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Travel Blog

I’m often heading off on trips to different parts of Southern Africa and I plan to take my trips further afield in future. Here you can find trip reports of my adventures which should give you some insight into the amazing locations I have visited and photographed


January 14, 2014

In The Footsteps of Pierneef

Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, for those who don’t know, was South Africa’s greatest landscape artist. He passed away many decades ago and his paintings are highly prized possessions nowadays, fetching between R300k to R6mil at auction. The best ones have travelled the world into private, corporate and museum collections. He has a very recognizable style and his paintings almost always had a sky filled with billowing thunderclouds. I may be wrong, but Pine and Gum trees seemed to be his favorite subjects to paint. Of course painters have the liberty to create the perfect trees with stunted trunks and high canopies, which he did. The koppies of mountains also featured frequently in his work and most of it had a warm afternoon light mood to it.

From a young age I was always taught that ‘that’ painting on my grandmother’s wall is a lot more special than the others. My parents took me to the Graaff Reinet Pierneef museum where the old Johannesburg Train Station panels were kept (now in the Stellenbosch Rupert museum) and so my love affair with his work was initiated. As my journey into landscape photography evolved it was always fascinating to travel to the places featured in his most iconic paintings. I think it would be difficult to find the exact spots he stood as he could move certain elements in the landscape to favour the composition of his paintings.

This holiday I came across a landscape that might not have been one that he painted, but it was the most ‘Pierneef-ish’ scene I have come across. There was a row of pine and gum trees, a sandstone koppie and a massive thundercloud building behind the scene. As the shadows crept across the landscape I waited for the light to fall on the trees and I captured my attempt at a Pierneef.

Mckays Kop, Dordrecht, Eastern Cape Highlands, South Africa.

Taken with my now stolen D800 and 70-200mm.

Filed under: Travel Blog — Tags: , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 12:03 pm

November 4, 2013

Where to Post?

In light of recent happenings and opinions I’m hesitant about posting directly to Facebook. I’m the last person who worries about having highly compressed 900px 72dpi images stolen. It’s an issue of building my brand on a platform that I own and control. I know viewing images on Facebook is very convenient, but it doesn’t offer much outside of the Facebook universe to the poster. Another issue is that despite an endless onslaught of complaints about image compression, Facebook chooses to ignore the issue. The Internet is a rapidly changing place and Facebook will inevitably be replaced by something newer and better as it replaced Myspace. When that day comes I don’t want the majority of my following and brand to be on Facebook.

The disadvantage is that because it is more effort to post on my blogs (I will be posting to my own as well as CapturEarth) I won’t be posting as frequently. The advantage is that I will be more selective about what I post and I will share a lot more information about the image and what went into creating it. I will also still be posting on 500px and Deviantart as those sites respect photographer’s rights and don’t compress the images.

I am very interested to hear any opinions on the matter. Especially from the people who enjoy images in their news feed. I know it is a lot of effort to click through to a blog, but 100 views on one’s own site is worth more than 2000 views on Facebook.

The Last Ten Minutes of Light

The weather can make or break a landscape photo. It can also make or break a landscape photographer if it consistently delivers…or doesn’t.  Patagonia tested my patience and resolution like no other place. Not only because it has generally bad weather, but also because it is such an expensive destination to spend time at. The more you photograph a place, the better you understand its weather. The better you understand the weather in a place, the better you can make a call on where to be at a specific time to ensure that you get the best possible photo.

This was one of my last days at Torres del Paine and I had already been there for a week. I thought I made a good call going to the East of the park near the main gate for sunset. After about 30 minutes of shooting a herd of guanacos near the gate, I saw that I had made a mistake. The clouds were making amazing North-South stripes that I knew would make brilliant converging lines towards the peaks if viewed from the South of Lago Pehoe. I knew it would only last a while so I rushed back to the car for the 30-40 minute drive back to the Southern area of Lago Pehoe. As I got near the sun dipped into a gap and a strong burst of golden light broke out. As I knew I would, I arrived too late. While running to my spot on one of the peninsulas in the lake, I tripped and smashed my knee into a rock. My spirit was crushed, but I limped on to my spot and set up to capture the okay light that was still around.

This was the end of the amazing opportunity. While driving the stripes were much more pronounced and there was amazing golden light on the lake.

I was in too bad a mood to go back to the hotel so I sat by the lake enjoying the view as twilight approached. I just kept triggering the camera as it got darker and darker. The necessary exposure time very quickly lengthened and it wasn’t long before I was at ISO200 f/8 and well into the minutes. As the twilight blues came out I decided to do one last exposure of ten minutes. While waiting it out I snapped out of my depression over missing the shot and did what I need to do a lot more often. I just appreciated the fact that I could spend sunsets staring at one of the world’s most amazing landscapes. The ten minutes passed and the screen lit up with a little bit of magic. It wasn’t as good as the opportunity I missed, but it relieved the pain in my knee a bit and it motivated me again to do my best the next morning.

The Last Ten Minutes of Light

Nikon D800, 16-35mm, ISO200, f/8, 560 seconds, Lee 0.6 Soft Grad, Long Exposure Noise Reduction ON.

 

Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine NP, Chile, Patagonia

Filed under: Travel Blog — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 8:48 am

June 18, 2013

Patagonia 2 – Torres del Paine

 

I have to start by shaming myself over the fact that I didn’t do any hiking in Torres del Paine. Not the famous W or even the super easy hike to the base of the Torres. Shame on me! I made the mistake of not taking my own hiking gear and I was travelling with someone who wasn’t that keen on hiking. Next time I’ll do the W 3 times as punishment.

