Tag Archives: astrophotography

Milky Way Over Spitzkoppe, Namibia

Despite my dubbing it "a big rock", Spitzkoppe offers some beautiful scenery and one well worth spending time at.

Despite my dubbing it “a big rock”, Spitzkoppe offers some beautiful scenery and one well worth spending time at.

Some things just take time, like this image taken at the Spitzkoppe range in Namibia.

By the time we reached Spitzkoppe on our journey through Namibia we were finding our own feet when it came to understanding how to take night-sky images. Emil from Nature’s Light had patiently and repeatedly taken us through the process of capturing and subsequently processing images and we were finally getting to a place where we were less concerned about the process and more concerned about the composition. Even so, the first night we spent at the rock arch seen above was difficult for me.

I am not a fast photographer. As I look at a scene it takes time for the image to become clear in my mind. Until then all I see is a discordant jumble of elements all demanding attention. As so it was the first evening of shooting: the sky; the Milky Way; the arch; the boulders; the distant peaks. I spent a couple of hours shooting but left feeling deflated and frustrated.

The second day was spent doing not a lot of anything; the daytime temperature was creeping up to 40°C and the rock landscape was being bathed in harsh direct sunlight with no shade. But my mind was ticking over and as I worked through the previous night’s images I could see a shot  in my mind. Spitzkoppe is a big landscape but using a wide focal length to fit it all in would reduce features to tiny dots. So a panorama might work. The problem with panoramas – especially at night – is that they take time to shoot and it was not until I started night-sky photography a few days previously that I realised just how quickly stars move. They’re surprisingly fast! The speed issue was compounded by the fact that I was trying to shoot the Milky Way and if I took too long shooting the individual images then the panorama would end up with the Milky Way in steps across the sky. The final challenge was that the moon was out in force and it would be all but impossible to stop it blowing the highlights sky high (yes, pun intended).

I like this image for a number of reasons. First it appeals to my inner geek as it is probably the most technically challenging shot I have taken consisting of several 30-second exposures whilst trying to keep foreground detail interesting and the Milky Way in one piece. Second, I like the repeated use of upward curves; the curve of the rock arch in disappearing off the top of the frame in the foreground; the curve of the secondary arch to the right; the curve of the Milky Way; the boulders in the mid-ground and curve of the mountains in the distance. And third, I like the fact that, if you look closely, you can see Emil and Romeo in the distance having a beer!

Photographs serve many different purposes from reporting events in a factual way to providing that 500pix “WOW” factor. I prefer those images that I find myself returning to time and again and igniting memories of spending time with kindred spirits under magical skies.


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Quiver Trees, Namibia.

Silhouetted against an impossibly starry sky, quiver tress watch as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds galaxies pass overhead.

Silhouetted against an impossibly starry sky, quiver trees watch as the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies pass overhead.

Of the many ‘firsts’ I experienced in 2015 one of the most memorable was trying astrophotography for the first time. It is very different to low-light or night-time photography in urban areas and requires different techniques and post-processing. However, with a good teacher in the form of Emil from Nature’s Light by the second night we were turning in worthy shots like the one of Namibia’s quiver trees above. One of the other firsts was that, for the first time in my travels, we got lost.

The evening started out in what was to be an ongoing theme during the trip: a late afternoon shoot followed by relaxed on-location snacks and beer, waiting as the twilight turned to darkness and the canopy of starts made their appearance. If you’ve never experienced what a truly light-polution-free sky looks like then be ready for a shock. Human eyes a far more sensitive and for every star you see in photographs and movies, the eye sees a dozen more. It is, quite simply, both staggering and humbling.

But we were there with a purpose and so the aim was to head away from the 4WD, set up one camera on a tripod with an intervalometer to take the 12-15 four-minute shots needed for a star trail and then walk away to another location to take the more standard astrophotography shots. We couldn’t do both near each other as the light painting we would be doing for the standard shots would ruin the star trails. A simple plan. The problem was that, despite only walking around 200 metres from the 4WD, we got lost on the way back.

To be fair it was easy to do. The quiver tree forest was on a gently undulating hill with no extensive line-of-sight and consisted mainly of trees and rocks. The usual ‘turn left at the tree’ directions weren’t really much help and as it was only a couple of hundred metres in an almost straight line we didn’t bother using GPS or a compass. After an hour of trying to get back to the 4WD, we perhaps were regretting that decision.

We were never in any real danger of course. We were, quite literally the only people for miles around and the only animals we may have come across would have been jackals, which would have to have been monumentally desperate to attack three humans. The temperature was not going to drop below a very comfortable 20°C or so and rain was absolutely not going to happen. The worst would have been a sprained ankle but at the speed we were going that would have been bad luck. Still, we were losing photography time!

Eventually we made it back to the 4WD (having never being more than a few hundred metres from it) by which time the star trail shots had completed. By the time we returned from collecting the cameras we had 30 minutes or so of actual photography time left so it was a bit of a mad dash to find a decent composition set up and take the necessary shots, of which the photograph above is the result.

Every time I see this shot it takes me back to the aimless wandering in that quiver tree forest and palpable feeling of relief as the 4WD finally came into view. And I smile at the memory.

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Composing the Dunes Namibia Workshop Review: Part 3

This is the third (and final) part of a three-part review of the Nature’s Light “Composing the Dunes” photographic workshop. Today we look at days nine through thirteen covering Deadvlei, Sossusvlei and Spitzkoppe as well as my concluding thoughts. If you haven’t already done so it is probably best to read part one and part two first.


Day 9: Deadvlei and Sossusvlei

Leaving at 2AM the aim was to arrive at Deadvlei and be set up for around 3:30AM. Romeo had decided not to come – presumably as he was tired – but my advice is not to miss this opportunity.

There’s no way that I can convey the feeling of standing in Deadvlei with the night sky above you as it is an experience in the truest form of the word. The silence is absolute. The sky is ablaze with starlight. There is so little light pollution that the faint glow on the horizon comes from the sun that had set hours earlier. The Milky Way galaxy is a glowing ribbon in the sky and other galaxies appear as luminous clouds. Even if you weren’t interested in photography, it is still worth the lack of sleep for there are precious few places left on the planet where you can have a similar experience.

