Viewpoints

Reflected Light

Making images involving reflected light offers the colour photographer some of the most creative and striking opportunities for successful picture making. Many surfaces, including water and ice, are able to reflect the colour and shape of distant objects and this feature can be deliberately incorporated by the photographer as a key element in the composition of an image, assuming one locates the correct angle of view.

'Loch Etive'
'Loch Etive'
It is most common to deploy this technique in 'mirror like' reflections of subjects like mountain ranges or dramatic sunsets and this approach often features amongst early successful landscape images made by newcomers to photography. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that such mirror images are simply the tip of the iceberg. The range of subjects that can be photographed effectively in this way is endless: it can include buildings, the fabulous colours of autumn or spring trees, plants and flowers like water lilies, single pink clouds, blue skies, cliffs, mountainsides and many more besides. The image can simply be about the subject and reflection where this is strong. In other cases, one might deliberately place a reflective surface as one of several elements in the image, its role being more subtle, more supportive. Other times, it is possible to focus in on the detail of the reflection itself, seeking to represent the fabulous patterns, textures and colours it reveals or even to abstract the object being reflected.

When shape and detail in the reflection is critical to the success of the image, the quality of the reflection is vital and success usually requires conditions of no wind to avoid ripples on the water. When the wind gets up, the detail vanishes and we get a mass of colour instead. If our intention is a mirror like result then clearly we need to wait for a moment when the wind drops or return another time.

'Summer Dawn at Saltwick Bay'
'Summer Dawn at Saltwick Bay'
The case of sunrise is very interesting and sometimes quite frustrating. Often, just before sunrise, it is possible to get the calm conditions needed for high quality reflections. However just as the sun rises, the air temperature starts to increase and a slight wind can get up ruining the reflection. It can take several minutes for the wind to drop in such cases (if at all) and I find from experience that there is usually a key moment to make the image, just prior to the sun getting up. With this subject matter, like in so many other images, the decisive moment is critical. Not only does the reflection have to be of the right quality but it has to be the right content – this may be changing over time due to changes in the quality and direction of light or even because the reflection moves (if it is a cloud for example).

'Reflected Bay'
'Reflected Bay'
An interesting debate that surrounds reflections is geometrical accuracy. The camera differs from the way we see with our eyes in many respects, but one significant difference is the change in image shape caused by tilting the camera upwards or downwards. When the film plane of the camera is tilted downwards (for example when the horizon is placed somewhere in the top half of the picture), it causes a surprising effect: the shape of objects at the top of the image are distorted making them appear slightly bigger and closer. The reverse happens to objects at the bottom which appear slightly further away and smaller. This has a distressing affect on two parallel lines, for example the edges of a building, which no longer look parallel; they point inwards at the bottom.

If the camera is tilted upwards, the reverse happens and buildings seem to collapse in on themselves. The challenge is that the human eye and brain does not see like this; we ‘know’ the lines are parallel and we still see them as parallel when we look upwards or downwards. The camera has distorted reality. This distortion is particularly acute in reflections because quite often the reflection is at the bottom of the image and the object being reflected is at the top and we are able to make a direct comparison.

The photographer is posed with a choice: do we accept the distorted result caused by the camera or do we seek to use our knowledge of camera technique to make an image that corresponds more closely to how the eye sees the world? I, for one, firmly believe that many images call for a formal or shall we say ‘natural’ rendering of the perspective and I think that reflections are amongst the most important of these. Whilst distorted and unnatural perspective offers a view that can be eye catching at first sight, I find it intrusive, a distraction from the purpose of the image.

'Fish, Chips n Pickies'
'Fish, Chips n Pickies'
So how do we correct the perspective? If the camera is setup level (i.e. setup at right angles to the two upright parallel lines in the image or with the horizon along the centre of the image), the perspective will be accurate but of course this composition may not be desirable. It is possible to control perspective through various techniques. One option is to adjust the perspective afterwards using computer software, such as Photoshop. Whilst this is effective in restoring the perspective, it has several drawbacks: pixels in the image have to be thrown away or merged, the edges of the frame are cropped and it is extra post processing work. Another similar and effective approach is to setup the camera level and plan to crop the image at the top or bottom. Both of these approaches require manipulation of the image afterwards and require significant cropping. Getting it right first time in camera involves using specialist lenses (such as tilt shift lenses for 35mm cameras) or cameras like large format view cameras which have the ability to adjust the film plane independently from the lens and camera plane.

What is not always understood is that it is also possible for some apparently non reflective surfaces (such as white and grey rock) to reflect the colour temperature of the light that is illuminating it. For example, dark grey rocks can appear blue when illuminated by a clear blue sky. White or light grey rocks can look pink or even red when illuminated at dawn or dusk. Why is this?

'Bay Light Reflected'
'Bay Light Reflected'
The colour temperature of light is not constant but changes during the day and the variation is caused by light scattering. Many of us have vague recollections of science lessons where diagrams were drawn of light hitting a prism and all the colours of the ‘rainbow’ were separated out because each colour has a different wavelength. Many of us may even remember a mnemonic used to help us memorise the various colours. I was taught the phrase ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ to represent the colours in the spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. What you may notice about these colours is that all the ‘warm’ colours are at one end of the spectrum (longest wavelength, lowest frequency and energy) and the ‘colder’ or bluer and purple colours are at the other end (shortest wavelength, highest frequency and energy).