 

It would be foolish to try and say that either Torres del Paine or El Chalten has better scenery than the other. Both have a few unique features that distinguish them from each other, but both offer very much the same. I won’t string together a bunch of excessive adjectives to try and describe its beauty, just know that it’s damn beautiful.

Best hotel setting in the world?

Getting Around

 

This is where El Chalten takes the prize. Having a car is almost compulsory if you want to photograph TDP. Everything is simply too far apart to get around on your legs. It’s not impossible if you’re a fit walker, but you’ll end up spending half of your time walking around the park road. If you intend to be hiking most of the time then it isn’t much of a problem and there are also certain ways you can plan your trip to get around it if you’re not hiking. Either way you will spend a lot of time walking. At El Chalten you are never more than 500m from a grocery store or the starting points of the trails to Camp Poincenot and De Agostini. This makes it very easy to get by without a car. The other big problem is that the closest fuel station is in Puerto Natales, which is 120km away. Our car had a very small tank and we had to refill numerous times. The first time we needed fuel I drove to PN, the second time we wangled our way into buying fuel from the Explora hotel. The third time the groundskeeper from our hotel brought us from fuel from PN. $300 and a mechanic later we had learned that in Chile the word petrol/petrolio is the word they use for diesel. So if you’re going to TDP and you have your own car, make sure to take extra fuel with you. And if your car takes petrol/gasoline, in gods name don’t ask for petrol!

Lago Nordenskjold Mirador

 

Weather

 

Prior to the trip I had been doing a lot of research on the location’s weather and I was expecting a lot of wind, snow and rain. It was however my first trip to such a climate so I had no idea exactly what to expect. As we entered TDP for the first time, the mountains were covered in snow top to bottom (almost bottom) with a slight cap of low clouds. The upper skies were filled with the most amazing lenticular clouds I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t think much of it because Patagonia is notorious for its wind and lenticular clouds so apart from a few comp-scouting snaps I didn’t really shoot much that day. It was a pricey mistake as it never really snowed again and I never saw proper lenticular clouds again. Sadly you need to know what’s normal to appreciate what’s special. Contrary to all the warnings it wasn’t as windy or cold as I expected it to be. I spent two afternoons shooting in shorts and a t-shirt, but I also spent many mornings wearing 3 layers. There were more calm days of reflections in the lakes than there were windy days, but when the wind decides to blow it blows properly. Walking up a hill with the Magellan winds behind you is very pleasant. You just lift your feet and the wind does the rest! And don’t think for a second that you’re going to shoot near the water when that wind is blowing. My photo to lens wipe ratio on windy days was about 3:1 if I had to take a wild guess!

 

The amazing lenticular clouds of the first day

Accommodation

 

Accommodation in TDP is a complicated issue. Its one of the most beautiful places on earth and regardless of how much the hotels charge or how horrible their service is, they’ll still run at very high occupancy in peak times. So that’s exactly what they do. If I’m not mistaken there are 5/6 hotels in the park, but only two are situated on Lago Pehoe and facing the iconic mountains. So that’s ideally where you want to stay. I actually can’t check the prices on Tripadvisor because both are already fully booked for next year April. The one is in the $1000 per night region, which is unaffordable to Mortals. The other one is about $100 a night and a total rip-off for what you get. I’m not going to name and shame the hotel for the sake of diplomacy, but anyone who’s been there will know which hotel I’m talking about. What I know for sure is that I won’t stay there again. From a bit of snooping on Tripadvisor it seems as if Hotel Las Torres offers much better value.

 

What is there to shoot?

 

I’m happy to share some information, but my knowledge on the park is part of the return on my investment and I can’t give it all away for free. If you support my business in some way, then I’ll be happy to give you more information on a personal basis. There are a great variety of foregrounds spread throughout the park and they all have the mountains as a backdrop. It is sadly surprising how quickly the mountains lose their iconic profile when you’re not viewing it directly from the South. Iconic profile or not, those mountains are still an amazing backdrop to any photo.

 

  • Salto Grande Falls – Its not the actual falls that everyone shoots, but the rapids above the falls. There’s the classic shot that everyone has, but you can get some variation by getting much closer to the rapids. There are also brilliant opportunities in the bays above the falls.
  • Lago Pehoe – There are many great spots along the lakeshore and the various islands in it, but I can’t give all my knowledge away…go explore!
  • Lago Nordenskjold Mirador – As you drive between Lago Pehoe and the park gate, you pass a mirador (viewpoint) with a parking lot on the mountain’s side. The view from there is very photogenic and you can go down to the lake below you, which has some nice Beech trees along the shore.
  • Laguna Amarga – This lake just outside the park gate is a saline lake and has some pretty decent salt formations along it’s shore. The Torres del Paine are clearly visible in the background, albeit quite small.
  • Cascada Paine – If you drive out of the gate and take a left at the farm buildings and then keep going about 5 minutes you’ll get to a deep gorge with the Torres del Paine in the background. There are Beech trees along the gorge slopes that make for good foregrounds. This is also a great place for long shots of the Torres.
  • Lago Grey – If you drive to Lago Grey you’ll see there are small trails on your right just before you reach the parking lot. Walk through the forest and you’ll find a beautiful S-curve in the Rio Pingo with the mountains in the background and Beech trees along the river.

These are just the ones I shot, but there’s plenty I never got to. There’s the lake below the Torres, Glacier grey, forests and much much more. I made the mistake of only taking the drive around the Lago Grey on the 2nd last day. it has some brilliant panoramic scenery, open grassland and forests.