It is impossible to not be impressed with Namibian night sky…

It is impossible to not be impressed with Namibian night sky…

Despite it being 3:30AM we only had a couple of hours of light in which to capture star trails and so the first job was to locate a suitable foreground, set up the camera on a tripod, and go about capturing the long exposure shot that we’d later use in post production to create the luminosity mask. Once done we set the intervalometers to 240 seconds and 15 shots and walked away.

This is the advantage for having not only two cameras but two tripods. Carrying one tripod is a necessary evil of landscape photography but carrying two seems excessive. However, given that you have very limited time in a unique location the ability to have one shot set up and taking care of itself whilst you concentrate on another is important as it doubles your shooting potential. So whilst the star trail was taking care of itself and with the obligatory coffee consumed we busied ourselves about the task of finding interesting compositions for astrophotography. The only disruption to the proceedings was a jackal that took a fancy to one of the LED lamps and tried to eat it.

It is amazing how quickly the time went and soon it was 5:30AM and the light was rendering the canopy of stars invisible. The star trail time-lapse was complete and so we swapped to standard compositions although until the sun broke above the dunes the light was rather flat. Just after 7AM the first visitors were arriving which carried the mixed blessing of lending a sense of scale to the location whilst also meaning people were getting in the frame a lot more. We decided to call it a day and headed back to the lodge for breakfast.

If yesterday was a tough day to pay attention during the lessons, you can perhaps imagine how today was. That said the excitement of having just experienced something I can only describe as “awesome” and seeing the initial results from the night’s shoot gave me a surprising amount of energy. There were more Photoshop lessons and another critique session followed by lunch and time to rest.

As nice as the lodge was it did have one major issue: mosquitos. Despite having the mosquito net down the previous night and despite only being in bed for three hours I had a surprising number of bites and by the end of the three night’s stay I counted 47 bites. Luckily this is not malaria country but the bites were nonetheless annoying to the point of distraction. If I ever return I’m taking mosquito repellant and would suggest you do too.

The late afternoon shoot was at Sossusvlei although I was tempted to return to Deadvlei as, like my first time at any location, I felt I didn’t really do a good job. In the end I stuck with Sossusvlei and glad I did. In any event it was going to be the only chance I got.

Despite being in close proximity to Deadvlei, Sossusvlei is a different experience. It is still a sun-scorched pan, but there are more signs of life. Oryx graze in the shade of trees and bushes ring the pan.

Oryx 1600px

Oryx looking on in amusement perhaps wondering why these ‘human things’ were standing in the sunlight when there was a perfectly good tree to stand under…

Usually the pan at Sossusvlei sees an annual flood but Namibia has been in drought for a few years and the pan is a cracked, salty expanse. There are a number of options here and whilst Romeo busied himself composing some of the bushes I spent some time with some animal tracks that had obviously been left when the ground had been wetter. There are options to get an elevated view of the area – as well as a serious workout – by climbing the surrounding dunes. I made it half way up one before the camera backpack and tripod made the climb more of a slog.

Sossusvlei Tracks 1600px

One of the (many) shots that I really wanted to work but just didn’t quite meet the image in my head…

As with yesterday we headed back to the lodge in time for “curfew” – after the wonderful experience of this morning there was no point in jeopardising the chance to do it again!


Day 10: Deadvlei and Travel

Another 2AM start in order to be at Deadvlei by 3:30AM, this time with Romeo who had seen the images we had shot the previous day. It was a similar process; set up a time-lapse and then use the remaining time to shoot astrophotography. Emil was delegated the task of light painting where required and we managed to get a couple of portfolio candidates over the course of the morning.

Emil Light Painting 1600px

Emil performs his light painting duties…

Once the light became too bright we switched to more standard compositions only stopping once the first visitors began arriving. Climbing out of the basin I managed to capture Deadvlei with near perfect sands – in about 30 minutes the windswept patterns will be replaced by a mass of foot prints.

A sight that most visitors to Deadvlei won’t get to see – pristine sands sculpted by the wind and untouched (well, almost) by man.

Having stopped to take the image of Deadvlei we realised that we were only a short way from Deadvlei’s less visited brother which from a distance is admittedly less impressive looking and I can understand why people may forego it and head straight for the main attraction. But it does have its own appeal and despite being smaller does have some potential. In the end we spent a very worthwhile 90 minutes here before heading back to the 4WD and the lodge.

Little Brother 1600px

Taking this shot I could see the shadow line on the dunes get lower as the sun rose. In the space of four shots the tree went from being in shadow to being bathed in light…

After breakfast we were travelling further north to the final location of the trip, Spitzkoppe. Given the previous two days early starts the journey was broken into two legs with today seeing us take a 150 kilometre journey to Rostock where we would stay and relax. The Rostock Ritz was excellent and although I could have likely slept standing up by now, the comfortable rooms and beds were appreciated. The Ritz like many of the places we had visited throughout Namibia was invested in solar energy and talking to the owner I discover that their (very impressive) solar array meant that they were totally independent of external power sources. And if you’re craving a bit of wildlife, the Ritz is also a sanctuary for meerkats.

We had another lesson and critique session and Emil recorded another video, followed by a wonderful dinner and even more wonderful sleep.


Day 11: Rostock to Spitzkoppe

After breakfast we embarked upon the second leg of the trip to Spitzkoppe, a journey of approximately 250 kilometres. Along the way we made the usual stops as the landscape presented interesting compositions but even with a stop in the town of Karibib for supplies we made good time and arrived at the Spitzkoppe Rest Camp early afternoon. This is the most rustic of the accommodation and the only one where the rooms did not have en suite, but the showers were hot, the facilities clean and the rooms spacious and comfortable. Still the staff were perhaps less impressive and generally seemed unwilling to help. After a rest in the outdoor bar area, we headed out for a late afternoon and evening shoot.

Spitzkoppe was the one location that I was unsure of prior to the start of the workshop. I even emailed Nick and Freya back in January 2015 to ask about whether we were really spending two days here. I was told that the feedback was invariably positive and so I left it at that, but it still seemed odd. With the benefit of hindsight I have to agree that the balance is right – the reality is that you’re not spending two full days here, but rather two afternoon/evenings and two dawns over three days. Also, despite “The Rock” (as I dubbed it) being exactly that, a big rock, there is more than enough to keep you busy.

