Most of the subjects we photograph are by reflected light. That is, a light source illuminates a subject which, in turn, reflects light from its surface. We then bring those reflected light rays into focus on a digital imaging sensor (or film emulsion) which records the image.
So most of our images are reflections and the nature of these reflections – contrasty, dark, light and so on – is largely subject dependant. For example, you wouldn’t expect to obtain a full tonal range when photographing a black billiard ball or get a specular highlight from a hessian bag.
The lighting controls we use which modify the light before it strikes the subject are really about how we create shadows on and around the subject. The modelling effect of the shadows is one of the most important controls that allow us to reproduce three-dimensional subjects on two-dimensional media and still manage to convey to the viewer the subject’s three-dimensional nature.
This modelling effect works in conjunction with perspective control and our previous visual experience to generate the three-dimensional effect on what is essentially a two-dimensional medium. For example, imagine a wide-angle lens positioned close to an obliquely lit flower with a mountain range in the distance. The angular light creates form and texture within the petals of the flower while the mountains look quite small. Previous experience will tell us that flowers are not larger than mountains and so we assume that the photographer has placed the viewer up-close-and-personal to the flower, exaggerating the perspective. Without a previous knowledge of flowers and mountains, this type of image, if transmitted into space, would be a poor choice as it could distort an alien’s perspective of what it really looks like here.
Using what I call ‘secondary reflections’ can be another way of creating interesting images from sometimes mundane subjects. Virtually everything in the universe has, or leaves behind, a signature. Photographing the virtual image or signature created by a subject can create some thought provoking images.
However, there are some issues that you often have to contend with when creating these types of images especially when you include a real and a virtual image in the same composition. To demonstrate a virtual image, have a look at the inverted, diminished, virtual image in the wine glass above.
The image is inverted because it is seen upside down. It is diminished because it is much smaller than the subject itself. It’s also virtual in that it is brought to an imaginary focal point a few centimetres in front of the glass. You could place a focusing screen at any distance from the glass and the image will not be rendered focused on it. This type of virtual image is created by transmission. The only way of getting both – the real image of the wine glass and the virtual image within in it – into focus on the sensor of your camera is to focus on the glass then ensure the depth-of-field extends far enough in front of the glass to render the virtual image sharp as well, or vice-versa.
Photographing the virtual image of clouds produced by reflection in a puddle of water will create a similar situation. the lilies in the foreground were only two metres from the lens while the reflection of the clouds in the sky – being the virtual image – were in focus at infinity. The lens was focused a little past two metres, but the lens aperture was stopped down to f16.5.
Another approach would be to use a longer lens positioned farther away from the pond. If the lens wasn’t too long, the pond and virtual image may just fall into focus at infinity.
Either of these techniques could increase the depth-of-field so that the clouds appeared in focus as well. Had the clouds not been there, it wouldn’t have mattered because without the texture of the clouds you wouldn’t be able to determine if a bald blue sky was sharply focused or not. For my previous article on the use of a polarising filter see the August 2011 issue of ProPhoto.
When both the virtual image and the subject are both at infinity then this focusing issue need be of no concern. Some old storage sheds on a fjord in Norway – made an interesting composition of colour at play on the water even though the sheds and their surroundings weren’t all that interesting.
In The Shadows
When working with reflections you will not only have to pay attention to the depth-of-field required, but to shutter speed as well. Not all reflections may be static, even if the subject producing the reflection is. In the case of Image 4, the water was in motion although the sheds weren’t. This required a fast shutter speed to render the texture of the water sharp and free from motion blur.
If a large lens aperture is required for a shallow depth-of-field and a slower shutter speed is required than that aperture will allow, I often use neutral density (ND) filtration. I prefer this approach to altering the ISO setting because I always like to shoot at the camera’s native ISO setting.
On occasions, using a shadow and transmitted light together can be an effective way of gaining a viewer’s interest. In Image 5 a highlight and a splash of colour was produced by light being transmitted through a glass of coloured water. The surrounding edges of the glass created a shadow outline on the plane it was resting on. Shadows aren’t actually reflected light, but the absence of it. They are also the two-dimensional evidence of an existing three-dimensional subject.
It was achieved in the studio by using a point source of light positioned several metres from the subject at a low angle. This created a long, well-defined shadow umbra. Some general fill was used to lower the contrast between the white table top and the densest shadow area. Again this can be a method of auto suggestion, provoking viewers to create their own vision of what the glass of wine actually looked like through previous visual experience. The shadow’s shape and perspective is distorted and therefore have to be interpreted. It’s a case of how much apple do you have to show to say it’s an apple?
Shadow signatures can also create what is known as a figure of confusion. This is where the shape of the shadow generated by an object is inconsistent with the shape of the object generating it. A good example would a magic lantern show where signatures representing known characters like rabbits or birds are created by a person holding his or her hands in the path of a light source.
Sometimes the shadow signature, although inconsistent with the object creating it, will be another recognisable shape. This is known as a figure of confusion. A well-known figure of confusion uses the negative space of a silhouetted vase to create a reversed image of two people facing one another
When I was studying photography at Queensland College of Art, one of our core subjects was design. It was here that we studied design elements like the forms and textures you could employ to make striking images.
Combining two or more design elements like reflections and repetition is another way to make abstract images. When reflective surfaces face one another an effect similar to pointing two mirrors at one another can be created.
This could be as simple as having two reflective surfaces on buildings bounce off one another when the lighting was just right. The possibilities are almost endless. Another two elements designers call ‘emphasising colour’ and ‘slow rhythm’ come together to make this image work.
One recent project of mine using secondary reflections was to use a Claude mirror in the capturing of photographs (see the July 2010 issue of ProPhoto).
The images you can create using techniques like these won’t suit everyone or every subject, but it certainly can add a new dimension to your photography by thinking out of the square.
Reflections by transmission and secondary reflections can be an influential component in the creation of an image. When you start looking they appear everywhere.
So, the next time you are shooting an assignment and you find yourself with your back against the wall when trying to create new and interesting ideas to present to your client, keep the aesthetics of reflections in mind. They can really make for some thought-provoking images.
Andy Cross is an expert in image prepress and printing techniques, both traditional and digital. He runs Visual Impact Photography in Brisbane which specialises in fine-art photography and making exhibition quality prints. He can be contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org