Reflections in Photography

Two veteran National Geographic photographers give their tips on how to minimize—or eliminate—unwanted reflections in your photography.

Cary Wolinsky and Bob Caputo have a combined 64 years of experience photographing stories for National Geographic and other publications. Along the way, they learned a thing or two about making photographs. In 2010, they launched, which, through videos and illustrated text, imparts photo-making tips with insight, humor, and varying degrees of success.

Reflection can be a good thing in life—and photography—whether it creates beautiful symmetry in landscapes or presents often photographed things in new ways, as seen in the photos above.

But sometimes reflections can be annoying. They can get in the way of what you want to make pictures of. This usually happens with windows, where light bouncing off the glass can obscure your subject. These can be hazy reflections that make everything soft or overpoweringly bright ones that wipe out your subject altogether.

Luckily, we have a tool that can help your lens break through the glare to reveal the subject, or in the case below, help the woman see those nice things that will help her curl her personality:

That round thing I’m holding is a circular polarizing filter, which can block or reduce light reflected at certain angles from the glass (or water or smooth nonmetal surfaces). The mount for the filter screws onto the front of your lens, but you can still rotate the filter to change the angle and get different degrees of glare reduction. (Polarizing filters can also be used to darken skies, reduce the reflectivity of vegetation, see through water, and other things.)

So one day, Cary decided he wanted to photograph mannequins. He saw a bunch of them in a store window and got all excited (they were on sale for half price). So he took a picture. When he looked at the picture, though, he was sad—he couldn’t see the mannequins because of the reflection of the brightly lit buildings across the street.

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So he got out his handy-dandy polarizing filter, tried again, and voila!

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Then he saw a really beautiful mannequin in a red dress and just knew he had to have an image of it. So he took one. But he got more buildings, tree, and lamppost than mannequin.

So he put the polarizing filter back on and rotated it slowly until he got rid of the reflection and could actually see the dummy. Amazing that he could get all that interference to disappear.

On his way home, Cary saw a woman giving him the thumbs up in a toy store window. Even though she was not a mannequin, he decided to make a picture. So he stood right in front of the window and pressed the shutter button. Unfortunately, there were a lot of parked cars and a really bright sky behind him. He could see the thumbs up in the photo, but not a whole lot else.

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So he reached into his camera bag again. He found about 432 other things, but for some reason his polarizing filter was missing. What to do? When he looked at the picture again, he noticed that the part of the window he could see through was the part where his body was blocking the light. “Hmmm,” he thought. Then he stepped closer to the window so that he blocked more of the light and made another frame.

Better, but still some reflection. Cary pondered some more, and then a light bulb went off in his head. To block that light and all the light being reflected from across the street, he put the lens flat against the window. That picture looked like there was nothing between him and his subject, and really deserves the thumbs up.

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If you need a wider shot than you can get by putting your lens against the glass, you can block the reflections using a black cloth the way we did in in our Reflections in Photography video.

And if you need to photograph (or film) a really large storefront or museum case, you can use big pieces of black cloth or black board to block all the light reflecting off them. Or you can lock down the camera on a tripod then photograph the window repeatedly, blocking reflections on various parts of the glass for each shot. Later combine all the images in Photoshop, discarding the sections that have bad reflections and stitching together the sections that are clear.

Is that clear?

It wasn’t really to Cary and me before we learned all this stuff. Like here, when we were trying to photograph the beautiful flowers inside a restaurant window, not ourselves.

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Photographs by Cary Wolinsky and Robert Caputo. Text by Robert Caputo,