Despite simply calling it Spitzkoppe, we were actually based at Large Spitzkoppe, visually interesting in that it has vast slabs of unbroken, smooth rock face. It is also a pronounced red colour due to a high iron content and when the sun sets the mountains take on a striking reddish glow.

Spitzkoppe Pano 1600px

Large Spitzkoppe begins to glow as light from the setting sun falls across the rock face.

Once the sun had set it was a quick drive over to a rock arch where the plan was to set up for some astrophotography.

Spitzkoppe Arch 1600px

One of the test shots for Spitzkoppe arch; despite having dropped below the horizon the sun is still too strong…

With three of us camped up on the rock arch there was room to move about but with a full workshop of seven, and two or three instructors, I suspect that it would get a bit crowded.

The landscape suits panoramic shooting and so I embarked upon a series of attempts to shoot a panorama of the Milky Way and the arch, not quite succeeding with each attempt. In the end I managed a couple of single shot images before we packed up for the evening. It was a pleasant evening at the rock arch, especially as a nearby camp site had a coach party who for some reason had brought along a group of singers performing a variety of South African songs.


Day 12: Spitzkoppe

The final full day of shooting and time for a lie in. Whilst Spitzkoppe was better than I had expected, a dawn shoot there wasn’t compelling enough for me to get up at 5AM. Perhaps I should have made the effort but I wanted to concentrate on the lessons and so the idea of a couple of extra hours in bed and feeling a bit more alert seemed a better idea. The lesson was more astrophotography – which I was more than happy with – and I felt that I was even beginning to understand it! After the lessons, it was time for another sensor cleaning session and I actually feel quite proud of cleaning my own sensors. It may seem a small thing, but it has given me a level of independence and comfort knowing that, at any point in the future should I find myself on location with a dirty sensor, I can resolve the issue myself. It is not just a cost-saving thing, it could make the difference between a usable shot and a ruined one. The rest of the day was spent relaxing before returning in the late afternoon to “The Rock”.

There are lots of little details on and between the rocks and it wasn’t difficult to spend the afternoon composing various shots. But I had a goal in mind and that was to produce a good panorama of the arch and Milkyway, so as soon as the sun fell behind Small Spitzkoppe I was itching to get back to the arch and virtually sprinted across the rocks upon our arrival. Being happy with yesterday evening’s work Romeo and Emil busied themselves with setting up a time-lapse and as my D750 wasn’t going to be used I set one up too, set the intervalometer on 25 shots (far more than needed) and left it to its own devices.

Taking the panorama was very time sensitive. I wanted the sky to still be blue whilst having a rich canopy of stars. At seven shots, each of 30 seconds, the entire run took three and a half minutes to work through during which time the stars obviously move and giving the Milky Way a slight arc in the sky. Emil popped up to see how things were going and since he was there got delegated the task of light painting the foreground before leaving me to my own devices. After a few passes the sky had darkened and the image in my mind with it so I returned to the others who had broken out dinner and the beer whilst waiting for the time-lapses to run their course.

Spitzkoppe Astro Pano #2

You’ll get used to horizons having a faint glow – there is so little light pollution that the sun, despite having set nearly three hours earlier, can still be seen…

There was one final scene for the night shoot, a rather interesting group of boulders in the foreground with the plain extending out behind them to Large Spitzkoppe and the Pontok Range. What was a ‘quick shot’ turned in to close to an hour as we composed the shot, took the necessary images and then did the whole thing again as a safety measure.

Spitzkoppe Stars 1

The warm glow from campfires across the plain add a nice contrast to the cool blue of the night…

After the last shoot of the trip it was time to head back and pack: Tomorrow we returned to the airport.


Day 13: Departure

After breakfast and with everything packed back in our own bags we drove the 200 kilometres to Windhoek stopping for breakfast at a Wimpy along the way. Ever since Romeo’s 24-70mm was broken back in Lüderitz Emil had been trying to sort out a replacement lens – that focal length was too important to be without and Romeo was staying in Namibia for another two week for voluntary work. So, with my not needing to be at the airport until 3:30PM and Romeo not really needing to be anywhere, we headed into Windhoek to go collect the lens that Emil had managed to find. In the end the lens cost was more than initially quoted and more than Romeo was willing to pay, but the effort had been made to try and resolve the issue which to me is the point.

The return flight was an experience in itself due to the infamous South African lightning storms but once on the flight to the UK I only remember two things: showering the lady in the set in front of me in red Namib sand as I put my camera bag in the overhead bins and sitting down. Apparently they couldn’t wake me so had to put my seat in the upright position for takeoff and, very kindly, reclined it again one in the air. That’s probably a sign of a good trip!



The conclusion is always the hardest part to write and perhaps the most irrelevant as by now you’ll have already made a decision based on my description above and what you have read elsewhere on the Internet. Also, as mentioned at the start of the review this was my first, proper, workshop and so cannot compare it to the various other choices you’ll have.

Over the course of 12 days we essentially had four locations: Keetmanshoop, Kolmanskop, Sossuevlei/Deadvlei and Spitzkopppe. There were other organised stops – Fish River Canyon and Sesriem Canyon for example – as well as dozens of ad hoc spots but these four were the locations where we had time to stop and think about composition and had the opportunity to return. It doesn’t sound like much but given the distance between them (hundreds of kilometres in each case) it averages out at about two days, or four shoots, each. Do I think that additional time at the locations would have been useful? Yes, for some of them. With two dawn and two afternoon/evening shoots I think Keetmanskop has plenty of time allocated. I think Kolmanslop could have an additional day giving two dawn and two sunset shoots – there is a lot there to see; individual details, the rooms and the exteriors. Again Deadvlei and Sossusvlei could benefit from an additional dawn and night shoot. We didn’t really have time to investigate Deadvlei’s little brother at night and although we could have walked up a dune for some aerial angles, it would have cost us a ground shoot. Surprisingly, being convinced the Spitzkoppe had too much time allocated to it before the workshop I now think it is about right.

