If you recognize Nicolas Alexander Otto's name, it may be because we featured some of his work a while ago. The Germany-based landscape shooter has graciously agreed to share the story behind one of his images, titled 'The Living Infinite', a shot he captured on a trip to Portugal's Praia da Adraga beach. He walks us through everything that went into making the image – from planning the trip to his post-processing technique. 

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By Nicolas Alexander Otto

To explain my process, I should start with a little bit of background information. When I have a timeframe set and know that I will be on the road during that period I dive into the planning phase first, trying to make the most of the time I have available. I then try to organize my shooting itinerary accordingly, checking for all the different options available for good light: sunrise and sundown times, same goes for the moon, the tidal schedule and the position of the milky way.

In this particular case I knew I was going to be at the ocean and the moon would set in the western skies during blue hour for three successive days. Hence, I knew I had to be at the Portuguese coastline by then, originally starting from Germany and driving all the way through France and Spain to get there.

My main focus on the trip was a beach called Praia da Adraga, located near Sintra. I planned to get my shot in the early morning hours, knowing the blue hour would provide me with the gentle light necessary and the moon would add that little something to the sky, keeping it from falling flat, although much would depend on cloud coverage.

Knowing my goal I looked up the tidal schedule next and noticed that the waves should be splashing around the famous sea stacks on the beach right around the time the moon would enter my frame. It's important to note that I had been at that location two times prior to planning this, but tools like Google Earth and the Photographer's Ephemeris make pre-visualizing shots fairly manageable without prior visits – I highly recommend using them. I checked the weather upon arrival and had to sit out a night of drizzle, already fearing I might not get the shot I had imagined. Luckily, it stopped once I woke up and grabbed my gear.

On Location

The evening before I had already scouted the location and taken some test shots looking for the right composition so I knew I didn't need much time, just a short break in between showers to reel in my desired shots.

During my third trip to the beach I noticed huge differences compared to my previous visit. A fellow photographer whom I met while walking towards the sea stacks told me that severe winter storms had altered the appearance of the beach, washing away quite a bit of sand rendering the sea stacks much higher than I remembered them, and revealing more rocks in the foreground as well. However, when I looked at where the moon would enter the frame on Photographers Ephemeris I saw that almost none of them would be in my composition.

I knew I had to battle against the rising tide and might face issues with camera shake, especially with my 36MP Nikon D800, so I utilized my heaviest tripod: a 3.4kg Slik 780 DX Pro. If burrowed in the sand a little, it's almost completely resistant against the incoming surge as long as it's not much more than knee high.

Composition-wise I went for a classic, dynamic two thirds setup with the waves' receding flow drawing the viewer's gaze into the image, right past the sea stacks out onto the ocean and the moon looming overhead in the left third of the frame. I tried to leave at least a little bit of separation between the rocks as their dark surfaces can be heavy and distracting if clumped up, drawing too much of the viewer's attention to a single area.

It took me some time to get an incoming wave to create those leading lines I had imagined. Sadly, the image ended up being a bit too dark, so I would need to brighten the exposure a little in post processing and work on the contrast. To blame was the fact that dawn had already kicked in and I had to readjust my camera settings each minute, and at that moment I tried adding a ND filter. When an especially promising wave came in, rather than adjusting my settings, I pressed the remote shutter and got exactly the wave patterns I was imagining. No other subsequent exposure came even close to it, unfortunately, thus I had to choose this one despite its technical shortcomings.

It can be quite difficult to capture waves because the shutter speed has to match the their force to shape beautiful streaks of spume, without them stopping or clumping up at a rock, breaking the rhythm of the lines. Oftentimes a shorter exposure doesn't create any dynamic addition to the image and a longer one would render most of the wave motion invisible.

Here are the settings used for my shot:

Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikkor AF-S 18-35mm F3.5-4.5 G ED
Focal length: 18mm Shutter speed: 3,5 sec
Aperture: F5.0
ISO: 100
Filter: Haida ND64


Exposure adjustments made to brighten the image.

