Category Archives: Landscape Photography

Grainy Sunset plus Making Of

During my vacation on the Baltic sea, where we planted a tree, I also took some other photos. One of them was a beautiful sunset behind a field of grain and I thought I’d write a bit about what I did to get the final picture:

Grainy Sunset

About the only thing you can do on a camping trip during bad weather is sit inside and read books or visit Restaurants in the area. We had just returned from a dinner trip when the clouds opened up and the sun came through to mark the end of the day. I grabbed my camera bag from the car and the tripod from the tent and rushed towards the coast. I spotted the field of grains and immediately knew what kind of picture I wanted to take. The idea isn’t that original to be honest.

Behind the field, there was a group of trees with a gap in between. I moved around until the sun fit in the middle of that gap, dropped my tripod into the grains and mounted the camera with the Sigma 10-20mm ultra wide angle lens on it. An ultra wide angle lens can be positioned very close to an object and still capture a really big scene. This results in the grains in the front looking very large while the sky with the sun is still visible.

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We Planted a Tree!

While walking along the beach of the Baltic Sea in Northern Germany, I noticed two driftwood trees lying around. I had the idea to drag them into the water and take some long exposure photos with a neutral density filter to give the water a silky smooth appearance. However, when I later returned with my brother we quickly found out that these trees are quite heavy and we couldn’t really move them all the way into the water.
Our next idea was to get one tree to stand up straight so it would look at least a bit like it had grown on the beach. At first, that didn’t really work either because there were still large parts of roots attached to the tree so we couldn’t move it into a stable position. Digging a hole in the sand also didn’t work because then the sand was too soft to support the tree.
Ultimately, we succeeded by digging a hole next to and half way under a heavy boulder and then placing the root of the tree against the boulder before filling up the hole with stones and sand. The whole endeavor took us almost an hour. But we had successfully planted a dead tree on the beach of the Baltic Sea.

Driftwood Tree

I played around with a few different compositions and settings for the picture, mostly to try out the neutral density filters I had bought for the trip. The above photo is a 20 second exposure through a 3-stop ND filter. I toned down the color saturation during post processing to give the photo exactly the bleak, cold look I had in mind when taking this shot.
The tree didn’t seem to be very stable in it’s place so we went back the next morning to check up on it – and sure enough, it had fallen over. Maybe I’ll plant a real, living tree somewhere someday, but it’s not on my bucket list.

Sunset at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Some days in Iceland are more crazy than others. This was one of them. After making my way through winds that were so cold that my iPhone switched itself off, getting completely soaked from torrential rains and having to change all of my clothes in the car next to the road (fortunately nobody saw me), eating canned beans next to a milk truck in the middle of nowhere under a sky that reminded me of a surrealist painting and visiting a waterfall that looked rather boring, I arrived at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon just as the sun was starting to go down.

I grabbed my tripod and camera, stuffed another lens into my pocket and jumped out of the car. I left the – still wet – backpack behind. I quickly made my way up a little rubble hill, rammed my tripod into the ground as good as possible to protect it against the extreme winds and started shooting picture after picture after picture. After sixty-some pictures, my memory card was full. And the spare cards were in my backpack. I ran and jumped down the hill back to the car, at times almost getting carried away by the wind. I don’t think the wind was strong enough to actually carry me away but it still felt funny. After changing memory cards, I sprinted back up the hill, much to the amusement of the few couples who were enjoying the romantic sunset from the warm comfort of their SUVs.

Jökulsárlón Sunset

Fortunately, I hadn’t missed much of the scene. In fact, the most spectacular moments had just begun. So close to the Arctic circle, the sun goes down very fast during winter. And just for a few minutes, it sets the sky on fire. Higher clouds are illuminated directly from behind, lighting up in an intense red-orange glow. The water in the glacial lagoon of course reflects the spectacle. And with drifting chunks of ice shining naturally blue the whole scene became even more breathtaking. I actually had tears in my eyes. Might have been due to the wind, though.

After about half an hour, the sun had gone down far enough to make the magical light disappear. I had taken almost 250 photos by then. Back in the car, my fingers were stiff and my face was burning from the frost. But I didn’t care much, I was too ecstatic that at the end of an otherwise suboptimal day, I got to see the most beautiful sunset of my life thanks to nothing but luck.
I turned up the music and the heat for the remaining 80 km to the next city, already planning to return the next morning for some daytime pictures of the glacier.

Sunset at the Blue Lagoon

Before taking night shots of Svartsengi power station, I walked around for a bit at the Blue Lagoon. It is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destination, both for Icelanders and foreign visitors. The water pumped up for the geothermal power plant is collected in some outdoor pools that have naturally formed in the rough lava rock landscape. The water is rich in minerals and some algae, which give it a distinctly blue color.

The wind was causing many small waves to appear on the surface of the water and some low hanging clouds were moving past the sun really fast. I walked around one of the easier accessible pools, just letting the different directions of the light inspire me. While I was still fine tuning from which place and at what height to take a photo, another photographer approached me, noting that the angle I had selected looked very interesting indeed. That’s of course photographer code for “I’m totally going to take the same shot as soon as you leave” and it is something I have gotten used to. I replied that you’d have to shoot directly into the sun though, and configured auto bracketing.

Sunset at the Blue Lagoon

This is not the first photo I post that was shot directly into the sun, but this time I used a more wide angle lens and also needed parts of the foreground to be visible. With several photos, bracketed at different exposure times and later combined into a high dynamic range image, this is not difficult, only a lot of work in post processing. To make it even harder, I had left the tripod in the car and had to shoot handheld, which resulted in images that weren’t properly aligned.

To get the image you see above, I had to run my five different photos through many different pieces of software. After learning that for some reason, neither Luminance HDR, nor Picturenaut could properly align the images, I had to figure out something else. After a while, I got Hugin, originally a panorama creation program, to align and crop the individual exposures, but only after I had developed the raw files with RawTherapee. Then, I could turn them into a single HDR file, tone-map it and load it into The GIMP, along with some of the aligned and cropped versions. From there, it was the usual spiel of experimenting with different layer modes, meticulously painting layer masks and enhancing the final result with some G’MIC magic.

So yes, six different pieces of software to produce a single image. And in the end, only the output of four of them is used in the image. Fortunately, all of these programs are free and what’s even more important, I got to play around with a lot of new techniques and learned some new tricks. Nowadays, all the things the old masters did in their laboratories and dark rooms can be done on the computer. As long as you’re not opposed to heavily processed pictures.