Using Reflections in Street Photography

When I’m out taking street photos I often notice the reflection of something before seeing the object that’s being reflected. This is because I’m always on the lookout for elements that bring something extra to a composition.

Reflections usually bring symmetry: a quality that enhances photos by adding balance and harmony while helping to fill the frame with significant content. The downside is the danger of over-using reflections — to the point where they become a cliché in your work.

Two Roles for Reflection
Following on from this, there are, I suppose, two main types of photograph in which reflection plays a major role: those containing both the reflection and the reflected object itself, and those that contain the reflection alone.

Of the two, the latter is the more difficult to use successfully. After all, the viewer expects to see a representation of a real object and feels slightly cheated when presented with a mere reflection of it. This is an entirely natural reaction. The viewer has agreed to turn away momentarily from the real world to look at your two-dimensional version, only to find that there’s another step required: a step beyond the image into a world seen in reverse. It really is tiresome!


You can usually choose which of the two roles you want reflections to perform in your image. For example, if you photograph a person who’s leaning up against a shiny wall you’ll get a reflection that creates a degree of symmetry; but if you point the camera directly at a shop window you’ll get a reflection of the street behind you that would otherwise be out of view.

With the second approach you’ll get much more because the reflection is superimposed on the contents of the window. This is great fun (see above photos) but it creates complex patterns that are almost impossible to decode at the time of taking the shot, especially when there’s movement both on the street and on the other side of the glass.

Technical Pitfalls
From a technical point of view there are only one or two pitfalls to avoid. Shop windows tend to glare, so you may find a polarising filter helpful if you have one with you. You can always run a polarising routine during processing, but that’s never quite as effective as using a real filter.

Equally, you need to watch your depth-of-field, as reflected objects are usually further away than objects seen directly. It’s good to keep them all in fairly sharp focus, but it’s up to you the photographer to choose what’s right for your style.

jewelry counter

Historical Precedents
Street photographers have always made use of reflections. Among the greats of the past, Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander spring to mind.

If you Google “Vivian Maier self portrait” you’ll find her favourite way of obtaining a “selfie,” by capturing her reflection in a mirror or practically any other reflective object. Everyone now tries this technique, but I doubt if anyone has done it better. In one famous image she appears as a towering, ghostly presence, her body reflected by the glass while at the same time shielding it from the light — enabling us to see two women sitting inside the shop, framed by the bottom of her coat.

Lee Friedlander used mirrors, glass windows and other objects to obtain reflections. Like Maier he sometimes made a self-portrait, either for fun or when the image needed the addition of a human face. His 1968 self portrait in a sepia coloured photo in New York City is one of his best, a magnificent semi-abstract composition of light and dark rectangles with great depth of perspective and passing figures: street photography at its best.

I was thinking about the potential of using light and shade, together with reflections, when I took the following shot. It’s essentially an abstract composition, but with an important human element.


Artistic Possibilities
Still water in puddles and pools is a great source of reflections and a very good reason why you should go out to take pictures on rainy days. Unfortunately, most streets are well drained, so you need to be in an area that tends to get waterlogged. Wait for the day to brighten; choose your angle carefully; and capture passing pedestrians as they step around the water or cycle through it.

If this sounds like the kind of advice one might give to a new photo club member, you’re right. It’s only a suggestion. The art of making really good pictures has little to do with simple strategies — they’re fairly obvious — but rather has everything to do with composition, timing, luck and intuition.

Being able to see the artistic possibilities of reflections in the particular enviroment where you are hunting for pictures is your most useful asset. It’s a talent you can acquire with practice, just as young guys learn to use charm and bravado to find a new girlfriend.

Perhaps you’re naturally gifted, in which case there’s not much more you need to know. Good luck!

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