Tag Archives: Landscape

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.


Posted in Frame by Frame Also tagged , , , , |

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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Feeling the Heat

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you'll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake's surface can become almost hypnotic.

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you’ll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake’s surface can become almost hypnotic.

It has been very quiet around here for a few weeks simply because work has been insanely busy. I’m an IT security professional by day and right now I’m currently managing two projects that are well underway and all my time is split between them with the thousand different technical and operational queries that clients raise during the deployment phase. All my other work therefore has to fit into the gaps and the evenings.

Of course there is always a benefit to being so busy and one is that I have been working on one client’s site or another over the past few weekends and the travel fund has slowly been growing! So, despite feeling a little weary right now I do have something to look forward to: the next photography trip!

As mentioned in a previous post, Siberia is planned for 2017. The photographer running that – Alexey Trofimov – has suggested dates around the end of February and so whilst I’m really excited about working alongside him I need something a bit sooner.

The next option is to return to Iceland. I have an image in my head that I can’t get rid of and so I can see a week or two spent driving along the southern coast. Iceland is an easy trip; one I really do not have to think about but again, I want to go late in the year, when it is colder – perhaps November or early December. Again, I can’t wait.

So, the current plan is 18 days travelling through Java on a volcano hunt. The people who organised the trip to Ethiopia, Volcano Discovery, have a photographer-centric trip in September and over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to them about adding a custom extension. If all goes well I should be climbing Krakatoa in just under 80 days!

After the heat of Java's volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

After the heat of Java’s volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

Posted in Trip Planning, Uncategorized Also tagged , , , , |

Icelandic Horse

Even when I first became interested in photography and I was in my ‘photograph anything and everything’ phase there is one subject that I’ve never been particularly bothered about: wildlife photography. But, you can’t visit Iceland and not realise that there is something unusual about the Icelandic horse; they look, well, different.

Before arriving in Iceland I had used Google image search to get an idea of the various sights worth seeing and there were quite a few of the Icelandic horses, including one particular one of a white horse. It was a head-on shot of the horse with parts of the surrounding field and its tail in the background. But it was too noisy for my minimalism-craving brain – too many visual distractions – and I found myself recomposing the image in my head.

This horse was found just west of one of my most favourite places along the southern coast, Vik; the only white horse in a field of chestnut ones. It wasn’t difficult to get the horses to come close, presumably as they were curious to see if I had any food. What was difficult was to get this white one to come close and then stay interested long enough for me to lie down and capture him against the white sky.

Icelandic Horse


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Dallol, Ethiopia.

Dallol Geyser 1

Volcanic regions do not need to be full of big, imposing mountains that threaten to rain lava down on the land. They can be small and delicate – more fragile than an eggshell. One such region is Dallol, Ethipoia.

Dallol is a hot spring region where super-heated steam saturated with dissolved minerals explosively vents from cracks in the Earth’s crust. As the steam cools the minerals crystalise out and form beautiful – and exceptionally fragile – crusts. The crusts at Dallol are less than a millimetre thick and less than 15cm in diameter.

Dallol Geyser 2


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Salt: Ethiopia’s White Gold


As foreboding as the name ‘Danakil Depression’ perhaps sounds it is nothing more than a case of calling something that it is. First, northeast Ethiopia forms part of the 100,000 square kilometre Danakil Desert measured as being one of the hottest and lowest places on the Earth’s surface. Second, it lies at the junction of three tectonic plates – a triple junction – each drawing apart from its neighbours and leaving a basin, or depression, in the land. Eventually the separation of these tectonic plates will split the horn of Africa off the continent completely and the Danakil Depression will either become part of the Red Sea’s floor, or the bed of a new sea entirely. In approximately 100 million years.

Although the depression, which sits at 130 metres below sea level, is (very) dry land for the moment the region’s volcanic activity has meant that the area has been repeatedly flooded by the Red Sea and then sealed again with the most recent incursion being a mere 30,000 years ago. Each time the waters evaporated thick layers of salt remained and current estimates suggest deposits 800 metres thick in parts of the salt plain. Visually it is not as stunning as the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – appearing more of a dirty brown-white against Uyuni’s blazing white expanse – but looks are only one way to measure the worth of something. The Danakil salt plains – part of the region National Geographic has called the ‘cruelest place on Earth’ – prove that man can live anywhere if he has the will. And Ethiopians have the will.