I knew I needed to brighten the image overall, however I did not not want to alter the colors in any way to preserve the natural hues that the magical blur hour light supplied. Also, I knew I had to make local adjustments to the micro contrast, which is why I did not use clarity just yet because I wanted to keep the clouds nice and smooth.

At this point some adjustments to sharpening are made, along with correction for vignetting but none for distortion.

I rarely ever sharpen my whole image which is why I used a mid-range mask here to cover only the stronger contrasted edges of the rocks and sky. Even though I do use lens corrections I almost always dial down the distortion; on the one hand because the Nikon 18-35mm G ED has almost no distortion to begin with and on the other because a little distortion, in my opinion, adds to the dynamism of the image, especially in landscape photography. And for the most part I keep the standard noise reductions settings as is.

Next I imported the image into Photoshop and here you already can see all the different adjustments I made to the image on the right (first switched off so you can see the difference). Before I start working on anything else, I usually get rid of dust spots - thus the base layer is renamed to "clean", indicating I've already cleaned up the image.

As a second step I used Nik Color Efex Pro 4 here for some more global adjustments, and afterwards I used luminosity masks to target specific tonalities of the image, adding more contrast selectively to the sand and sky. Due to the very even overall exposure (not taking into account the rocks), most of the masks are not altered after the tonality selection.

In Color Efex Pro 4 I first used the Pro Contrast and Detail Extractor with these settings:

At this point I wanted to add a bit more contrast to the sky and the foreground without darkening the rocks to prevent having to brighten them up again later in the processing, since that is never a good idea to begin with. The rest of the image benefited from a little more punch overall, though. I also balanced out a little bit of the cyan toning with the 'Correct Color Cast' setting, because at this stage I felt like it might be deviating a bit too much from what the scene looked like in my recollection.

The detail extractor is an incredibly powerful filter, which is why I seldom use it at more than 5%. I would also recommend painting the effect in rather than using control points for masking in more complex situations. But in this case, the selections that the program generated suited my needs and I went with it. I tried to prevent the detail extractor from brightening the waves and sky, as it tends to brighten darker parts of the image recovering information in the dark tones. Furthermore, longer exposed skies and waves looking too crisp, for me at least, often kind of defeat the purpose of taking long exposures in the first place. However, the dark rocks were already brightened up a little bit which was a desirable result in this case.

After these adjustments the image already had more punch, but still lacked some differentiation in the narrow tonalities of the sand and the incoming surf – something common with blue hour shots. Additionally, I wanted the sky to be just a bit more dramatic. For this I added different curves layers with various luminosity masks generated with Tony Kuypers famous TK Panel.

First, with a 'Lights 3' and a 'Lights 1' mask, I emphasized the waves in between the rocks, both grouped together and masked with a gradient in order not to affect the sky (you can see the gradient masks in the first screenshot).

The same procedure was then used to get more detail out of the immediate foreground waves by using a 'Midtones 3', and again for the rocks, and foreground using a 'Darks 2' mask (this was actually applied later in the workflow and is called 'contr5' in the image above).

Next I wanted to introduce a bit more drama to the sky, so I used a 'Midtones 3' mask in order to select a wide tonal range in the sky, and darkened them only a small amount to make the undersides of the clouds stand out more.

In the end I darkened the rocks a little – just a tiny amount because I love images with prevalent darker tones – using a 'Darks 3' mask (this would've also simply been achieved by painting out the detail extractor added earlier).

As a last step I added a minor dodge and burn alteration to call attention to the small water splashes on the right sea stack: a very subtle, almost unnoticeable effect.

My final actions, as per usual, included resizing and converting into RGB color space. Usually I choose 900px for the web, but in this case I chose 1200px for this DPR article, so you can see more of the details.

I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at my process!

See more of Nicolas Alexander Otto's work at his Facebook page and website.