 

There is a great variety of potential shots all around Lago Pehoe

 

Patterns in the salt on the shore of Laguna Amarga

 

The Cascada Paine gorge with the Torres in the background

 

The much photographed rapids above Salto Grande

The Puma

 

Apparently you’re very lucky if you see a Puma, so I guess I was lucky!

 

I was shooting at Salto Grande the one morning and none of the daily tour groups had arrived yet and there was no one else around. I had my 14-24mm on and I was at the top of the rapids when I caught something in the corner of my eye. I turned to look and saw a Puma drinking from the river halfway down the little gorge through which the much-photographed rapids flow. I put my 70-200mm on as calmly as I could (not calm at all) and by the time the lens was on he was halfway up the gorge wall, I aimed and pressed and realized I was shooting in manual on ISO100, f/14 and bracketing was on. By the time I had the settings right he was over the edge. I chased after him and just got a shot of his bum and tail. While frantically showing Martin the shot I accidentally deleted the only evidence of my sighting (thank you Nikon for putting the delete and replay buttons next to each other!). The next morning there was a dead Guanaco about 300m from the Salto Grande turn-off. My knowledge on animals is abysmal, but the one guide confirmed it to be a Puma kill. If I had been in place for the classic Salto Grande shot with a cougar drinking from the river…BBC award here I come!

 

Om nom nom - the only 'proof' of my Puma sighting at Salto Grande

Next time…

 

What will I do differently if I go again? For starters I’ll definitely take my hiking gear with me and do the W and spend two nights at the camp below the Torres. I swear to all 7000 gods that I won’t stay at that cursed hotel again. The view simply isn’t worth the price; I’ll rather try the places at Lago Grey or Las Torres. I’ll have my Spanish-English app handy and most of all I’ll make sure I have a 2nd body next time so I can get that BBC winner!

 

Part 3 on El Chalten coming next Sunday.

The lake below the Lago Nordenskjold mirador

 

 

 

June 9, 2013

To Patagonia or not to Patagonia

I spent most of April in South America’s land of icy towers. It was partly just shooting for portfolio, partly scouting it for future workshops and partly ticking a place off my bucket list. Patagonia is five times more breathtaking than any photo shows it to be. Only after about 3 days could I look towards the Cuernos del Paine and not find my mind vacated by the grandeur of its icy black and gray towers. The palette of autumn colors you can see in a single Beech tree is more than in most countries’ entire flora. The twilight colors from Alpine glow to soft warm light lasts almost 2 hours in which the peaks are painted in a variety of intense pinks, oranges and reds.  The air is crisp and the rivers and lakes are unrealistically clear. Apart from the obviously amazing landscape, the human presence is minimal. When you drive between the towns you can drive for 100km and see absolutely nothing more than a few farmsteads. It gives me great comfort to visit such pristine locations and not see a booming population that you know will inevitably lead to its destruction.

Lago de los Tres

Patagonia’s location is its best asset. It is situated only a few hundred kilometers from the Antarctic Circle on a part of the South American mainland that is like a narrow peninsula in the frigid southern seas. Its weather is much like being in a refrigerated wind tunnel. Despite the luxurious hotels’ best attempts to lure the lazy, the majority of people I saw there were keen hikers and outdoors people.

It wasn’t all just perfect and breathtaking. Patagonia is a global tourism hotspot, yet it’s difficult to find someone that speaks English. I have to point a finger of stupidity at myself though as most of South America is Spanish, so I’ll go better prepared next time! Every single meal I had, whether it was in a hotel, restaurant or coffee shop was about twice the South African price and in many cases very dissapointing.  It has to be said though that Patagonia is extremely rural and fresh produce comes from very very far away. I’d like to see Gordon Ramsay visit a certain hotel in Torres del Paine…I think he’ll morph into a dragon and destroy it in a ball of fire. It may have one of the world’s best views, but when you’re paying $100 a night for an old bed, a shower with no pressure and hot water only certain times of the day it puts you off. Add another $20 for a disgraceful dinner and you have to look at the mountains 24/7 to stay in a good mood.. Luckily that was an exception. My hostel in El Chalten was 3 times better, 3 times cheaper and I could cook for myself.

Enough moaning, I wasn’t there for the food and the hotels and it was an overall amazing experience.

Where to start? After 14 hours of flying and a night in Buenos Aires I arrived at El Calafate International Airport for the first time. I was travelling with S.A nature photographer Martin Harvey and it was his 3rd visit to Patagonia. He had been there in February and November the previous two times and the weather had been horrible. We did a bit more research before this trip and it seemed that April is the time to go. It was 4 April and our departing flight back to BA left on the 28th, so we had 25 days, give or take a few hours. One night El Calafate, 10 nights Torres del Paine, 2 nights El Calafate, 10 nights El Chalten and one last night in El Calafate.

 

Lago Pehoe

Will I visit Patagonia again? Absolutely, I can’t wait to get back. Will I do the trip the same? Absolutely not, it cost me $5500 for 25 nights with a twin room and a rental car split between two people. I’m confident I can do the next trip for half the price with a few slight compromises. It was an amazing experience and there’s a lot I could have done better, but I still walked away with some fantastic photos. I’ll share all the dos, the don’ts, the horrible mistakes and the highlights in a 4-part blog. Part two coming next Sunday.

Along the shoreline of Lago Nordenskjold

 

 

 

 

June 3, 2013

Fires and Unicorns

This topic has been discussed, debated and ranted over to the ends of the earth for many years now. The usual conclusion of the arguments are that everyone can be as creative as they want to because its art. This conclusion is a very naïve one normally used as the diplomatic water on a wildfire.  I also think that it’s the defense of people guilty of the crime. Not all people have equal responsibility to ‘behave’ in this discipline, but many who do abuse their position. They fuel a fire that is slowly burning the standards of this passion that so many people share.

