In this new series of articles, I’m going to dedicate each one to a single shot I think is worth discussing, take it apart and dissect it, and then explain each and every aspect, including composition, parameters, post processing, all the way down to choosing its title. I hope you’ll benefit from reading about my workflow.

The first shot I’m going to talk about is a personal favorite, shot during my first of two 'Land of Ice' photographic workshops earlier this year. One of the most popular photography locations in Iceland is the glacier beach, pitch-black and covered in countless glaciers disconnected from Vatnajökull glacier, dropping to the famous Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, carried by the small stream connecting the lagoon to the ocean and deposited back on shore by the Atlantic.

'Dark Matter', Glacier Beach, Iceland. 2013

Setup

The entire day was quite stormy, starting at sunrise. Instead of the classic red-orange colors we got major storm clouds, rain and wind. But as always in Iceland, you have to take advantage of the opportunities nature gives you, and an opportunity quickly arose. The rainclouds gave way just a bit, allowing for the sun to add a tint of color to the scene. Added to the carefully-selected foreground, this resulted in a very dramatic shot, full of motion and atmosphere.

It's no easy matter to combine all the aspects needed to execute such an image. To start analyzing the shot, let’s understand at how I got to capture this glacier exactly when the waves formed such wonderful lines. The secret is this: in this beach, the sand’s slope is very moderate, meaning the waves go very deep inland, and take their time receding back to the ocean.

This means that a) you need to be extremely careful not to get chased down by a rogue wave, getting yourself and your precious photo gear soaked and b) you have, relatively speaking, quite a long time to run to your preferred foreground, stick you tripod legs deep and hard into the sand to avoid camera-movement, compose and take the shot while the flow is still happening. That’s exactly what occurred here. I noticed this beautiful glacier, waited until a big wave came and when it started to recede, I got to the position as fast as I could, getting the water-lines in the shot.

Next, let’s inspect the equipment and image parameters. I shot the image with my Canon EOS 5D mark III, using a Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II lens, a Lee 0.9 Pro Glass ND filter to make the exposure longer and a Lee 0.6 grad to balance the lighter sky. I took a 1.6 second exposure to ensure motion blur in the water at ISO 200, at an aperture of F13. The relatively narrow aperture setting allowed for a longer exposure time, but I selected it mainly to ensure sufficient depth of field, as I was quite close to the foreground.

Composition

Next, I’ll explain the shot’s most important aspect: composition. A well-known compositional guideline is the creation of balance in the weight which different elements carry in the frame. Here, I positioned the glacier in the foreground was put to the left of the shot to counterbalance the dominant yellow patch of sunrise color on the right. Had I put the glacier to the right, there wouldn’t have been anything interesting on the left and the image would appear imbalanced, having too much compositional weight on its right hand side.

Here, I've indicated the main elements of my image and the visual 'flow' of the scene. Note how the movement seems to begin in the lower right, passing through the main subject (glacier) and turning right, pointing to the second, further glacier and then to the patch of color in the sky. The main subjects are marked with green.

Another important thing about the composition here is the fact that if we study the image from bottom to top, the flow of water takes us left up until about mid-height, and then turns right, straight to the gushing waves surrounding the second, further glacier. The flow is then completed when reaching the brightly-colored yellow clouds.

The composition is really what makes the image so appealing, but one needs to optimize the other aspects as well. Let’s see what I’ve done in post processing.

Post-processing

Below is the original RAW file, before adjustment. As you can see, it’s not very different to the final result, but there are several points I’d like to discuss and demonstrate. The RAW file was processed in Adobe Camera Raw and saved as a TIF file, and then processed further using Photoshop CS6.

The original RAW file, viewed in Camera RAW 7.4

First, I didn’t have time to make sure the camera was perfectly leveled, since I was trying to get the shot before the wave had completely receded. This, plus the lens aberrations were corrected in ACR using the lens correction tool. Notice I cancelled the vignetting correction since I actually found it rather appealing. I even added some post-crop vignetting to intensify the effect.

The lens-correction tool parameters, cropping and aligning the image. Adding vignetting.

Another thing I did was to add contrast and clarity to the image, to better emphsize the shapes and lines. 

 Adding contrast and clarity helped me make the compositional components more well-defined.

Next, let’s look at the local adjustments I made in ACR, from top to bottom. The adjustment levels are visible in the sliders to the right, and where I added masks, the masked areas are red.

The local adjustment markers, none yet selected. First adjustment: just a darkening of an unnecessarily light area which took too much attention away from the main subjects.
Second adjustment: a small retouch of color temperature and tint to make the yellow color more distinct. Third adjustment: quite a strong boost of contrast and clarity to make the details in the water more visible.
Fourth adjustment: a considerable boost in clarity to make the water lines more dominant, and a small increase in exposure to balance the resulting darkening.

Fifth adjustment: this is by far the most important adjustment. To make the main subject in the image - the closest glacier - really pop out, I had to boost its contrast, brightness and clarity, to give it a really sharp, cold, 'icy' look.

I lowered the saturation to compensate for the increase due to the contrast-boost. This local adjustment really made a difference in how the glacier appears and the part it takes in the final image.

Upon completing these adjustments I saved the file as a TIF and went on to boost the levels just a little in Photoshop. I then converted it to the widely-compatible sRGB colorspace for Internet-use, applied a sharpening pass and I was done.

The final, but also important step was naming the image. I wanted the title to complement the visuals by emphasizing the darkness and stormy weather, and I think that 'Dark Matter' is appropriate. I think it reflects the emotion carried in the image. I hope you agree! 


Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer and photography guide based in Israel. Every January, Erez guides his Iceland winter photograpy workshops: 'Land of Ice' in the south and 'Winter Paradise' in the north and west. If you'd like to experience and shoot some of the most fascinating landscapes on earth with Erez as your photography guide, you're welcome to see the workshop webpages for details and participation, and view Erez' Iceland gallery.

You can follow Erez on his Facebook page500px and deviantArt galleries.

More from Erez about the subject can be found in his article 'Winter Photography in Iceland'.