Landscape photography – how to win NatGeo Grand Photo competition?
Landscape photography is a difficult subject. Good photos often require not only photographic skills, but also a bit of luck. In 2017, I was able to win the National Geographic Grand Photo Competition with a photograph of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan. What is the story behind that photo?
Azerbaijan: in the land of glass houses
We flew to Azerbaijan with a team of 4 people. We implemented a photo project financed by one of the Azeri ministries. In short – we had to gather photo material in a week – good enough to organize a series of photo exhibitions about Azerbaijan in Poland.
The journey was not without complications. We had a scheduled transfer in Budapest, and boarded the plane in Warsaw without Azerbaijani visas. Electronic visa applications were not processed on time. After the arrival of in Hungary the visas were not ready. Quick phone call to Azer’s friend:
– Go quickly to the embassy, I managed to get you a regular visas today.
Quick search for a taxi, transfer and after 20 min we were at the embassy. We call the intercom:
– Good morning, we’d like to get a visa.
– Sorry, but the embassy is now closed.
– … but we came to see Mr. Abdul (made-up name, I already forgot who it was)
– You should’ve said so from the beginning! Come in!
We filled the forms, took quick photos for visas and we could move on. After such a trip, you had to rest properly. Before the trip I knew the entire team, but for the other members it was the first opportunity to meet, so we organized a Polish customary evening of familiarization (which basically means drinking a lot of alcohol). We’ve finished introducing ourselves around 3 am, which certainly pleased the owner of a local liquor store. We were a bit less pleased, less because we were planning a sunrise at Heydar Aliyev Center – an amazing building designed by Zaha Hadid. I woke up at 5:30 slightly sleepy. Strong wind, rain and full cloud cover did not allow to think about good photos. Thinking of the photographic results of the next days of the trip, I ordered a wake up call and after 30 minutes we were sitting in a taxi. I planned to do at least a reconnaissance before shooting the next day, when the weather conditions were about to improve.
Looking for the right composition
Initially, I wandered around the building looking for good frames. First, the detail – I tried to catch lines coming out of the corners of the frame, find something in the block that was not visible at first glance. The composition was difficult to plan, especially considering my cognitive capabilities at the moment. It wasn’t a good day for 70-200. I reached for a wide angle, mounted the Nikkor 14-24 on my good old D700, initially focusing on the wavy lines of the building facade. After a moment of searching, I focused on something that I didn’t pay attention to at first. The unearthly shapes of the building had previously eclipsed everything that surrounded it, its unreality was something that attracted me and at the same time became an impossible photographic challenge. How do you capture something as cosmic as effective as architecture itself? I paid attention to the surroundings. Seemingly terrible weather did the job – specific lighting conditions caused the building to turn yellow and wet concrete ensured reflection of the building.
I made several frames at 14mm. However, the sky did not look interesting. I reached for the ND filter to extend the exposure time to 8 seconds and blur the clouds. The smooth sky worked out well with the modern shape. The whole picture was completed by a friend from Slovakia, too tired this morning to pull out the camera :)
The effect of the whole process being a cluster of determination, skill and luck, was a photograph that won the National Geographic Grand Photo Competition in the category of landscape photography, distinctions in the Sony World Photo Awards, HIPA and many other awards at international photography competitions and exhibitions.
Observing such photos, we often think that they are precisely planned, composed in an ideal way. Hardly anyone realizes how many factors make up the final result. We can’t control all of them, but one thing is certain: sometimes it takes a bit of determination to take your gear out despite so many adverse conditions ;) Landscape photography is one of the most difficult types of photography, and one outstanding photo is worth several or several dozen failed attempts. I try not to think about how many great frames I lost not beeing able to find the missing bit of motivation to try.