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Backcountry PhotographyReflecting the Season

Reflections on Water

By Tamia Nelson

December 1, 2009

I'm not a big magic buff. I'd rather watch hares dancing under the pines on a moonlit winter night than see a trembling bunny pulled out of a top hat by some gent wearing tails and a starched dickey. It's not that I've got anything against magic shows, of course. It's just that there's more than enough magic for me in the real world. And nowhere is the magic nearer to the surface — so to speak — than on (and around) water. It's the best kind of magic, too. Not only is water's magic impervious to the discoveries of science, but it's actually enhanced by them. The more you know about water, in other words, the greater the enchantment. I've done my time at the lab bench and in the field. I've measured the pH of rainwater. Dropped instruments in lakes to determine the depth of the thermocline. Calculated the discharge of mountain torrents. Counted and cataloged aquatic larvae from drift nets and Surber samplers. The bottom line? My sense of wonder has grown with every notebook entry I've made.

Canoeists and kayakers are doubly blessed in this regard. Our sport brings us about as close to water as we can get without growing gills, but that's not all. It also encourages a kind of healthy codependency. We can't rely on horsepower to take us where we want to go, or to get us out of trouble if we misjudge things along the way. We have to depend on ourselves and our understanding of the liquid medium that supports our craft. In short, if we insist on seeing water as an adversary and not a partner, we're not going anywhere. The upshot? Paddling increases our appreciation of the power and majesty of water, in all its moods and conditions. It also opens our eyes to water's beauty. And paddling photographers have the best of both worlds here.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the play of reflected light on water. Change is the only constant where the water's surface encounters air. Every photo of this ever‑shifting interface is unique, something never to be repeated and never to be seen again by anyone. Now that's real magic! So let's start our exploration of reflections right at the beginning, with…

The Chase

Luckily, reflections can be found everywhere in the paddler's world. You won't have to paddle for miles or shiver for hours in a blind. And it doesn't matter if the water in question is liquid or solid. Take a look at this photo of skim ice on a beaver pond:

Skim Ice

The feeble warmth of the autumn sun was just strong enough to melt the ice around this relic of a beaver's late‑night snack. Study the reflections. The matte finish of the young ice yields blurry images with ill‑defined edges, while the tiny, isolated islands of meltwater give a truer and far more detailed picture of the surrounding woods.

Now here's an example of a single droplet acting as a mirror:

The Sky Above

In this instance, a newly emerged leaf provides the necessary opaque backing, while the domed droplet acts as a convex reflecting surface, mirroring the crowns of nearby trees and the puffy cumulus clouds drifting across a late‑spring sky. I made the shot with a Canon A550 point‑and‑shoot digital camera, using the macro setting. It was one of my earliest experiments with digital photography, as the grainy image all‑too‑obviously attests. I hadn't yet learned to choose the lowest ISO ("sensitivity") value, nor had I selected the highest‑quality compression setting, and the picture suffered accordingly. Still, the photo does a pretty good job of showing how even a droplet no bigger than the smallest pea can function as a mirror.

So far we've talked about water‑as‑mirror, and we'll return to our subject in a minute. But there's a detour worth making first. What about water‑as‑lens? Take a close look at these droplets of dew caught in a spider's web:

The View Ahead

Each drop is a tiny biconvex lens, giving us an upside‑down peek at what lies just down the trail. I focused on the silken threads of the spider's web, and because of the limited depth of field, the details of the view ahead were blurred beyond recognition in my shot. But not altogether. Each of the droplets restored some of what was lost in the larger frame. In effect, each drop was a supplementary camera lens. The result was a sort of picture‑within‑a‑picture view of the forest.

From droplet to pond is often just a few steps, though in the case of the photo below the progression represents the passage of several years and many miles. On those rare days when the air is completely still, the surface of a pond can in truth be almost as flat as a pane of glass, and a reflected image is nearly impossible to distinguish from the original source. Be honest, now: If it weren't for the cattails and alders in the background to tell you which way is up, could you decide which was the muskrat lodge and which was its reflection? I'm not at all sure I could.