White Gold: A Tradition Spanning the Centuries

For centuries this inhospitable and remote location has been the centre of a booming economy in salt – indeed for a long time salt blocks were the currency. Even today, when currency in measured by the Ethiopian Birr, the salt blocks mined here still have significant importance in a country 4.5 times the area of the United Kingdom. But despite the centuries the process of mining and transporting the salt has remained unchanged.

Thousands of workers spend six hours a day, six days a week, ten months a year working in small teams to mine the salt. The first job is to crack open the surface of the salt plains with pick axes and wooden poles. These large fragments are then shaped into small, rectangular blocks approximately 35cm long and weighting 4kg using only a small, bladed, hand tool. It is gruelling work in the intense heat of the desert often north of 50°C and the workers have little protection against the constant contact with salt.


With little to protect them from the heat and salt the workers spend ten months a year crafting the salt blocks.

Whilst I believe that still photography has an impact that is usually – over time – more powerful than video, this is one of those times where video adds a lot.


Despite being in the Danakil region of Ethiopia, an area that is home to the Afar people, most of the salt workers are Tigrayans from the highlands to the west who have come for the work. Whilst it was unclear how many Afar salt workers there are – if any – it was clear that they owned and operated the camel caravans with their costs (and profits) coming from the 400% mark-up between how much they pay and subsequently sell the blocks for.

Once cut to size the salt blocks are tied into bundles and loaded on to camels for the two-day journey back to the town of Berhale stopping overnight at the village of Ahmed Ela.


Camels have a well-earned rest whilst the salt blocks are cut, shaped and tied into bundles.



The camel train, now in much smaller groups, arrives at the village of Ahmed Ela for the evening.

Once at Berhale the salt gets loaded onto trucks for distribution across Ethiopia ending up in factories, restaurants, and local markets.


Salt blocks inevitably get broken along the way and these normally end up in markets.

Brown Gold: An Uncertain Future

Inevitable though it may be progress is threatening this centuries-old tradition and many of the Ethiopians I spoke to view the completion of a tarmac road – which by the end of 2014 had reached Ahmed Ela – with uneasy concern. It may seem an odd investment; roads are expensive things to construct and a camel-stop town seems an unlikely destination, and you can perhaps be forgiven for assuming an ulterior motive in its construction. And there is.

Being a geologically active area the area is exceptionally rich in minerals, especially potash which is an excellent fertiliser and one much in demand. Although potash is not scarce, its proximity to the surface in Danakil makes the region an extremely cost effective source – if you can get there. Attempts have been made in the past to mine these minerals on a commercial scale, such as the Canadian mine from the early twentieth century, but the inhospitable climate and remoteness made commercial mining uneconomic. But combine cash-rich foreign investors with an eye on long-term financial returns with modern automated machinery and mining on a large scale becomes possible, and profitable. All you need is the means to get there.

Whilst the road, which as of 2016 is apparently complete – is the first step toward the mining of mineral deposits such as potash- the salt flats are an easy target and many of those who depend upon the traditional process of salt mining  (the Afar, the Tigrayan workers, the camel-stop towns and villages) see the dawn of mechanised mining as a clear and present danger. It would be the end of a centuries-old way-of-life and put many people out of work in an area where work is hard to come by.

It would also destroy one of the few remaining wildernesses left on the planet. If that seems melodramatic, here’s a fact for you: Three mining companies have already been granted licenses to mine potash in the Danakil area and one company alone – Yaro International – is gearing up to mine 600,000 tonnes. Per year. Now imagine what that will do to the landscape in the photograph below.


It may look a barren wilderness, but whilst I stood on the rise drinking my third litre of water that morning with the temperature edging close to 50°C and a French tourist collapsed due to heat exhaustion somewhere behind me, it was difficult to believe that a people had not only managed to survive here, but actually built a business that supported them and their families…

Hopefully the mining will be done with care and consideration for the surrounding environment, but here’s some more images of the region at the end of 2014. Just in case…


The morning sun slowly rises above the last remaining rainwater that washed down off the Tigray highlands. Deserts are not always dry…



One of our military escort walks ahead to check the valley, unusual in that everything is made of salt. Years of erosion has crafted peaks and gullies.



The rainwater seen above dissolves surface salt and as the sun’s heat evaporates the water the salt crystalises out again leaving an oddly geometric pattern.


