Just back from this year’s Complete Namibia Tour, today we start a series of travelogue-style episodes to walk you through our antics as my group and I traveled this majestic land.
I’m going to come right out and say, that I believe this year’s Namibia tour was probably one of my best tours to date, if not these best. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to travel with many wonderful people over the years, and everyone on this group seemed to click with each other, which makes my life as a tour leader very easy, and the photographic opportunities that we were presented with on this trip were incredible too.
We start in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, then drove down to a place called Keetmanshoop, for one night, to photograph the Quiver Tree Forest there. On our way, we stopped to eat our packed lunches on the grass in front of a supermarket, and I had a very humbling experience that I’d like to share with you before we start to look at some images.
Namibia has quite a high percentage of unemployed people, and very little by way of benefits to help those without work. As a group, whenever we have food left in our often too large lunch packs, rather than wasting it, we collect it together and give it to people that we meet on the road. We did just this on our first lunch stop, and after our guides had handed one man some food, I found a few other uneaten apples and sandwiches, so I walked over to this man to hand these over too.
As I approached him, I saw that his hands were both already covered in yellow grains from the cornbread that we’d given him. As I reached out to hand him the apples and sandwiches, he opened his mouth, showing me his teeth also covered in yellow grains, and this is usually something that I am not keen on looking at. He gave out almost a scream of delight, and threw his hands out to his sides, then extended them forwards to accept the food.
I have never been so happy to see the food inside a person’s mouth. It was a beautiful sight! But at the same time, incredibly sad and humbling. I could hardly believe that we could make a man so happy simply by giving him a meal, and I was immediately reminded of the hardship that many people face just obtaining the food that they require to simply stay alive. We are so fortunate to live in a world where the next meal is almost a given, and I also feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to witness this humbling experience first-hand as we traveled in Namibia.
We did, of course, continue to collect what we didn’t eat, and I noticed that not only were people that were obviously struggling to get a meal accepting the food but even officials working on some of the remote national park gates etc. would gladly take what we could offer them. Please don’t think that this is coming from some sort of an aloof perch, handing down our scraps. Everyone that we can help on this tour is treated with utmost respect, often with our local guides passing the food discretely to the recipients. This is actually another reason why I felt so fortunate to have been able to have had the experience I just mentioned during our first lunch, as I don’t normally pass the food directly.
Quiver Tree Forest
Anyway, moving on to our first shoot, we checked in at the nearby lodge in the afternoon of day one and made our way to the Quiver Tree Forest. We shot for a couple of hours to give the group a chance to stake out some nice places to shoot the sunset, and here is my shot to show you what it was like (below). I’m not much of a sunset person per se, but when we can get something nice and unique like the quiver trees in the frame, as well as the fiery African sky, it’s hard to resist.
I enjoy doing these silhouette images, looking for a spot with a nice main tree, then also trying to get some nice separation between the trees in the background, as well as a clear edge on either side of the frame. I was shooting with my 24-105mm lens at 27mm and struggled quite a bit to get a nice line of trees without too many bushes, like the one you can see below the right-most quiver tree. Still, the sky is lovely and it was an enjoyable shoot. My other settings were f/14, and a 0.2-second exposure with ISO 100.
Moonlit Quiver Trees
Because of availability of some of the key lodges, this year I was not able to align our visit to the Quiver Tree Forest with a new moon, which would have allowed us to shoot the Milky Way, but there was going to be an almost full moon, which I was hoping to use to good effect. Rather than going back to the lodge for dinner then coming back out, I negotiated a late dinner, to give us an extra hour in the forest as the moon rose.
The result was this next photograph, with the moon illuminating the low cloud cover, but the stars also clearly visible shining through the clouds (below). We can also see how the moonlight had lit the base of some of the foreground trees, making them not quite silhouettes, but I like being able to see that extra bit of detail.
I shot this with my 11-24mm lens at 17 mm. Now, of course, shooting by moonlight, my shutter speed was 25 seconds at f/4, and ISO 1600. At 17mm you can’t really use a longer shutter speed, because the stars start to elongate if you do, and I didn’t want that. This is why I chose to use a high ISO and wide aperture instead of a longer exposure. There is still some nice movement in the clouds though, and I really like being able to see stars in the relatively bright sky. It definitely makes up for not being able to shoot the Milky Way here this year.
The Giant’s Playground
The following morning, we visited the nearby Giant’s Playground before breakfast, to photograph the boulders silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky, as you can see in this photograph (below). I like looking for faces in the rocks, and pretty much did a repeat of one of my favorite photos from this location, with the boulders on the left looking a little like the Moai Statues, and there is a large chinned man bottom right, and a portly somewhat Shrek-like face in the bottom center of the frame.
I shot a few frames as the sun got closer to the horizon, and this was the one that had the most intense color. I really like the perfectly clean gradation between the orange and the blue here. My shutter speed was 1.3 seconds again at f/14, at ISO 100 and a focal length of 85mm.
