The Startling Colors and Abstract Shapes of Salt Ponds - Atlas Obscura
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The Startling Colors and Abstract Shapes of Salt Ponds

Masterpieces from above.

A drone camera captured these dazzling colors of salt ponds.
A drone camera captured these dazzling colors of salt ponds. All Photos: Tom Hegen

As an aerial photographer, Tom Hegen is used to seeing the world from a different perspective. But even he was astonished at how salt ponds look from above. “When I started on doing research for this project, I had a certain look of the result in mind,” Hegen says, via email. “I was then really amazed by the vibrant hues, textures and abstract shapes I observed. The size and landscape of those salt gardens is just overwhelming.”

Hegen captured his unique take on a centuries-old process using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone camera. “The Salt Series explores artificial landscapes where nature is channelled, regulated, and controlled,” explains Hegen. “Salt is a raw material that is now part of our everyday lives, but we rarely ask where it actually comes from and how it is being produced.”

The different colors of salt ponds relates to the levels of salinity in the water. Pink and red hues are caused by a type of algae known as <em>Dunaliella salina</em>.
The different colors of salt ponds relates to the levels of salinity in the water. Pink and red hues are caused by a type of algae known as Dunaliella salina.

Hegen’s series was shot around the Mediterranean, which is the ideal climate for salt production. Artificial pools, separated by sand or stone walls, are flooded with seawater. Slowly, the water evaporates, leaving behind brine, which is water with a very high salt concentration. “Each salt pond has a unique salt density,” explains Hegen. “Microorganisms change their hues as the salinity of the ponds increase.”

These microorganisms, which fall under a class of organisms known as halophiles (“salt lovers”), dictate the colors and include different types of algae. Algae-loving brine shrimp also contribute to the process. “As the water becomes too salty, the shrimps disappear, causing the algae to proliferate and the color of the ponds to intensify. The colors can vary from lighter shades of green to vibrant red.” At the end, “workers harvest the salt by delicately lifting it up from the floor,” says Hegen, noting that it is often done by hand.

From the ground, it’s difficult to assess the extent of a salt pond’s colors and shapes. They often stretch across a wide expanse of area—one salt pond facility on France’s west coast is nearly 5,000 acres. But as Hegen rightly guessed, from the air they are startlingly dynamic. He has a knack for reinterpreting landscapes: his aerial portfolio includes forests that, from above, look like polka dots and farms that appear like a patchwork of lines and squares.

Much of Hegen's work is focused on how human activities have impacted the natural world.
Much of Hegen’s work is focused on how human activities have impacted the natural world.

In all of his aerial projects, Hegen highlights more than just unique angles or unseen patterns. He also uses aerial photography to investigate landscapes that have been changed by human activity. Several of Hegen’s projects relate to mining. One of the most startling is his Toxic Water Series, which shows pools of bright orange water against earth blackened by coal mining.

“I focus on landscapes that have been heavily transformed by human intervention and document the marks that we have left on the earth’s surface in order to meet our daily needs,” he says. “Aerial photography is a compelling way to document those interventions because it basically makes the dimensions of human force on earth visible.”

As part of his ongoing investigation into how humans have altered the natural world, some of Hegen’s work will soon be part of a book called Habitat. “I am fascinated by the abstraction that comes with the change of perspective; seeing something familiar from a new vantage point that you are not used to.” Atlas Obscura has a selection from Hegen’s Salt Series; you can find more of his work on Instagram.

"The colors can vary from lighter shades of green to vibrant red," says Hegen. "Once the ponds have dried out, a crust of salt is left behind."
“The colors can vary from lighter shades of green to vibrant red,” says Hegen. “Once the ponds have dried out, a crust of salt is left behind.”
Ponds that are deep red in color have the highest levels of salinity.
Ponds that are deep red in color have the highest levels of salinity.
The series was shot using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone camera.
The series was shot using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone camera.
While shooting this series, Hegen was struck by the size of the salt ponds: "they reach far into the horizon and cover areas of many square kilometers."
While shooting this series, Hegen was struck by the size of the salt ponds: “they reach far into the horizon and cover areas of many square kilometers.”
For Hegen, aerial photography "makes the dimensions of human force on earth visible.”
For Hegen, aerial photography “makes the dimensions of human force on earth visible.”