It may be approximately 100 million years until the horn of Africa becomes its own continent, but signs of movement are visible in this highly geologically active area.

It may be approximately 100 million years until the horn of Africa becomes its own continent, but signs of tectonic activity are always visible in this geologically active area.



One of the most unique landscapes on the planet is – perhaps soon to be was – Dallol. The rich geologically active environment provides a wealth of minerals, here the yellow of sulphur. This is also its downfall; Danakil holds the World’s largest deposit of potash – an excellent fertiliser.



And perhaps my favourite image from Dallol…

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Composing the Dunes Namibia Workshop Review: Part 2

This is the second of a three-part review of the Nature’s Light “Composing the Dunes” photographic workshop. Today we look at days five through eight covering the allegedly haunted ghost town at Kolmanskop and the helicopter shoot over the Namib Desert. If you’ve missed part one it can be found here.

Day 5 : Seeheim to Lüderitz

The day started with another long drive – 300 kilometres – to the coastal town of Lüderitz. Along the way you can watch as hills slowly get replaced with sand dunes and there are a few stops along the way – a scheduled one at a derelict house next to a single track railway and an unscheduled one to photograph some pylons. I’m not a fast shooter and prefer to take time to look at a scene deciding how best I can frame it and so these short stops can get somewhat frustrating for me as I’m only getting started as everyone else wants to leave. But I know I am slower than most people and so I think that the time allotted to each stop is probably right although had these been more photogenic I would have likely been a bit more vocal.

The heat haze apparent in this shot gives an idea as to just how hot things were becoming…

The heat haze apparent in this shot gives an idea as to just how hot things were becoming…

Depending upon how many stops you make along the way you’ll get to Lüderitz mid afternoon meaning that we were there in good time to collect the photography permits for Kolmanskop the next day and, as the light was still pretty harsh we had a couple of hours to check in and get some lunch.

One of the joys of travel is finding something unexpected. I still remember a hostel in the backwater town of Xingping in southern China that served the best coffee I had in that vast country and I had the same experience in Lüderitz when Emil took us to the Diaz coffee shop. It had moved off the main street and was apparently far more basic than the last time he was there – some people may even be put off by its appearance – which would be a shame as they do some excellent coffee from various parts of Africa. Needless to say that the Diaz coffee shop became a daily refuge whilst in Lüderitz.

Ahead of sunset we headed out to Diaz Point and the lighthouse there only to discover that the wind was brutal. Handheld shots were awkward and long lenses were completely unusable on my usually stable Gitzo tripod – even a Sirui tripod – one I dubbed “The Tank” due to its weight and height – couldn’t keep a long lens stable. And as if to prove the point it was here that we had the only fatality of the trip when the wind caught Romeo’s camera and 24-70mm f/2.8 attached to a tripod and sent it lens-first into the beach severing the lens body from the lens mount which, aside from the cost, meant he had just lost his main landscape lens. I had a spare 24-120mm (which I had made a point of bringing to Namibia after damaging my 24-70mm in Iceland, again a wind-related accident) and so lent this to him.

As the wind was showing no signs of letting up, we abandoned the shoot and headed back to the Lüderitz Nest hotel and then out into town for for dinner.


Day 6: Kolmanskop

We were up before 5AM in order to head out to Kolmanskop. Kolmanskop is the second main location of the trip, once a thriving diamond mining town but abandoned in 1954 the desert has been reclaiming the place ever since. Permits are required as the land is owned by NamDeb, a joint venture between the Namibian government and the De Beers corporation, but once obtained you have free run of the place. The town is a popular photographer’s stop and so perhaps another advantage of the Nature’s Light workshop is that being off season meant less chance of other visitors – we were lucky and only saw a couple of other people on the first morning.

I could have easily spent an entire week at Kolmanskop…

I could have easily spent an entire week at Kolmanskop…

The point of the early starts  – not just at Kolmanskop – was to arrive on location and have some time to scout out compositions before the sun made an appearance but, as mentioned before I take a while to ‘get up to speed’. I did find a composition and had it set up as the sun’s rays crested the horizon filling the rooms, but as this was the only scheduled morning at the town I must admit that I, for want of a better word, panicked and despite having a perfectly good composition set up rushed off to find another one. Luckily I did take a couple of images before rushing off but I lost a lot of good light trying to scout out another composition. By 8:30 we were finished and heading back to the hotel.