 

It has become especially obvious since the great peoples of the Internet all migrated to Facebook as a primary platform for sharing their images. If you look back 3-4 years everyone was split up between a variety of photo and nature sites. Some were on Flickr, some on Fredmiranda, a bunch and myself originate from Deviantart and the list goes on. Most will agree that those sites aren’t near what they used to be in their glory days. Like struggling farmers in the countryside we have all fled our communities for the instant mega-feed of Facebook. We want to see everything by everyone and we want to see it NOW. There were and still are the few who resist change and cling to the last pulse of their once flourishing forums. Sadly, as we all know the only constant in life is change. This great trek has allowed us to see, share and connect so much more, but it has turned a number of small fires into a larger one. The few people who try to extinguish it just get burned and labeled as sour cynics. I used to fight it, but being dependent on my reputation as a friendly photographer has tied my tongue in diplomacy. I can’t criticize a single person, but I can certainly raise my opinion at a general trend. Which I will now do.

 

If there were a single reason I would want to not be a professional photographer then it would be to untie myself from this silent diplomacy. I would sit behind my computer all day and rip into the horde of Photoshop addicts that punch-up, paint, saturate, composite and HDR with no shame.

 

I recently saw an image of a North American landscape with satisfying composition taken in good light. It was however processed to a point that I actually couldn’t imagine how he had gotten the grungy blue tones he had in the sky. This person was in my opinion talented in ruining images. So talented that he stuffed it up in a way that I didn’t think is possible or that anyone can replicate. Well done to you. If I were to criticize him then everyone would jump in and say: ‘leave him be it’s his art and passion!’ or ‘you’re just jealous he has more likes than you!’

 

Now at this point in a person-to-person argument I would just walk away and go get some coffee.  Well actually I don’t get involved in such arguments because I have to walk away for the sake of diplomacy. What I actually want to say is NO, B*LLSH*T!

 

This person who shall remain nameless has over ten thousand followers on Facebook and easily gets 500-1000 likes on an image. This puts him in a position of leadership and advocacy whether he chose to be there or not. He’s obviously doing something right despite the fact that all his photos look like 80’s unicorn paintings. And you can be damn sure people in that position like the attention, who wouldn’t??  There are countless young aspiring nature photographers that worship his work and if people in his positions don’t appreciate and assume responsibility for the position they have gained then they fuel the Photoshop fire and make the unicorns breed.

 

Photography is an ungoverned industry because badly processed images can at most just harm the taste of some good and disciplined photographers. Lets compare it to sport; if an upcoming athlete were taking steroids in order to perform better than nature intended him to and he is criticized, would you also say ‘leave him be, it’s his sport and body?’ You certainly wouldn’t, because he’s setting a bad example and role models have a responsibility to their followers and trade. That person’s performance is a lie and insult to his fans and competitors. This comparison can be made to any industry and I look at greatly followed photographers who process with such remiss in the same disgust that the world looked onto Lance Armstrong recently.

 

Of course certain lines have to be drawn, I can’t make an absolute statement that everyone is the devil and sound like a self-praising bigot. We all start somewhere and while we’re learning the ropes on composition and golden light we tend to go too far in Photoshop in aspiration of our role models’ iconic photographs.  Go look 5 years back on my Deviantart profile and you’ll find the very thing I’m criticizing! In fact, let me do it for you; see below. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s how I got good at processing photos. You have to experiment with the various techniques at your disposal for controlling and enhancing an image. When you’ve learned the ropes in the various disciplines then you need to take the responsibility to go back to your unicorn paintings and retouch them naturally. Perhaps the biggest mistake people make is that they’re too lazy to put in the effort to get the golden light and then they try to simulate the effect with post-processing.

Blasphemy! In retrospect I'll call it 'Land of the Unicorns'

Again I have to set another parameter within this ‘guideline’ and that is that the average hobbyist can be as creative as they want to be. Don’t expect compliment from the likes of me though! When the average hobbyist starts doing things right and producing good photographs, then I say that it becomes his/her responsibility to convey a truthful representation of the natural scenes they witness and try to capture. Perhaps not if a few of your friends think your photos are good, but when you accumulate thousands of followers you are placed in the public eye and you have to behave. If you say you don’t care then you can become the Paris Hilton of photography and be as eccentric and artistic as you want to be. By the time you’ve gotten there most people have probably stopped wasting their critique on you and likely only something drastic can awake you from the self-satisfied glitter of your unicorn paintings.

 

Everyone hates being lied to. Now there’s an absolute statement, not my opinion. When people choose to composite a better sky in, shift the sky down, clone in a larger moon, paint the whole sky pink using a brush etc. without admitting it then they are lying. You may think that you get away with it, but remember that it’s your peers who will see it and lose their respect for you. If you live, breath and eat nature photography then you know how large the moon should be in relation to its surroundings. You know what the gradient of the sky should look like and you know if the light on the grass doesn’t match the color in the sky. I find it insulting when people composite and write some caption that purveys the scene to have been reality. Photography is visual communication and you’re lying to people’s faces when you do.

 

Now that is my harsh opinion and I will stand by it.

 

I have done many composites in my life for stock, but those images are sold as backgrounds across all industries and I would never post it as my personal work on my website. It goes to a market removed from circles of photographers and they are tagged as composites.

 

Let me stop ranting and get to a conclusion!

 

It is every followed and appreciated photographer’s responsibility to communicate a visual story that is sincere and genuine. When your photograph inspires someone to visit one of earth’s great treasures then they should recognize the scene and appreciate your ability to have captured it so beautifully. They must not walk away with a sudden impression of dishonesty in the story your photos tell.