After breakfast back at the lodge, we checked out and drove through the morning to Kolmanskop, the deserted diamond mine town, where the desert is gradually reclaiming the houses. This first image (below) is one of my favorite scenes, and one of my first shots, as I showed some of the participants where this particular house was. This small indoor sand-dune has been there for five years now, since my first visit in 2013. This house is actually faring better than some, which are starting to succumb to the desert more quickly than others.
I really love the color contrast in this room, with the pastel blue being almost exactly the opposite color to the orange sand on a color wheel, and that’s something that we are almost programmed to find appealing. This was a two-second exposure at ISO 100, a focal length of 28mm and you guessed it, an aperture of f/14. That’s my go-to aperture when there is no reason to change it. It gives me enough depth of field at this focal length to get everything in the frame sharp.
Playing with Color
I continued playing with the color in these beautiful old houses, working with a similar palette this time, with the orangey-brown walls similar to the color of the sand. There was also a hint of blue and teal coming from the left and right rooms at the end of this sand-filled corridor. Quite often, to shoot these images, I simply get far enough into the room to get past the doors to the sides near the entrance, just enough to give me a clear shot of what I consider to be a much cleaner scene, with fewer distracting elements.
I also have a vertical orientation shot of this image with an old light-shade hanging down from the ceiling included, and I think I prefer that shot, but the blog formatting works better with landscape orientation images, so that’s what I’m sharing at this time. I shot this at 24mm, f/14 for 0.8 seconds at ISO 100. I pretty much always stick with ISO 100 unless there is a reason to change it as well. I’m not afraid to increase the ISO of course, routinely shooting up to ISO 6400, but with no real wind requiring me to speed it up, ISO 100 it was.
Something that I saw much more of this year was houses where the ceiling has literally just collapsed into the downstairs rooms, as we can see in this photo (below). I imagine this is mostly caused by the weight of the sand that accumulates on the floor upstairs, especially as the roofs succumb to the elements allowing more sand in. Here once again though, I enjoyed the contrast between the blue walls and orange sand.
My shutter speed for this image was 4 seconds at ISO 100, so we can tell that the afternoon light was getting a little darker by the point. Again, my aperture was f/14 and my focal length for this shot was 30 mm.
Next, I want to share one of the few photos I’ve made of the exterior of the buildings at Kolmanskop. I don’t do this often, as I generally prefer the colors of the interior, as well as the spectacle of having sand-filled rooms, but this particular scene caught my eye, as we wandered from building to building. As you can see, the sand also builds up against the outside walls sometimes, and I thought this straggly tree made for a nice element along with the window and sand (below).
I like cropping in tight like this, but here I was also forced in tight because I didn’t want to include the frame of the door just to the right of this scene. I’m not a big fan of the grasses creeping into the frame on the bottom right edge, but I might spend a few minutes to clean that up at some point. It doesn’t bother me enough to spend that time today as I try to get caught up on work. My settings were a 1/13 of a second exposure at f/14 and a focal length of 62mm. I changed my ISO to 400 for this shot, as there was a bit of a breeze that may have caused camera-shake a longer exposure.
Another Collapsed Ceiling
As I mentioned, I noticed more collapsed ceilings this year than before, and here is another example of this (below). The roof seems pretty much intact here though, so I’m not sure what caused this ceiling to cave in. In this photo, I do like the contrast between the still intact wash basin and sand and the collapsed roof. The fact that the walls are still pretty nicely decorated adds additional elements of contrast.
Back in the shelter of the building again, away from the breeze, I had returned my ISO to 100 and shutter speed back to 4 seconds, at f/14, and now shooting with my 11-24mm lens again, at 14mm.
The Ice Factory
Towards the end of the day, as I made my way back towards the entrance of Kolmanskop to our cars, I stopped at another favorite room, the relatively well-kept Ice Factory (below). I had earlier thought this was just a workshop of sorts, but there is a sign on the door that says Eisfabrik, which I believe means an ice factory or to manufacture ice.
With the sun almost on the horizon on the other side of this building, there was virtually no sunlight making its way into this room by the time I photographed it, so my shutter speed was 20 seconds at f/14, ISO 100 and again using my 11-24mm lens, this time at 12mm. As I would have been standing in the precious light coming through the doorway, I moved down the steps and out of the way during my exposure. There’s no point in blocking my own light.
We’re going to end this first episode with this, my last photo from day two, as the warm light from the sun illuminated a side room at what I seem to recall being the old bakery, and here I was again using the one-point perspective composition that I talked about last year. I love the drama and tension this kind of composition adds to a photograph (below).
