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Galleria Winner • Michael Blanchette

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The Algarve, Portugal
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, f/11, Blended Exposures, ISO 100

I had the pleasure of joining a small group of photographers along the southwestern coast of Portugal in January. The Algarve region is known for its clear waters, golden beaches and impressive sandstone formations that include stacks, pinnacles, caves and arches. January is normally a period of unsettled weather, but this certainly was not a typical winter because we experienced bright sun and blue skies for the duration of the trip.

One of the most impressive sandstone arches that I saw was near our hotel, so I hiked at dawn on several occasions. On this particular morning I wanted to capture the arch and beach from inside one of the many caves that adorn the Algarve coastline. I chose a steeple-shaped grotto that looks out toward the arch and positioned my tripod to feature the arch opening directly below the grotto peak. This part of the beach and shallow cave are only accessible at low tide, so my visit had to be timed accordingly. I choose to take the photos at dawn, just before sunrise so as to capture soft rather than harsh light against the sandstone rocks.

The image is a composite of several frames for two reasons. First, the dynamic range of the scene was significant, given the tonal difference between the bright sky and dark grotto interior. Second, my tripod and camera were mere inches from the rightmost wall of the cave, requiring me to take a focus stack of the grotto walls to ensure front-to-back sharpness. So, I ended up taking a three-second exposure for the sand, water and arch (smoothing the water while still retaining some texture); a half-second exposure for the sky; and a focus stack of four frames at 8 seconds each to capture details on the nearby grotto walls. All frames were then blended in post-processing using luminosity masks to yield a balanced exposure. This remains one of my favorite images from the Portugal trip.

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