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How to See Through Reflections on Water

Anyone who spends time on or near the water will have noticed that sometimes we can see through water, but often we can’t.

For those interested in seeing details – artists, writers, wild swimmers, divers, fly-fishers and many more – there is a real art to knowing how to see through water.

We can learn how to do this by thinking about what’s on, in and under the water, as well as considering light levels and angles.

If the water is clear, there is nothing blocking our view on or in the water, then we can understand whether we will be able to see through the water by thinking about angles and light levels.

When we stare vertically down through clear water, it appears perfectly transparent and we can see through it.

However, if you glance across still water at a very shallow angle, across a large lake, river or sea for example, you will not see through the water at all; you will see reflections of the landscape on the far side of the water.

Between these two extremes, the angle we look from and light levels are critical.

Have a close look at the photo above.

It is beautiful, but also intriguing. There is so much going on.

Here is a great exercise: think about the places where you can see through the water to any bed beneath.

It doesn’t matter if you are standing in breaking waves, by a river, a pond or even a large puddle. There will be places where you can see through the water and others where you can’t.

The Perfect Recipe

In this landscape we will struggle to see through the water when looking at a shallow angle and when the there is a bright sky as the background (1).

But we can see through the water at an even shallower angle (2). Why? Because the reflected landscape is darker, it’s trees not sky.

(3) is the simplest of all situations: if there isn’t enough light, we won’t see much!

(4) is a very interesting situation. We are looking at a steep angle and can see the bed, but it’s tough because of the bright sky reflections. One positive and one negative, giving us mixed results.

(5) is the perfect recipe:

i) a nice steep angle

ii) there is enough light reaching into the water, but…

iii) at the angle we’re looking from there are dark reflections , because the bridge is screening out the sky there. We see the lake bottom and algae very clearly.

We can’t change all of these variables easily, but there is one that we can: the angle we look from. A few steps towards or away from the water changes what we see dramatically.

Next time you are near water, move until you find a spot that allows you to look in from a steep angle and where the reflections are as dark as possible.

Congratulations, you are well on your way to mastering the art of seeing through water!

For more on how to read water please see the book:

A New York Times Bestseller

You might also enjoy:

An Interview with Tristan Gooley by Wavelength Magazine

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