 

What nature photography needs is a green/organic trend. The people with the power need to preach against the over-use of Photoshop. They need to pay tribute to naturally processed photography. The problem with sharing on the mighty and super-consolidated Facebook is that people confuse their own personality with their photography and they tend to take personal offense when people criticize their photos. If more people can separate their ego from their photography and take honest critique then that trend might just happen. If more people can take honest critique then more people will give it. If by some miracle such a movement happens then we might just leave the generations to come with a realistic representation of what earth used to be. As sad as that truth is, most of our beautiful places will likely be destroyed within a 100 years. It probably also rings true that humans ‘progress’ to the negative in benefit of modern comfort will reflect in photography. Creating that intense orange in Photoshop by comping or saturation is more comfortable than shooting that windy landscape ten times. If my rant can change 5 people’s thoughts and get them to process more naturally then I deem it worthwhile, but I don’t have much faith in humans to conserve what’s good and natural. Especially living on a continent forecast to grow by at least another billion people in the next 37 years.

 

Personally I find my own work over processed, but if it weren’t then I wouldn’t make it in this industry. I wish I could list here a group of names that show what not to do, but good old diplomacy stands in my way. I can however list a few names of photographers I respect for processing naturally. Have a look and learn from them to unlearn what you’ve ‘learned’ from the unicorn painters. Fight the fire. Dish out critique and think 5 times before lashing back at critique coming your way.

 

 

Ian Plant

Nate Zeman 

Alex Nail

Tobias Richter

I’ll leave you with one naturally processed image from Torres Del Paine

Lago Nordenskjold, Torres Del Paine NP, Chile

 

 

 

Filed under: Travel Blog — Hougaard Malan @ 12:20 pm

August 9, 2012

In Search of South Africa’s Eden

While I was building up my portfolio as an aspiring landscape photographer, I spent a lot of time admiring the work of certain American photographers. There was that one ecology in their portfolios that I had never seen in South Africa. Not with my eyes, in print or on the Internet. It was an element of nature that had a great attraction to me and I craved to experience and capture it. Rain Forest. Utopias of towering hardwood trees covered in moss that rise from a carpet of ferns and undergrowth. Branches draped in lichen and populated with Epiphytes like small villages living in the air, hanging above a network of bubbling mountain streams. Flora thriving at it’s full potential with unlimited resources and doing so as it has for thousands of years without the interference of man.

 

Unfortunately for me, South Africa doesn’t really have much temperate rainforest. If you say Forests to a South African, the first word that pops into their head is Knysna. That is about the average South African’s knowledge on where to find an indigenous forest. Apart from such common knowledge, even in many scientific articles on forests in South Africa, there is no mention of the place where I eventually found my Eden. Up until writing this I was also in belief of the common statistic that the European colonists destroyed more than 95% of the forests that existed prior to 1652. One article with a lot of substantiating facts tells a very different story, but I’m not writing about what used to be…this is about my quest for what still is.

The best shot I got from many vists to the Knysna forests

So where do you start if you’re looking for forests in South Africa? My starting point was my wise old father, who has a great knowledge of botany in South Africa. Unluckily there’s a very big gap between what the average person calls a beautiful forest and a photographer’s understanding of what will produce the shot he/she is looking for. While we (me and the old man) have made great progress at bridging that gap, he just gave me the typical Knysna answer and also said there’s great forests along the wild coast. Then it was on to the Internet and books, which also just yielded Knysna. After hearing that place’s name so many times, I was so irritated I didn’t even want to go check out the most obvious place!

 

I was on a trip in Mpumalanga in 2008 when my father randomly told me that a colleague of his lived in an old forestry station near Tzaneen. This colleague knew the area’s forests well and they had talked about these lush forests with thousands of Clivia as my father’s hobby was cultivating the flowers. Since Knysna had been drilled into my head and I had never heard of any forests near Tzaneen, I brushed off the suggestion and forgot about it.

 

Over the following three years I visited both the Knysna and Wild Coast forests and in both I wandered off the path and into the odd gorge/valley in search of proper green…without success. Even here at home I properly explored the valleys of Jonkershoek with some reward. I discovered the lesser known Tweede Waterval gorge. A narrow twisting tunnel that leads to a waterfall concealed by two large cascades. I found a few other worthwhile streams and forested valleys high up the slopes of the Jonkershoek Mountains, but they all lacked that magical green.

Second Waterfall Gorge in Jonkershoek

I might not have explored 2% of the forested valleys in the country, but I did do a fair amount of research and I did explore the results that my research yielded. Short of becoming a bushman and going to live in the Knysna forests for a year, I gave up on my search and added Oregon/Washington’s Colombia River Gorge to an already lengthy bucket list.

 

Then late in 2011, thanks to the source of all procrastination; Facebook, I had a breakthrough. One of my Facebook friends from the photographic industry had gone on a hike in Limpopo…near Tzaneen. As much as any other South African, he had not expected serious photographic potential and he only took a point and shoot camera along. He posted some photos from the hike and those snaps taken with a point and shoot revealed a secret I had stubbornly ignored 4 years ago. The photos showed typical Afromontane forest, but the elements that were missing in all the other locations were there. Thick green undergrowth, lichen hanging from tree branches, moss covered trunks, all enveloped in thick mist. I immediately contacted him to find out where it was and made it a top priority to get there.

magoebaskloof villiers steyn

One of Villiers Steyn's images from his hike that caught my attention. Click on the imageto go to his site.

Late in May this year I was finally on my way to Limpopo after a very dusty week at Khubu Island. I had done some research on the area prior to leaving the Cape two weeks earlier, but I had 7-10 days there so I had a lot of time to explore the area.