Again, I had to move to the side to avoid blocking my own light and leaving a shadow on the right wall in this image. We can also see the marks on the sand in the foreground of this shot from a recent relatively rare heavy rain that they had, a few weeks before we arrived. This seems to have dripped through the ceiling of this building. My settings here were a 25-second shutter speed at ISO 100, f/14 and my lens wide open at 11 mm.
We’ll leave it there for today, as we’ve reached the usual 10 photos at which I like to limit my posts. I’m quite pleased to have been able to make time each evening to pretty much catch up on my selection process and most of the processing that I wanted to do on my images before finishing the trip. As we’ll see, we end this trip with four nights at the Etosha National Park shooting wildlife, and that presents a bigger problem due to the number of images we shoot compared to landscape work, but I was still pretty much able to complete my preliminary selections before I started my flight back to Tokyo.
After getting a few hours sleep on my way from Johannesburg to Dubai, then a few more hours at the start of my flight from Dubai to Tokyo, I was able to work on my images and selection process for a further six hours on the plane, and that enabled me to just relax a little over the weekend, and spend some quality time with my wife. It was really nice to come into my studio this morning with all of this work done and just get straight into selecting the images that I’ve talked about today.
I haven’t selected the images for the remaining episodes of this travelogue yet, so I don’t yet know how many parts this will take, but I have a massive 363 images in my final selection, so I think we’re looking at around four, perhaps a five-part series to cover this trip, and we’ll continue to part two next week.
Complete Namibia Tour 2019
If you might like to join us on this tour from June 2 to 18, 2019, please check out the tour page at mbp.ac/namibia2019. It really has matured into an amazing tour, and I’d love to travel with you in this beautiful land.
Start your day in the Giant's Playground
Start your day in the
In one of the most conservation aware countries in the world
Today we continue a travelogue style account of my recent trip to Namibia, with my friend Jeremy Woodhouse and his group. Of my 145 final selects, I did get around to uploading a tighter 80 photo selection to my portfolios site (and I’ll put a link into the show notes) if you are interested in taking a look. For this episode though, I’ve selected another ten favorites to take a look at.
Picking up the trail on May 10, after we left the gas station as Aus, where we’d photographed the children that we looked at, at the end of last week’s episode, we headed due north, and I started to get my first taste of Namibian wildlife, with this shot of two Oryx that posed for us at the side of the road. This wasn’t a wildlife centric tour by any means, but that didn’t stop me hoping to capture some shots like this as we traveled.
Two Oryx, Two Bushes
Rather than a super action-packed wildlife shot though, I really like this for the humor and composition. I found it quite funny that they both stopped almost parallel to the road, and the one on the left had a bent horn, and there was also the two bushes in the distance almost perfectly spaced as though emulating the Oryx’s positions. As I’d find later, the Oryx generally walk away from you when they see a vehicle too, so it turns out we might have been a bit lucky to have had them just pose for us like this as well.\r\n
A Word on Exposure
\r\nAs you know, I shoot in Manual mode a lot, mainly because I shoot so much in snow scenes, and I just find it easier to take control of the exposure, as opposed to messing around with Exposure Compensation, which I find totally frustrating. Unless you want to over-expose the snow on purpose to get a nicely exposed subject, like the darker snow monkeys I shoot so much, once you have your exposure set for the white snow, you can pretty much just forget about it until the light changes.
In Africa, with there being so much more neutral tone in the scenes, I’d honestly expected to shoot in Aperture Priority, also using Auto-ISO, and maybe sometimes tweaking the Exposure Compensation to keep my histogram over to the right, recording the highest quality pixels with minimum noise. As you can see in this scene though, the light colored background is really quite bright, and even when it was darker, in the end, apart from a few occasions where Aperture Priority just made more sense, I found myself falling back to what I know, and used Manual Exposure almost exclusively.
To keep my histogram to the right, I was still exposing my shots to around 2/3 or even a full stop, sometimes even higher than the camera’s meter thought the scene should be based on an Evaluative meter reading. I know a lot of people say that they prefer Aperture Priority because it stops them from having to think about exposure, but I really just use less brain cycles working in Manual.
Moving on though, I like this next shot (right), more for the story it tells of our journey. We traveled hundreds of kilometers on this type of gravel road, and although it’s pretty noisy to drive on, our excellent guides propelled us along these roads at 100km/hour speeds and more, and I never once felt concerned for my safety. The two plumes of dust you see in the distance here is a car that had just passed us, and the second car in our party.
As we drew close to our lodge for the next four nights, we passed through what would usually have been a waterhole had their been a decent rain this year, but although the lack of rain and waterholes meant much of the wildlife was scattered around, the vegetation left here had kept a small heard of Springbok close by.
My first real close-up look at the Springbox revealed them to be what I would consider one of the most beautiful antelopes I’ve ever seen, with their ribbed and beautifully curved horns, long faces and beautiful big eyes. I remember feeling totally happy as I cranked my ISO up to 2500 for this shot, made with the 300mm and 1.4X extender, and the aperture set at f/5, to nicely blur the background.
