Scenes so nice, you’ll see them twice! 5 Tips for Capturing Water Reflections (Plus two cheats!)

If I had to pick a favorite type of landscape scene, it would probably involve a water reflection. There’s just something serene and peaceful about an image with water. If symmetry and mirror images are your creative jam, too, check out our 5 Tips for Capturing water reflections!

Why are reflections so important in photography?

Reflections aren’t important, per se. But they are interesting and compelling. Essentially, you’re taking a dynamic scene then doubling it in a cool and interesting way. Reflections give us twice the drama, color or texture that we could get in a regular image.

Reflections can also be a source of symmetry or balance in a scene, which is pleasing to us human critters. Throw in some water which lends serenity and calm and it becomes a really great environment to capture in an image!

Tips for Capturing Water Reflections

Tip #1 – Shoot during calm weather

If you want a crystal clear water reflection, you need to shoot in calm weather. Wind puts ripples on the surface of the water which can hinder reflections. Wind also blows the trees around which can create motion blur in your background if you are using long exposures.

I live in Wyoming and I swear the wind blows here ALL.THE.TIME. My best chance at avoiding the wind is usually early morning. Sometimes early evening can also work. But usually the winds are at the peak during the middle of the day.

Capture water reflections at blue hour

Tip #2 – Shoot when the sun is low in the sky (or gone!)

Golden hour isn’t just for portrait sessions! Capturing water reflections during golden hour gives you all the beautiful, glowy light we swoon for in any session. And bright overhead sun gives you too much glare and lot of contrast, which may negate that calm, placid vibe you’re going for.

If you’re capturing water reflections of city skylines or other night lights, wait until blue hour or when the sun is completely gone. You’ll have more lights to work with and the light and sun won’t be competing for attention in your scene.

Blue hour is one of my favorite times to shoot lights. It is usually the hour right after sunset but before all the light in the sky is gone. The sun has sunk below the horizon and the sky is this really gorgeous blue color instead of pitch black. Try a blue hour cityscape with water sometime…you’ll love the results!

For more great tips on capturing that golden hour glow, check out our tutorial!

Tip #3 – Set your focal point on the reflection

This tip was given to me by a professional landscape photographer. It sounded a little odd at first but it can really help in certain situations.

One of the most compelling aspects of a water reflection image is the reflection itself. So it makes sense to make that the sharpest part of your image. To do that, place your focal point on the reflection itself to achieve and lock focus. That way your reflection will be sharp which adds to the drama of the image.

This only applies to calm water. If your waterbody has ripples, it won’t be sharp no matter what you do. In that instance, you’ll place your focal point over a spot in the foreground or background that you do want to be sharp.

capturing water reflections of animals

Tip #4 – Reflections work on more than just nature scenes!

A lot of water reflections feature nature scenes. But don’t limit yourself to trees and mountains when it comes to capturing water reflections! City scenes, pets, birds or other wildlife, or even humans make really cool subjects for reflections. Even product photography images can look really cool using reflections in the water.

Do you love landscape photography but need some help improving your photos? Check out the Cole’s Classroom Landscape Photography Course today!

alternate water reflection compositions

Tip #5 – Play with composition

There are no rules saying you have to shoot a water reflection that includes the scene AND the reflection. So switch it up! Try shooting just the reflection or changing the horizon line from the bottom third of your image to the top third.

Don’t feel like you need perfect symmetry in every shot! Try capturing just part of the reflected image. Then try capturing the whole reflected image but only part of the subject. See what you like best! The answer may surprise you!

Also try changing your shooting position. Get down low and shoot up toward the sky. Stand above the water and show the reflected sky. Get behind your subject and shoot down toward the water. There’s no wrong way, so be creative and have fun!

abstract water

What are the best settings for capturing water reflections?

There’s no single perfect group of settings to use for awesome water scenes. It really depends on your goals for the image. But here are some general guidelines…

  • If you want the whole scene in focus, use a narrow aperture, like f/8, f/11 or f/16.
  • For more abstract or ethereal images, try a wider aperture like f/2.8 or f/1.8. I find wider apertures combined with compositions using a great deal of the reflection itself can be really interesting!
  • If you want to retain detail and crispness in the reflection, use faster shutter speeds.
  • If you’re fighting wind and ripples, use it to your advantage instead! Use longer shutter speeds to smooth out rough water. Your reflection won’t be crisp, but the long exposure blurs the water into creamy dreaminess!
  • Use a tripod to prevent camera shake!
  • Try using different filters to change the look of your images. A polarizing filter can help reduce glare. Neutral density filters let less light in through your lens so you can leave your shutter open longer. Graduated filters can darken the sky but keep your foreground properly. If you don’t have these filters for your camera, borrow some from a photography friend and see which ones you like the best!

See our complete guide to Understanding Lens Filters for more great filter information!

No water? No Problem. Fake it with a phone screen or Photoshop!

This is sort of of a cheat when it comes to tips for capturing water reflections. Use the screen of your smart phone to make your own reflection or create a reflection that was never there in Photoshop.

Use your phone screen

  1. Hold your phone horizontally at the bottom edge of your lens.
  2. Looking through the viewfinder, tilt the phone toward you or away from you to get the look you want.
  3. Try taking off your case for a more seamless look.
  4. I have total fumble fingers and holding my camera, framing my scene and fiddling with my phone is begging for disaster. I usually use a tripod to make managing multiple devices easier!

Use Photoshop

You can also use Photoshop to capture water reflections that aren’t even there. And it’s not even that difficult of a process. Essentially, you create a new layer using the part of the scene you want to be reflected, flip the layer and then play with the blending of the copied layer into the original image and adding motion blur when needed. You may need to do a bit of masking, in the end, to make everything look au natural, but the process is pretty simple.

There’s a great video on making reflections at the bottom of this tutorial!
Obviously these techniques are sort of cheats, so be ethical about your use of them when it comes to your photography. If you’re entering a landscape photography competition where the scene is supposed to be all-natural, faking a reflection definitely doesn’t pass the straight test for me. But both can be a really fun and creative hack to use for weddings, portraits or even commercial photography!

Final Tip – Have Fun Capturing Water Reflections

My final tip is to simply have fun capturing water reflections in your scene. Remember, there are no right or wrong ways to do this or compose your image. So play with angles, horizon line, subject and composition. And don’t be afraid to try shooting on cloudy days or even on bright sunny days. You might find, despite these tips, you love the look it gives you. So get out there and enjoy creating beautiful art so nice we see it twice!