Of course, following my recommendations would add an additional two days to the workshop, adding cost and perhaps meaning the workshop requires more time than some people can afford, so it is a bit of a compromise. But I would definitely take Fish River Canyon off the itinerary: Given the time of year the workshop runs you’re not going to get to the canyon floor where the great light is and thus the chances of producing anything that would be of portfolio quality is slim.

Given that I was not particularly bothered about having lessons before attending the workshop and now think that they were an excellent part of it says something about their usefulness. From knowing very little about using Photoshop I now can use layers and masks, including the very useful luminosity masks. I know now there there is more to astrophotography than simply pointing the camera at the sky and taking a long exposure. I knew this before but now I know how to shoot for astrophotography and subsequently post-process it. I know about focus stacking and exposure blending. I have left the workshops with a lot more knowledge than when I arrived, knowledge I can use on every shoot from now on.

That said, I don’t think the lessons were perfect, although my one complaint is easily remedied. I really think that something as simple as a piece of A4 paper with each step described and the commands and functions used in each step would be useful: When you’re tired or English in not your first language it is very easy to forget something from five minutes earlier. Of course the individual could write this for themselves, but steps get missed easily and then everything after that falls apart. I also think that, not spending time making so many mistakes due to missing steps and commands could have meant learning another technique. Nature’s Light seem to have taken this suggestion on board and plan to have printed material for the 2016 workshop.

But learning to clean my own camera sensors was a very useful bonus.

The critique sessions were good too although again I think they could have been more useful, perhaps because I didn’t make use of them in the best way. Given the schedule we were on I barely had time to take daily backups and do some basic keyboarding, let alone process images. Instead both Romeo and I often showed images from previous trips and ones we considered our “best”. Perhaps I should have missed every other critique session and used that time to select images to be critiqued from the trip itself. I have no answer to that.

Emil was, what can best be described as, “a machine”. Not only did he do all the driving, he was up before us – even at 2AM – to make coffee, up after we went to bed, adapted the schedule for things like my additional morning at Kolmanskop (meaning more work for him), spent time trying to organise a replacement lens for Romeo, kept on top of all the logistics of the trip and still managed to call his wife and children each day. That is no small feat and precisely the level of energy that drives a workshop to be a valuable and successful experience.

So, the question I ask myself at the end of every review: Knowing what I know now about Nature’s Light “Composing the Dunes” workshop and assuming none of it could be changed, would I still go?

The answer is a resounding yes! I left Namibia with skills that will see me develop in the future, some strong images and some unique experiences. And that, as the famous advertising slogan goes, is priceless.


Details of the Nature’s Light trip can be found here.


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Composing the Dunes Namibia Workshop Review: Part 1

Sossusvlei 1600px

The kind of traveller that you bump in to on a trip to Antarctica is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the well-travelled one and so when relaxing in the bar each evening there were plenty of stories being swapped of the various destinations that people had visited.  So it was that I first received a recommendation for Namibia back in 2012.  Skip forward to the 2014 trip to Ethiopia and another recommendation, this time from a pair of photographers. Upon my return from Ethiopia I had already decided that I wanted to see Namibia for myself.

I didn’t realise just how much there was to write when beginning this review and it ended up being a little longer than expected. In itself that says something about the trip but since it is far too much to read in one sitting I’ve divided the review into three parts: Introduction and days 1-4, days 5-8 and finally days 9-13 and the conclusion.

Picking the Trip

Planning a trip to Namibia is likely one of the easier trips to Africa you can make. It is financially and politically stable and a number of tour operators have offerings to suit most people’s ideas of a “holiday”, photographic or otherwise. The photographer is well catered for with a number of different options and a lazy afternoon with Google saw me with a number of different options for a photographic workshop in Namibia. Because I didn’t fancy spending countless hours deciding on the small differences between each offering I picked three based on a range of costs, locations visited and the description on their respective web sites.

It is worth mentioning that this was my first photography-specific expedition. Ethiopia was described as a photography/geology trip, but most people on that were not photographers and as a result we ended up missing a lot of good opportunities through a variety of frustrations. As such I really have nothing to compare this trip to Namibia with.

The reason that I decided on a photographic workshop was two-fold. First, the missed opportunities in Ethiopia meant I really wanted to be on a trip dedicated to photography, visiting locations of interest to photographers and being with other people who knew not to walk into your composition. The second reason is that there are some countries that are better to travel with local knowledge. Namibia is a safe country – as safe as most destinations and definitely one of the safest in Africa (in fact probably only second to Botswana) – but I had already been forewarned about the high risk of blown tyres when driving the roads there and I really didn’t want to have to plan the logistics of hotels, hire cars, permits and all the other myriad requirements.


The Company

Of the three shortlisted options I decided upon the South African company Tailor Made Safaris who were advertising their “Composing the Dunes” photographic trip for five reasons:

  1. They visited the skeleton forest of Deadvlei and the neighbouring Sossusvlei , the ghost town of Kolmanskop and the quiver tree forest at Keetmanshoop – all on my shortlist.
  2. The trip was scheduled for November which is more-or-less my preferred travelling time. It was also the only trip I could find in this timeframe so that helped the decision!
  3. Small groups.
  4. They made a point that it was a landscape workshop (as opposed to a wildlife one).
  5. They were considerably cheaper that the competition – around 30% cheaper.

To be honest, they pretty much had me with the “focus on landscape” point – I have no interest in wildlife photography and any workshop that includes that would be taking time away from landscape work. Plus it is an refreshingly honest statement to make: There will be people who dismiss them as an option because they want ‘a bit of everything’.

The only concern that was nagging me was the fact that they were a lot cheaper than the alternatives. Perhaps I am jaded but whenever I see something at a significantly lower price than the alternatives alarm bells usually go off in my head. It was a bit of a gamble but I put the cost down to three things. First off, the workshop is run ‘off season’ having the benefit of cheaper accommodation and less tourists. Second, the company is based in South Africa where wages are lower than Europe or, to put this in a simpler context, had the photographer been a European photographer he would have cost more to hire. The final potential reason I could see for the lower cost is that Tailor Made Safaris is a (very) small company, the husband and wife team of Nick and Freya to be exact.

