The reflected image is a common compositional element in photography. When effectively employed, it adds something special to an image. In macro photography, this technique is often used to reveal the surrounding world as reflected in a single dew drop. In portraiture, the image of your subject reflected against rain-streaked glass adds drama. A reflection in a landscape photograph can make an image more compelling to the eye.
What is is about a reflection that draws our attention? Well for one, a reflection presents the world in a new and different way. In the above photograph, Hallett Peak is seen reflecting off the glassy surface of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The reflection turns everything upside down, delivering an unusual perspective on a twelve thousand foot mountain. A reflection can imbue a scene with a strong element of symmetry. If you block the lower half of the above image, the upper half is irregular in form, hue and texture. In short it is not symmetrical and that is very common in nature. Rarely does nature produce a straight line, a perfectly round circle or a perfectly balanced scene. So, when we find such a thing, it tends to get our attention.
A reflection draws our attention to the seam where the reflected and direct views join. In this image, the seam coincides with the junction between the pine forest and the water’s edge. Typically, this would not be a leading line or a particularly strong element in the composition. The mountain would be the dominant element. However, as the brain seeks to understand this oddly symmetrical pattern, it naturally seeks and identifies that transitional area of the image. Finding the seam or fold allows the brain to determine that the unnaturally symmetrical form is not a singular artificial construct. It is simply a reflection of an otherwise normally irregular landscape scene.
Finally, a reflection plays on the inherently voyeuristic nature of visual perception. The act of looking at something establishes a clear distinction between you, the observer, and the subject, that which is observed. On the morning I made the above photo, I hiked about 3/4-mile along a trail to the east side of Sprague Lake. During that walk, I was in nature. I was within and part of the place. However, the act of setting up my camera and observing the scene as a subject to be photographed established a distinction or separation between me and the natural setting. That act transformed me into an outside observer.
A person can observe someone or something either directly or indirectly. The act of observing indirectly is inherently voyeuristic. Some element of the observation was unintended. This can result from observing in secret without the subject’s knowledge or permission. It can also result from an observation that reveals some unintended quality of the subject. The reflected image is not natural. It is not how the subject normally appears to others. It is a bit like jogging down the sidewalk on your morning run and having your neighbor walk out the front door in his bathrobe. It’s 6:00 AM and he figured the rest of world would be asleep as he went out to fetch the morning paper. Surprise, surprise.
So to summarize, a reflection skews our perspective, presenting the subject in a way we are not used to seeing. A reflection triggers the human brain’s natural tendency to recognize symmetry and patterns, and to analyze such appearances to determine if they are natural or artificial. A reflection can also trigger feelings of being a voyeur. Because we see the subject in an unusual or unexpected manner, there is a sense of being privy to something that is either uninvited or unintended.
Of course, it is quite natural to respond in unexpected ways to these visual, mental and emotional stimuli. You might be momentarily confused, even questioning the authenticity of the scene. There may even be an emotional response. Seeing something again for the first time can produce strong feelings. Whatever the response, it is the very fact that seeing something in reflection can be a catalyst for intense thoughts or feelings that makes it such a powerful element of composition. As artists, we photographers feel joy when others take pleasure in our work. We may feel pain when others are critical. But the greatest sadness comes when others simply dismiss our photographs as not worthy of notice.
Now, get out there and shoot.
Bill Ferris | September 2014