Use Reflection in your Light Painting Photography

Ways to involve Reflections into your Photography

Light Painting Tree

Reflection what?

A reflection always makes an image a little bit more interesting. To make it POP using a reflection in your photography or even in your Light Painting is a challenging task. In my opinion that exactly why I am drawn towards it. The challenge to the curious brain is what I look for. Is the viewer going to figure it out? The photographer as well as the viewer is required to have a decent comprehension of the perspective and the angles and corners the light will go. Artistically you can create images with a special twist for the artistic and engineers eye. I use Reflection in Light Painting Photography very often.

Reflections can be hard to capture because you might find yourself on the ground in the mud and literally pressed to the wall. Here we are trying to investigate options that do not involve Photoshop manipulation. That’s not what my blog is about.

Reflections can provide the most amazing and interesting effects. Using the effect of reflections can completely shift the view on an image from something simple boring and straightforward to crazy abstract and artistic. On top of all that. It’s just so much more fun than just pushing the button.

Use Reflection in your Light Painting Photography

Reflection Why?

Well, we kind of already said why. It just looks cool. But why does it look cool? What makes it interesting? Let’s do some neuroscience and psychological study here. No time? Ok, I’ll keep it short.

The keyword here is perceptual visual salience:
– Your Life starts with looking at yourself in the mirror to develop a sense of self. The self-recognition test also explains a degree of intelligence.
– Reflections allow us to shift perspective in viewing us and the world from a different angle. First for sure just visual. But if a photograph can trigger your imagination you can go places.
– Especially when seeing anther person directly as well as in a reflection the human brain will automatically follow a process of perspective-shifting to evaluate the situation. That’s the interesting part where we ask ourselves, what would I look like when I stand there.

As always: when you see another human in the image it will be 1000x more interesting. Now imagine you put an extra puzzle, an extra human that looks just the same. There are now two humans in the scene but only one is actually the reflection. Which human representation of the person is the reflection? Which one is the real one? Our brains love puzzles. That’s how you can make your images more interesting.

Puddle, Lake or River look for water.

Bring a bottle of water and create a puddle and go on your knees. Find that low vantage point and shoot. So simple. To increase the effect of depth of field you can use a low F-Stop and through the surroundings into the bokeh. If you don’t have a lens like that you can do that with a little trash bag. Super useful.

Reflection of the Vatican by Gunnar Heilmann

Reflection of the Vatikan in a street puddle.

Reflection Beijing Bird Nest Stadium

Reflection of the Beijing Bird Nest Stadium in a street puddle.

You can find Reflections in windows, entire facades of buildings, your Phone, you Sunglasses, the coffee mug …

Find reflective surfaces like Glass or Metal. Sometimes a Truck with shiny wheels will do the trick. There will be some sort of deformation but that is the kind of puzzle the curious brain is looking for. In order to get more reflex into your reflection, you can boost up the shadows with your flashlight. Light Up the areas that are in the shadow.

Phone or Sunglasses always go and are fun. Here the brain recognizes the reflective object right away and we as viewers will have it easy to relate to it and find a different reality in it. Isn’t that what we are looking for? Instagram is full of it.
You can also just bring a window glass to your shooting. Depending on the angle you can use the total reflection in the glass. SORRY, Not going to explain that when Wikipedia has a great article on that.

reflection mirror lisbon light painting

Just try to figure out from what position did I cast the kick light for her long shadow. I love that puzzle and I am always super happy if it triggers a discussion. Since that is not a Photoshop task.

Composition – Vantage Point

If you found your reflecting surface or medium you need to understand the perspective and think of your composition. Find your subject in the right way in your reflecting surface. You have probably done that with sunglasses or at the rear mirror of a car. Yes, that’s what you going to do, but with purpose.
You will need to look at the composition as a whole not just for the original direct view onto your subject. Include that in your thought process. Walk around make sure you align the right features of your subject in the right area to reflect. Often you will end up in a much more symmetric result than in a golden rule situation. You will want to show off the sky and clouds also in the reflection. But Hey – anything goes.

Many times photographers would tell you to go as close to the reflection surface to have a super low vantage point. In most cases, I would do the same. BUT! If you are looking for an effect that makes the reflection look at least somewhat different you may choose a higher or offset vantage point. WHY?

If you are further away from the reflecting surface your reflection will look much more different than the original subject view. If your image looks to perfect the viewer may think you simply chose Photoshop as a mirror. If your reflection looks actually somewhat different it can’t be that right 😉

reflection devils bridge light painting

Can you see the branches of the tree in the reflection on the left? You cant fix that in Photoshop. Yes, that is a proper reflection. That makes it so much more interesting.

What settings?

You may ask what settings are the best for reflections, but that also is an artistic decision. You will have to make that decision based on what mood you want to deliver. What areas of the photo shall get the attention. Anyhow here are my recommendations to start with:

Shutter speed:  For me it’s simple. Most of my photographs are pretty much long exposures by default. That’s the world I live in. That usually gives you a better reflection. But if the water has lots of ripples, because of wind you will have. If you go fast the reflections will give you great distortions that can look interesting. Play with that

Aperature setting: There are again two ways. A) If you have a person or a particular subject you want to show off I would suggest a low F-Stop so you gain more depth of field. That will make the subject stand out more. When shooting a landscape you will probably try to go around or beyond F-11 to get the ultimate sharp and crisp images.