After reading a lot of independent feedback about Tailor Made Safaris’ other (non-photographic) offerings and a couple of reviews by previous workshop guests I decided to take a gamble.

Likely the most confusing aspect for anyone currently interested in the “Composing the Dunes” workshop is that the name of the company responsible has recently changed making Googling reviews of the workshop more difficult . At the time of my first becoming interested in the trip it was being offered by Tailor Made Safaris. By the time I arrived in Namibia I was greeted by someone holding a “Nature’s Light” sign.

The reason for moving the Namibia photographic workshop under the Nature’s Light brand was explained by Nick van de Wiel, owner of Tailor Made Safaris:

Nature’s Light is basically a Joint Venture between Emil from Limephoto and Nick from Tailor Made Safaris, bringing together great photographic expertise and reputable travel logistics. Although initially we both marketed our tours each on our own websites, we have discovered this year that it wasn’t working from a marketing point of view. The Limephoto website is optimised to attract commercial clients, and the Tailor Made Safaris website to attract ‘general tourists’, and hence we were ‘missing out’ on serious photography enthusiasts. These simply didn’t find out websites and thus didn’t know what we had to offer. We like to believe that was the reason we had so few people on our Namibia Tour, as we still feel the tour itself is good and offers good value for money. Our new website is designed purely for photographers, and we hope it will list better, and attract more serious people.

The Emil mentioned in Nick’s description is Emil von Maltitz, a Durban-based photographer and our expedition lead. Despite being a commercial photographer Emil’s landscape credentials include being included in the 2016 Nikon calendar and shortlisted in the International Landscape Photographer of the Year 2015 book.

For the rest of the review I’ll refer to it as the Nature’s Light workshop as, if you’re interested in it for the 2016 season, that’ll be who runs it.



Accommodation was generally to a very high standard.

Accommodation was generally to a very high standard.

The accommodation throughout the trip was excellent. The published itinerary gives a sense of what to expect in terms of rest time and realising that good sleep when I could get it would be essential if I were to last the two weeks, I had opted for the single person upgrade essentially meaning that I had a double room to myself wherever we stopped and in one case I had a choice of four beds to sleep in! Even the most rustic of the accommodation at Spitzkoppe was more than acceptable and, despite being the odd one out in that they had external toilets and separate external showers these were in good condition.


The Itinerary

The 2015 workshop ran between November 5th and November 17th with 12 days ‘in the field’. The first day was set aside for guests to arrive and meet each other over dinner and so the actual workshop really started on the following day. According to the brochure, the workshop concentrates on the Quiver Tree forest near Keetmanshoop, Fish River Canyon, the ghost town of Kolmanskop, Dead Vlei and Sossus Vlei and finally the Spitskoppe Mountains. Both Nick and Emil have run the workshop a few times and, being photographers running a photography workshop, have a good idea as to where guest’s interests will lie. From talking to Emil I got the impression that the itinerary is being reviewed based on the comments made by previous guests and so what the itinerary will look like in 2016 may well be different. That being said I’m pretty sure that the only location mentioned above that would potentially be missing is Fish River Canyon as the other locations are too visually impressive to miss. Fish River Canyon has been included as people have asked for it but the logistics of the trip (discussed later) and the fact that for many asking it is a “tick in a box” location means that the time could be better spent elsewhere.


Day 1: Arrival

As mentioned above the first day is for inbound guests to arrive off international flights, rest up after what would have been a restless sleep on the plane and meet each other and the workshop leaders. There are a couple of ways to get to the international airport in Namibia’s capital Windhoek and I chose to fly via Johannesburg. I must admit to not really having thought about the flights as best I should have: Had I done so I would have realised that buying the London to Johannesburg and Johannesburg to Windhoek flights separately (to save money) meant that I needed to clear immigration and customs and collect my luggage in Johannesburg in order to check in for the second flight. Having only allowed two hours between landing and the next flight – which would have been fine as a transit passenger – was worryingly tight.

Arrival in Windhoek was probably the only major issue I encountered on the trip and I’m still debating where the blame should lie. Upon entry non-Namibian nationals need to fill out an immigration card with the usual details, including an address at which you’ll be staying. The problem is: I hadn’t been given one. The only instruction I had was to look for a person carrying a Nature’s Light placard once I had cleared immigration and customs. The immigration officer wasn’t going to be helpful either, flatly refusing to point me in the direction of who to talk to about this and eventually refusing to return my passport to me. I did have Emil’s (South African) mobile number but that wasn’t working as he was about 60 metres away on the other side of Namibian immigration waiting for me.

In the end it was only the fact that another immigration officer read the introduction email I had been sent and, realising that I may be telling the truth, told me to go through (without my passport) to get the address. It was a lot of unnecessary stress.

So who is to blame for this? Well, to be fair I should have known better. I travel a lot and had I paid more attention I would have picked up on not having an accommodation address before I travelled. But not everyone travels as much as I do and so I have to say that this should have been communicated by Nature’s Light ahead of the trip.

Once we arrived at the Ondekaremba Lodge there was time to relax and freshen up before dinner. On this expedition there were only two guests; myself and a Croatian named Romeo. Because of this there was only one Nature’s Light photographer, Emil and due to the rather small group we were in a single 4WD, with plenty of room and, as I discovered as the trip went on, all the benefits of small group travel.

We also discovered what was to become a constant when staying at various locations throughout the country: Wi-fi that didn’t really work too well. Not that it bothered me all that much as it was quite nice to be ‘off the grid’ but if you’re planning on staying in contact with folks back home, you may want to consider a local SIM card on the MTC network – you’ll get the chance to buy this tomorrow.

Day 2: Windhoek to Keetmanshoop and the Quiver Tree Forest

The start of the 12 day workshop proper and a day with an awful lot of driving – just under 500 kilometres. The aim was to travel south from Windhoek and get to Keetmanshoop by late afternoon so we could be at our first location for sunset.

After breakfast there is a stop in town to visit an ATM/bank to exchange money, pick up groceries and for those interested, a SIM card for the local network. It is worth getting the SIM as it does not cost too much and will without question be cheaper than any roaming plan you may have. The SIM I opted for had 30 minutes of international calls and 500MB of data for something like US$10.