This day had been mostly a travel day, to get us close to a beautiful place in the Namib Desert called Sossusvlei. We had four nights in the delightful Kulala Desert Lodge. Most of the accommodation throughout the tour was good, this spot and the last lodge we stayed in were by far the best. Although I’d been sharing a room with one of the participants that I’d hooked Jeremy up with for this tour, I was also pleasantly surprised to find that I had a room to myself here. Well, I say room, but they were incredibly well made tents.
The windows were just strong netting, with canvas flaps on the inside, that could be rolled up to let air in to keep cool during the hot days, or rolled down to keep the cold air out once the sun went down, and the temperature plummeted each evening. There was electricity in the rooms, and a nice bathroom that all by itself stayed cool during the day, and warm at night, and I had a large complimentary yellow gecko living in my bathroom, to keep me company for the duration.
The main reason for us being in this area was to visit Deadvlei, meaning literally the Dead Marsh, aptly named because a sand dune had blocked the flow of water off to an oasis, leaving a dried up clay pan and a bunch of camel thorn trees, to provide a stark foreground for the beautiful orange-red walls of the dunes as the morning light illuminates them before it hits the valley floor. This is the place that Frans Lanting made famous when shooting for the National Geographic. The color and light contrast between the trees and dune walls is so great at dawn, that people thought Lanting’s images were paintings, or at least had been messed with, until he was able to provide a back story to explain the phenomenon.
I would end up going back to Deadvlei two days later, and we’ll look at an image showing this better later, but first, from my initial visit, here is a shot showing the sky, dune in shadow, illuminated dune, clay pan in sunlight, and the clay pan in shadow, forming five distinct bands of color highlighting the camel thorn trees. The shadow is made by the large sand dune to the left of me as I faced this scene.
Deadvlei Camel Thorn Trees
The first morning was a little bit frantic, as entry to the park is limited, and we literally flew along the track down to where we’d park the car to walk the last kilometer into Deadvlei, as the sun was almost in position to start the display. I got some nice shots, but improved on them on my second trip here a few days later, so we’ll move on for now.
The sand dunes in this area really are a sight to be seen. They look pretty cool on the map too, as we can see in this screenshot from the Map module in Lightroom, the river bed punctuated with the tips of the sand dunes actually looks like an elephant’s trunk, and the mouth of the river as it opens up to the right looks like the elephant’s face. There’s even a little smily mouth. All its missing is its tusks, so let’s think of this as a happy baby elephant. On this map by the way, Deadvlei is the left-most place-marker, with the number 20 in it.
Smily Elephant at Sossusvlei
The yellow place-marker on the map is dune number 12, where I shot this next image. This is close to the tip of the dune, with a strategically place acacia tree, composed here to be almost central to the dune. You can see how I also placed the dark cap of the shadow side of the dune directly above the tree here. You can control how much of the shadow and where it falls in relationship to the foreground and the tree by moving around, and here I was literally taking my ideas for the composition from classic photos of Mount Fuji in Japan. This is why I subtitled this image Akafuji, meaning a red Mount Fuji, sometimes seen at dawn and more often at dusk, as the light of the sunset hits the sides of the iconic mountain.
Namibian Dune (Akafuji)
Centralized or bulls-eye composition can sometimes look a little clumsy, but sometimes it just works, so should never be ruled out as a compositional tool. I’ve uploaded other shots from this spot to my portfolios site too, and you can see that the amount of shadow to the left and the deepness of the red in the sand is greatly enhanced as the sun hits the horizon. This shot is one of my favorites though, as it was early enough that the shadow of the tree was not yet on the face of the dune, which kind of spoils it just a little, in my opinion.
As I mentioned earlier, at night, the temperature in the Namib Desert drops considerably, to the point that you do indeed need those light down jackets that I showed you in the Preparation/What’s in the Bag Video that I released before leaving for Namibia. Not only is this a nice change after the almost oppressive heat of the day, but this, and the lack of humidity and light polution, presented us with the clearest view of the night sky that I’ve ever seen, and you can see here, in this photo of the Milky Way.
Our Galactic Home
This is a slightly zoomed in shot, looking out across the spiral arm of our galactic home, made with the 24-70mm lens, wide open at f/2.8. Although it’s visible with the naked eye once you move away from any lights and turn off your head-lamp, I did still have to increase my ISO to 3200 and shoot wide open for 25 seconds to get this shot. The noise with the 5D Mark III isn’t worth thinking about at this ISO though, and all I’ve done to enhance this is to reduce the black slider in Lightroom to -12, and added +50 Clarity, to make it pop a little. Note that I chose 25 seconds because this is when the stars just start to elongate a little, but they still look like disks, not a failed star-trail shot.
