Reflections on photography…

I was reading, a while ago in a birding magazine, about how undesirable reflections are in photos of waterfowl, and how a polarizing filter should be used to eliminate them. So I bought one. I wish I hadn’t.

In use they’re a pain in the butt. They need substantial exposure compensation, though the accompanying literature didn’t bother to tell me how much (even with a digital SLR, you do need to know for any mode but Auto), and fiddling with the buggerdly thing while simultaneously zooming and focusing (OK, focusing is automatic, but it still rotates the lens barrel and moves it in and out), is just too much for me, at least, to be arsed with and, unless you have a tripod, needs at extra hand (two to support and operate the camera as normal, and one to twiddle the filter).

My life with a polarizing filter lasted all of ten minutes, before it was taken off. It won’t be going back.

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, reflections are an intrinsic part of photos taken on water, or featuring water. The guy writing the article demonstrated his point with a pic of a duck on what appeared to be a wrinkled grey army blanket (and I suspect that, in addition to the filter, it had been Photoshopped); to my eye it was deeply unattractive.

Take a look at the following photos. The first one has bands of coloured reflections, which were caused by flowering shrubs around the perimeter of the pond (Roodee Mere, Royden Park, Wirral), as well as reflections of the subject Canada geese, all of which, I believe, add to, not detract from, this pic (same aspect ratio as my monitor, 4:3), is my desktop wallpaper.

Canada geese small All pics, click thumbnail for full size, Back to return

The following is a shot of another Canada. It’s a rotten photo, the result of messing with the filter instead of concentrating on what I was doing, but you can see how the filter strips out all the character from the water, apart from the “bow-wave”. In what possible way is this an improvement?


The following is a fairly mundane pic of a mallard drake (this was my first outing with a then new d-SLR).

Mallards 3

Consider how staggeringly dull it would become if the water was just a grey expanse, like the one above (actually, it would still be green from the surrounding foliage; the filter won’t change that). The reflections also give it context – the duck is clearly in motion. Filter that out and you might as well photograph a wooden decoy duck.

The photographer who wrote that article based it on an outing to Martin Mere, a WWT reserve at Burscough, Lancs., and among the tips for photographing waterfowl, in addition to making them look as if they’re sitting on a blanket, was that you should kneel, or even lie down, to get a birds-eye perspective. That’s good advice (though it’s beyond my ability), but do choose your location carefully.

It’s a dumb idea at Martin Mere, a crowded venue much of the time. Pretty much the only place you can lie down is on the footpaths, and won’t that make you popular! You simply cannot treat a venue like Martin Mere as if it’s your own private domain (though I suspect this guy got access outside normal hours), and sprawl all over it with no regard for anyone else – it’s a selfish as taking a tripod into a hide.

Never do that, by the way – buy a hide clamp. They’re not as cheap as you might think, given what you get for your money (not a lot), and if your finances won’t stretch, a robust table-top tripod is a good option if you’re using a scope, at about a third of the price of a hide clamp, though you’ll lose a degree of height adjustment. With a camera, a monopod, while not ideal, is infinitely preferable to a tripod in a hide. Just remember to use your camera’s neck strap, in case, in a moment of absent-mindedness, you let go! As regular readers will know, I use the Konig neck pod which covers most eventualities. See here and here for information.

I would, I think, be tempted to use a polarising filter in a hide with viewing windows, rather than the more usual unglazed slits. Otherwise you may find your reflection features in your shots (depending on lighting conditions). Apart from that specific use, though, I seriously doubt I’ll bother with it again.