Driving days are inevitable on trips like this and the usual aim is to complete the journey with as little delay as possible. That said, put three photographers in a car travelling through a changing landscape and you’re bound to make several random stops to photograph something interesting. The only main stop was for lunch at a Wimpy roadside cafe. In the past I have noticed that people can be a bit funny about things like lunch venue but my view on these trips is that I’m not there to waste time in restaurants; as long as the food is reasonably tasty – and all the places we stopped at served a good selection of food – then the less time we spent eating meant the more time we would spend shooting. You’re also experiencing more of daily life in Namibia than you would in an actual restaurant.

We arrived at the Mesosaurus Fossil Site near Keetmanshoop and checked in to the lodge – home for the next two nights. After unloading our kit into the rooms we were back out and heading towards the first location of the trip, the Quiver Tree forest. I wrote a small piece on the forest and whilst it isn’t a forest in the traditional sense, the trees (which aren’t technically trees) are striking and so I could see why there were four separate shoots planned here. Also, I usually take a couple of shoots to get into the swing of things so having several shoots meant I could treat this first one more as a “warm up” session. After sunset we returned to the lodge for dinner – homemade food from the local farm – which was very tasty before heading back out for the first of the astrophotography shoots.

I have never really tried astrophotography before so this was one part of the workshop that I was quite interested in. I had emailed Emil before the trip to ask if we covered everything we needed to know and the simple answer is yes; despite having no real knowledge of how to capture astrophotography images before the workshop, I left with the knowledge and skills required to capture and process my own images. I wrote a more detailed piece on this, but the image below is taken from this very first evening session on the workshop.

16mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 3200.

16mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 3200.

I think that the astrophotography part of the workshop highlights a couple of important aspects of the trip. First, through the repetitive process of shooting images for astrophotography and then post-processing them, by the end of the two weeks I had a good basic understanding on the process and one that I have subsequently been able to replicate on my own. In other words the workshop has taught me a skill that I will be able to use on every trip I take from now on and to me, that is very valuable. The second aspect is that, up until this trip, I steered clear of using Photoshop as I really didn’t understand it. The post-processing sessions we had throughout the trip have helped me become more familiar with how Photoshop can help me produce an image that is in line with my vision. In fact, the image above is a case-in-point: It was actually taken as a test shot for a star trail time-lapse that we were looking at. Through using Photoshop’s masks and layers I’ve been able to turn the test shot into a very presentable image. So, the workshop has also given me familiarity with Photoshop.

After the shoot we headed back to the lodge to freshen up, transfer images onto backup storage and sleep. Tomorrow will be the first pre-dawn start.


Day 3: Quiver Tree Forest

4:45AM is not my favourite time of day – any time pre-coffee is eyed with disdain – but we wanted to be in the forest before dawn and one of the nice things about being out of season was that we would likely have the place to ourselves, which we did. We spent the early morning shooting the trees and sunrise and Emil was on hand to give advice. By 8AM the sun was getting hot and the light was becoming increasingly harsh so we finished up and headed back to the 4WD for coffee in the shade of a communal weaver bird nest, an experience only slightly diminished by the knowledge that there are likely several snakes in the nest too.

Examining a social weaver nest over coffee.

Examining a social weaver nest over coffee.

For those days not spending travelling the third day exemplifies the general structure of the workshop: a dawn shoot, coffee on site before heading back for breakfast, lessons/processing/sleep with lunch at some point, then out again for a sunset/night shoot.

Back at the lodge with breakfast out of the way we sat down for the only structured lesson of the workshop – a slideshow on frame, elements and relationships. It is not something new to me, having read this in many other places, and I’m guessing that anyone looking to attend a photographic workshop will have seen similar articles too. Of course a reminder of these aspects is always good – especially as I have difficulty in putting them into practice – but I do wish that I will one day find someone who covers “why photographs fail” – for example, show a scene shot in different ways and then explain why the ones that fail, well, fail.

But the slideshow did show one thing: if there were ever a question about Emil’s credentials to run a landscape workshop, it disappeared with the images shown then. I’ll come back to this at the end of the review but nothing in the marketing information shows this side of Emil’s work.

Like many places throughout the country the lodge is at least partially dependent upon solar energy and here power and hot water is provided by a solar array. Being out of season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves but still managed to overload the batteries of the array with three MacBooks connected to it. So, as always, have plenty of spare batteries. I took along my Voltaic solar charger as a backup.

After an hour-long snooze we headed back out to the forest – the same place as the morning but different to the previous day. The aim was to spend the sunset hours shooting, eat a light meal on site and then continue with some astrophotography.

The Quiver Tree forest is just dense enough to make subject isolation tricky…

The Quiver Tree forest is just dense enough to make subject isolation tricky…

I made the decision to head off by myself and see if I could improve on yesterday’s lacklustre start and I appreciated the fact that I could do so. In fact the only inconvenience I could have faced is that, had I wanted Emil to look over a composition or a shot I had taken, it would have meant a bit of trek to the other part of the forest.

One thing to be aware of in Namibia is that, despite your very best efforts, you will get sensor dust. Namibia is a very, very dusty country and so you should just assume that it will happen to you. The question is really what you do about it. The answer, of course, is clean your sensors and luckily having shot multiple times in these conditions Emil knew how to clean the sensors and had the kit with him. Back in the UK, a full frame sensor clean from a reputable dealer can cost around £100 by the time you factor in shipping and so having this service performed as needed was a bit of a boon. But, never being one to take a back seat, Emil was happy to show me how to clean my own sensors. Another skill that I can use whenever required which, aside from saving me a lot of money, more importantly means that I can clean sensors whilst on location. Never having been on another workshop I do not know if sensor cleaning lessons are a common thing, but I suspect not.

