Surprising Discovery

Here is another reflection abstract from my trip to Yosemite early last November. I wouldn’t normally post an image that was technically weak - the softness and shallow dof field kinda render this not print worthy (at least to me.) But I wanted to share this because of what this image revealed. Something that in all my years of photography have never seen - or at least remember observing or noticing in a photograph.

I certainly didn’t see this while standing alongside the Merced river. But when I first saw this on computer and realized what I was seeing, I was baffled and amazed at the same time. Maybe someone with some science/physics background can explain this… How the reflections in the river actually reveal and conceal… the reflected part is the late light reflecting off the granite cliffs; this I get. The non-reflected surface reveals the bottom of the river! There must be some polarizing effect going on, OR - is this like a see-thru mirror? Depending on how each side is coated? Anyway, would love to hear an explanation if anyone has one.

And because of the abstract nature of this, I let the colors/saturation go a little…

Your comments and critique always welcome! Thanks!

You may only download this image to demonstrate post-processing techniques.

What technical feedback would you like if any?

that’s ok. It’s soft throught much of this

What artistic feedback would you like if any?

Does this work at any level beyond the sharpness? More or less color, sat or contrast?

Pertinent technical details or techniques:

(If this is a composite, etc. please be honest with your techniques to help others learn)

Nikon D800E, 28-300mm @170mm f/8 1/250th iso 800. single frame


I have never seen this effect either. It looks great, kind of a mind bender since I am not used to seeing it. Too bad about the softness, as this is a really good image otherwise. The colors, lacking a frame of reference, don’t look overdone to my eye, looking quite nice. With the colors, textures and shapes, I quite like this one.

Mother Nature continues to amaze us with new things. In over 25 years of doing nature photography (and a heck of a lot of reflections), I’ve never seen anything quite like this. What an interesting find.

I was not a physics major in college, but I know that the shallower the angle of light hitting the water the more reflection (less transparency) you get, ie the yellow. The steeper the angle of the light, the more refraction (more transparency) you get, ie the blue patches. The only thing I can think of is that the shape and depth of ripples in the water must be enough to change how the angle of light hits the water in various places to create varying degrees of reflection/refraction in different places. The blue at the top does appear to be a very pronounced ripple.

But anyways, thanks for sharing this really interesting phenomena with us, it was fun to see.


Lon, this is a very interesting effect. I am also not a physics major (engineering) but I believe @Ed_McGuirk has a sound explanation. I have noticed this phenomena to a much lesser degree with my naked eye when looking at water but not in such an exaggerated manner and never in a photo.
Thanks for posting.

Interesting phenomenon Lon. Love the color.

I have no idea how this occurred, but it is certainly a cool looking effect for sure. I am enjoying the combination of blue and yellow tones. Bummer about the softness as this would make a intriguing print that would generate some double takes.

Very cool. I’ve seen this a lot, but never in such a striking manner as this. I’d agree with Ed on the explanation. You’re getting both reflected (the yellow) and refracted (the blue) light. If you google reflection vs. refraction of light you’ll get a bunch of physics lessons. :wink:

If it wasn’t for your description Lon I would have sworn this was a tropic reef and very shallow water. I’ll keep an eye out for this illusion in future.

Thanks @Ed_McGuirk! Yours sounds more than reasonable. I’m fairly technical by nature, gradiated with engineering and my father was a masters in Mathematics. In fact he got a patent for designing a road marker that used both refracted and reflected light. Pretty cool.

Makes sense. I just had never observed this before. I guess I should start paying more attention to what I photograph!

Thank you @Harley_Goldman, @Alan_Kreyger, @Eva_McDermott, @Ed_Lowe, @Bonnie_Lampley and @Nathan_Klein for commenting.

Lon, I see “through the surface” in many of my reflection abstracts. This is simply due to the amount of light reflected by the surface vs the amount of light refracted from below the surface. When the two amounts are roughly equal, you see both. If you look closely at my Icy reflections post, you can see leaves on the bottom of the pond in several places where there’s open water. The clarity of the stones on the bottom in the blue areas is more typical of a straight through the water shot, so their presence is quite striking. Looking carefully and after you’ve pointed this out, I think I see some subtle color differences in the gold areas that are also due to the stones on the bottom.


Interesting phenomena indeed. When looking closely, you can see the rocks beneath the surface even in the portions that are reflecting the gold color. So the light from the rocks is making it through. My first thought was that it had more to do with the orientation of the surface of the water relative to the camera. Surface reflection is governed by Snell’s Law. On looking at a horizontal surface relative to the viewer, if reflected light makes it to the viewers eye, then the incident light must have come from an angle equal to the angle that is made from the surface to the viewer’s eye. If the surface is tilted so that the nearer portion of the surface is tipped further down and the farther portion tipped upwards making the surface oriented closer to parallel to the viewer’s eye, then it would be as if you were looking straight into the water. The incident light would now have a much shallower incident angle on the tilted surface and thus a shallower reflected angle which now is well below the viewer’s eye and would not show the reflection at all.
In the areas of your image where there is no reflected gold color at all, and from the shape of the water surface itself, it would seem that the the surface itself is not oriented properly to cause a reflection to reach the viewer, and instead you see directly into the water and see what is below. I hope the diagram below shows what I am trying to describe (I know we are a visual bunch) so a diagram might help.

The dashed blue line is that light coming from below the surface, in this case the light from the rocks. It is present in both cases. When the reflecting surface is horizontal, the camera “sees” both the reflected light as well as the light from beneath. In the tilted case, as when the water ripples change the surface orientation, the reflected light is no longer reaching the camera but the light from below still does. Now there is some refraction that takes place for the light coming from below the surface which I did not show, but I think you get the idea.


Thank You @Youssef_Ismail!!! for your detailed explanation! Makes sense. Appreciate you taking the time!

I like this shot very much and read the explanations about angle of incidence and refracted vs. reflected light with interest. Shame about the softness, but the colours and patterns are fantastic. I particularly enjoy the rich orangey-yellows like liquid flames contrasting very nicely with the cool blue and the stones on the river bed showing through. The interaction of light and water is an endlessly marvelous subject in photography!

I like the color differences here, as well as the abstract nature of the blue and gold patches. Seeing the rocks below the surface adds to the interest. Pretty cool.