy without the foreground water; the water adds an aura of near-sinister foreboding.

In some situations, movement offers additional options. A boat, gently bobbing on the water, can be frozen with an adequate shutter speed, or blurred to varying degrees of abstraction with slower speeds. Selective focus can be used to defocus sparkling water, either in the background or in the reflection.

Employing early/late-light water reflections to advantage isn't limited to photographers living in or visiting the countryside--city dwellers have ample opportunities as well. The awesome New York City skyline, with its bridges and boat traffic, is a classic example of reflection photo nirvana. Vintage tall ships at anchor in locales such as Boston harbor or Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, or the boating communities of San Francisco and Seattle are prime candidates. Wet streets after a shower, fountains, and park pools are all fertile photo ops for the alert photographer. Interesting architecture is always a good bet for intriguing reflective subjects, and reflected gaudy lighting such as neon signs can create brilliantly colorful compositions.

So get your camera out a little earlier or keep it out a little later and hone your powers of observation. Being prepared and water-aware can net you many fascinating, early/late-light photographs that average camera-toters totally miss.

Capturing Early/Late-Light Shots Incorporating Water

  • Have your camera at-the-ready early and late in the day; opportunities abound for those who look and are prepared to shoot.
  • Use fast film to arrest motion of bobbing boats, foliage, etc.
  • Even with fast film, use a tripod when significant depth of field is required.
  • Be aware of the angle of incidence of the light; a few degrees change in viewing/camera angle can make a big difference regarding reflections on water.
  • Polarizers are of little or no use this early or late; warming filters can occasionally be used to advantage.
  • Explore the use of long or short lenses to tie disparate elements together.
  • Experiment with depth of field, selective focus, and filtration to add mood.
  • Urban photographers can make use of wet city streets, fountains, and other manmade pools.