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How To Use Mirrors As Interesting Photography Props - It's Not As Easy As You Think

How To Use Mirrors As Interesting Photography Props - It's Not As Easy As You Think  - John Duder wants to show you how to use mirrors in your pictures to give a creative twist to portraits or to simply just give a different view on the world. (For those viewing at work, there are some nudes included.)

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General Photography

Models Electric Nymph and Rascal333 photographed with a Lensbaby Muse – and a mirror…

Models Electric Nymph and Rascal333 photographed with a Lensbaby Muse – and a mirror…

 

There’s nothing new about shooting pictures that involve mirrors – a hallowed part of several genres of photography. However, as anyone who has ever tried it will know, it's not quite that simple! I hope to cast a little light on the darker corners in the next thousand words or so.

 

Historical

Vivian Maier is a name that crops up a lot in this connection – she was an American photographer who worked as a nanny, but pursued photography as a hobby, and is particularly known for using mirrors in shops to produce self-portraits. Before the advent of smartphones and front-facing cameras, it was, really, the only way to produce self-portraits, other than setting up a camera with either a remote release or a self-timer.

 

Homage to Maier: there are mirrors in shop windows everywhere… However, it’s easy to let the context take over from the self-portrait. Distance from the mirror and the focal length will affect the result significantly – my feeling is that wider angle lenses and short distances may work better than my usual short tele lens.

Homage to Maier: there are mirrors in shop windows everywhere… However, it’s easy to let the context take over from the self-portrait. Distance from the mirror and the focal length will affect the result significantly – my feeling is that wider angle lenses and short distances may work better than my usual short  tele  lens.

 

Homage to Maier 2: the alternative approach loses the context, but gives the portrait. It’s possible that there are good reasons to prefer the former approach…

Homage to Maier 2: the alternative approach loses the context, but gives the portrait. It’s possible that there are good reasons to prefer the former approach…

 

Reasons

The obvious reason for shooting with a mirror is to show different aspects of one subject. However, there is an excellent use of mirrors in some films to show multiple viewpoints – even in the critically-panned ‘Showgirls’, an arrangement of mirrors allows three characters to appear in a single shot. A major problem with this is the need for very precise alignment of both mirrors and people, coupled with lighting that has to cater for views in more directions than usual. Easy on a film set and something that takes time to arrange in an ordinary photographic shoot – even more of a problem if you are just catching an image on the run.

Let’s look at the individual uses, and the problems arising…

Two very different portraits of tattooist and model Lisa Elsom: and it would perhaps have been more conventional to focus on the eyes looking straight at the lens. However, an out-of-focus foreground can look messy.

Two very different portraits of tattooist and model Lisa Elsom: and it would perhaps have been more conventional to focus on the eyes looking straight at the lens. However, an out-of-focus foreground can look messy.

 

Two Views

An obvious advantage of using a mirror in taking a picture is to allow one photograph to show two different angles of the same subject. There was a striking example of this in the BP portrait competition for artists (rather than photographers) a few years back, with a full-face image and a rimlit profile in one frame ('Sean Arrives' by Stephen Dumin). I was very much struck by this and tried hard to reproduce it with my camera. Sadly, artists can adjust reality in a way that takes a good deal of editing in Photoshop. More on this later, in the sections on lighting and focus.

 

My quickly-taken picture of model Amy Jay shows some of the perils of mirror shots: although she is close to the mirror, the two images of her are quite thoroughly separated from each other in the picture. The mirror is also not perfectly clean – strong lighting effects really show this up! Taken at Solo Studio in Leicester.

My quickly-taken picture of model Amy Jay shows some of the perils of mirror shots: although she is close to the mirror, the two images of her are quite thoroughly separated from each other in the picture. The mirror is also not perfectly clean – strong lighting effects really show this up! Taken at Solo Studio in Leicester.

 

Layers

The ultimate layering comes with two parallel mirrors. However, you don’t often find these, as the alignment has to be near-perfect to get the fullest effect, which is infinite numbers of reflections. The best example I have come across was in a Paris apartment entrance, back in 1972. Maybe someone will find a current, British example and post it in response to this article!

