Raking the Grass in Lofoten

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The late afternoon spring sun rakes across a field of grass mounds in Tangstad, Lofoten, Norway. This is the final image after processing in Affinity Photo.

Story

While in Lofoten this past May, I spent a few days exploring the islands by car. One of the places I visited was Unstad, which has a nice beach that is popular with—believe it or not—surfers. It’s a pretty area, but I didn’t come away with anything too inspiring from a photographic standpoint. On the return, however, when I emerged from the tunnel above Tangstad, I was immediately struck by this scene. Oddly, I didn’t really notice it on the way out two hours earlier. Perhaps the sun was just enough lower in the sky to give the scene some warmth and transform it on the second look. Whatever the reason for the earlier omission, I immediately stopped and broke out the tripod.

From the side of the road above the fields, I used my 19mm tilt-shift lens to capture this scene in a single exposure. Unfortunately, lens shift and tilt settings do not get recorded in the image metadata, but I am certain that I shifted the lens down to have less sky and more foreground in the frame and tilted it forward to get everything in focus from near to far. (That lens is not cheap, but is just wonderful for landscape work!)

Analysis

This is one of those scenes where there is a lot to look at and I think it does a good job of inviting the viewer to stop and explore. Like many spots in Lofoten, Norway, there is so much to see in one place. Here there are interesting grassy mounds, green fields, barren trees, patches of snow, a picturesque blue inlet, rugged mountains dusted with snow, and coastal mountains receding into the hazy distance. With so many things in one frame, they key is the image having some order to it.

In my mind the focus of this image is the yellow-green field in the center of the frame, which is unusual because in the end it is just an empty field. When you look at the grassy mounds in the foreground (which stand out nicely because of the shadows from the low sun) they pull your eye down the slope towards that far field. The dark line of mounds that cross diagonally across from the left edge form one leading line towards the field and the near edge of the green field on the right form another. All of these elements converge at that central field. The field is also bracketed between the dark hillside on the right and the dark trees and rock on the left. I also added a subtle darkening on the two sides that help focus the viewers attention away from the sides of the frame.

But in the end, there really isn’t anything to see in that field, so the viewer moves up to the inviting blue inlet and—at least when viewing the image at a large size—the dark-roofed white building sitting on a projection on its shore. From there, the dramatic mountains draw the attention, despite the fact that they are not presented too prominently in the frame. From there, after perhaps a brief glance at the mountains far in the distance beyond the water, the viewer moves down the left side of the image, examining the gray rocky hill, then the lower hill which is covered in warmer yellow-brown foliage, then the line of trees, and then across the image along the line of grassy mounds that bisects the two green fields and over to the dark hillside on the right.

The more I look at this image, the more I am convinced that this is a great image to print large and hang on the wall. It has both a strong composition and enough details that it will have some visual longevity.

Creation

This was a promising image to start with, but I decided to invest some extra effort and polish it up with Affinity Photo rather than stick with Lightroom. But at this point, I find Lightroom much easier than Affinity’s Develop Persona to use for processing the raw file. So, I typically just do minor adjustments to make sure the exposure is solid in Lightroom (i.e., no areas blown out or too dark) and send it as a TIFF file to Affinity Photo. I usually shoot with my picture control set to “neutral” in camera to avoid having too much contrast. This doesn’t actually affect the raw file itself, but the reduced contrast does let me better judge with the in-camera histogram whether the highlights are blowing out; this helps me get a perfect exposure. This initial rendition of the raw file is pretty flat and lifeless, as is typical for a minimally-processed raw file:

This is the unedited raw image.

In Lightroom, I simply switched to Adobe’s “camera standard” profile, which is their (admittedly mediocre) attempt to mimic Nikon’s “standard” picture control. This puts a little contrast back in and has slightly better color. In addition, I had Lightroom correct for lateral chromatic aberration. This slightly revised version looks a little better, but not a lot:

This is the intermediate image that was transferred from Adobe Lightroom to Affinity Photo.

If I was just using Lightroom, I would have worked the file and had it looking a lot better than this in the end. But as it was, I moved on to Affinity Photo. As in all layer-based photo editing programs that I am aware of, including Photoshop, you typically start at the bottom with the original file and work up the stack one layer at a time, although you are free to shuffle layers around as you go. So, you can follow my general editing flow by reading from bottom to top:

This screenshot of the layers panel in Affinity Photo shows a summary of the processing that went into the final version of this image.

There are a lot of editing steps here, to be sure. Just to hit a few highlights, I cloned out some distracting poles and branches, warmed up and increased the color, boosted the contrast in the mountains, lightened up the small leafless trees on the right hand side against the dark hillside, made sure there was texture in all of the snow, darkened the edges, and balanced the blue sky left-to-right a bit. This last step was because the sky on the right was much lighter due to the haze in the sky and the sun being relatively low off to the right out of frame. Usually this sort of effect comes from incautiously combining a wide angle lens with a polarizer, but in this case there was no polarizer. (The 19mm tilt-shift lens I used has a huge dome of glass in front; there is no way to screw on a polarizer even if I had wanted to.) I did not attempt to remove the natural left-right gradient in the sky altogether, but since boosting the blues in the sky made it worse, I needed to temper it a bit.

Finally, I added the signature. Not the large white signature I use for the web, but the small one (hard to see at the size posted here) in the bottom right corner. I do this for images for sale. In this case, I sampled the color from some nearby grass to keep the signature unobtrusive when viewing the entire image and placed it over a dark area where it would still be easy to read when looking closely at a large print.

Technical Data

Nikon D850 with PC Nikkor 19mm f/4E at 1/160 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64. Single exposure, on tripod.

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