As the next shoot was at sunset we had the bulk of the morning and afternoon for lessons and the critique sessions. Given that there were just two of us the lessons were led by Emil on his laptop whilst we sat on either side with our laptops trying to replicate the steps. This perhaps highlighted the greatest weakness in the lesson structure; we were trying to learn new Photoshop skills and all the associated keyboard shortcuts, which is a lot to process, especially when tired and especially when – in Romeo’s case – English isn’t your native language. It would have been really useful to have a printed copy (not just an electronic one) of the shortcuts. Romeo even tried to video the process on his phone which wouldn’t have been a great video but it did lead to a flash of inspiration: Record the screen as Emil worked and whilst having him narrate the process. The result is a series of videos taken over the remainder of the workshop that I have referred to several times since my return. One of the things that Emil may do is create some formal videos – without the sounds of the Diaz coffee shop in the background, for example – but part of me wonders if they’ll be as useful to me as the rough-and-ready ones we recorded on the workshop, ones that include our images and ones we asked all manner of questions about.

The wind was picking up again and by the time we arrived at Kolmanskop it was becoming painful to walk about as you were, quite literally, being sandblasted.


Having had some time in the morning to look around the various buildings in the town I had a better idea as to some compositions that may work and so the angst of the morning didn’t make a re-appearance. There is a lot to photograph in the town and it surprising just how quickly the hours passed and with the sun already set a good half hour ago it was getting dark both inside the buildings and out. I began to head back to the entrance as we had an agreed time to meet but stopped along the way at the abandoned hospital to take a couple of shots. With the wind moaning down the long corridor, the strange shadows being cast along the walls and the banging of a door or window frame coming from one of the rooms, it was just like a scene from a teen horror film and probably wasn’t the best time to start wondering just how many miners had died in this building.

The plan was to shoot some astrophotography over the buildings of the town but the wind hadn’t let up – if anything it had become slightly worse – and you didn’t have to make an attempt to realise that trying a 30 second exposure, let alone a 240 second one, would be utterly futile.


Day 7: Kolmanskop, Travel to Sossusvlei

I had been a bit annoyed at myself for messing up the morning shoot yesterday and Emil knew it. So despite today being a long travel day he had suggested the option of returning for another attempt. It meant getting a new permit (which was approximately £12) but it again highlights the benefits of small group travel: adaptability. Romeo hadn’t been interested in returning and so after driving me to Kolmanskop at 5AM Emil returned to pick up Romeo and take him out to Shark Island. To a degree the 2015 workshop is unusual in that there were only two guests but given that the maximum group size is seven and that is with two instructors I suspect that the same flexibility would be possible – perhaps even easier – on busier workshops.

The morning at Kolmanskop was great. It was eerie being the only person in the dark, dead town – the first person I saw being the guard when I returned to the main gate for 8AM. This being my second morning I had a better idea where the light would fall and so had a relaxing and enjoyable shoot. Some people like to return to the same location, some don’t, but at least we had the flexibility to decide.

Usually a composition for the sunrise, sunset can create its own effect…

Usually a composition for the sunrise, sunset can create its own effect…

After breakfast it was a 470 kilometre drive to Sesriem, right on the edge of the Namib Desert. It was a long dive on the crushed rock roads and we were keen to get the driving out of the way as quickly as possible so we made fewer stops, such as at another abandoned house and, at my request, the house by the rail track we had stopped at a couple of days ago.


The bulk of the day passed watching the landscape changing as the red sands of the Namib Desert slowly came into view and then alongside us. Along the way we made a few stops as details of the landscape captured our interest although the pounding sun and sparse shade made sure we didn’t hang around longer than necessary.

Despite Emil’s shirt mirroring the ridgeline of the mountains he still fails to completely blend into the background…

Despite Emil’s shirt mirroring the ridgeline of the mountains he still fails to completely blend into the background…

One of the reasons for keeping the drive north as short as possible was to arrive at Sesriem before the airfield closed for the day. One of the options of the workshop was to take an aerial flight over the Namib Desert. It is an additional cost but both Romeo and I were of the same opinion and wanted the longest possible flight that they offered, in this case 90 minutes. Luckily they had availability the next day so that was booked and, with still a couple of hours before sunset, we headed off to Sesriem Canyon.