Of course, there can be layers that aren’t identical. The Gasholder Garden at King's Cross is, unsurprisingly, a garden inside the framework of an old gasometer and the clever installation of mirrors is well worth a visit, even if the weather's not as good as it was for my visit.

 

The Gasholder Garden at Kink’s Cross in London is a great place to experiment with mirror shots: you can either go for a picture that is reasonably literal and informative about the place and the installation, or something much less rooted in reality, like the footer image at the end of the article.

The Gasholder Garden at Kink’s Cross in London is a great place to experiment with mirror shots: you can either go for a picture that is reasonably literal and informative about the place and the installation, or something much less rooted in reality, like the footer image at the end of the article.


 

Undetected

Often, as with Maier's images, use of a mirror in a picture is quite arch and knowing. It’s about self-presentation in many cases: certainly, to get the precise alignment that is necessary, there’s often a high level of cooperation between subject and photographer.

However, you can also turn this around, either with mirrors or with large reflective windows, and set up street images that rely on the photographer’s timing along with an element of luck in trapping a passer-by in the frame, precisely in the right spot. The fact that you are facing away from the subject means that the image is a candid - with all of the moral ambiguity that this can involve. My own practice for images taken in a public place is to use only images that are clearly not defamatory - I would back away from an identifiable image of someone in distress, or apparently doing something that might bring them into disrepute.

 

Street image – near Coventry railway station. The lady with the pushchair is almost incidental to the image, which shows the wideangle distortion that a convex mirror can give.

Street image – near Coventry railway station. The lady with the pushchair is almost incidental to the image, which shows the wide-angle distortion that a convex mirror can give.

 

Confusion

Some of the time, we want to make our pictures crystal clear in every way – sharp, with the subject obvious. And at other times, we can play games with our viewers, twisting and turning reality.  This can be done to obscure the exact nature of the subject, or to offer a new view of it.

 

Almost abstract view of the Gasholder Garden mirrors near King’s Cross station.

An almost abstract view of the Gasholder Garden mirrors near King's Cross station.

 

Mirrors offer many possibilities, for instance allowing a nude subject to be largely obscured by the figure itself in a way that is ‘Facebook friendly’ – and you can apply the same trick of showing and revealing detail with many other contexts and subjects.

 

Model LeoScar is clearly nude: and also modestly covered. It’s all done with mirrors, you know…

Model LeoScar is clearly nude and also modestly covered. It’s all done with mirrors, you know…

 

Visual Tricks

Earlier in the year, on holiday, I visited Rob Mullholland's temporary art installation at Low Force on the River Tees. A mixture of figures and geometric shapes, surrounded by trees, it was a rather mind-bending experience, excellently portrayed by at least two members of this site, whose pictures showed the parts of the installation reflecting the woodland as the sculptor presumably intended. My own favourite image shows how much I believe that pictures can be (literally) a reflection of the photographer. There are almost infinite ways to represent something like this, as it alters with every breeze (the steel that the figures are made of moves slightly, and the trees dance in the wind). This is a key feature of mirror pictures - an exponential increase in complication!

 

A view of Rob Mulholland’s installation – this shows both the context and the two types of sculpture there – three-dimensional shapes, and figures, cut from sheet steel.

A view of Rob Mulholland’s installation – this shows both the context and the two types of sculpture there: three-dimensional shapes and figures, cut from sheet steel.

 

Lighting

Natural lighting is fine, although if the subject is close to the mirror (as they usually need to be to get double images close together) they may be blocking their own light. However, if you are using artificial lighting, you will need to beware of the effects of the inverse square law. This is not a serious problem in a large studio, but if you are shooting in your own home, in relatively cramped conditions, it may become significant because the relative difference in distances between light and model are greater.  Also, if you are aiming for strong lighting effects, as I was in the image of Layla.

Putting the light to one side (as I did in the shot of Layla) produces other problems because the rim lighting is difficult to control.

 

My first attempt to reproduce the effect in Stephen Dumin’s painting with Layla was not terribly successful. First, the strength of the rim lighting in the reflection was far too bright. And I focussed on the reflection, leaving a large and slightly out-of-focus image in the foreground. This doesn’t really work…

My first attempt to reproduce the effect in Stephen Dumin’s painting with Layla was not terribly successful. First, the strength of the rim lighting in the reflection was far too bright. And I focussed on the reflection, leaving a large and slightly out-of-focus image in the foreground. This doesn’t really work

 

Focus

The picture of Layla shows up another difficulty with a double image: while an artist can choose to have everything sharp (or nothing) the camera is limited by the physics of lens aperture, focal length and the consequent depth of field.