Home, Sweet Home

Moving water is seldom this smooth, of course. No matter. It may not be as accurate a mirror as the still waters of an isolated pond, but accuracy isn't everything. Here the dissected surface of The River defines its streamlines almost as meticulously as an illustration in a hydrology textbook, while also faithfully recording the brilliant blue of the autumn sky and the blazing reds and oranges of the surrounding hills. The reflected image reveals no detail, but it's as evocative in its way as J. M. W. Turner's famous Rain, Steam and Speed.

Current Affairs

You get my drift, I'm sure. Wherever there's water, you'll find reflections. At the very least, water will mirror the color of the sky and the immediate surroundings. At best, it yields images of surpassing detail and striking intensity ("saturation" in photographer's shorthand). Once you begin looking for reflections, you'll find them everywhere around you. So the chase is over. Now it's time to…

Bag Your Trophy

One of Robert Ruark's last books was a collection of essays on big‑game hunting that he gave a suitably no‑nonsense title: Use Enough Gun. And while it's been a good few years since I last went afield with a rifle or shotgun in my hands, I keep his advice in mind whenever I go hunting for pictures. I try to match my camera to my intended quarry, in other words. But I also remember the words of another sporting writer, the canoeist and one‑time Yellowstone ranger Albert Van Siclen ("Pierre") Pulling: "Everything has been killed with everything." And what do I conclude from this seemingly conflicting advice? Simply this: Whatever your sport may be, equipment is important — but it's not all‑important. The sharper the photographer's lens the better, obviously. Still, no one should give up on photography just because he doesn't own a professional rig. Almost any modern digital camera is capable of taking good pictures, and you won't know how well your camera captures reflections till you try, will you?

That said, there are a few items of professional kit that are always worth having, and a tripod is one of them. The cost doesn't have to be high, but quality counts. While a shaky tripod is worse than worthless, a good one lets you use slower shutter speeds than you could manage if you had to hold your camera yourself. And it's all but essential for the longer exposures needed to blur the movement of water, as in this shot:

Quick Water

Do I have to remind you that shooting on or near the water puts your gear at risk of a dunking? I didn't think so. A waterproof bag or box will protect your camera in transit, but once it's out of the box, its fate is in your hands. So you'd better get a grip. Only a waterproof camera will survive being dropped in the drink. Even the spray from a waterfall can do damage to delicate circuitry, as can rain and wet snow. You say you don't own a waterproof camera? Me, neither. I just do the best I can. (You'll find some hints for coping with wet conditions in " Snapping in the Rain.")

Rainy Day

One final word of warning: Don't become so engrossed in framing a shot that you forget where you are. You don't want to step off the bank or topple over a gunwale and end up in the water, do you? I didn't think so. But it's surprisingly easy to do. 'Nuff said?

So much for gear, not to mention cautions and precautions. Let's talk technique, beginning with focus. If a reflection is your main subject, focus on it and open up your aperture to narrow the depth of field. Here's an example where I limited depth of field to direct attention to the reflection:

Focused Attention

The reflected images of trees and sky are sharp and clear, but the drifting leaves and the bedrock outcrop in the background and on the right are so blurred as to be almost unrecognizable. If I'd wanted to broaden the frame of reference by including them in the picture, I've have stopped down the aperture instead of opening it up, greatly increasing the depth of field — as I did in this instance:

Rocky River

While I wanted to draw the viewer's eye toward the submerged rocks and the reflected image of the snag, I also wanted the flame‑colored hillside to be in the picture, along with its reflection in the main channel. So — you guessed it — I stopped the aperture down. (Want a refresher course in the relationship between depth of field and aperture? Just read "Up Close and Personal" and "You Don't Have to Go With the Flow!")