Sesriem Canyon is nowhere near the grand scale of Fish River Canyon but its smaller scale makes compositions easier. We were also not limited to the top and took the path down to where long shadows were already forming which had the additional benefit of being conveniently out of the still intense sunlight. It was also the first point in the trip where we encountered other people, groups of them in fact, and so it involved a bit of timing to compose a shot and take it before the next group walked into frame.

The day ended with our arrival at our accommodation for the next three nights and what was likely the most impressive of the accommodation, the Sossus Dune Lodge. The point of the long journey north was to visit the iconic Deadvlei and Sossusvlei, often just collectively known as Sossusvlei. The vleis – vlei translates as marsh – lie inside the Namib Desert and inside the boundaries of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, a heavily protected area where access to the park is via a security gate. Nature’s Light had organised for us to stay at the only accommodation within the park boundaries  – the Sossus Dune Lodge – which after being there and experiencing Deadvlei in particular, I feel has to be a prerequisite for any photographer. The park gates open sunrise and close at sunset which, given the fact that both Deadvlei and Sossusvlei are next to each other approximately one hour’s drive into the park means that there’s no chance in capturing the first and last light of the day if you are not already within the park boundaries.

Given its status as the only accommodation within the national park it could have been a flea pit and we likely would not have cared but it the rooms were clean, spacious, had a fridge and an impressive panoramic view of the plains where Oryx grazed. Not that you’ll get a chance to see any of this: The 5AM lie-ins are over!

Some great accommodation. Shame I didn’t get a change to sleep much…

Some great accommodation. Shame I didn’t get a chance to sleep much…

Day 8: Namib Desert and Deadvlei

The structure of the next couple of days will vary as it depends upon whether you opt for the flight, when and if it is available, and where your interests lie. It would have been more difficult for us – although we were given the option – for one of us to visit Deadvlei whilst the other went to Sossusvlei, but with more guests there would be two guides making such a split easier.

If you do decided to take the flight you’ll likely be given the same options we were, helicopter or light aircraft, although you may be constrained by what is not already booked out at the time. With the helicopter you have to book the whole craft which sits three plus the pilot, but as there were three of us this was not a problem. Which you pick is a matter of choice (and availability) but upon Emil’s advice we opted for the helicopter, primarily as you can take the doors off and have an unrestricted view of the landscape below. But, bring something warm – the pre-dawn air may be warm at the airfield but by the time you get to the Atlantic coast at altitude flying in a craft with no doors, it will be very cold.

An optional extra but one you’ll love…

An optional extra but one you’ll love…

If you are thinking of taking the helicopter flight it is worth bearing a couple of things in mind. First, once airborne it is going to be cold and windy and space is restricted. You are not going to be changing lenses so plan ahead. Ideally you will have two cameras, one with a wide angle and one with a zoom of some kind, but if not you might want to consider what type of shots you are after before take-off.

Second is the vibration. Everything shakes, even you. I hadn’t considered this but Emil suggested minimum shutter speeds which I am glad I followed – a couple of times I tried a ‘creative’ shot but even at 1/500th there was evidence of shake – see the video below to see just how bad the vibration is.

Third is gaffer tape. Apparently the wind will happily pull the lens hood of the lens – which gives an idea as to how windy it will get – so we took the precaution of taping the hoods on.

Finally, if something falls out – other than a person I’m guessing – it is gone. Memory card, lens, camera – you’re not going to see it again. The pilot was telling us how many GoPro cameras have been lost on his flights alone. So, have a strap for your camera. I use the OP/Tech wrist straps as they’re comfortable and can be tightened or loosed as required. Maybe wrapping the shoulder strap around your wrist will work but that can be a hinderance as much as anything. It is also worth making sure that the batteries are charged and the memory cards are empty – you will likely end up taking several hundred shots.

After the safety induction (where the GPS and Sat Phone was, expected emergency response times etc.), we were off. I’ve never been in a helicopter before and am known to be none-too-keen on flying in general, but this was awesome! The video below (approximately three minutes) is split into three sections of around 60 seconds each: The take-off, approaching the sand dunes and a time-lapse showing the flight out to the Atlantic coast.


Because we had opted for the 90 minute flight the pilot had discussed with us our options for the route we wanted to take. We decided to fly out across the Namib Desert to the coast and back, passing over Deadvlei and Sossusvlei on the return trip. The route did give us a variety of landscapes to photograph including the slightly bizarre sight of sand dunes hidden in the mist of sea fog – something only possible with coastal deserts.

