Captivating Photo Series Combines the Natural and Surreal

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler

Photographer and filmmaker Nicola Tröhler spent time off and on over the past two years designing and shooting a high-concept photo series, Under an Open Sky. Tröhler tells PetaPixel how he developed and shot the series and more about his artistic vision for the striking images.

A Narrative Inspired by Child-like Wonder Runs Through the Series

In Under an Open Sky, Tröhler stages a fictional village that encounters a series of fantastic events. In his photos, which toe the line between realistic and surreal thanks to compositional and stylistic choices, Tröhler aims to illuminate the relationship between people and nature and the interesting bonds between people within society.

“Experiences in nature have always fueled people’s belief in the supernatural and have provided a breeding ground for spirituality,” Tröhler explains.

“As a child, I spent a lot of time outside. Behind every tree, there was something to discover. Nature became a playground, limited only by my imagination. Today, as an adult, I have to take time in my daily life to experience nature actively. And yet its effect remains impressive: sometimes calming on a walk, frightening in the forest at night, or breathtaking on a ski tour in the mountains,” he continues.

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler

It was important for Tröhler to ignore his adult perspective of rationality and knowledge as much as possible and channel a child-like sense of wonder and curiosity about the world.

“The photographs show the figures in the lonely moment of discovery. Lonely because the initial confrontation with the emotions always remains one’s own, no matter how many people surround one. Thus the discovery of the outside world also becomes one of the self — reflected in the images,” says Tröhler.

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler

Tröhler’s Style is Inspired by Other Filmmakers and Artists

On his website, Tröhler says he is inspired by directors like David Lynch, Robert Eggers, and Ingmar Bergman, along with artists such as Edward Hopper, René Magritte, and Cindy Sherman. PetaPixel wanted to learn more about these influences, especially Lynch and Eggers, filmmakers well known for their disturbing surrealism and unsettling themes. The contrast between childlike curiosity and the occasional horrors Eggers relies upon seems at odds at first glance.

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler

“The mood I was going for in Under an Open Sky is way less disconcerting than in some of the works of Eggers and Lynch. I mainly drew inspiration from their worldbuilding. It’s grounded but with a twist. Something sublime fills the atmosphere. Sometimes you don’t even know if it’s all just a dream. This sense of dreamy atmosphere was one of my main goals in creating the story. That’s also the reason I used a lot of artificial fog. Like in a dream, grasping at reality, it vanishes right away,” Tröhler tells PetaPixel.

“Children may see the same things as we grown-ups do, but they have fewer filters between what they see and what they feel. So in a way, they have a more honest reaction to the world that surrounds them. Those feelings can be happy, but they can also be frightening. In the end, it’s their curiosity that prevails. I’m sure we all still get those feelings but sometimes choose to suppress them,” he adds, explaining that a lack of knowledge and experience can make the mundane seem extraordinary and the ordinary appear terrifying.

Leading a Viewer Along the Story

In Under an Open Sky, Tröhler hopes that some aspects of each image will be self-explanatory while others will be open to interpretation, allowing the viewer to assign a unique story to each scene based on their experiences.

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler

“I also found in the process of creating the photographs that the theme correlates to the viewer’s curiosity. For example, the theme is very obvious in the photograph of the two kids surrounded by light pillars and most people immediately get the image, but with the photograph of the guy standing in front of the tree where the theme is less obvious the vewers start to discover more and more themselves,” he says.

Workflow and the Creative Process

“Regarding my workflow in creating a body of work like this, I can tell you that it’s a long process, maybe too long. I spent almost two years on and off conceptualizing photographs for this series. I had quite a few concepts in my notebook and then tried to find a common thread. One thing was to keep all the photographs Under an Open Sky have no interior sets,” Tröhler explains.

Shooting in exterior environments is important because he wants a natural theme throughout the entire series. To make sure that each shot felt green and alive, all the images were shot in the summer, “when nature is at its peak.”

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler


Returning to his inspirations, Tröhler wanted to ensure that even across disparate scenes and when using different models, each image could stand independently while being part of a larger series.

“I really tried hard to keep it all in a coherent world, but at the same time, every photograph should be able to stand on its own. I think that’s mainly achieved by creating photographs that are close but not too close to each other. For example, there are a couple of photographs where there is a strange phenomenon with light happening, but it’s always different,” he says.

Lighting and Post-Processing: Striking a Balance Between Natural and Artificial

Throughout Under an Open Sky and the rest of Tröhler’s portfolio, there’s heavy use of artificial light alongside natural light.

As is often the case, creating a coherent and pleasing lighting setup requires a lot of lights, especially when working in large outdoor environments.

“Now, in terms of lighting, I have the same approach as to my worldbuilding. It should represent an elevated reality. There are a lot of lights in these photographs, sometimes more than 10 but most of the time just to nuance a single element within the photograph,” he tells PetaPixel.

Under an Open Sky, Nicola Tröhler
‘Under an Open Sky,’ by Nicola Tröhler

Part of Tröhler’s approach is building each image piece by piece, so there is also heavy compositing and post-processing throughout his work. While getting good results in camera is essential, editing also matters.

“I also had to retouch a lot of light stands, so please don’t assume that this is just a single exposure. It’s a collage of multiple exposures taken on location, layered together to create a surreal mood. My approach to postproduction resembles the one of a painter, not of a photographer,” he says.

Still Versus Motion

Tröhler also does motion work and even includes behind-the-scenes videos for every image in Under an Open Sky. These videos are located throughout the article, near their respective photos.

“I always have been heavenly influenced by movies and tv shows so when I found myself working on a commercial motion project I found my love in directing the motion picture. It’s also very close in terms of workflow to my personal photographic work. I worked on Under an Open Sky with a crew size that is similar to a small short film crew,” Tröhler explains.

There are differences when working in still photography and motion. “In motion, you often have to adjust your vision to fit into a bigger narrative. In photographic work, you can really take your time to tell (or hint) the story in a single frame. The story in a photograph is way less on the nose than in a film, and that’s something I wanted to explore in this project. That’s the challenge and the appeal. One frame, that’s all you got,” says Tröhler.

Picking a Favorite Photo

“I don’t have a favorite photograph of the series, I think it works as a whole,” Tröhler says.

He says his past inspires each image in the series, especially the photos with the two teenagers, the one with the woman, and the image at the sawmill.

More from Nicola Tröhler

Nicola Tröhler hopes to explore more themes with his photography and enter the gallery world. He aims to produce more personal work soon and is writing a pair of short films.

Tröhler’s work is available on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: All images © Nicola Tröhler