NOTE – This article was featured in the September edition of PIX magazine. Many parts were edited, which left other areas nonsensical. All the images weren’t featured alongside the right text and some of the images that the text refers too aren’t there at all. Please read my original version for things to make sense.
A New Perspective
I haven’t written anything meaningful in ages, because my travels and business are eating up the last few scraps of free time I still have. When I don’t put my thoughts out there and get constructive feedback, it gets stowed in the ‘thoughts and ideas’ closet. This closet is on the verge of exploding with potentially catastrophic consequences for my mental state. So before that happens, I need to get some of my thoughts out of the closet. I’ve mentioned a thing or two about my Namibian revelations with a longer lens, but I would like to elaborate on the subject.
Landscape photography and a wide-angle lens go together like gin and tonic. It allows the photographer to create immersive depth using relatively small areas of the landscape as a foreground. It converges the lines of land and sky to create a feeling of being pulled into the image by an unexplained force. It is very often the only way of capturing all the elements of the landscape: from the wave breaking over the rocks to the turquoise waters of the lake, on to the towering snow-capped peaks and up to the heavens above. Like the image above. When I started photography I got a 400D with the kit 18-55mm lens. I immediately had a liking for landscapes and it only took me a few weeks to come to the conclusion that I needed a wider lens. I was 19 at the time so money was a scarce resource. I joined shutterstock, saved every cent I had and sold everything from a playstation to an old fish tank to save up the $600 that a Sigma 10-20mm cost back then. I placed my order and sat by the door like an over-eager guard dog for three days, waiting for the courier to deliver my new pride and joy. When it arrived I might as well have thrown the 18-55mm away, because the wide lens stayed on my camera until both met their end about a year later.
Landscape photographers seem to have the same problem with a wide-angle lens as stereotypical old ladies have with gin and tonic – they abuse it a bit! If you go onto 500px or wherever you get your fix of landscape photos, you will notice that there are many photos consisting of an amazing middle and/or background, composed with a boring or detracting foreground. In the past few months I’ve seen far too many shots of mountain ridges in amazing cloud and light, as a backdrop to a rock. Not a rock with amazing lines that takes the viewer through the scene. Just another, boring rock that holds no contextual relevance to the rest of the scene. Like a hopeless vagrant who has given up on life and is sucking the well-being and affluence out of an ambitious society, that rock sucks the potential and life out of what could have been an amazing photo. So why would any photographer in their right mind choose to place Rufus the homeless rock below a background of inspirational light and land? The answer is simple: that photographer is addicted to a wide-angle lens. They’re mind is locked in ultra-wide mode and when the light performs they start scanning for immediate foregrounds. The photo of the year may lie within their composed shot, but it isn’t in a beginner’s frame of mind to get out the 24-70mm and subtract the crap rock right in front of them. Please don’t see this as hate speech against rocks as a foreground, I’m simply using a rock as my example of choice. All types of subjects can make crap foregrounds.
I make my derogatory metaphor as if I’ve never been guilty of creating such photos, but all lessons are learned with experience. I am of course 100% guilty of having composed horrible foregrounds to brilliant middle- and backgrounds. I have wasted precious light and opportunity with foregrounds that were simply never ‘created’ to be photographed. When this realization started to manifest in my creative mind, my financial mind decided it was time for a longer lens and so I started saving and selling again.
At the end of 2008 I got my first full frame and Canon’s 24-105mm and so the learning curve started. I was going through that phase where image quality was more important than clean drinking water or oxygen, so I soon got a 24-70mm for better IQ at my beloved new focal length. After about two years of exploring all corners of the 24-70mm universe, I found that in many situations I would zoom to 70mm and feel that I’m still shooting far too wide. I tested a D800e in October of 2012 and the next generation dynamic range combined with a 36mp sensor, made the choice to switch obvious. Many years of hard work lay behind me and for the first time I didn’t have to save and sell to purchase equipment. In my shopping bag was a D800, 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, lots of accessories AND a 70-200mm. So the next phase in my photography started.
I wasn’t very fond of the 70-200mm in 2013, but it really came to life over the 7 weeks I spent in Namibia this year. All of a sudden I could explore a lot of potential that I had seen previously, but was unable to reach with a 24-70mm. The main aspect of this is the scale of Namibia’s desert landscapes. A long lens just does a ten times better job of revealing how big things are. Unfortunately it is not as easy as just taking what you are familiar with and switching the wide-angle for a long lens. There were many new lessons to be learned and I found that many opportunities came and went in the blink of an eye as the light moved across the landscape.