Dune 17 Form and Lines
These are actually the same settings that I used for a thousand frames on three evenings that we were traveling, which resulted in three roughly 25 second long timelapse videos of the milky way and a few other distant galaxies moving across the night sky. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to use the video yet. I’m thinking to use them as part of a slideshow of photographs punctuated with video snippets, to present my Namibia experience as a whole, which I’ll hopefully get to in the next few weeks. If that takes very long to get to though, I’ll just throw them up onto YouTube and let you know before too long. I want you to see these time-lapses because they’re pretty impressive.
After a dawn shoot and breakfast the following day, May 12, a few of us from the group took an hour out to climb dune number 17. Although pretty tiring, because you slide back half a step for every step forward you take, it was a wonderful experience. I only took my 5D Mark III with the 24-70mm lens attached, but it turned out to be a good choice.
I shot this image at 38mm, stopped down to f/14 for 1/80 of a second at ISO 100. This is one of those shots that I didn’t really think much of at first, but since returning home have fallen head over heals in love with. My initial thinking was to compose this to show the line of the ridge of the dune on which we were standing, but then show how it lead to the mid-ground, then the distant dunes, and I included a bit of the sky for balance. It wasn’t until later though that I really started to appreciate this for the textures in the foreground sand, the shadows to the left, the leading lines and then the texture and tonal variation in the face of the distant dune.
Although I worked pretty hard to get up this dune, and we walked right around, down almost into the basin, and then back up around, destroying the pristine beauty of this dune later, I really didn’t appreciate this photo until the emotion of the day had died down. Usually, if we work hard for a shot, we want to like it initially, and then sometimes they just fizzle out. For some reason, this was the reverse.
At the end of this day, we shot a different dune. Maybe number 11, but no-one could say for sure. If you take another look at the map (above) it was shot to the right of the yellow number 7, which we believe was dune number 12. A little bit further from the road than dune 12, this one presented a slightly different opportunity, with the tree starting to be buried in the sand. As the sun went down it accentuated the ripples in the foreground, although they were messed up to a degree by the shadow of another tree.
Tree in Boiling Sand Dune
The wind got up a little too, blowing sand off the ridge of the dune, which was also illuminated by the sun against the darker shadowed background. There was also a beautiful illuminated tip that I placed in the top left of the frame, kind of balancing the image out, with a patch of bright orange in both the right side and this top left corner.
Next, here’s a shot from the porch of my lodge, with the moon rising in the sky with venus, as the last light of another day faded along the horizon. I always find it interesting to see that you can sometimes see the part of the moon that is usually dark, especially in such clear skies as we had in Namibia. I played with this scene for a few frames, but found that when I exposed for the bright part of the moon, the part in shadow and the faint light on the horizon disappeared.
Moonburst (look closely!)
I toyed with the idea of shooting one image for the bright part of the moon, which would be quite a fast exposure, as it’s basically just reflected sunlight, then masking it over a second shot, showing the darker part of the moon and the horizon. Then I started to wonder if I could use the brightness of the moon to create a sunburst effect. Because I was shooting at 70mm, I knew I’d have to stop down some to create the effect, so I went to f/11 and increased the ISO to 800, to give me a shutter speed of 8 seconds. I didn’t want to go any longer than 8 seconds, because if I’d gone longer at this focal length, I’d have started to see too much movement in the moon. You might have to click on the photo to view it at its largest, but the result is a very definite and quite pleasing moonburst, so I was happy with that.
The following morning, I got my second crack at Deadvlei. I’d actually booked on a balloon flight, which I was quite looking forward to, but I hadn’t been told that the other option was a return to Deadvlei, but luckily, I was able to cancel the balloon trip, and we headed out a good thirty minutes earlier than before, with special permission to get into the park early.
I’d studied my images from the previous trip, and although I was happy with them, I had a few ideas that I wanted to work on with my second chance. Remember that I don’t study other peoples’ photographs before trips, as I don’t want to spend time looking for scenes that would exist in my head. I did recall the Lanting photo that I’d seen a number of years ago, but my memory wasn’t clear enough to spoil my creativity. This time though, I’d got my visit of two days earlier in my mind, and some ideas that I wanted to work on, and I recall spending a quite frantic 20 minutes or so rushing around the clay marsh basin, looking for my angle.
I’d over-thought the scene on my first visit, and really wanted something very simple. I prefer to have the trees fully included in the frame, not cropped off, and this can make finding a good spot difficult. I finally settled on a spot just to the right of Jeremy, and found three trees that I could isolate, and that had a relatively clean background. As you can see in the resulting image, there is a little clump of vegetation on the horizon line, and a bump on the right edge of the frame which I’d have liked to not be there, but I can live with them. You can see here though, how the timing is crucial, so that you get a line of illuminated sand as a backdrop, but then a perfect line of darker shadowed foreground at the start of the clay pan.