 

Someone had told me that there’s a very scenic 4×4 route through the forests and on my first morning I took a slow drive up the mentioned kloof. I saw the well-known Debengeni Falls and witnessed patchy bits of that magical green I was looking for along the drive. The end of the road brought me atop the escarpment again and I decided to explore the maze of forestry roads. The amount of turns, road forks and times that the scenery changes from plantation to forest are impossible to keep track of.

Magoebaskloof's Debengeni Falls

Somehow (after about two hours of driving) I found myself entering a section of forest with a sign stating that it is a protected indigenous forest, so I was hoping that it would be a large section. Up until that point I had only been going through patchy areas of forest left between the unsightly pine and eucalyptus aliens. Past the sign the light quickly faded as the forest wrapped around the road like a shrinking tunnel. The road descended a Northern slope and as it did I entered the mist that was hanging below the escarpment. The photographer in me got excited as I started seeing potential photographs of trees and lichen disappearing in the mist, but just as my hopes started climbing I saw (ironically) the light at the end of tunnel – plantation.  My heart sank, but my eye caught a slightly overgrown road cutting away downwards into a similar dark tunnel. I followed this road and the exact same thing happened. Just before the forest turned to plantation, a road would lead off downwards into the forest again. With each of these turns, the road became more overgrown and full of spider webs. Signs that few people ever get there. I wanted to stop and shoot, but I kept telling myself I have plenty of time and that the first day is a reccy. See the whole area and shoot it systematically as the weather dictates. The ever-downward sloping road suddenly leveled out and what I had been in pursuit of for almost 5 years unfolded before my eyes. Whatever the culmination of geographic circumstances created on that small plateau on the escarpment, it created the superfluous green I wanted.

Looking up a small valley stream

I pulled off the road where I could, got my gear and popped the polarizer on the lens to capture those amazing greens. The mist limited visibility to about 25 meters, so apart from that 25 meters in front of me I never really knew where I was headed. The main problem was that the forest was too dense. There were no open spots to take a photo and the going was slow. Every 2nd tree was bursting with a ‘colony’ of Clivia, many of which had ‘trunks’ that revealed them to be decades old. They were flourishing better than the most coddled prize winning plants, but without any of the fertilizers, special soils or hours of weekly attention that the breeders give them. Seeing these plants that I was so familiar with in the wild, instead of in a pot or in a garden was a revelation. The stopping and staring wasn’t helping my progress of finding the perfect photo, but If there was ever a time to pause and appreciate nature, this was it.

Clivia perched atop a tree in the forests

After about 30 minutes in, the slope descended slightly before leveling off. Once again, I don’t quite know what the circumstances were, but I got lucky. I had found the ideal spot. The forest looked like the interior of a building, with walls of trees leading into open chambers of lush fern undergrowth. There was the odd dead tree strewn about, covered in moss and smaller ferns. Now I had found exactly what I was looking for. Little light penetrated the mist and forest canopy…even at f/8 and ISO200 my exposure time was over a second. The wind was blowing quite strongly, but every few minutes it would die down as if catching its breath and then I had to capture the moment. When the wind slowly picked up again, it swept the mist away and the entire forest appeared out of the cold white. In an instant a gust would blow it back through the forest like an approaching wall of disguise, concealing the secrets of the woodland. For what seemed like an eternity, I forgot about my camera. I just stood frozen by the contentment of what I had finally found. Watching that mist sweeping in and out of the trees was an experience rivaled only by the view from atop the amphitheater wall.

Foliage blurred by the wind sweeping banks of mist through the forest

After about 3 hours of crawling and climbing through the vegetation, the mist lifted and I headed back to my car.

 

Over the next few days I identified a few more spots that might produce the same circumstances and two of them paid off. Even after driving as close as possible to the potential places, getting into the heart of the forest on foot wasn’t easy. It usually required the descent or ascent of very steep slopes. ‘Wading’ through 1.5m-high undergrowth and trying not to imagine what could be hiding below it. At the time of writing this (10 weeks later) I still have bite marks on my legs from whatever lived in those forests. After my adventures I got the flu, which then turned out to be tick fever. After a blood test it was confirmed as tick fever AND malaria, caught before it started doing damage luckily.

Two ancient trees rising into the mist side by side

I finally achieved my goal to photograph a properly green indigenous forest. The fact that I couldn’t find one probably escalated my need to do so and drove me 2000km away from home to go look for it. Without deliberately doing so I  ‘discovered’ (within the photographic community at least) a prime photographic ecology that most people thought didn’t exist in South Africa. It took five years, over 10000km of travels and contracting Malaria, but that has made me appreciate it ten times more than I would have.

 

For the sake of conservation the exact location of these forests will remain with me, but there are clues within the article that can get a reader close enough. From there you will have to get lost on the forestry roads as I did and go crawling through the forests to see what I did. To those who rejoice in the surrounds of untouched, thriving nature, it will be worth it. To those who lack the respect to conserve the few patches of pristine forest in our country, it will hopefully forever remain out of sight.

Magoebaskloof Moss Trees

Tree trunks covered in lichen

You can view more images in my Magoebaskloof Gallery on my website. Bookings and details for a workshop to Blyde River Canyon, Mariepskop and Magoebaskloof will be available on Sunday.

 

April 9, 2012

After the Rain: Preview of Namibia 2012

Going into Namibia this year, I knew not to expect a repeat of last year’s amazing rain and skies. It was a freak year in which most of the country got three to four times its annual rainfall. Each day ended with near black thunderstorm skies turning to flaming reds and giving way to endless displays of lightning. The photographic opportunities were indescribable and over a total of about 3 weeks spent there on two trips I got some of my best work yet. I knew I had been spoiled and that I needed to tone down my expectations, but some small hope in me obviously wished for those dark skies again.