What happens is that as the light strikes the atmosphere, it gets scattered by gas molecules. The light with the longest wavelengths pass through whereas the shorter wavelength light (blues and purples) are scattered or radiated in all directions. The result is that when we look upwards at a cloudless sky during the day we see mostly scattered blue light. Hence we see a blue sky.

'Dawn at Loch Clair'
'Dawn at Loch Clair'
Around sunrise or sunset, the sun strikes the earth at a more acute angle and the light has relatively more distance to travel through the atmosphere compared to during the middle of the day when the sun strikes the earth directly. In this case, even more of the light at the blue end of the spectrum is scattered and as a result direct sunlight at this time has relatively less light from the blue-violet end of the spectrum. Hence, closer to sunset or sunrise the direct light is warmer meaning more light from the warm end of the spectrum is striking the ground compared to the middle of the day. A white or light grey rock illuminated by direct light at sunset can be coloured red or pink.

In the shade we get the opposite effect occurring (when there are no clouds). Subjects are illuminated by scattered light from the blue end of the spectrum and very little warmer direct light reaches into the shadows unless they are reflected from clouds or particles in the atmosphere like dust or water. The practical up shot is that a mid grey rock in the shade under a blue sky is actually coloured blue. White (snow for example) is light blue.

Our eyes are very good at automatically compensating for the colour temperature of cold light and we will usually see ‘blue’ light as much warmer than it is. Hence the grey seems to be grey rather than blue. Film or digital sensors do not make these adjustments and they see the light for what it is. Most film is balanced for the direct daylight light of the middle of the day, meaning that in these conditions grey and white should appear grey and white. If we want to preserve the accuracy of the whites or greys as the colour temperature of light changes, we need to filter the image using red or blue filters or adjust the colours using digital processing after we have captured the image.

Digital users have a major advantage in that these cameras usually have a sensor to measure the colour temperature of light and the necessary colour adjustments can be made automatically in the camera. Even better, if ‘raw’ files are captured the adjustment can be made afterwards in the computer.

'Snow Grasses'
'Snow Grasses'
Compensating for the colour temperature is not always the right choice. If we want snow to be white or if we want skin tones to be natural then we might make the adjustment: auto white balance in such situations is fine. We might choose to warm up the cold light in shadows if that is to our taste. However, we can also deliberately use the variation of colour temperature from the ‘daylight’ norm as a key component of the image using the warm or cold colours created by reflected light to strong effect. I have found over the years my tastes and therefore my choices have changed. My previous instinct to always ‘warm things up’ has become much more moderated. In particular, I find images that have been over ‘warmed up’ unnatural and incongruent. I still like the beauty of warm light in certain cases, but I have also come to appreciate and relish the beauty and potential of blue light in the right image.

In this respect digital has a major advantage of convenience over film. In a digital workflow, the white balance choice can be postponed until much later in the workflow (post processing) and the result can be fine tuned visually. Whilst it is possible for the film user to make some colour temperature adjustments at the scanning or Photoshop stages of the workflow, film photographers generally have to learn to visualise the result in advance. However, despite this, when shooting landscape images on digital, I would typically set the white balance to ‘daylight’ and plan to work the image based on knowing or ‘pre-visualising’ how the colour temperature will be recorded. Auto white balance actually neutralises the colour of light and as a result takes away control and choice.

To compound matters for the film user, different film emulsions react differently to the colour temperature of light and this has to be factored in. For example, Fuji Velvia reacts very differently to Fuji Provia and by experience one learns which emulsion to use for different conditions. I find the new Velvia in particular responds wonderfully well in ‘blue’ light conditions.

'Falls of Light'
'Falls of Light'
Not all images involving reflected light call for accurate, detailed reflections. If the photographer can construct an image where the detail in the reflection does not matter to the composition, then a whole dimension of photographic possibilities can be opened up and some remarkable images can ensue. For example moving water and ice reflect light without discernable detail but nevertheless I have found it possible to use the dramatic colour to create some magnificent results. Blues, greens, yellows, pinks, reds and many other colours can take centre stage.

This opens up another whole dimension of choice for the landscape photographer, the theory of colour. The importance of compositional harmony was discussed at length in my article on patterns in the landscape. A number of colour theorists have developed parallel theories of colour harmony, creating the concepts of complimentary and analogous colours. They construct a colour wheel based on mixing the three primary colours of Red, Yellow and Green into a secondary set of colours and then by mixing these again into a tertiary colour sequence. At the secondary level the sequence runs red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple and the astute will notice that this bears an uncanny resemblance to the spectrum of colours discussed above.

The reason that this is put into a wheel is that the theory goes that certain colour combinations are harmonious: adjacent colours (e.g. yellow and green are next to each other) and complimentary colours, which are those that are directly opposite each other in the wheel (i.e. red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple). Constructing images using this theory can help to create a sense of harmony and balance or introduce an element of discord, which ever is required.

'Streams of Light'
'Streams of Light'
The purpose of this article has been to explore the world of reflected light. When the shutter is pressed and an image is committed to film or sensor, the photographer is capturing and photographing light. Another way to look at it is that that we photographers paint with light. We select the subject, construct the relationship between the elements inside the frame through composition but most of the time that is not enough to take an image beyond the mere ‘record’ of what is there. Deciding how to paint the scene with light, pre visualising the result and arranging to be there when this happens is an equally important choice.

(c) Jon Brock 2009