The interesting thing with this composition is that after all my deliberation, when I got home and looked up Frans Lanting’s famous shot again, I see that the left two trees in my shot are the two right-most trees in the Lanting shot. Whether he was aware of it or not, Jeremy was probably shooting pretty much exactly the same shot as Lanting. I haven’t seen his photos yet, but I’m curious to see what he came away with. Either way, I’m very happy with the results of my second visit to Deadvlei.
I actually have a stash of new Breathing Color papers sitting next to me as I write this, and I’m looking forward to making time later this week to profile these papers, and print this, and a few other favorites from Namibia, to see how they look. These are actually new papers and canvases to the Breathing Color line, so I’ll let you know how they fare once I’ve finished this travelogue series. This episode actually puts us at almost half way, so I reckon we’ll be running for another two weeks, possibly three, but I know some of you miss the travelogue style episodes, so hopefully this is worth doing.
I’d also like the mention that the music we’re being played in and out with for these episodes is used with kind permission from the staff of the Kalula Desert Loge, where we stayed for the four days while in the area we’ve looked at today. Every other night they sang and danced and mesmerized their guests. Another amazing experience that I won’t forget in a hurry, especially with the help of my iPhone video from which I took the music.
We’ll sign off now for this week though, and I’ll be back next week, as we pick up the trail with a little more wildlife, and some photos of the intriguing and beautiful Himba people. Remember, my best 100 shots from the trip are now uploaded to a portfolio page here.
From today, for a few weeks, I’m going to do a travelogue style account of my recent trip to Namibia. I have around 145 images in my final selection currently, so I’ll select up to 10 favorites each week, and talk you through them, including details of where we were, and what was going through my mind when shooting.
To get to Namibia, I flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong, then on to Johannesburg, South Africa. My plane arrived a little early, but the huge queue for immigration stole all of my leeway, but I still arrived at the meeting point only a minute late. As there was no sign of the group though, I ended up walking up and down Terminal B three times, before I finally found the group down in one corner. Everyone seemed in good spirits though, and we proceeded to board our plane to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.
It was to be just under a two hour flight, and then we were met by our guides Jeremiah and Festus. Although we’d discussed switching cars occasionally, Jeremy Woodhouse, the group leader pretty much stayed in his car, and once I’d started to teach the folks in my car things, they said they weren’t going to let me switch either, so Festus became my guide for the duration. Both guides were incredibly knowledgeable, professional and fun to be with.
After a few minutes to settle into the hotel, we drove into the town of on the afternoon of May 6, and found Windhoek to be a booming city in the heart of Namibia, with new building springing up all over the place. The people mostly seemed happy and upbeat, and I would feel safe through pretty much my entire journey, though the young men selling trinkets or asking for money for some sort of imaginary charity, would prove an annoyance. They started really nice, but one guy, on realizing that I wasn’t going to pay him anything shouted for me to stay out of his country as he walked off, which I thought was a bit sad.
Slightly jet-lagged, and tired from 36 hours of straight traveling, we settled down for an evening meal of Oryx steak at our hotel, and then I woke up at 5am, and wrote a quick blog post to announce the release of the Craft & Vision digital magazine, PHOTOGRAPH Issue #3, that I saw had been released as I checked my email. As I wrote the post, my stomach started making some funny noises, and before long I realized that I’d eaten something that didn’t agree with me, and would spend the next day or so in a slightly frail disposition.
It wasn’t a show-stopper, but I recall spending most of the 500km drive as we made our way to our first major shooting destination just trying to sleep, and get well as soon as possible. The main roads were amazing, and we made good time, stopping a few times for gas and the toilet, and although I didn’t feel 100%, by the time we reached Keetmanshoop, I could tell that my being somewhat out of sorts wasn’t too serious, and I had a good time photographing the Quiver Trees up until sunset, as we can see in this first image.
Quiver Tree Sunset
The Quiver Trees are so called, because the branches are soft and easily hollowed out, and so they were used to make quivers to store arrows in, and not because the trees quiver. I didn’t initially find this spot that photogenic, and didn’t get any photos that I really liked from the first day, except this last sunset shot. The following morning, we went back, bright and early, and there was a beautiful slither of a waxing crescent moon, and a beautiful clear sky. This next image is probably my favorite from this morning, and although I’d skipped dinner the night before, I was feeling decidedly better on this second morning.
Quiver Tree Sunrise (with Moon)
In this photo you can see the slither of a moon to the left of the large quiver tree on the right. Although Ideally I’d have liked to place the trunk of that tree on the right in the space just to its left on the horizon, here I gave priority to maintaining a little bit of separation between the tree and the moon. Had I been able to move to the right a little more, I’d probably have gotten a little separation between the smaller trees on the left too, but I’m not going to sweat it too much. I still really like this shot. Once the sun came up though, I did start to pay more attention to separation, as the moon basically disappeared in the brighter sky.
