Iceland: End of Time – The Full Story

Well, as I begin to write this it is a few days after the Category results were announced for Outdoor Photographer of the Year and the response to my image has been somewhat overwhelming. I had received the email telling me I had won the ‘Light on the Land’ category on the evening of Friday 9th January, in fact I was at the gym doing a weights session when I checked my email on my phone between sets. Not something I usually do but for some reason I did that day. Needless to say after reading the email in disbelief I set a new PB on the seated row and called it a day!

I then had pretty much five days of sitting on the news until the guys at Outdoor Photography magazine sent out the press release and made the announcement publicly. That was all ok because for some reason the OPOTY chatter on twitter died down for a few days. Five days is a long time when you are sitting on that type of news, I now know what Mark Littlejohn felt like when he was told about his win in Landscape Photographer of the Year. Of course his was for the overall win, but still, keeping news like that under wraps is hard. This five day wait gave me time to think about the story behind the image. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by a lack of online hate (always seems to happen in these situations). I’ve only seen one or two items of vague criticism which I thought was fair enough, but in any case this all got me thinking and I thought I’d go into a little more detail about the shot.

One thing I don’t think many people appreciate is how hard it was to get this shot. This was at the end of the first serious multi-day trek I’ve ever done. Six days in and I was quite tired. My pack was much lighter than the 24kg it was at the start, but not a great deal, about 6kg lighter. I hadn’t packed quite enough food conscious of having to carry it all for a week. I think we’d walked about 8-9 miles that day and then had to ascend a small mountain to a plateau to camp. Maybe 150 metres of ascent straight up. Not much, but it took me a long time as I was knackered…not enough calories over six days really affects you when you exert yourself. I also weigh about 115kg too, so in all my knees are having to lift about 133kg up a hill of loose soil and rock and no path…you get the idea. Having made camp we gradually prepared for an evening shoot. Matt (typically) had a nap and would join us later, Alex ascended the adjacent hill to the camp (on which this shot was taken), and I joined him shortly afterwards. Neil went to have a look at another hill then decided to join us too. It was Alex’s knowledge of the area and his ‘vision’ of what this vantage point potentially promised that was key. I spent maybe a total of 3 hours on the hill before deciding to descend. You can also read what happened next in my previous post on the subject here.

Previously I’ve described the making of this image as “tripod, turn on, bracket, shoot, recompose, shoot, recompose, shoot”. That is the simple way of looking at it, but it makes it sound like I was a tourist randomly snapping images of the Eiffel Tower. There has been a lot of talk of pre-visualisation recently and I’d like to say this scene was ‘visualised/pre-visualised’. Firstly by Alex who had identified the location as having large potential for a big vista, and then when in-situ by me, over the previous three hours. We could see how the weather was behaving, the showers and clouds in relation to the sun. We just needed the weather to play ball, on this one day at this one time, one opportunity, one shot (within reason). I left the summit early thinking it wouldn’t, my only battery was low, my energy level was low, I was hungry and I needed to eat. That was my only mistake really, but then I have to say that in the direction of this shot, from the summit there was not any foreground interest either, it was just a bed of flat moss. So in reality, by deciding to descend I put myself in a position of actually having some foreground interest. On the descent I reached this position a few minutes before the image was taken. I could see Alex coming back up (having descended to camp for something to eat a little earlier) and I could see what was potentially unfolding. Being quite tired I just stood there and watched for a short while, really trying to just drink in the landscape. My camera was still in my pack on my back. I had a little look around and managed to position myself relative to the foreground rocks. I’m not sure who has really looked at the image in detail but from a composition point of view it’s about 90% there in my opinion. On the whole it is obeying the rule of 1/3rds, perhaps the foreground could be a little higher into the frame, and most noticeably the camera should be pointing a few degrees to the right, shifting the image around a little. I have shots like that on my HDD, taken in haste, they don’t work. The sun was at such an angle into the shot that there was too much hideous lens flare. So, the sun forced this composition. I could improve the overall comp by cropping more off the left side but in the end decided to keep it as wide as the original frame at the cost of a few composition points. The thing I really like though is the arrangement of the foreground rocks, as you can see from this annotated image. I’ve included numbers in the foreground that correspond with the numbers on the distant hills…and as can be seen, there is a certain amount of mirroring going on. It’s not immediately obvious but the more you look the more it makes sense. That is what I was looking at whilst I was standing there taking in the landscape.

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So, as far as I’m concerned, in the end, I got the best out of it I could. It was a shot taken in the end on instinct, mainly because when the light did hit it did so so quickly and my camera was still in my pack, but some preparation did go into making the image beforehand. As for the processing, it’s quite minimal really. I had expected folks to say it looked unreal (Iceland does look unreal at times) and over saturated. I had expected folks to say the sky was too dark (one did), or that it must have been a composite or something. No, it is a single frame exposure. I bracketed the shot, but in the end only used one of the exposures (-0.33EV). I had to do some cloning in photoshop for some patches of sky and in Lightroom I added some radial filters and warmed up the colour temp slightly. I added a grad filter to the sky and used an adjustment brush on the shadows in the foreground. I increased the lights and decreased the darks in curves to add contrast and added a touch of clarity. Finally the image was sharpened…and that is it really. Maybe 15 minutes of processing time only and typical of what I would normally do. To give you an idea of what the original RAW image looked like without any processing, here is an unprocessed jpeg of a RAW of Alex from a slightly different angle a couple of minutes later.

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Now, coming back to Outdoor Photographer of the Year, specifically this Light on the Land category, the remit was “Under sunset’s fiery skies, in fleeting twilight, with the gentler light of the moon, or with the first rays of a new day, we are looking for stunning landscape images from anywhere in the world.”. Lord only knows how the judges went about their judging to finally end up selecting my image, but in the end they said they “…really felt that [my] image captured the spirit of the category in the most creative way”. Well, I’m not going to argue with them. It’s certainly an image that is set under sunset’s fiery skies. There is plenty of light splashing across the landscape. It’s certainly not a typical sunset shot, at least from my point of view. Is it unusual? No, I don’t think so, there are hundreds of images that depict similar events all over the internet. Is the view unique? Well, I know a couple of other photographers who happened to be there on the day that have shots of this landscape, but I challenge anyone else to find the same scene elsewhere. In any case, I don’t think an image is judged on whether it is unusual or not. Sometimes unique maybe. There is one more step to go however, the final judging and the big reveal of who is the overall winner on the 15th February. I’ve had lots of feedback from folks thinking the ‘wow’ factor in my image is enough, but honestly I don’t think an image is judged on whether it has a ‘wow’ factor or not. I have my fingers-crossed, I’d be absolutely bowled over to win overall, and my, what a prize! Dog-sledding through arctic tundra sounds epic, hard work, but epic (I’m trying not to think of what types of shots I’d like to get of the event if I did win, but honestly it’s hard not to dream). However, there are five other photographers who have an equal and deserved chance of winning, each of the images sublime in their own fashion. I’m just glad I’m not a judge.

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