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A City On A Cloud: The Surreal Photographs Of Simon Christen

With a portfolio of time-lapse and HDR photography, Simon Christen's work looks like something out of a Pixar storyboard.
July 19, 2013, 2:29pm

With flashy CGI animations getting more hyper-realistic every day, it's easy to dismiss the visual artistry of digital photography as something kind of quaint and old-school. I mean, how can the lowly camera compete in the face of glossy physics simulations and virtual worlds that look so real as to be almost palpable? The answer is the work of Simon Christen, whose portfolio of time-lapse and HDR photography and animation looks like something out of a Pixar storyboard.

Sure, we've seen plenty of stunning time-lapse work over the years, but when we say how Christen was able to transform the familiar skyline of San Francisco into a dream world of cotton candy clouds and azure ray skies, we knew that there was some real artistry at hand here. It's easy to produce jaw-dropping results if you're shooting the Nothern Lights, but the Golden Gate bridge? Been there, done that.


After Christen’s love letter time-lapse Adrift (above) went viral, we sent him a few questions about his process, his experience in both animation and photography, and his evident affection for San Francisco.

The Creators Project: You are clearly inspired by San Francisco. Are you from the Bay Area? Aside from its obvious beauty, what is it about this city that inspires you?
Simon Christen: I was born and raised in Switzerland, but moved to San Francisco in 2002. The city is incredibly beautiful, with a very unique and recognizable skyline. I love that the city is surrounded by hills providing such great photographic vantage points. Each of those points offers a completely different perspective. Most cities are lucky if they offer one nice view, San Francisco has a whole bunch of them.

I have always loved being outdoors, hiking and exploring new trails. The Berkeley hills and Marin Headlands have many great trails, and it’s while exploring those that I discovered how much San Francisco has to offer photographers. On one of those excursions the fog was pouring in through the Golden Gate and I have been hooked to capture it ever since. The mix between the hard shapes of the city and bridge with the flowing softness of the fog is incredible. It provides contrast, which is always interesting to look at.

Working in both animation and photography, how does your creative approach change with the technique? Are there certain parts of each process that you enjoy more?
In animation we study movement in great detail and spend a lot of time trying to create believable animation that tells a story. Photography is the exact opposite; you are trying to tell a story by capturing something interesting in a fraction of a second. Time-lapse on the other hand is like the perfect combination: capturing multiple photographs to combine them to tell a story again.


I enjoy both of them a lot, but they are both very time consuming in their own ways. With animation, I appreciate having the luxury to keep changing and improving my work over and over again, until it is ready to go. Whereas, with photography it's about finding the location, setting up the gear, and pressing the shutter. Once all the images are captured, then I do spend quite bit of time in post-production to adjust and tweak the image to my liking.

Some of your photos, specifically the cityscapes and landscapes, contain colors that are almost surreal. How do you achieve this? In camera techniques, post-production, or a combination of the two?
I work on my photos quite a bit in Lightroom or Photoshop. I try to recreate the same feeling to the viewers that I got when I shot the scene. I consider my photography art and not photo-journalistic work, therefore I grant myself the freedom of retouching my photographs however much or little I like.

For a lot of my Urban Exploring work, I used a technique known as HDR (high dynamic range). I have since shied away from overusing this technique as some of the colors turned out a little too crazy for my taste. Lately I still shoot my scenes with the HDR technique, meaning I am usually taking 3 exposures of a given scene, just to give me the freedom to blend missing information (in the highlights and shadows) back into my final image. I do this manually and do not rely on software. I feel this way I have greater control over the final look.

Obviously, all photography includes a certain amount of post-production in today’s world, but do you think there's such a thing as too much photo manipulation?
It depends what the final work is supposed to be. If it's a documentation of reality, then only very minor touches are acceptable.

But if it is art, then I think there shouldn't be any limitations as it is a personal preference if you like a picture or not. That said, my line for touching up a picture is constantly changing. I look back on some of my older pictures and think they are way too over-processed. I do use Lightroom and Photoshop extensively while working on my photos, but hopefully keep myself in check in not pushing too much. But who knows, maybe in a couple years I will look back on the current pictures and think they are too much. I try to grow as an artist and that means I keep changing my own sensibilities towards the art form.

In your time lapse, Steaming City (above), San Francisco’s city lights seem to illuminate the sky, and the effect within the time lapse is stunning. How much of that was in camera? Could you visually see the sky doing this, or was it one of those things that only the camera picke dup so dramatically?
I could see the clouds catching the light when I was there. In post-production, I did add a bit more saturation and contrast.

I was hoping the passing storm would dissipate a little more, so the sun would be able to find a hole in the clouds to create some great sunset colors. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. There were multiple pour downs passing over me while I was there. I was in my full rain gear and had to clean the lens after every shot, before the next one would fire. So when I "wasted" 3 hours sitting in the rain and the sun didn't peek through, I was a little disappointed, and was ready to pack up and head home. It was in this moment that the first city lights started to illuminate the clouds, and it piqued my curiosity. I decided to stay a little longer to see what would happen. I am so glad I did, because it was an incredible light/fog show that unfolded in front of me! About an hour later I finally headed home, completely soaked. Totally worth it! :-)


Your Urban Exploring Gallery has some very impressive shots of abandoned locations. Tell us a bit about the process of finding these locations. Find anything outlandish in any of these abandoned buildings?
Half the fun of doing Urban Exploring is finding locations. I got hooked when my wife saw a cool-looking building in San Francisco, and I wanted to go and check it out. Unfortunately it was totally locked up and impossible to get in. So I started doing research online about other possible locations. I found a couple of promising spots and the following weekend, a good friend of mine and I decided to investigate. We actually never made it to the planned spot, as we stumbled upon another great location on the way. While there, we happened to bump into a pretty famous urban explorer from the Bay Area, who was kind enough of to share some other locations with us. So it's really a combination of online research, going outside, exploring and a big portion of luck.

The condition of the spots varies pretty dramatically, from fully stocked with forgotten things to completely empty or trashed. I found the places in Europe were in better condition than the ones I visited here on the West Coast. Some of these old factories in Europe were full with old machinery, tools, bottles, papers etc… Of course, the Urban Explorer's creed applies: "take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints."

In Unseen Sea (below) the time lapse opens with clouds ebbing and flowing in front of the camera. Where/How did you get this shot? Can you tell us a bit about the process behind these time lapses?
I shot this sequence from Tilden Park, just above Berkeley in California. The sequence gives the impression that I am in a plane, but I was just standing on a hill with a good view. I used a telephoto lens to be able to zoom in and crop out any foreground elements.

This is actually a fairly straight forward sequence. The lighting doesn't change dramatically, limiting the amount of camera exposure adjustments while shooting. All that was necessary was to attach my Canon 40D with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and mount it to a sturdy tripod. After programming and hooking up the intervalometer to control the duration between shots, in this case 1sec, all I had to do was press start and the camera started snapping pictures every second. At this point I was able to enjoy the view and check in on the camera every once in a while.