Tips for Shooting Water Reflection Photos

Take some quality pics over a lake or river

When making the switch from point-and-shoot cameras to DSLRs or to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), one great aspect of the more advanced hardware is the additional manual settings available. These extra options give you the capability to shoot some impressive photos that are difficult to duplicate with a beginner-level camera.

One such type of photo is one where a water reflection creates a mirror image. It takes a few different camera settings and just the right lighting conditions to create the desired look with a large body of water.

Try these suggestions to figure out how to use an advanced camera's various features to shoot with water reflections in your images.

Water reflection
 huoguangliang / Getty Images

Useful Tips for Shooting Photos of Water

  • Choose the right subjects. Quite a few different objects will work well as the subject that appears in the reflection in this type of photo, including forests with fall foliage, lights in a city skyline at night, interesting building architecture, mountains, ocean piers, seabirds and plants, and umbrellas and other common beach toys and objects.
  • Use a small aperture. Shooting a photo of water with a reflection requires that you use a small aperture opening, meaning a large portion of the photo will be in focus. Try f11 or f22 settings for shooting water with a strong reflection.
  • Find the right lens. The maximum aperture at which you can shoot will depend on the type of lens you’re using with your DSLR or mirrorless ILC. So to shoot this type of photo, don’t worry about the lens’ focal length capabilities. Instead, make sure you find a lens that offers the ability to shoot at a small aperture/large f-stop setting.
  • Try to use a fast shutter speed. You’ll also want to set the shutter speed to be pretty fast, as doing so will minimize blurring from any ripples in the water. Cranking up this setting shouldn’t be too big of a problem when shooting photos of the water during the daytime. When more light is available, the camera can shoot at a higher speed. Fortunately, with a DSLR camera, setting a high shutter speed manually is pretty easy.
  • Don’t increase the ISO too much. If you find that you don’t have quite enough light to shoot both at high shutter speed and at a large aperture, you may have to increase the ISO setting a bit. Try not to go beyond ISO 400 or 800, if possible, so you don’t introduce too much noise into the image and make your final photo look "grainy."
  • Set the autofocus to the reflection. A good way to ensure that the reflection stays clear is to use it to set the camera’s autofocus. You want the mirror image to be as sharp as possible in the photo. You might have to use a tripod to ensure a steady hand and a sharp image.
  • Set the exposure point manually. Be sure to use your mirrorless ILC or DSLR camera’s manual exposure settings to expose the photo for a portion of the water where no reflection is occurring. Don’t rely on automatic exposure settings, as the camera may try to set the exposure based on some area inside the reflection, potentially leaving the image underexposed.
  • Make sure the weather is calm. You’ll want to try to shoot the water when the surface is calm. Wind causes ripples in the water that will distort the reflection.
  • Avoid shooting at mid-day with bright sun. Photos of water reflections tend to work better early or late in the day when the sun is low in the sky. Shooting in overcast conditions tend to result in a better mirror image, too.
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