Slats and Dune (Kolmanskop)
Once we’d finished our morning shoot, we had another couple of hundred kilometers to cover, as we made our way over to the port town of Luderitz, close to the abandoned diamond mining village, Kolmanskop. The name is actually Africans for Coleman’s Hill, which might make you think it was a coal mine, but the town was actually named after a guy called Johnny Coleman, who stumbled across the place in a sand-storm.
According to Wikipedia, In 1908 a worker named Zacharias Lewala found a diamond while working in this area and showed it to his supervisor, a German railroad inspector named August Stauch. After realizing that this area was rich in diamonds, lots of German miners settled in this area and started to exploit the diamond field.
Driven by the enormous wealth of the first diamond miners, the residents built the village in the architectural style of a German town, with amenities and institutions including a hospital, ballroom, power station, school, skittle-alley, theater and sport-hall, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray-station in the southern hemisphere.
The town was abandoned in 1954, as the diamonds ran out, but the standard of the German architecture was so high, many of the houses are still standing, although the desert is slowly reclaiming them, as you can see in this photograph of a house that no longer has a roof, allowing the sun to shine through the slats in the decaying ceiling.
As the sun shines at varying angles as it moves across the sky through the day, the slats move across the walls, making beautiful patterns, complimented by the small sand dunes that you can find in many of the buildings, like the one we see here inside the back room. I used Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4 to enhance the detail on the walls, and if I recall, I used the Reflector Efex filter to bring out the golden color of the sand through the door.
The town is large, and you could literally spend a couple of days exploring. By noon I found myself in a darkened room with light pouring in through the gaps formed as rust ate its way through the corrugated steel nailed to the outside of the window. The sand had frosted the pains of glass left in the top of the window, but with the bottom windows shutters thrown open, I exposed for the bright light, allowing the internal wall to go totally black. I remember saying to Judy, a participant I was shooting with at the time, that if there were ghosts here, I really hoped that they knew how beautiful their houses were.
By the afternoon, there was a sand-storm blowing, and I ended up scratching my sun glasses, as I must have gotten sand between my glasses and my camera’s viewfinder, and I also ended up with a nasty scratch on the front face of my iPhone, probably from the sand too. I’m not one for mollycoddling my gear though, and to change lenses in a sand-storm, I simply shielded the camera with my body, changing lenses with my back to the wind and sand. I’m happy to say that after that, although I cleaned my sensor once during the trip, I didn’t really have a problem with dust. My lenses on the other hand are all a bit crunchy, and might need looking at, but nothing broke, and believe me, it’s not just this location, everywhere we went was dusty and sandy.
The next photo gives you a good visual on this, as we can see this room was well over half-full of sand, coming almost to the top of the door. Again, I used Color Efex Pro to enhance the detail and texture of the walls and sand, but I like the feeling here of the room being totally overwhelmed with the sand. I used my 16-35mm f/2.8 lens for this, but I used my 14mm and 24-70mm lens a lot through the day too. My lens range in total took me from 14mm to 300mm and included a 1.4X and 2X Extender, to take me out to 600mm, and on the whole, having used each lens I brought a lot, I was very happy that I lugged all of this gear to the other side of the world.
Sand Filled Room
The important thing to note as you shoot in this location is that you have to keep off the sand in the buildings. I’d have loved to seen what is in the other room, but climbing on the sand to take a look would ruin the room for the next photographer, so you just don’t do that.
I’m not one for looking at photos of places I’m going to visit before trips. This is partly because I’m usually so busy before leaving home for a while that I just don’t have time, but also because I don’t want to plant seeds of ideas that could paralyze me to other possibilities, as I fixate on finding the shots that I’d already seen. I like to just remain open to my own creativity. Having said that, there was one room here that I recall seeing in an old Michael Reichmann Video Journal, and this was paralyzing me to a degree, as I searched for it, just what I wanted to avoid.
The scene was a single door in a room, with sand almost up to the ceiling, similar to the last shot, but it was a much prettier room. One lady in the group, Nancy, had found the room during the morning, and told me where it was, but by the time I got there in the afternoon, the light was coming in through the windows behind the door, and the shot was lost. I’d actually poked my head in to the same building in the morning, and was kicking myself for not going in further, but I’d been trying to keep the sand clean for others.
Rays of Light
Although the shot was lost, as I photographed the room anyway, I was a little spooked by what I can only describe as the sound of a family at a dinner table, clanking their cutlery on the plates as they ate. After hearing the sound I went around to the back of the building from where I’d heard the sounds, and the rooms were all full of sand, and there was no way in, so by now the hair on the back of my head was standing up, convinced I’d just been haunted.
Towards the end of the afternoon, as I’d looked through most of the houses, and was starting to wonder what to shoot next, when Jeremy Woodhouse, the tour leader came running out of a house and called me in. He’d found this room with light pouring in through the rust holes in the corrugated steel, and we proceeded to through sand against the wall above the window, to accentuate these lovely rays of light.