Generally, a strong but soft foreground image with a sharper view behind won’t work: the eye is drawn to the closer, larger image. Either the nearer image needs to be in focus, or it needs to be a frame rather than a major part of the composition, as in the shot of Samantha Alexandra.

 

Samantha Alexandra with a soft and gentle treatment – but the focus firmly on the eyes, and the out-of-focus profile kept well to the side of the picture – it’s a frame, rather than a major compositional element.

Samantha Alexandra with a soft and gentle treatment – but the focus firmly on the eyes, and the out-of-focus profile kept well to the side of the picture – it’s a frame, rather than a major compositional element.

 

Alignment

Getting a great mirror shot will take a little bit more effort and time because you are juggling with aligning two shots at once and it’s not instinctive as one of the images, left and right are reversed. You can tackle this by altering the position of the mirror(s) as well as by moving the camera and model. You will have to try it and get a feel for the geometry as you go – no amount of ‘advice’ will equip you with the visuospatial awareness that makes mirror images easier. But a willingness to persevere, and to use little bits of card and BluTack to bring things together will always help!

 

Samantha Alexandra again – this time, photographed in a tiled bathroom mirror. Alignment to give both eyes and her mouth clear and undistorted space proved quite a long process – the slightest movement is amplified by shooting through a mirror – and there were two people moving. Even the tiny sway that keeps us upright is enough to throw the alignment out in a shot like this.

Samantha Alexandra, again, this time, photographed in a tiled bathroom mirror. Alignment to give both eyes and her mouth clear and undistorted space proved quite a long process – the slightest movement is amplified by shooting through a mirror and there were two people moving. Even the tiny sway that keeps us upright is enough to throw the alignment out in a shot like this.

 

Sheer Confusion And 'Capturing' Moments

Nipping down the stairs for a break while I was writing this, I saw a lovely evening sky reflected in the roof of my car outside. The motto is to be prepared and don’t be narrow in your definition of what a mirror is!

 

Reflection of a sunset sky in the black roof of my car.

Reflection of a sunset sky in the black roof of my car.

 

Two other things that I haven’t dealt with in detail are using mirrors for distortion and the use of reflective objects that aren’t mirrors, such as wet pavements or a smoked car window. But there are plenty of opportunities – just keep looking and reflect on the possibilities…

 

Love don’t show up in the pavement cracks… Corporation Street, Birmingham, nearing Christmas.

Love doesn’t show up in the pavement cracks… Corporation Street, Birmingham, near Christmas.

 

A less literal view of the Gasholder Garden installation.

A less literal view of the Gasholder Garden installation.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last year, he’s been writing the odd article for Ephotozine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He’s also been running occasional lighting workshops and providing one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

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Comments


dudler Plus
15 739 1423 England
5 Dec 2018 10:53AM
I'm indebted to my friend Moira (aka mrswoollybill ) for at least two of the ideas in this article - she introduced me to Vivian Maier's pictures, and she and her husband ( woollybill1 ) told me about the gasometer with a garden in it.
mrswoolybill Plus
12 1.3k 1979 United Kingdom
5 Dec 2018 11:06AM
Ah yes, a few of my favourite locations here... Grin

I'll add that curved (whether accidentally or deliberately) reflective surfaces are fun.

Another good location is the exterior of the Camera Obscura just below the gates to Edinburgh Castle, where you will also find optical illusion mirrors on display.
6 Dec 2018 10:56AM
I love the photo of Samantha in the tiled bathroom mirror, very effective indeed, definitely worth the effort
mistere Plus
5 4 3 England
6 Dec 2018 12:21PM
Fascinating read as always John, lovely images to accompany the article as well.
Would liked to have seen the Mullholland installation.
I've Just purchased a couple of smaller circular mirrors,
to experiment with on Tuesday. Smile

Dave.
dudler Plus
15 739 1423 England
7 Dec 2018 10:06AM
Worth going to see Moira's brilliant mirror shot HERE ...

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