“Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.” ~ Emily Bronte
I’ll be leading a photo walk soon, two actually, talking about creative/art and abstract nature reflection photography.
Which is exciting—and daunting.
How do you explain something that first came naturally to you, and then grew to be a successful “voice” in your work as you trained your eye and skills to “capture illusion” more consistently?
I’m working through some recent abstract work (the images in this post) all shot in water, all on the same day, also all when I arrived at Gibbs Gardens to focus on water lilies, only to find early fall reflected so beautifully in the moving water that I couldn’t focus on anything else.
Below are things I’ll share on the my walks with other photographers, many of whom are far more advanced than I on the technical side of our craft.
But above all else, I’ll be sharing what I’ve said from the start of this 365-day challenge—that the number one essential in creating any image is your creative eye, how you see your world, the story you want to tell, and learning to bring each capture to life for your viewer.
Anyone can learn the rest. Your voice as an artist is yours alone. And with nothing else in your tool kit but your drive to create, you absolutely can create magic with whatever camera body and lens you carry.
Tips for abstract nature reflection photography:
Longer telephoto lenses are best, allowing you to not only reach closer to reflections and capture detail, but also to compress what you’re seeing.
Higher megapixel cameras give you an edge, because you’ll ideally be working in higher ISOs (see below) and want to avoid noise.
Use a tripod when possible, BUT be prepared to adjust your height and angel of view frequently. For most reflection abstracts, you’re capturing a very small area at the edge of your telephoto range (see below), so any camera shake will affect the sharpness of the already soft detail of water images. However, don’t be tied to the initial height and position of your tripod after you’ve set up. Adjusting height and angle of view in even small increments will offer drastically different perspectives of the same area.
Work with moving water. For abstracts, you’re not looking for “representative” images of landscapes and nature elements. This is a great opportunity on a windy day to take advantage of all that liquid movement.
Look for patterns NOT images. You’ll be amazed at what nature’s reflection can become in small pockets of waving, quivering, undulating, flickering and slightly shifting water. Train your eye, while you’re shooting everything else, to hunt for moments of revelation.
Be shallow. Look at the edges of pods and bodies of water, that is. Why? Most often, these are the best places to capture reflections of trees and vegetation and other natural elements.
Be close. With a telephoto lens, preferably, zoom in on these pockets of magic, until what’s being reflected fades into the amazing abstract shapes and patterns of color and light and water only your lens can pick up.
Be flexible. Zoom in and out once you’ve found the “sweet spot” you want to capture. Tiny increments are key. The difference between a cloudy, hazy image and sharp, abstract lines and colorful shapes might be a microscopic milometer of a shift.
Light. Let me repeat. Light. You have to have it, even though too much of it will blow out the image highlights. Shooting at the shady edge of water helps with this, especially if you have some tree cover, but your image needs natural light to come alive. Also, capturing sky in the reflection introduces blue hues you will love, cloud patterns, streaks of white to go with the rest of your colors, etc.
Aperture. Shoot in your lens aperture’s mid-range. f8 to f11 is great. You want more in focus and sharp, but you also want light. Too closed-down, and you’re cutting out too much illumination. Too open, and the resulting image softness will disappoint.
ISO. You’ll want to shoot with as high an ISO as your camera can handle without creating too much noise. First, because you’re shooting most often in shade and will need the help using whatever light you can include. Also, you’re going to be shooting in faster shutter speeds (see below) and at extended telephoto ranges, both of which further cut down on the amount of light reaching your sensors.
Focus Manually. Your autofocus, I don’t care how skilled you are at working with it, won’t be able to handle this technique. Trust.
Faster is easier. Once you’ve found the abstract patterns and color and light and movement you want to play with, in order to capture what you’re seeing through your camera you’ll wan, shoot with as fast a shutter speed as possible—if need be, work in Shutter Priority at first, until you get the hang of things. Continuous bursts of images are also recommended. A series of five or six images shot in rapid succession would be great. With abstracts, you never really know what you have until you pull the image up in post—images that look super sharp in camera can often be too soft where you need them to be crisp in post. It’s better to give yourself options. Also, water reflection patterns shift and change instantaneously as you shoot, and you’ll want to grab as much as you can of all that goodness.
Frame it in-camera. Because of the already-grainy nature of abstract water reflections, as well as the higher ISOs and mid-range lens apertures you’ll shoot with, you want to keep as many of your pixels as possible. Why? Cropping can clip crucial detail from an image. Also, post processing work with saturation, vibrance, dehazing, and detail/sharpness will add grain. Again, keep all the pixels you can (avoid cropping whenever possible), to give image it’s best shot in post. Practice training your eye to frame and capture the desired “final” crop as you shoot—the same as you do with more traditional landscapes.