The sand is so fine and light that it just seems to hang there for a while, so it’s perfect for this kind of effect. We shot the window from either side, and then played with a very faint shadow that we noticed on the wall beside the window, as we stood in the doorway, but this was my favorite shot, with the rays of light actually hitting the ground, although this does include the hand marks where we’d been scooping sand up to throw at the wall.
After we’d finished shooting in this room, Jeremy walked back around to the earlier building where I’d been spooked, and as we looked in through the window, as I relayed my story, the wind caught the corrugated steel on the window, and a nail loose in one of the holes started to clatter against the glass, making a sound just like cutlery hitting a plate. There were my ghosts, and I breathed a small sigh of relief under my breath.
One of the furthest buildings from the entrance at Kolmanskop is, I believe, a school, that we can see in this last photo. The wind was howling, and shutters clashing around as I worked the scene, and I was still a little spooked, so I recall laughing at myself from time to time as I looked around to ensure I was still alone, but these building really are magical. Again a little Color Efex Pro helped to bring out the texture here, but I tried to keep it as subtle as possible.
School Corridor (Kolmanskop)
There were a number of things that this location that I’d love to do differently if I ever get back here. There were certain rooms with the slats that look great at certain times of the day, and nothing much to look at, at other times. If I come back, I’ll create a map of where to go, at what time, because although I’m happy with what I got, this place has so much more potential, especially for a second visit.
Namibia Trip Map
I’m going to include a map here, from Lightroom, showing the locations at which we shot, with the little balloons and the number of images shot in each location. As with all the images, if you click on them, you’ll see a larger version, but to help you understand where we traveled, if you look at the map you’ll see a 35 in the middle just below where it says Namibia, and this is the first afternoon in Windhoek.
The Quiver trees were some 500km south of Windhoek, where it says 202, then Luderitz and Kolmanskop is on the coast to the east of there, where it says 355. The morning after we’d shot at Kolmanskop, we stopped for gas at a small town called Aus, just to the right of that, where you can see it says 210. There were some wonderful kids playing near the gas station here, and although I’d love to show you all of their photos, let’s just look at three of them before we finish today. The best of the rest I’ll put on my Portfolios page this week some time, so you’ll be able to check those out later too.
Here first is a very cool little boy with a great hat and wonderful attitude (below). All of the kids seemed very used to posing for photos, and this one had his pose down pat. Every time anyone pointed a camera at him, he’d fold his arms, and create a very stern cool look on his face. I managed to get him to crack his look into a wry smile for just a frame or two, which we can see here.
Jeremy Woodhouse is great with these kids, and as soon as we found some willing subjects, he’d heard them over to a spot in the shade, and the group would take turns photographing the ones we found interesting. The trick I found was adjusting them to a position where there wasn’t something sticking out of their heads, just common compositional practice, but then getting a nice look sometimes took a little more work.
Boy with Attitude
Unlike this little boy, there were some kids that just didn’t seem to know how to smile, and would just show their bottom teeth for example, but I’m sure if we made them laugh for real, they’d have beautiful smiles. The language was challenging for the smaller kids though, and it just didn’t always happen.
This group of five boys were great too, with their cool looks and body language. I called this Best Friends, because I got the distinct feeling that this is exactly what they were. We would buy sweets at the shop, and hand them to the kids for their trouble, trying not to overdo it, and spoil the experience for others by making them expect to receive something. Pretty much every time we stopped like this though, were were quite demanding, so I think it’s only right to offer a little something.
This last photo is of a little girl with an incredibly pretty face. Here again, she knew how to pose, and I got a distinct feeling that she has been watching TV and knew how to carry herself. Because we placed almost all of our subjects in the shade, they all have great catch-lights in their eyes too, in which you can always find a photographer looking back at you.
Young Namibian Girl
The trip was mainly cultural, so this kind of street portraiture will be a major theme, especially as we look at some shots of the Himba People that we visit, in a future episode, but as we traveled between locations, you’ll see on the map that we stopped along the way, grabbing shots of the wildlife as we went. There were also a few days towards the end where we concentrated on Wildlife, doing game drives etc. and I’m looking forward to showing you the results of those days too.
For now though, let’s wrap it up for today, and we’ll pick up the trail again next week, as we look at some of the wildlife that we saw along the way, and then some shots for Deadvlei, that wonderful dried up lake where the dead camel thorn trees make for beautiful graphic elements as the sun illuminates the red sand dune walls before it hits the dried up lake floor. If you haven’t seen these images before, you’re in for a treat as we look at these next week. If you’d like a sneak preview, there are already a few on my Google Plus profile, and as I say, I’ll start to upload some to my Portfolios pages this week too, once I’ve got this episode recorded and in the stream.