The story of a single photo, ep. 1: Unreal

Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku

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 as a 4-people team. We implemented a photo project financed by one of the Azeri ministries. In short, we had to gather photo material within a week – good enough to organise a series of photo exhibitions about Azerbaijan in Poland.

The journey had some complications. We had a scheduled stopover in Budapest and boarded the plane in Warsaw without Azerbaijani visas. Electronic visa applications weren’t processed on time. Upon the arrival in Hungary, the visas still weren’t ready. Quick phone call to our Azerbaijani friend:
– Go quickly to the embassy, I managed to get you regular visas today.

We quickly found a taxi and arrived at the embassy in 20 minutes. We called via the intercom:
– Good morning, we’re here to get visas.
– Sorry, but the embassy is closed now.
– … but we came to see Mr. Abdul (made-up name, I already forgot who it was)
– You should’ve said it earlier! Come on in!

We filled the forms, took quick photos for visas and could move on. After such a trip, you have to rest properly. I knew the entire team before the trip , but for the other members it was the first opportunity to meet, so we organised a Polish get-to-know-you evening (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, because we were planning a sunrise at Heydar Aliyev Center – an amazing building designed by Zaha Hadid. Still slightly sleepy, I woke up at 5:30. Strong wind, rain and full cloud cover didn’t allow to even think about good photos. Having in mind the needed photographic results within 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, as the weather conditions were forecasted to improve on the next day.

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 hadn’t paid attention to at first. The unearthly shapes of the building eclipsed everything that surrounded it, its unreality was something that attracted me and, at the same time, became an impossible photographic challenge. How to capture something as spectacular as architecture in an equally spectacular way? I paid attention to the surroundings. Seemingly terrible weather did the job – specific lighting conditions caused the building to turn yellow and wet concrete provided a reflection of the building.

I made several frames at 14mm. However, the sky didn’t look interesting. I reached for the ND filter to extend the exposure time to 8 seconds and blur the clouds. The smooth sky composed nicely with the modern shape. The whole picture was complemented by a friend from Slovakia, too tired this morning to pull out the camera :)

The effect of the whole process – being a combination 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 realises how many factors have an impact on 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 how many great frames I lost not beeing able to find the missing bit of motivation to try.

If you are interested in seeing other awarded works, it is worth visiting the NatGeo website. Other photos from the Azerbaijani expedition can be seen in my interview for oxu.az