The reflection of light can be characterized in one of two ways. Put simply, when light hits a rough or heterogeneous surface, the light scatters back in many directions as a diffused reflection. When, on the other hand, light strikes a smooth, homogenous surface, it is reflected back in a single direction as an image; this is called a specular reflection, and it’s the mirroring effect we see against glass, water, metal, and other highly polished or glossy surfaces. Early mirrors, in fact, were manufactured from polished obsidian, copper, bronze, copper, and tin.
Seek out surfaces this week that produce specular reflections, and watch for opportunities to capture your subject in tandem with its reflection. Certainly beautiful results can be had with a standard mirror, but also play around with less traditional surfaces for unexpectedly creative takes on photographic reflections. Consider the following:
1. Specularity of Surface
Many objects have a combination of diffuse and specular reflective properties, which means that the reflected image may lack the clarity and detail of a pristine mirror image. Consider, for example, the reflected image visible on an aluminum baking sheet, plexiglass, a fogged up mirror, or shiny granite. Somewhat less specular surfaces can be especially interesting in the way they reduce subjects to a blur of abstract colors. A pear sitting on a table might reflect nothing more than subdued greens and reds on the surface of the glossy wood.
2. Opacity of Surface
Mirrors are traditionally comprised of glass laid upon an aluminum or silver backing for an opaque, tremendously specular surface. However, glass without the backing is also highly specular, and its “opacity” depends on the proportion of light on each side of it; the side with a higher proportion of light shining on the glass has more specularity. This is also, in part, how one-way mirrors work: the window in a brightly lit interrogation room yields a specular reflection back like a mirror, whereas the observers are located in a dark setting that doesn’t throw (as much) light against the glass. Consequently, if you want to make glass more mirror-like, increase the differences in the amount of light on each side, either adding light to the side with your subject, or darkening the side opposite. If, however, you want to juxtapose the a subject’s reflection on one side of the glass with the setting or subjects that appear opposite, try to balance the light on each side to some degree.
3. Curvature of Surface
While traditional mirrors are flat, convex and concave “funhouse” mirrors produce distortion that can be comical or simply unexpected. The same is true of other convex or concave reflective surfaces, such as the front or back of a common spoon.
4. Disruption of Surface
Consider objects with very high specularity whose surfaces have been disrupted in some way, and observe the way such a disruption affects the integrity of the reflection. Examples here abound, including a cracked (but intact) mirror, crumpled aluminum foil, or a water-based reflection disrupted by falling raindrops.
5. Area of Surface
See if you can incorporate reflections against surfaces that are very small or irregular in shape, letting that surface serve as an unexpected frame or abrupt crop on the reflection. Small or irregular surfaces might include the blade of a highly polished knife, the overflow drain in a bathtub, a very small puddle pooling on the asphalt, or a compact mirror.
6. Continuity of Surface
Can you find a single subject’s reflection that appears on multiple, discontinuous surfaces, such as a sink full of individual metal pots, broken shards of glass, or a collection of small puddles? The result might be a reflection divided, or it might yield a reflection repeated throughout.
7. Reflections and Processing
You might take creative liberties with your reflections by deliberately changing them to reflect a different reality, generate an unsettling or unexpected viewing experience, or otherwise make a statement about the subject’s relationship with its mirror image. A favorite example of creative processing as it relates to reflections appears in Tom Hussey’s “Reflections” series. On the flip side, if you want realistic fidelity between your actual subject and the mirror image, be sure that any processing, cloning, etc that you do is reflected on both sides.
8. Symbolism and Messaging
Mirrors and reflections are, of course, commonly used in the arts for their metaphorical significance. Reflections are often thought to suggest narcissism, wisdom, truth, introspection, transformation, illusion, past (the area behind the subject reflected in front of her), or alternate reality. In literature, mirrors and reflections play a significant role in such works as Snow White, Through the Looking Glass, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Again, processing and compositing can be used to emphasize these metaphors or tell an interesting story.
I’ll leave you with a poem that might inspire visual interpretations:
Mirror by Sylvia Plath
Mirror, a poem by Sylvia Plath. poets love Poem at allpoetry
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
Do you want to participate in the next Creativity Exercise? Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “The Words Around Us.” We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.