If you still need convincing, here’s a few images only possible if you take the flight.


Namib Coastline 1600px

Deadvlei from Above 1600px

Dunes from Above 1600px

Tree Shadows 1600px

We were back at the lodge for breakfast and as the next shoot was late afternoon we spent the day on lessons and another critique session but, despite my best efforts, I actually fell asleep during the lesson.

The workshop brochure makes a point of the lesson time and although at the time of booking I really wasn’t too bothered about the lessons having now sat through them I see just how useful they are – you only have to look at the astrophotography shots to realise that through the lessons I have learnt a new skill.

I’m guessing that, based on Romeo’s and my skill level, Emil’s aim was to teach us four Photoshop techniques: Focus stacking, exposure blending, star trail stitching and luminosity masks. It may not sound like a lot to learn but being increasingly sleep-deprived and in a hot desert really doesn’t qualify as the ideal learning environment – and Romeo’s first language was Croatian. So we struggled. We didn’t understand things, we forgot what step one was by the time we got to step five, we forgot simple command sequences and so on. We weren’t being dim-witted, but we were tired. And so will you be by day eight. So whilst I do think that the lesson structure could be improved (see the conclusion as to my thoughts on that) I think that the repetition of the lessons worked quite well. In a larger group there’ll be both advanced and novice Photoshop users, but in the past they have split the group and taught lessons to suit each group.

The afternoon shoot was the first trip out to Deadvlei – possibly my favourite location of the workshop. Despite the lodge being within the national park boundary, it is still an hour long drive surrounded by increasingly impressive sand dunes reaching 300 metres high. Along the way we had to make a stop to let air out of the tyres when the road surface turned from tarmac to sand, and even when we arrived at car park, we had not arrived at Deadvlei as there was a 20-30 minute hike across the sand dunes still ahead of us.

A fully loaded camera backpack and a pair of tripods is one way to keep fit in the desert…

A fully loaded camera backpack and a pair of tripods is one way to keep fit in the desert…

Hiking on desert sand is an experience, especially when carrying 12 kg of camera backpack and two tripods in temperatures over 30°C and even more so when it is uphill. At some point you may just wonder if it is worth it. It is.

By the time we arrived – with a good hour until sunset – most people had already left, presumably as they needed to get back to the park gates before they closed for the evening. Having Deadvlei to yourself is a great experience and aside from the obvious fact that less people meant that there was less chance of someone being in a composition, it just felt more personal.

Despite being within the park boundaries the lodge is required to ensure that its guests adhere to the same access times as other visitors and, although frustrating, the rules are there to not only ensure the safety of everyone concerned, but to ensure that Deadvlei and Sossusvlei are protected. That said, Nature’s Light have built up a relationship over the years with the lodge and so they understood that we were there for photography, with the implied level of trust and respect for the environment that goes with that. As such the lodge wasn’t absolute in how it enforced the access restrictions which lead the way to one of the more memorable experiences I have had on my travels: The night shoot at Deadvlei.


In the third and final part of the review we will cover Deadvlei and its sister Sossusvlei, finish the trip at Spitzkoppe and I’ll cover the concluding remarks.

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Deadvlei, Namibia

If I had to choose one location in Namibia that I enjoyed shooting more than the others it would be Deadvlei.

Once a marshland (vlei translates as marsh) the shifting sands of the desert isolated the area around 650 years ago. The intense desert sun baked the clay ground into a rock-solid block whilst the trees blackened as they slowly desiccated. What remains are the ancient skeletons of trees, self-made gravestones, surrounded by some of the highest sand dunes on the planet.

Despite being an hour’s drive from the nearest human population followed by a half hour walk across the dunes, Deadvlei is one of the most popular locations in Namibia. As such it does not take long after the first visitors arrive for the pristine sands, uniquely sculpted by the wind each night, to soon become a discordant jumble of footprints.

But we were lucky enough to be there for some night shoots – something not typically possible due to the national park gates closing at dusk and opening at dawn – and so we were the first people to see Deadvlei at the start of a new day. In fact if you look very closely at the photograph you’ll notice something odd about the foot prints: They are leaving the vlei. Despite the apparent silence we experienced from our arrival at 3AM the wind had quietly blown our footprints away leaving us a blank canvas when we departed at 7AM.

Dawn at Deadvlei

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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?


Posted in Frame by Frame, Process Also tagged , , , |