The Dunes of Sossusvlei
The first and most obvious are the dune spines of the Tsauchab Dune valley, where even the 200mm often fell short. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, there’s something in the human psyche that bluntly refuses to believe that a heap of sand can be that high. Photograph it with a wide-angle lens and it looks like it might be 20 meters high. When the light is just right and you can find the right subject below the dune, the scale of these sand mountains just jumps out of the frame at 200mm. In the shot below they seem to almost climb to the clouds.
There are so many great shots at Sossusvlei, but if you’re thinking wide then you’ll never even see half of them. When the sun is relatively low, it creates a deep black shadow on the Eastern side of the dunes and a vibrant orange on the other side. If you choose the right trees and isolate them with a long lens, the result can be spectacular. I tried to photograph these dune spines with my 24-70mm in 2012 and the results were deleted from my archives without much hesitation.
Just How Big is Big Daddy?
Big Daddy is the dune at the Southern end of Deadvlei and it climbs to a mind-boggling 1000ft. Attempting to give scale to Big Daddy is a task that very few have succeeded at. It isn’t really possible to do it in a shot with one of the iconic trees, as one can’t get far enough from the trees and thus they will always look too large in relation to the dune. This doesn’t mean that one should opt for the wide lens in Deadvlei. If you look to the Southern corner right below Big Daddy, there is an amazing spectacle that unfolds on the right mornings. On hazy days, a giant beam of light shines in below the dark backdrop as the sun climbs in the East. On very windy days this light won’t be visible in the clear air, but if you watch closely as sand gets blown into this light you will witness something amazing.
The fittest and bravest of tourists visiting Sossusvlei climb to the peak of Big Daddy at sunrise. After enjoying the view, they run down and then walk back across the deceptively large Deadvlei pan. This finally presented me with an opportunity to show just how large Big Daddy is. It may not be the most interesting photo, especially not viewed so small on the Internet. It is however the only photo I’ve ever seen that does the scale of Big Daddy justice.
If you’re shooting these things with a wide-angle lens, you will end up with a load of useless shots. If you visit Namibia with a wide-angle state of mind, then you will miss all these opportunities.
The Dune Streets
There’s a certain combination of elements that is just undoubtedly unique to the Namib Rand. The dune streets lined with grass, dotted with beautiful acacia trees, all against a mountainous backdrop. Its one of those landscapes that no matter how hard you try, you just fall short of capturing the grandeur and unique feel of the landscape. Turns out that my mistake was once again my choice of lens. I spent 11 days in the Namib Rand and over the course of my stay I got to know the landscape through the long lens. I had to learn how the elements combined at different times of the day. It wasn’t easy finding a functional combination of elements as the trees can often be too cluttered, but on the last day my efforts were rewarded. I have images of these dunes with double rainbows in the sky and these telephoto shots can’t compete with those wide-angle shots when it comes to internet popularity. I do however feel that the telephoto images do better justice to the feel of the landscape.
Kokerboomkloof/ Quiver Tree Valley
This narrow, deep and steep valley in the Richtersveld is an absolute treasure chest of photographic opportunity. While it’s undeniable highlight is the little tree on top of the rock hill, the valley is dotted with Quiver Trees that just beg to be photographed with a long lens. I didn’t realize it when I visited in 2010, because I had no experience with a long lens. Driving into the valley this year, I couldn’t wait to go exploring with the 70-200mm. The shot below was a momentary spot of luck. As I was walking around I saw that there was a slight shadow behind the Quiver Tree that would make it stand out against it’s backdrop. As I set up the shot I noticed that the shadow was gaining height rapidly and that the tree wouldn’t be in light much longer. When the shadow was near the bottom of the tree I got my shot and about 15 seconds later the shot had disappeared. I would never even have noticed this opportunity if I were in a wide-angle state of mind.
I am by no means trying to convince you that you should burn your wide-angle lens. I am simply saying that it is very easy to get addicted to a wide lens and that when the time is right, you should give it some rest. My long lens is still the one I use the least, but if I didn’t take the time to familiarize myself with it then I would continue missing the amazing opportunities that if offers. If you’re headed to Namibia, make sure you have a 70-200mm in your bag!