Spitzkoppe under a stormy afternoon sky

My first destination was the famous Spitzkoppe mountains, a spine of granite mountain peaks protruding from a plateau like a set of jagged teeth. It’s one of the most iconic landscapes in Namibia and I had 6 nights to try and do it some photographic justice. The weather forecast looked good: rain showers most afternoons. After arriving and setting up camp I spent the most of the first day just exploring the location for potential compositions. Photos of Spitzkoppe are very common in all tourism related media of Namibia and I thought I had seen most angles of the place. Upon some exploration I was surprised at the vast amount of possible foregrounds and compositions dotted around the main mountains. Iconic arch apart, there were so many rock pools, rock patterns, grass fields, trees, boulders etc. that I was very confused about where to start.

Interesting play of light and shadow created as the last sunlight fades from the lower part of the arch

I decided to kick off with the iconic arch shots, and then move on to something more unique. After 4 days I had gotten a satisfying amount of material of the location and while I never got a proper storm at sunset, I certainly couldn’t complain about the light I had. For a first visit to the place I was very happy and I decided to head to the coast for a well-deserved break from climbing up and down granite ‘hills’. I had four days to kill before the C4 workshop kicked off in the Rand and I thought I’d make a decision on where to go over a cold drink and the sound of the waves in Henties Bay. While there I made the decision that while I don’t really want typical photos of Sossus- and Deadvlei, for business reasons it was a necessity in my portfolio.

Cliche Deadvlei

I spent three days at Sesriem, but I still don’t have any stories of revelation or inspiration about the place. I had one good sunset and one good sunrise so I got the shots I wanted. I already knew all the typical wide angle compositions at Deadvlei so it was simply a matter of moving the tripod around and getting the shots. The one morning we arrived to find a British group of about 15 photographers already shooting. ‘We’ were another 4, and as the sun climbed I think about another 10 arrived. There were more tripods than trees and it was impossible to get a shot without someone in it. Luckily the skies were cloudless so I had a nap on the side of the pan while the masses bustled about in each other’s compositions. It’s a place that still fails to touch me, or maybe I fail to connect with it??

The mist cleared for a few minutes, allowing soft light through slatted ceilings

 

The next 7 days followed with the C4 workshop of which 4 days were on the farm Excelsior in the Namib Rand and 3 days were at Sossusvlei. The weather was good and we had very flexible hours at Sossusvlei which allowed our clients to get some great photos. The strenuous hours and long walks were a bit of a shock to some of the clients, but they quickly adapted to the desert! We had a good rest on the last morning and spent the last night well into darkness shooting stars in deadvlei. The group tried a few static milky way shots with light painted trees and ended things with a 32 minute star trail exposure that came out brilliant. I ached to get the night sky photos myself, but I’ll return at a later stage to attempt something unique.

Ghost rain lights up in flaming sunset light

After the workshop, I and a client traveled on to the ghost town of Kolmanskop, a location that was a complete block to me last year. It was a bucket list location for Jill and I think her ambition to get great shots influenced me to give it another proper try after failing so miserably last year. I studied a few images of Kolmanskop in the run-up to my trip and learnt quite a few things from them. Armed with this new knowledge, me and Jill were psyched to shoot the iconic ghost town. On both mornings conditions were very misty which not only cast beautiful soft light into the buildings, but kept things pleasantly cool. Without really noticing it, we shot nonstop for 5 hours on the first morning and the second morning went similar. After those two days we were both very satisfied with our results and it was time to carry on to Fish River Canyon.

Rain falls over the Nubib mountains beyond the plains of Dina

The Fish River Lodge is definitely my favorite lodge in Namibia. Everything from the location to the service to the architecture is astounding and I often end up just relaxing more than shooting. As with the rest of the trip, the weather wasn’t amazing, but it certainly wasn’t bad. I got some new photos to go home with. The potential of the place is however much greater than I’ve ever seen in any photo, but you need a pretty rare synchronization of weather elements to get killer light over the canyon at the right time.

15 degree winter weather at Luderitz was a welcome relief from 40+ degree days at Sossusvlei

It was a successful three weeks, but I’d be lying if I said it was as special as last year. Most places were definitely easier to shoot after having been there before, but then they were also less exciting. I can’t wait to get back next year and experience the place again. The magic of Namibia never fails to refresh the mind and satisfy one’s craving for excellent photography. Even when I say that it wasn’t as special, you can see from the photos that it was still an absolute feast of top class photographic opportunities…and this is about 1/5th of the work I’ve deemed worthy of being processed to go into my portfolio.

Excelsior's chocolate mountain below a dramatic afternoon sky

2013 workshops

Bookings will open in the coming weeks and there will be a slight variation on last year. The one workshop will be 4 days Namib Rand, 2 days Fish River Canyon, 2 days Sossusvlei and on the other date Fish River Canyon will be substituted for Kolmanskop/Luderitz. Both will be in March next year and the price will be roughly R20000-R25000 ($3000-$4000) with about 15 places available between the two. Watch this space!

 

Beautiful side lighting from a window brings out the ripples in the sand

Photograph Namibia Guides

 

These have both been removed from my blog. I am in the process of turning them into e-books which will be much more content rich and precise and available for purchase at a small price.

 

Afternoon sunlight on the Fish River Canyon

 

 

 

January 19, 2012

Download Link Fixed

Yesterday’s article had the wrong download link for the action, but I have fixed it. I apologize for the wasted 6kb of bandwidth an spamming my followers with another mail!