This photo also illustrates another consideration in photographing reflections in water — the value of polarizing filters. In the photo above I used just such a filter to reduce the glare from the water's surface in the foreground pool, in order to reveal the rocks beneath. I had to be careful, though. If I'd overdone the polarizer, I'd have extinguished the reflections altogether, as the following photo pair illustrates:

Polar Opposites

The photo on the right was shot through a polarizer, adjusted to reduce reflections to a minimum. As you can see by comparing it with its companion image, the filter did just that. Was this a good thing? That depends on what I wanted my photos to show. In this case I was hoping to illustrate the difference a polarizing filter can make, and I succeeded. Of course, your goal may be something else altogether. In fact, it almost certainly will be. And that brings us to a very important point: Photography is all about making choices. You can't have everything. In the riverside scene below, my eye was first drawn to the rocks, but then my imagination was captured by the subtle shades of the November woods as reflected in the dark water of the eddy.


I wanted both. The day was somber and gray, the sort of day Thomas Hood probably had in mind when he wrote:

    No sun — no moon!
    No morn — no noon — 
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day — 
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
  No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, — 

Nonetheless, I hoped that a long exposure would bring out the colors and highlights of both rocks and reflections. So I set up my tripod, closed down the aperture, and took a series of timed shots. The one above, my favorite, was taken with a shutter speed of four seconds. When I downloaded the pictures and examined them on my computer, I was pleased to see the swirling streaks of foam standing out against the subtly colored reflections — a happy bit of serendipity.

A cautionary note is in order here. Reflections can make metering tricky. Camera sensors are often thrown off by reflected light, resulting in a photo that's underexposed. The remedy? Overexpose by one‑half to one stop (+0.5EV to +1.0EV). Bracketing your photos also helps to prevent disappointments later.


One final thing: We live in an age of color, but monochrome imagery still has the power to move us. In a lot of cases, things look better in…

Black and White

Many waterscapes are perfectly suited to black and white (or monochrome) photography. Strong composition and contrast are key. Some digital cameras can be set to capture monochrome images outright, but I prefer to shoot my originals in color and then transform them during post‑processing in my digital darkroom. Black and white photography is a subject in itself, of course — a big one. For a brief introduction, read "It's a Black‑and‑White Issue," then buy or borrow John Beardsworth's Advanced Digital Black & White Photography to learn more.

Is it worth the fuss and bother to produce black‑and‑white photos from color originals? I think so, but you can judge for yourself:


The scene: a backwater in an extensive wetland. The day is still, but the three standing dead trees bear witness to the strong prevailing winds. I think black and white is the perfect medium for this shot. How about you? Now here's another monochrome shot. This one shows The River in flood on a dreary day in early spring, just before the first leaves emerged:


It's not a warm image, but then it wasn't a warm day — and the water was even colder than the chilly air. Black and white captured the atmosphere perfectly, and I didn't have to do any post‑processing to get it: this monochrome waterscape is just as I (and my camera) saw it.


Well, yes, spring was a long time ago. There's less than a month to go until midwinter's day. But winter doesn't extinguish all light in Canoe Country. Striking images are everywhere. Even though our boats are resting on their racks now, there's still plenty to draw us to the water. We've nearly come full circle since the first article in the "Backcountry Photography" series. So if you've missed a few columns, now's the time to head on over to the archives to fill in any gaps. Be sure to explore the winter landscape with your camera, too. Winter's a good time for reflection, to be sure, but you'll want to keep you hand and eye in practice, as well. After all, spring will be back before we know it. Then the ice will melt and the waters will run free again. Now that is something to reflect on!


Cold Comfort


Loren Eiseley said it best: "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." Would any paddler disagree? I doubt it. I've been enchanted by water since I was a kid, and now that the paddling season is drawing to a close in Canoe Country, I've been thinking about water's role in shaping the world inhabited alike by paddlers and photographers. So why not join me in my reflections on water?

You can see more of Tamia's photos in "The Fall of the Leaf," "A River Runs…," "Reflections on Impermanence…," and "Reflections on Water…

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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