Nine Steps To Create Realistic Reflections

Photos © 2003, Howard Millard, All Rights Reserved

Adding a reflection of your subject can double the impact of your digital photo, transforming an ordinary shot into something memorable and striking. Using tools in Adobe Photoshop, Elements, and other image-editing programs, it's not too difficult to double your pixel power. Just follow these nine steps. I used Photoshop, and the procedure is similar in Elements or other programs.


First, choose an image that has good color and contrast and that you think will work well as a reflection. You can start with a photo of a skyline, tree or building standing next to water in which there is no good reflection. I began with a shot of the lower Manhattan skyline taken at dusk.

1. Open your digital photo. To create the reflection, first make a duplicate of it by choosing Image>Duplicate. (1) Save this image and name it "reflection."

2. Now, with the reflection image active, turn it upside down by choosing the rotate canvas command, Image>Rotate Canvas>Flip Canvas Vertical. (2) The result will be a mirror image of your original.


3. Next, go back to your original image and click on it to make it active. We need to enlarge the size of this picture's background ("canvas" in Adobe terms) so that we can add the reflection to it. To see the size in the image window, press Command-R ( for ruler) on a Mac or Control-R in Windows. This adds a non-printing ruler to your on-screen image window.

To add more space for the reflection image, increase the canvas size. Choose Image>Canvas Size and increase the height of the original photo's canvas. Don't change the width. In the Canvas Size dialog box, (3), drag the grey anchor point to top center. Then click OK. Your original photo now has extra space added to accommodate the reflection.


4. Now the fun really begins. Check that both the original with its newly enlarged canvas size, and the flopped reflection image, are open on your desktop. Click on the reflection image. [In some image-editing programs you may need to make a selection of the entire reflection image first.] Next, click on the Move tool in the toolbox (or press the letter "v" on the keyboard in Photoshop or Elements), then click on the reflection and drag it on top of the original image (4) (with enlarged canvas).


This places a copy of the reflection image over the original image as a new layer. You can carefully position the reflection layer by dragging it with the move tool, or by using the arrow keys. To see the layers in the layers palette choose Window>Layers (5).

5. To make a smooth blend between the original and the reflection images, I used a layer mask on the reflection layer in Photoshop. In Elements or other programs without layer masking, first make a copy or two of the reflection image. Then use a large soft edged brush with the eraser tool to erase the excess water at the top of the inverted reflection, so that the top and bottom images blend realistically. If you accidentally erase too much, start again on another copy until you get it the way you want it. Always work on a copy so you don't accidentally erase part of your original.


To add a layer mask in Photoshop, activate the reflection layer by clicking on it in the layers palette. Then choose Layer>Add Layer Mask>Reveal All. Next, make sure that your foreground color is black (press the letter "d" on the keyboard for this). Choose a soft edged brush from the brushes palette and paint over the edge of the water to mask it out. If you cover too much, simply switch to white as your foreground color (press "x" on the keyboard) and the water will be restored.

6. To create the most realistic effect, look carefully and study reflections in the real world. Note how they vary depending on your angle of view, how they stretch and ripple when the water is not perfectly still.

Once you have the reflection positioned exactly as you want it, there may be some extra background or canvas on the bottom (or the sides). To trim this away, use the crop tool.


7. Depending on the content of the water, the light, and the time of day, a reflection is usually darker or lighter than the original object. To control this digitally, add a levels adjustment layer to the reflection layer. In the layers palette, click on the reflection layer to activate it. Then, choose Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels. In the box that opens name the layer "Reflection Levels" and click the box for "Group with previous layer," as shown in (6).


8. Now you can vary the darkness or lightness of the reflection layer independently by moving the center slider in the Levels dialog box, (7). In this case, since the photo was taken at dusk, I darkened the reflection by moving the center slider to the right (8).

9. For a final touch, you can even add ripples or other distortions to the reflection part of the image. Click on the reflection layer in the layers palette to activate it. Then select the entire layer. Now, apply a distortion filter by choosing Filter>Distort>Ocean Ripple, to bring up the dialog box (9). Sliders allow you to vary the ripple size and magnitude. The final image with a rippled reflection is seen in (10).


Other Distort filter options include Ripple, Wave, and ZigZag. In the Ripple dialog box, for example, you can choose the amount of the effect from --999 to +999 with a slider, and the size of the ripples, small, medium, or large, from a drop-down menu. Experiment with several settings by applying them and then looking at the image at viewing size. If you don't like the effect, choose Edit>Undo and try again.


Following the steps outlined here will lead you into a new world where seeing double gives your photos twice as much impact.

Adobe Systems Inc.
(800) 833-6687