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Why reflection shots don’t have to mean anything

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Reflection-shots are very common on social media. They show a picture of the paintwork, reflecting their surroundings like a mirror. From some particular angles, it can even look as if there is no mirror at all, until they zoom out an you see the actual vehicle with the reflection in the paintwork. However, there are several reasons why this little trick doesn’t have to say anything about the actual state of the paintwork.

Optical reflection

This picture shows how the background becomes blurry because the camera focuses on the subject itself, and not the reflection of the surface. Even though it is quite clear that the surface underneath has a very clear and obvious reflection.
This picture shows how the background becomes blurry because the camera focuses on the subject itself, and not the reflection of the surface. Even though it is quite clear that the surface underneath has a very clear and obvious reflection.

We have all seen those photo’s on Instagram, Facebook or detailing fora that show a reflection on a body panel of a vehicle that make it look like a mirror. The paint often looks perfect on these photo’s, which impresses some others. But these photo’s don’t have to mean anything. In fact, they are easily faked to make the paint looks great while it’s full with swirls and scratches.

One of these techniques is due to optical reflection. This simply means that the focus in the images lies on something else then the surface you look at. When you aim the camera at the surface of a very shiny object, the camera tries to focus on the lines it sees. The surface of the shiny object gives the camera nothing to focus on, but the reflection in the shiny surface does have lines and contours that the camera can use to focus on. The camera will actually adjust the focus on the reflection and not on the surface you are looking at.

If the camera doesn’t focus on the surface itself, it won’t show the swirls and imperfections.

A simple test for yourself would be:

  • Take a clean vehicle with metallic paint
  • Take a panel that gives reflection of your surrounding (so not the clouds or the ground)
  • Try to make it focus so you really see the metallic flakes in the paint without zooming in

You will notice that the camera wants to focus on the reflection in the background, making it very difficult to properly focus on the metallic flakes in the paintwork. A simple trick to make the camera focus on the surface is to put a small piece of tape on the surface. Aim the camera at the tape and it will focus on that. The reflection in the background will become much more blurry, but the metallic flakes will be clearly visible.

Another simple test would be:

  • Take a mirror
  • Try to make a picture of a speck of dust on the surface of the mirror without zooming in
  • Now put a piece of tape on the mirror, and make a picture of the tape without zooming in

The speck of dust is very small, the camera will have trouble focusing on something with so little contours and details. Therefore it will try to focus on the reflection in the mirror. The piece of tape is bigger and will have more detail, making it easier for the camera to focus on the tape instead of the reflection. If the camera doesn’t focus on the speck of dust, it will be much less visible. In some cases it might even seem to disappear. Just like how swirls seem to disappear from certain angles.

Glaze and/or similar product

There are certain product on the markt that as designed to hide swirls and small imperfections. This is nothing new, and they serve a purpose. You can’t polish your car every week, but if you use your car regularly, it is possible that you will have very small swirls from just daily usage. You want to keep your car looking good, but you don’t feel like polishing the car every week. A glaze will fill in these small imperfections and give it a freshly polished look. Perfect for in between your annual polish. If you go to a car show, and you notice a very small imperfection, a bit of glaze might do the trick as well.

A glaze will effectively hide swirls and very small imperfections, if you photograph the surface, they will hardly show up. Giving you the impression that the surface is flawless, even though it might actually be covered in swirls and spiderwebs.

Contrast from a dark area

Reflection shots can be enhanced by making use of heavy contrast and lighting. This is not difficult to replicate.

  • Wait for a sunny day
  • Open your front door and put a mirror in the hallway
  • Place the mirror up, with its back to the wall
  • Go outside and try to make a photo of the reflection of the dark hallway in the mirror from a brightly lit area (outside)
  • Go inside and try to make a photo of the reflection of the bright outside in the mirror from a dark area (inside)

You will notice that the reflection photographed from a dark area (that shows a brightly lit area) is much more vibrant with higher contrast then the photograph you made from the outside. This effect can also be used by putting a car inside a garage and then making a picture of the reflection from inside the dark garage. The reflection of the bright outside will make the surface look like a shiny and perfect mirror, even though the surface might actually be covered in swirls and imperfections. The only type of imperfection that will show up in this scenario are dents.

Difference in color

Some colors are known to reflect light better then others. This is not strange. You see a certain color because the light is reflected from that surface. When you look at a blue shirt, the wavelengths of reflected light determine what color you see. The light waves reflect off the shirt and hit the light-sensitive retina at the back of your eye. The complete light spectrum is absorbed by the object, except for the color blue. Colors like white absorb a lot of light and reflect very little. Other colors that are a bit like this are grey, silver and light colors (light-blue, light-green etc). Colors like black or other dark colors actually don’t absorb a lot of light at all, and reflect most of it. Making these colors beter suitable for reflections.

White can be made more reflective by using a product with a very high reflective index. On colored paintwork this can lead to a sharp glossy finish instead of a warm glow. Some people prefer a warm glow, others like the sharp gloss.

Combine the above about contrast, and the part about different colors and you can influence how a reflection shot looks like.
Simply put we can sum it up like:
Dark colors:

  • Will show good reflection even when you are in a brightly lit area
  • Will show good reflection even when you make a reflection shot of a dark area, standing in a brightly lit area
  • Will be easier to create a sharp glossy finish
  • Hiding swirls on a photo is easy unless the photo is made directly into the light

Light colors:

  • Best reflection shots are made from a dark area, photographing a brightly lit area (creating very high contrast)
  • Will look better in a slightly less bright area, can benefit greatly from high contrast areas
  • Will be easier to give a warm glow, unless the color is close to white
  • Hiding swirls on a photo is not difficult because the camera will have trouble focusing on the surface of the object

Using indirect light

Making use of indrect light can create a well light area without the imperfection being made visible. This can be understood when you look at why we see swirls in the first place. A surface imperfection becomes visible because the light in the imperfection is reflected in a different way then the light on a perfectly smooth area. The difference in reflection makes the swirl stand out, and makes you notice it. A glaze oil will fill in this microscopic gap and causes the light to be reflected more like the surrounding area, making them stand out less. And making you notice them less. They are still there, you are just fooling your eyes in not recognizing them in such a substantial way.

This video gives a good example of how indrect light can hide surface imperfections:

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