Pro Tip: If you have too many ripples because the water is to wild, look for A) more quiet area or B) create it by a wind shade in a small part of a river shore or C) dig a small side hole where the river is not flowing all that can reduce the ripples in the water. You will end up with a more realistic reflection. Don’t make it to perfect it will look like Photoshop!

reflection low f-stop light painting

You see that Lisa’s reflection is more blurry. Low F-Stop gets you to narrow down your focus layer. The photo was taken from an angle that the light from her reflection has a much longer path to the camera. Bam, out of focus.

Reflection light painting orb
Reflection Tube Light Painting

Both Images illustrate that the reflection of your subject takes a longer path to the camera. The energy of the light will lose its impact on the sensor. This is called the Inverse-square law. Whatever that means if you double the distance to the camera only a quarter of your light will reach the sensor. In both examples the direct light is overexposed and I fucked up. Yet it is cool because the reflection is good with Natalia in Uyuni the perfect mirror. Anyhow; please remember the reflection will be less exposed.

Usually, you end up with a difference between the original and reflection of an entire F-Stop. So if your ‘problem’ reverses you can even use an ND filter for compensating the effect. I would actually use a hat for a second or two covering up the top of the lense. Same effect with more human variables factors.

As you can also see: Mirror wise there is no better place than Uyuni in Bolivia. If you get a chance to drive out into the Playa de Uyuni / the Salt flats you will find the most amazing and biggest mirror on the planet.

What Lense?

Again that’s one of those questions that you and your artistic/creative mid have to work out. For Landscape, you go wide-angle lens with a high F-Stop and portraits you can go low F-Stop to create a shallow depth of field. Yes! I will leave that to you, because that is a simple composition issue. Your decision 😉

Another reflection topic is – Kaleidoscope

Did you also have one when you been a kid? A Kaleidoscope is all about mirrors. By definition, we are talking about two or more reflecting surfaces tilted towards each other. Source Wikipedia. It’s pretty much just mirrors everywhere the camera can see.
During the last year, the topic of kaleidoscope had a huge run. Many light painter jumped on testing their version.
See two examples playing with my Ikea closet.

Light Painting Kaleidoscope
Light Painting Kaleidoscope
Camera Rotation of Lisa at the BUND in Shanghai

False Reflection – Camera Rotation

Sometimes you can trick the brain into looking for the reflection, when it’s actually a Camera Rotation. I do love the situation when people say: Woah cool reflection when it’s actually not. Just rotated the camera and the brain wants to understand how the reflection came about. So that is another option you have to make the viewer think twice.

My example shows Lisa once looking at the Skyline of Shanghai and once at us. Both times I used a subtle Light Painting to make her stand out the crowd. The floor tiles ripples almost make it look like the river. When people know the location they want to see the river from the opposite side of the Pudong Skyline. Do you want to see more Light Painting – Camera Rotations?

Fire Light Painting - Camera Rotation

Reflection in Light Painting Photography
Photo Challenge

If you read this far, you are my kind of photography nerd. I like that. I got something for you.

As we said. Reflections are super interesting. Let’s take it to the next level together. Here I have some homework or better call it a challenge. Imagin you scribble a word with a night writer from Darren Pearson or something like that. As you get a reflection the words will reflect in the puddle. Even with a simple one surface reflection, we can get a super twister in our brain.

Here is the task: Write one sentence that will be mirrored in the water or sunglasses whatever. Show me some words or sentences that makes somewhat sense ALSO in the reflection. What is he talking about? Some letters are horizontal asymmetric. When you write it in the air you can read that word as well as in the reflection or your puddle. Please go get artistic and engineer some light paintings. Show me what you come up with.

Help: Take for example the word ICE





See what I came up with below. The YouTube video shows you live how I did it. I hope it challenges you guys as well.

Light Painting reflection writing
Light Painting reflection writing


Reflections are awesome and lucky us everywhere and pretty much all around for us to find. Go crazy use the opportunity to make a difference with your images. Combine and swap techniques and ideas. Get inspired by what I shared with you and make it yours.
Go open your artistic eye and explore it in a more creative way. Don’t just press the button. Give me a riddle or reflection puzzle.
It’s a fun way to step outside your comfort zone and improve your skills!

Light Painting Reflection Pool

At Last some Practical Tips and Tricks for using Reflection in Light Painting Photography

  1. Why not bring a Yoga mat 😉 then you can stay on the ground for a while.
  2. If you don’t want to stay on the ground: Use a remote trigger or app and connect to your camera like the Foolography
    That way you can see what’s in your frame and don’t have to lay on the ground.
  3. Always bring different lenses to play with different perspective and different depth of fields. Play around.
reflection beach head stand

Yes, that’s me doing a headstand on a beach in Brasil.

Thank you for your attention. Super glad you made it all the way down here. Want to leave a comment or a question. Don’t hesitate.

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