Reflection photography is a common photography technique that has a deceptively tricky focus issue.

Depending on the photo you are taking, you have three possibilities for focus in your reflection photos:

  • Both the subject and its reflection are in focus.
  • Only the subject is in focus.
  • Only the reflection is in focus.
Reflection photography

Shot with an aperture of f/10 to maximize focus.

Before we talk about how this works, let’s review a key concept of focus: cameras focus on a distance, not an object. 

If you tell your camera to focus on a person’s eye, it will calculate the distance between the eye and your camera. Here’s what the camera mumbles to itself in digital talk during this process:

“Hmmm. She wants me to focus on that eye. That eye is precisely 3 feet, 2 inches, away from me. I will focus this lens so that EVERYTHING that is around 3 feet, 2 inches away from me will be in focus.”

If your subject’s eye moves before you shoot, or if your camera moves, the distance between the camera and the lens will change. That means that you are likely to miss focus.

Your aperture size plays a role in this as well. If you are using a large aperture, like f/2, that area that is “around” 3 feet, 2 inches will be much smaller. Your camera might only focus on parts of your image that are between 3 feet, 1.5 inches and 3 feet, 2.5 inches away. That’s 1 inch of wiggle room!

If, however, you choose a smaller aperture like f/5.6, your camera might focus on everything between 2 and 4 feet away, giving you 2 feet of wiggle room.

This is why selecting the proper aperture size is so important to getting good focus, especially when you shoot wiggly subjects!

(Here’s a more in-depth article on how to use this concept to get great focus in your photos!)

What Does Distance Have to Do With Reflections in My Photos?

Say that you want both your subject and its reflection to be tack sharp. You might assume that both the subject AND the reflection are the same distance from your camera.

But you’d be wrong. A reflection is always farther away from your camera than your subject is.

The distance the camera needs to focus on to get a reflection in focus is equal to the distance from your camera to your subject PLUS the distance from the subject to the reflective surface. Mind-blowing, right?

Concepts like this are often easier to understand when you work through them for yourself. Do this quick exercise to prepare for your next reflection shot. You are going to take two selfies in front of a mirror.

  1. Draw a plus sign on a mirror with an erasable marker. Locate this plus sign so that it’s close to the reflection of your eyes when you stand in front of the mirror.
  2. Set exposure on your camera using a large aperture. You can do this either in manual mode or Aperture Priority mode. Remember that a large aperture has a small f-number, like f/2 instead of f/8.
  3. Hold your camera to your eyes and place your autofocus selection point over the plus sign you drew and take a photo.
  4. With your camera still held to your eyes, place your autofocus selection point over the name of your camera on its front, or on one of your eyes, if they are visible.

For these photos, I used an aperture of f/1.2. The distance between my camera and the mirror was about 2.5 feet. When focusing on the plus sign, the camera focused for the distance of 2.5 feet.

Reflection Photography

However, the distance between my camera and the reflection was 5 feet! I, as the subject, was 2.5 feet from the mirror and the mirror, as the reflective surface, was 2.5 feet from the camera. 2.5 + 2.5 = 5.

Reflection photography

In the photo where the plus sign is focused, the word “Canon” on my camera isn’t even visible. And when “Canon” is focused, the plus sign is soft.

In the last photo, you can see that closing my aperture down to f/16 made “Canon” nearly readable. The amount of blur is less.

How to Focus in Reflection Photography:

Now that you understand how this works, use these techniques to focus equally on your reflection and your subject.

  • Your best bet to get both your subject and its reflection in focus is to use as small an aperture as possible. This increases the depth of field, which means that a greater range of distance from your camera will be visible. I used an f/10 aperture in the photo of the trees reflecting onto the lake above.
  • Play with your focus point. If you can’t get both your subject and its reflection in focus, take photos with each focused separately. You’ll probably find that you like one better than the other. (I don’t recommend “splitting the difference” or trying to get both just a little focused.)
  • Move your subject. Anything you can do to put your subject closer to the reflective surface will improve focus.
  • Move away from your subject. The farther you are from your focus point, the less background blur you will have.

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