Dinner on location whilst waiting for sunset to become night…

Dinner on location whilst waiting for sunset to become night…

After sunset we waited by the 4WD as the sun fell far below the horizon and the sky darkened to reveal the canopy of stars. If you’ve never been to a region free of light pollution then the African night sky will be a bit of a shock. It is, simply, magical and if you’re looking at learning astrophotography then you’re in the right place. Another nice thing about out-of-season Namibia is that with no people around for miles it is perfectly safe to set up your cameras and walk off, so after setting up one camera each to take the necessary shots for a time-lapse, we headed back to the 4WD with the aim of using the other cameras to shoot some standard astrophotography. Unfortunately we took the scenic route (OK, we got lost!) and spent an hour trying to get our bearings by which time the time-lapse had finished. In the end we only had enough time to capture a couple of standards shots which doesn’t sound like much but bear in mind that each ‘standard’ shot required three 240 second exposures and an addition 30 second exposure – basically around 15 minutes each. Then it was back to the lodge for the end-of-day image backup, showers and to pack the contents of our international luggage into big plastic boxes so that we could put clothing on the 4WD roof giving room for the camera gear to go in the 4WD. Make sure that you have a big dry bag (or similar) to put your items in as, starting tomorrow, things will get really dusty.


Day 4: Keetmanshoop to Seeheim via Fish River Canyon

Another pre-5AM start for a dawn shoot at a third location in the Quiver tree forest followed by coffee and breakfast back at the lodge. After breakfast we were driving to Fish River Canyon which isn’t a particularly long drive – approximately 125 kilometres – but it did introduce us to the more common type of road surface in Namibia: crushed rock.

Other than a stop for lunch at an American-style roadside diner – complete with American sized portions – we didn’t hang around and made good time arriving early afternoon.

I can see why Fish River Canyon is the one location that may not make it into future workshops. Without doubt the canyon is impressive and a quick look at the Wikipedia article shows that there is a popular 90 kilometre hiking trail and a yearly ultra marathon that attracts visitors to the canyon floor. Speaking of which, the high canyon walls must mean that there is some impressive light and shadow down there – not that you’ll get to see it. Due to the high risk of flash floods (and no way to get out quickly) the trails down to the canyon floor are closed between September and April and although you could ignore the signs and get down, no responsible workshop is going to ignore official warnings.

As impressive as Fish River Canyon is, it will be the light that matters…

Fish River Canyon is definitely impressive, but it will be the light down in the canyon that matters…

Being confined to the top where the light is harsh leads to somewhat flat images and aside from the option to zoom in and focus on details you’d probably have a tough time producing something for the portfolio. Still we spent a couple of hours at a few places and grabbed a couple of shots that could potentially make it into a stock library.

We had passed the hotel on the way to the canyon and so had to drive back the same way we had come. On the way back we stopped at a tree we had spotted on the drive to the canyon, a lone tree in the middle of nowhere and we spent a pleasant half hour or so attempting to get an interesting composition out of it. It was here that we were introduced to the concept of focus stacking, something I had heard about about but never really paid much attention to (as Photoshop was involved), which essentially involves taking a series of shots of the same scene only varying the point of focus. These shots can be combined in Photoshop later to produce pin-sharp images from foreground to infinity. It is worth mentioning that we tried focus stacks a few times throughout the trip but I have since found that none have really worked out for me as the lens I used suffers from focus breathing. So if you are going to try this technique it could be worth testing to see if your lens suffers from focus breathing too as it is a pain to correct – if you can at all – later on.

By the end of the trip tress were being described using adjectives such as ‘attractive’. A ‘sexy’ may have even slipped out once…

By the end of the trip trees were being described using adjectives such as ‘attractive’. A ‘sexy’ may have even slipped out once…

The evening was a leisurely affair at the Seeheim hotel which is about the only remaining structure in the town and a curiously cobbled-together place reminding me of an Escher drawing. The bar is curious in itself looking like a colonial retreat complete with stuffed and mounted animal heads. But the highlight of the evening was a waitress whose humour was drier than the surrounding desert and whose sarcasm was delivered in such a deadpan fashion that you didn’t know whether it really was sarcasm or her simply speaking her mind. Even Romeo, who had hitherto been the master of dry wit, was impressed.


In part two, we continue the trip and look at the wonderfully photogenic Kolmanskop, a perfect film set for a horror movie!

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Kung Fu

There is a scene in the 1999 film The Matrix in which the protagonist Neo awakens from a virtual reality training session and states, simply “I know Kung fu”. It is an important moment as it is the point where the character understands that he can control the World around him and is the catalyst for his growth.

Thanks to Emil von Maltitz, lead photographer on the recent Nature’s Light “Composing the Dunes” Namibian workshop, I too can say: I know Kung fu. At least of the photographic variety.

The review of that trip is being written so I’m not going to talk about it here in detail but my hopes for it were simple: That they show me show great photographic locations and that I could photograph them without people getting in the way. I had no expectations other than that.

It is worth mentioning that I primarily use Adobe Lightroom for cataloguing and image processing as I find it simple and it has all the features I need to post process images without having too many to be cluttered. I have used Photoshop in the past – and have it as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud package – but I’ve never really liked it due to its complexity and over-engineering for my needs. If truth be told, I knew the Photoshop could do some clever things but even with online videos and tutorials I always struggled to use it – so much so that I simply avoided it.

I’ve also never tried astrophotography before. Well, I made an attempt in Iceland earlier this year, but the results were decidedly underwhelming. I knew from the itinerary that the Nature’s Light workshop made a bit of a feature of astrophotography and was keen to try it, but didn’t have high hopes as it would be my first real attempt.

In short, the best I could have hoped for a month ago was this:

Despite the eye-catching sky in the past this image would have not made first pick as I lacked the skill to process it.

Despite the eye-catching sky in the past this image would have not made first pick as I lacked the skill to process it.

A quick glance and it all looks reasonable. As you can see the stars, well, look like stars, the Milky Way is distinct and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds look suitably like galaxies. In fact, if this image were only to be looked at on a phone display or even a tablet then the image looks perfectly fine.

The problems become apparent when you zoom in and look at the foreground. In the 100% crop of the image below we can see the graininess of the tree trunks, the dried earth ground and the sand dunes behind.

ISO 6400. The noise present in the foreground is obvious. Dropping to a lower ISO, say 3200, would improve this require a longer exposure, blurring the stars.