 

 

Download Link

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Travel Blog — Hougaard Malan @ 2:02 pm

July 26, 2011

New Site and Blog coming soon…

I think I owe all of my subscribers an apology for an absence of updates on my blog. The year got off to a very hectic start of travels, shooting and workshops, but things have calmed down now. I was of course shooting in that time and I have a ton of new images that will be released along with a completely redone website and blog on the 1st of October this year. The major problem I have with my current blog is the archiving and path system is difficult to navigate…this will be fixed.

I’m also working on a series of new articles for my blog that will help subscribers with all aspects of landscape photography. These will be accompanied by smaller ‘weekly tip’ articles with useful photoshop tricks and downloadable actions. The new blog and site is sure to blow you away, but until the 1st of October this is all I’ll be showing :)


January 13, 2011

Horse-Riding Sheep

My photography evolved and progressed from the opinion of viewers on the internet. Every single day I still have to try and analyze what viewers like in order to keep up with trends and satisfy the supporters that keep me progressing. It’s simply a case of produce-check response-interpret-apply. I’ve always had two major benchmarks for my photos, the one being the Deviantart community and the other the Outdoorphoto community.

Deviantart does have a few very good opinions, but the majority of the people there don’t know anything about photography. They like visual impact and that’s the a-z of their opinion on a photo. If DA likes something, then I know it will grab attention. Outdoorphoto has a similar crowd, but because it’s exclusively a photographic community the level of opinions and knowledge are a bit higher. There are still the ‘WOWers’ who just judge something on the immediate visual impact, but there are also the people who try to analyze all the elements of design and give well thought-through feedback. If ODP likes it, then I know it’s a good photo on more than just an immediate-visual-impact level. Sometimes I have photos that I think they will love…but then it  slips by unnoticed and simply disappears into the depths of their web-servers without much of a view or a favorite. Then I swallow my pride and liking of that image and also just allow it to disappear into my hard drives.

Such was the case with my trip to the Richtersveld in June of 2010. I flew to Pretoria where myself and Shem Compion hit the road for a 2 day drive to Quiver Tree Valley. I had only met him briefly once before and didn’t really know him, but on that road we were talking our hearts out about people’s ideas and perception of digital photography. How their photos are simply an attempt to master a cliche collection of images…like a collection of coins or stamps. The digital era created an immense flock of sheep that are all trying to imitate the ‘best’ guys. It’s no longer about capturing the emotion of a place or animal, but merely about who can get the technically-best bee eater or Kogelbay shot. He told me of a man named (I know nothing of avian photography) Eric Hosking, who had been capturing rare birds in flight with plate cameras since the 1930′s…then you’ve got to ask yourself: What the F do you think you’ve accomplished by capturing a bird in flight with the technology and easily accessible wildlife reserves of today? Get off your high horse that you call ego and go do something different, you horse-riding sheep. Same goes for landscape photography and in that moment I felt like one of the sheep we were discussing.

We got to the Richtersveld and I was inspired to do something different and break away from the internet crowds. I wanted to get one shot that translated the feeling of the place. Heat. Desolation. Beauty. Survival. Not something that just relied on blazing color, an ultra wide view or a dynamic composition to captivate the viewer, but something which really communicated the location to the viewer. Thanks to Mark Dumbleton I knew of an extraordinarily photogenic little Witgat tree atop a granite boulder. Mark had already gotten the nice composition to the North East and I obviously didn’t want ‘my shot’ of Quiver Tree Valley to be the same. After about 200 shots of that little tree throughout 2 sunrises and a sunset I had my shot that I thought would blow people away and make them experience the barren beauty of the Richtersveld.

I got home, gave it some contrast, some Marc Adamus style diffusion ‘glow’ and posted it to my benchmark communities. In my own confidence of it being a fantastic image I also sent it in for a few monthly magazine competitions. On outdoorphoto it got 6 comments which is pathetic. On Deviantart it got 473 favorites which is also pathetic. I wrote it off, confused and frustrated. I thought that with the inspiration from Shem I was getting to the next plateau in my photography where my images carried more of a message than just impact created by a wide angle lens and a red sunset, but my benchmarks had rejected it.

Then two months later I got a mail from the Getaway magazine saying that my image got into their monthly gallery and I thought cool, but coincidence. They often put some god-awful images in the monthly gallery. Another month later Country Life magazine mailed and said that my image was second in their monthly gallery…and I started regaining a bit of respect for that image that I had so much hope for upon returning from the Richtersveld. Over December it was purchased by 3 calendars publishers for 2012, more than any other image of mine. Two days ago the Weg/Go magazine had selected it for their ‘Africa at it’s Best’ back page in the magazine and I didn’t even enter it or send it to them at any point!

That same image that my benchmarks had shot down has now been published in 3 magazines and 3 calendars and thanks to all of that I’m now a little more confident in breaking away from the opinions of the masses and doing what MY opinion tells me. When you start taking photos to please other people you stagnate and smother the artist in you. It’s good to respect those opinions and use them, but don’t let them become your photography. As with everything in life, balance is the key :)

Learn from the internet masses, but remember that then your photography can only get as good as the sources from which you learned and at some point you’ll have to muster up some innovation. Are you one of those horse-riding sheep with a shiny collection of coins? If so, then does your website have a tagline that goes something like ‘highly regarded award winning photographer’? If you answered yes to both those questions then you need to reconsider your own perception of your photography because you’re photography is nothing but an attempted imitation of someone else’s. The sad truth is that those sheep will answer no to both questions and their horse will just grow.

Thanks Shem for some much needed inspiration on that trip.

Quiver Tree Valley

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