Article: Behind the Shot - Spot the Shark

Posted on 6th May, 2016 - - Back to Blog Listings

In this article I'd like to talk about 'Spot the Shark' - a personal favorite of mine, and one of my most popular shots. I was also extremely honored to have been approached by National Geographic to have it in a 2014 book release. With all the questions I've been getting about it, I decided to share the whole process: the story behind the shot, how I took it and how I processed it at home. I hope you find the article helpful, perhaps even inspiring.

'Spot the Shark', Brei├░amerkursandur, Iceland, January 2013

I think the image is successful because it has a lot of attractive traits. The almost-monotone colors, the fullness caused by the ubiquitous receding water patterns and of course, the shark! The weird thing is that the ice shark is something I only noticed back home, believe it or not. It's really funny to think that the very thing that made this shot so special was a total accident :)

But first thing's first. I took this image during late morning early in January 2013. I was guiding my first of two 'Land of Ice' workshops that year, and we had finally arrived at one of the most popular shooting locations in Iceland: Breiðamerkursandur, the ice beach. When the participants were comfortable shooting by themselves, I went around and explored a bit. I took quite a lot of images, but eventually only kept 3 or 4 good ones. This is one of them.

COMPOSITION

There are several points worth mentioning about the composition. I'll try to describe how I think it contributes to the image.

Firstly, one can easily see that there are three anchor points here (marked by green ellipses): the large piece of ice in the foreground, the 'shark' and its surroundings and the patch of light in the sky. The anchors balance the image: the large one on the bottom right is countered by the two other smaller ones in the top-left.

Secondly, there are many 'lines' (marked by red arrows), serving the flow of the image. The most obvious ones are those created by the water, and they add a lot, both in filling in the gaps between the anchors and in creating a sense of motion (which counters the stationary anchors in it own right). Additional lines can be seen in the sky: the cloud patterns seem to be moving away from the lit patch, adding motion and paralleling the lines on the ground.

Finally, if you look closely, you might see a connecting pattern (marked by the yellow dotted line) curving its way from the lit patch, through the gushing ocean waves and the upper water patterns into the 'shark', and then on to the largest piece of ice. This serves to connect the different parts of the image and make them work well together.

SETUP AND EQUIPMENT

The day was pretty gloomy in terms of weather, with lots of heavy clouds, and just a small amount of color coming from between them. There was very little natural contrast, a fact I'd have to deal with later when post-processing, but there was a lot of ice spread everywhere on the beach. This fact helped a lot: I had the privilege of shooting at a place where the beach was very moderately sloped, which had a crucial function in the look of the image.

The secret to the beautiful receding water patterns is exactly that: when the slope is moderate, incoming waves return to the ocean very slowly, and this allowed me to compose, stick my tripod deep into the sand and take the shot while there was still a lot of water moving around me. A long exposure captured the motion of the water to add a lot of content between the main subjects.

I used my Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II. I used a 0.9 solid ND to prolong the exposure and a 0.9 soft-edge graduated ND to balance the lighter sky. I took the shot at ISO 100 and f/16, and the exposure lasted 4 seconds - a bit on the long side but perfect for these specific conditions. Had the slope been greater, I'd have opted for a shorter exposure to get good details in the water patterns.

POST PROCESSING

Most of the PP work on this image was done on the RAW file using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Contrast work was critical, and I needed quite a few local adjustments to get the image just right. Here is the untouched RAW file.

The first things I had to do were fixing the lens aberration and straightening the horizon. I used ACR's automatic lens aberration correction option, and used the straighten tool to have the horizon right. While at it, I cropped the image to balance the composition.

Next I needed to add some definition throughout the image. I did so by boosting contrast and clarity.

All further corrections are local. I've done quite a few local corrections, but most of them fix very minor issues and so I won't be discussing them here. I do, however, wish to go over the important local adjustments.

The main thing I did here is increase local contrast in the areas which needed it. The most important detail to bring out is the receding water patterns. I therefore boosted contrast and especially clarity in all the areas containing these patterns, as shown below.

The ice needed a different treatment. To bring out its diamond-like qualities, I had to brighten it. I also increased contrast and clarity in the ice. The parameters might seem exaggerated, but remember that I had very little contrast to begin with.

A very similar adjustment was made with the left part of the ice - the "shark" and its surroundings. I had to brighten it even more to make it more prominent - after all, it is the focus of the image, small as it may be.

All other local corrections you can see above are much less significant, and were used to create some vignetting as well as fix some minor local issues.

There wasn't much left to do here. The only thing I needed to take care of in Photoshop was the slight imbalance in the histogram: as you can see above, it lacks a black point. This was very easily fixed: I uploaded the image to Photoshop, created a levels adjustment layer and boosted the input levels to stretch the histogram a bit to the left. This small change makes a big impact on the appearance of the image.

All that was left to do was save the image, perform size reduction and some sharpening and I was done.