3rd November 2016 – Reflections

Someone says reflections and we think of mirrors and shiny surfaces where the scene is played back to us in reverse but in the same perspective, so what is reflected in the surface appears as far behind it as the actual object being reflected is in front of it. We see them all the time, sometimes marvel at them, sometimes curse them most often accept them as part of the environment. Ask a physicist and they might say something like a “Reflection is the change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated” (Wikipedia) and the rest of us nod and try to move on, but not quick enough and we, like the Wedding Guest in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are snared. They continue: “The law of reflection says that for specular reflection the angle at which the wave is incident on the surface equals the angle at which it is reflected. Mirrors exhibit specular reflection” (ibid). For which we are grateful, we explain, but it’s our turn to shampoo the goldfish and, unfortunately, we have to move on.


All very true, well the physics bit anyway, I am sure and actually kind of fascinating, but we don’t really need to know the physics to observe and, as photographers, capture. Although lens manufacturers spend millions of pounds and tens of thousands of hours in designing glass that transmits without specular distortions, we, nonetheless, as our latest meeting proved, will insist on putting the specularities back in. Bokeh anyone?


It can be true, depending upon the situation and the desired outcome, that we spend a lot of time and energy in controlling reflections, often using reflectors, gels, scrims, flags and alike but we will come back to those in another post in more detail.


There were some very interesting images made by members using a polarising filter. Polarization is an effect on light waves that reduce its passage to a single plane, “A flat surface on which a straight line joining any two points on it would wholly lie”, rather than a direct flight to Marbella. Polarisers don’t work on metallic surfaces because of the angle of scatter metal produces (cars and so on also have layers of paint which are also “dialectric“), lacking “Brewster” angle. This is one of those things you either already know or don’t really care about because you don’t need to know. Essentially as photographers we know that polarisers reduce reflections and darken skies at the right angle, but not from metal surfaces. The plastic rulers, backlit, showed rainbows not seen in normal light, the iridescent rainbow patterns appearing like stress marks, shown using lens-mounted polarising filters were an interesting diversion from how we usually think of in these sort of filters.


And there were plenty of others using foils and glass and water and mirrors and metals all providing interesting and off beat opportunities. That, though is to miss a rather large point. Reflections are to be found all over the natural and built environments, especially the latter and can be used to  enhance an image by providing balance or foreground interest or as the focal point. It can also be used to limit the dynamic range within a frame by moving the histogram to the right – basically, by removing significant areas of shadow. Of course this is a function of the lightest and darkest points in the frame which in itself is a function of what we choose to include in our frame. Not always possible, of course.


But we were working in doors and that generally means that we have greater control over the lighting. A light tent was one of the pieces of equipment brought in. Light tents act, when the light is kept outside of the tent, to soften the light on the subject which is also isolated from all background distractions apart from those you chose to include. Most often associated with product photography, though that should probably read small product photography,  they are a cheap way of getting in some practice of shooting a subject under controlled conditions. You can, of course, spend as much money as you want on it, but the basics remain the same.  It is particularly good at practising with light modifiers, especially with flags and reflectors, I find, not least because you are not struggling with giant soft boxes and the like, yet still are dealing with the same problems. It is a matter of scale.


Whether you need artificial or additional lighting is largely a function of preference as if there is sufficient daylight then the effect is pretty much the same, you still can employ your (mini) flags and reflectors to direct a greatly suffused light. Lack of artificial lighting just limits the time of day and you can easily make your own light tent from a card board box and some grease proof paper, if needs be. There are dozens of effects you can conjure up with a  little bit of time and patience and stuff you can find around the house, the point is, though they definitely have their uses, you don’t need a vast and remote lake reflecting a glorious mountain range that it took you and your dedicated team of Sherpa’s three weeks to trek to to make use of reflections. They are pretty much everywhere, especially in the built environment, and if not, you can make them.