David English: Reverberations

What do music and photography have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out. You might think of one as moving and the other as static. However, photography — even within its fixed frame — can flow from one extreme to another. Or it can set up a pattern that repeats and evolves within the frame. Like contrapuntal music, a photo can have a rhythm and counter-rhythm, with melodies and structures that reflect and play off of each other.

How do you create these kinds of rhythms and counter-rhythms within a photo? One way is to use reflecting surfaces as part of the subject matter. With reflections, you have the possibility of seeing the original image alongside its many permutations, much like the variations you see in a rippling pond. You can also use reflecting surfaces to create a complex composition out of very simple elements.

The sonic equivalent for these pond-like reflections might be the auditory reverberations you hear in a large space, such as a cathedral or stadium. Just as a concert hall has a distinct signature based on the shape of the building and location of the reflective surfaces, a reverberating photo can have a distinct signature based on the objects, light, and shadows within the frame. Where a concert hall will sound different depending on your seat or the frequency of the sound, a reverberating photo can have an entirely different look depending on the photographer’s position and quality of light (due to shifts in the light throughout the day or from variations in the weather).

A rangefinder camera, such as an M or M Monochrom, can be an especially good choice for this photographic approach, because the optical viewfinder includes an additional area outside the frame lines. That lets you more easily compose the shot on the fly. You’re always aware of the potential just outside the frame, which is closer to how we see with our eyes. In addition, a lightweight camera, when combined with a sharp lens, allows you to work more quickly. Reflections are often fleeting due to the changing light or sudden shifts in the environment. The resulting photos can sometimes have an ethereal quality, in part because the viewer recognizes that the convergence of chance elements isn’t likely to repeat anytime soon.

Reflections can add depth to a photo that might otherwise appear to be flat and lifeless. In situations with a large number of reflective surfaces, especially when some of those surfaces face each other, you can open up the environment with the suggestion of infinite space (think of mirrors reflecting other mirrors). There’s also the possibility of playing with which surfaces are original and which are purely reflective. Whether the viewer is conscious or not of the tension, the resulting photo can be satisfying at a purely visceral level. We see something that we suspect we might see in real life, even if we’re not sure if the laws of nature are being stretched to the limit.

There are no superimpositions in any of these 16 photos. All are essentially what you would have seen through the viewfinder. That said, you can use the basic tone controls in Adobe Lightroom, in concert with plug-in packages such as Google’s Silver Efex Pro 2 or Alien Skin’s Exposure 6, to bring out or submerge the reflections. I’ve found that it’s often best to have the original and reflective surfaces appear to be in the same spatial plane. You might adjust the tones, clarity, and sharpness until the edges seem to merge between the original and reflective surfaces.

All 16 photos were shot with an M Monochrom, though I’ve gotten similar results with an M8, M9, and X Vario. I used four different lenses for these shots: a 21 mm Super-Elmar-M, 24 mm Elmar-M, 24 mm Summilux-M, and 28 mm Summicron-M. The larger depth-of-field focus from these wide-angle lenses helps to make the unrealistic elements more plausible.

The photo titled “Aria Lobby” shows a traditional reflective shot. Here the subject matter is relatively simple, though the patterns in the windows and floor create a rich geometric environment that seems to emanate from the solitary figure. You can look at the geometric patterns as though they exist along the same spatial plane. Then the figure seems to be in the middle of a large web. You can also look through the patterns and see the various objects that lie beyond. The overall effect is of a much larger space than would be present without the multiplying influence of the extensive reflections. Much like the repetitive music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, this photo sets up repetitive patterns and suggests that many variations are possible — all equally interesting.

Because reflections can be simultaneously moody and thought provoking, they can help you create photos that are dreamlike or surreal. With the photo titled “Manhattan Buildings #1,” the soft light from the overcast skies gives an evocative feel to the image. The large areas of darkness at the bottom suggest that the buildings are somehow rising up from the ground. And the reflected clouds and buildings provide a sense of scale that wouldn’t be possible in full sunlight with no reflections. In the flat light of another day with different lighting, this might be a simple shot of several nondescript buildings. Like a musical tone poem by Claude Debussy or Erik Satie, this photo is as much about the mood of the scene as it is about the actual objects that it depicts.

In the right light, shop windows can be transformed into complex scenes that combine the objects beyond the glass with the reflected buildings and sky from across the street. Sometimes that combination can be beautiful or provocative. In the photo titled “Manhattan Store Window #1,” the mannequins appear to emerge from their usual setting to enter into the street. The 21 mm focal length provides a deeper depth of field for a more uniform focus, suggesting that everything exists in the same space. The focal length also enlarges the captured space to more convincingly make the case that the mannequins are entering our realm. Much like a solo violin that emerges out of a churning string section, or a horn solo that jumps out of a jazz quintet, you can have the subject rise out of a swirling or chaotic mass of reflections.

Sometimes you can’t tell where the reflections begin and where they end. Or the reflections seem so entangled into the scene that you can’t unravel the two without deciphering what is source and what is echo. With the photo titled “Manhattan Buildings #2,” the sky reflected along the glass-like buildings seems to be a continuation of the sky we see behind the buildings — even though logic suggests that they shouldn’t mesh together so seamlessly. The brain assumes the continuation is seamless and makes it work, even though it shouldn’t. The reflected buildings in the lower right-hand corner give us a good starting point so that we can work out the steps to place each object into the proper context. As with music, you can have everything share a similar tone, but offer a subtle variety in how that tone is interpreted.

Like the classic chicken-and-egg problem, I don’t know if I’m drawn to reflective photos because I use a rangefinder camera, or if I’m drawn to a rangefinder camera because I’m interested in reflective photos. Either way, the two go hand in hand. Similar to other photographic approaches, it’s often a matter of being on the lookout for reflections in everyday circumstances. And being willing to process the results to enhance whatever you saw — or thought you saw — within the reflections.

– David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom and X Vario. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.

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5 comments

  • I wonder why you never provide captions to the photos you post – is there a special reason for that? Though I think that a good photograph should speak for itself I find it important to get some extra information out of the captions (not especially in this series, but in general).

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