At ISO 6400 the noise present in the foreground is obvious. Dropping to a lower ISO, say 3200, would improve this but also require a longer exposure, blurring the stars.

In the past my only option would have been to use Imagenomic’s Noiseware plugin so let’s see if that helps.

Noise can be removed via tools, but they remove detail too leaving an unnatural smoothness.

Noise can be removed via tools, but they remove detail too leaving an unnatural smoothness.

The noise has definitely gone but so too has all the detail. Unnatural and, again, unprintable. Of course I could drop the ISO speed to something more sensible, say ISO 400, and then compensate for the lower sensitivity to light by increasing the exposure time.

Showing the shutter to 240 seconds and lowering the ISO gives us low noise detail.

Showing the shutter to 240 seconds and lowering the ISO gives us low noise detail.

That’s much better! Very little noise and lots of detail. But with a four minute exposure the stars, well, they’re not stars anymore – they’re streaks!

This image looks unusable but the foreground is low noise and detailed.

This image looks unusable but the foreground is low noise and detailed.

The answer is course simple: Take two images – one high ISO, short exposure for the stars and one low ISO, long exposure for the foreground – and merge them together using the masks feature of Photoshop. The issue is how do you create an accurate mask that separates the foreground from the sky when the trees are such an irregular shape. The lasso tool would be one option but it’d be a real pain to build a mask with additive lasso selections. You could manually create a mask using the brush tool and white and black ink, but that would take ages and never be truly accurate. And just to highlight a point I made above: I didn’t know Photoshop a month ago – I didn’t know that selections could be additive, I didn’t know how the different lasso tools worked. In other words I would have been stuck with an uninspiring image of a stunning location.

The Kung Fu

What Emil and the workshop gave me is two things. The first is an idea of how to photograph a scene for astrophotography – and the number of shots needed. The second is how to compile these individual images into the final shot.

Once you know the process it is easy to capture the individual images needed, of which there are actually four. The exact settings will vary depending upon location and the brightness of objects in the sky and foreground but as a starting point:

  1. An ISO 3200 (or ISO 6400), 20-30 second image at f/4 for the stars.
  2. An ISO 400, 240 second image at f/4 for the foreground with no light painting.
  3. An ISO 400, 240 second image at f/4 for the foreground with the trees painted by a torch.
  4. An ISO 400, 240 second image at f/4 with the lens cap on.

Of these four images, (1) and (3) appear in the final result and (2) and (4) are there to help build the final image. Image 1 is, as mentioned, taken to capture the stars as pin-pricks. Image 3 is the ‘foreground interest’ shot: low noise and good detail with some light painting to pull the eyes to aspects on the image and make it less flat. Image 2 is essentially the same as image 3 but not lit so that the foreground is dark to separate it from the sky. You could perhaps use image 2, but the light painting would bring the brightness of the foreground up to that of the stars which would hamper the next step. Image 4 – the one of the lens cap – is a dark frame. Any camera sensor running a long exposure will produce pixel glitches usually as coloured pixels. The dark frame captures just these glitches and can be used to remove them from the final result through subtractive masking.

The Kung fu that stitches these separate images together into the final result is Photoshop’s luminosity masks. Luminosity masks are difficult for me to explain simply as I don’t fully understand them, but in essence they allow you to create a mask not based on a shape (like the brush tool or lasso tool would) but on the brightness (or darkness) of the image. This is where image (2) is useful; the sky is bright due to the stars, but the foreground is dark. Here’s an example luminosity mask that is looking at the darkest parts of the image:

luminosity mask 1 1600px

It is perhaps counter-intuitive but white shows the dark bits here simply because white shows the selection we are making and the selection in this case is the dark components of the image. Because image (2) purposely had no lighting on the foreground, it is in darkness and so it is added to the mask, but so too are parts of the sky because they are dark too. The mask is too detailed but it is easy to fix; once created a combination of a curves adjustment, the paint bucket tool and the brush tool allowed me to create a simpler – and more useful mask.

luminosity mask 2 1600px

I wanted the sky from one image and the foreground from another and I now have a very accurate mask that makes a distinction between the two. It is a simple procedure to load the images (1) and (3) as layers in Photoshop and apply the mask to image (3). Voilà – pin-prick stars and low noise, detailed foreground.

Once you understand luminosity masks, everything becomes possible. Want to brighten just the stars? Create a ‘brights’ luminosity mask? Want to make the night sky cooler, more blue? Invert the foreground mask we created and apply it to a blue photo filter. The result?

The final result. almost. Despite all the apparent Photoshop trickery, this is what my eyes were seeing on the night.

The final result. almost. Despite all the apparent Photoshop trickery, this is what my eyes were seeing on the night.

What impresses me most as I write this article is that, less than a month ago, I would have had no idea about any of the steps mentioned. I avoided Photoshop as I did not understand it, barely understanding the concept of layers and masks, but certainly not enough to use them properly. Could I have learnt this online? Maybe. I have tried in the past, but I don’t learn by listening; I learn by asking and doing. Now I know how to shoot the raw images and how to merge them into a single vision.

So, like Neo I now see that I can control the (photographic) World around me. It is a new skill and one with plenty of room to improve and develop. It’ll be a long road.

But isn’t that the fun part?


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Spitzkoppe, Namibia

Way back when I was first interested in the Nature’s Light trip to Namibia I was admittedly a little sceptical about spending two full days at the rocky Spitzkoppe. I even emailed them to query why, given the other stunning locations in Namibia, we were spending so much time there. “It’s always popular with those who have been. Don’t worry, you’ll see.” was the reply. Sceptical I remained.

Time passed and a few months later and I found myself at Spitzkoppe and have to admit that my concerns were unfounded. Despite my dubbing it “The Rock” once I saw beyond the immensity of the mountain itself, it was the little details that really stood out.

This is the final shot taken on the trip. We had just finished shooting some timelapses and panoramas at a rock arch (behind me in this shot) and were relaxing with a beer (or perhaps two). Looking out over the plain to Gross Spitzkoppe (left) and the Pontok range (right), we could see the glow of camp fires casting their glow on the rock faces. The canopy of stars, like everywhere else in Namibia, was incredible.

Spitzkoppe Stars

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