Over the many years I’ve been a photographer, I’ve experimented with a number of creative techniques. I began shooting film, way back when, and learned how to use the darkroom in college. I experimented with the basics, and then less mainstream techniques like double exposure to add an element of mystery to the final image.
I also enjoyed incorporating photography into my printmaking work. Although it doubled the processing time, I found photography in combination with printmaking gave my work depth and added visual interest that could only be achieved by two unique processes being layered with one another.
There was a magic that occurred with this technique. The image became more than a photograph, more than just a single moment captured in time. Bringing these elements together with the unpredictability of this sort of fusion is one of the very first ways I fell in love with photography.
Fast-forward many years later, as I slowly shifted from my beloved film into the digital age, and it was as if I had to learn all over again the methods of creating photographs with that kind of layered texture and depth. The digital darkroom, which was in fact more convenient and accessible, became a playground of options for my experimental artist’s heart. Although I’ve enjoyed that process, because I’m still drawn to creating work that includes the complexity of layers, I don’t always have the time or the patience to create the layered images of my dreams, like I did back in college.
Luckily, I’ve discovered a fun and easy (albeit, sometime challenging) way to capture that layered look in a single frame with no post-processing work required. With the use of simple and often subtle reflections on a variety of reflective surfaces, I’m able to experiment and play in real time as I shoot, instead of having to wait until I process my images. This gives me a spontaneous freedom and an added bonus of being constantly aware of my surroundings in anticipation of the perfect reflection to use in a photograph.
Places To Seek Out Reflections
In a puddle of water • On rain-slicked streets • In windows • On shiny floors • In a uniquely shaped mirror • On the surface of metal or glass objects • Sunglass lenses for portraits
All reflections aren’t created equal. There are mirrors, liquids, metallics and glasses of all types, to name a few. Each surface will offer a totally unique final result, and each image you create on or through that surface will yield something that’s nearly impossible to reproduce.
Every single element within your image is constantly changing when shooting on or through a surface. There are so many factors involved, it’s difficult to know with absolute certainty what will emerge within your frame. Such is the beauty of reflections. I’ve found that one of the most seductive elements of the process is that there’s no way to be in total control of the outcome. I’m always delighted by what emerges, especially when it’s a pleasant surprise. Many artists call those kinds of discoveries “happy accidents,” and I love opening myself and my process up to that kind of serendipitous magic.
So many shifting and changing elements are involved in capturing an image of reflections. First, as previously mentioned, the surface itself will dictate the overall feel of the photograph. Second, your surroundings will directly narrate the story of the layered results. And, lastly, like with most photography styles or genres, light plays a key role when using any of these surfaces in any location or scenario.
The light—with its direction and intensity—is what will illuminate both your subjects and the reflective surfaces so that they mirror back bits of pieces of the scene, whether that be a more clear, even literal representation (like in a mirror) or something more abstract and obscure (like through a window). The more you shoot images using this technique, the better you’ll be able to manipulate your surroundings for your optimum end image.
Although capturing these layered photographs can be challenging—the process itself being more of an art than a science—there are the more predicable aspects and outcomes that you can use to your advantage. Getting a textural layered look through a mirror, for example, comes when the surface is dirty—the specks of dust or imperfections actually lay over the subject being reflected back. Or, when shooting into windows, the layers appear either vividly or softly, depending on how each side of the window is lit. Capturing a little bit of what’s on both sides of the glass can be one of the most delightful surprises.
The more you experiment shooting into reflective surfaces and observing various results, the more carefully and deliberately you can work to manipulate your image into exactly the shot you want, using a scene or subject matter and its reflection to bring something totally new and fresh to the shot.
One of the most important considerations when shooting reflective surfaces is being aware of everything in and around the reflection, and then creatively framing it. By being conscious of all the layers that the reflection offers, you can place the elements within your viewfinder just like you would compose a shot with any other subject matter.
Every part of what you can detect in a reflection plays a part in the final image. All of the rules of good composition apply, especially when inviting all the vague and mysterious shapes, shadows and colors into your layered work of art. And because you’re working with more than one subject—a reflective image offers two, at the very least—you have to be even more mindful of where you’re placing all of the various elements within your frame to avoid visual chaos or confusion.
Even with all of that being said, I would never, could never encourage you to try to control every single part of the creative process when it comes to this kind of photography. For as much as you can try to harness all of the elements of every scenario, I urge you to embrace everything that might appear with—or better yet, without—you being aware. Let the unexpected emerge. Be open to accidents. Invite creative coincidence. Allow for magic.
Just as layers of images can work together to create a more beautiful whole, our artistic intentions can mingle with the muses of creativity, bringing to light something far more wonderful than we could have ever imagined.
Simple Ideas For Reflective Experimentations
- Use line, repetition and shape in ways that bring visual harmony to the big picture.
- Try to establish a main focal point to avoid creating a shot that might be too chaotic or confusing.
- Look for subtleties in texture and color, and place them within the frame for added interest and balance.
- Remember that even just a hint of a reflection can be a curious and compelling addition to your image.
- Use this technique to evoke emotion. You’re the artist. Make a statement.
- Discover yourself in your reflection. As photographers who are usually behind the camera, it’s important to reveal ourselves once in a while.
- Pay attention to where your own reflection is within the shot. There are all kinds of creative ways to place yourself in the frame.
- Experiment, be playful, and allow for magic and surprise to find their way into your frame. Happy accidents are common when shooting reflections.
- Although it’s not necessary, post-processing can help you enhance or bring out the parts of the reflections you want to highlight in your image. It can help you to achieve your desired results.
Shutter Sisters is a collaborative photo blog (www.shuttersisters.com) and thriving community of women, passionate about photography. Photographer, author and teacher Tracey Clark (www.traceyclark.com) is the founder of Shutter Sisters and author of Elevate the Everyday: A Photographic Guide to Picturing Motherhood (Focal Press).