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September 20, 2014

A New Perspective

NOTE – This article was featured in the September edition of PIX magazine. Many parts were edited, which left other areas nonsensical. All the images weren’t featured alongside the right text and some of the images that the text refers too aren’t there at all. Please read my original version for things to make sense.

A New Perspective

I haven’t written anything meaningful in ages, because my travels and business are eating up the last few scraps of free time I still have. When I don’t put my thoughts out there and get constructive feedback, it gets stowed in the ‘thoughts and ideas’ closet. This closet is on the verge of exploding with potentially catastrophic consequences for my mental state. So before that happens, I need to get some of my thoughts out of the closet. I’ve mentioned a thing or two about my Namibian revelations with a longer lens, but I would like to elaborate on the subject.

Landscape photography and a wide-angle lens go together like gin and tonic. It allows the photographer to create immersive depth using relatively small areas of the landscape as a foreground. It converges the lines of land and sky to create a feeling of being pulled into the image by an unexplained force. It is very often the only way of capturing all the elements of the landscape: from the wave breaking over the rocks to the turquoise waters of the lake, on to the towering snow-capped peaks and up to the heavens above. Like the image above. When I started photography I got a 400D with the kit 18-55mm lens. I immediately had a liking for landscapes and it only took me a few weeks to come to the conclusion that I needed a wider lens. I was 19 at the time so money was a scarce resource. I joined shutterstock, saved every cent I had and sold everything from a playstation to an old fish tank to save up the $600 that a Sigma 10-20mm cost back then. I placed my order and sat by the door like an over-eager guard dog for three days, waiting for the courier to deliver my new pride and joy. When it arrived I might as well have thrown the 18-55mm away, because the wide lens stayed on my camera until both met their end about a year later.

 

Landscape photographers seem to have the same problem with a wide-angle lens as stereotypical old ladies have with gin and tonic – they abuse it a bit! If you go onto 500px or wherever you get your fix of landscape photos, you will notice that there are many photos consisting of an amazing middle and/or background, composed with a boring or detracting foreground. In the past few months I’ve seen far too many shots of mountain ridges in amazing cloud and light, as a backdrop to a rock. Not a rock with amazing lines that takes the viewer through the scene. Just another, boring rock that holds no contextual relevance to the rest of the scene. Like a hopeless vagrant who has given up on life and is sucking the well-being and affluence out of an ambitious society, that rock sucks the potential and life out of what could have been an amazing photo. So why would any photographer in their right mind choose to place Rufus the homeless rock below a background of inspirational light and land? The answer is simple: that photographer is addicted to a wide-angle lens. They’re mind is locked in ultra-wide mode and when the light performs they start scanning for immediate foregrounds. The photo of the year may lie within their composed shot, but it isn’t in a beginner’s frame of mind to get out the 24-70mm and subtract the crap rock right in front of them. Please don’t see this as hate speech against rocks as a foreground, I’m simply using a rock as my example of choice. All types of subjects can make crap foregrounds.

 

I make my derogatory metaphor as if I’ve never been guilty of creating such photos, but all lessons are learned with experience. I am of course 100% guilty of having composed horrible foregrounds to brilliant middle- and backgrounds. I have wasted precious light and opportunity with foregrounds that were simply never ‘created’ to be photographed. When this realization started to manifest in my creative mind, my financial mind decided it was time for a longer lens and so I started saving and selling again.

 

At the end of 2008 I got my first full frame and Canon’s 24-105mm and so the learning curve started. I was going through that phase where image quality was more important than clean drinking water or oxygen, so I soon got a 24-70mm for better IQ at my beloved new focal length. After about two years of exploring all corners of the 24-70mm universe, I found that in many situations I would zoom to 70mm and feel that I’m still shooting far too wide. I tested a D800e in October of 2012 and the next generation dynamic range combined with a 36mp sensor, made the choice to switch obvious. Many years of hard work lay behind me and for the first time I didn’t have to save and sell to purchase equipment. In my shopping bag was a D800, 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, lots of accessories AND a 70-200mm. So the next phase in my photography started.

 

I wasn’t very fond of the 70-200mm in 2013, but it really came to life over the 7 weeks I spent in Namibia this year. All of a sudden I could explore a lot of potential that I had seen previously, but was unable to reach with a 24-70mm. The main aspect of this is the scale of Namibia’s desert landscapes. A long lens just does a ten times better job of revealing how big things are. Unfortunately it is not as easy as just taking what you are familiar with and switching the wide-angle for a long lens. There were many new lessons to be learned and I found that many opportunities came and went in the blink of an eye as the light moved across the landscape.

 

The Dunes of Sossusvlei

The first and most obvious are the dune spines of the Tsauchab Dune valley, where even the 200mm often fell short. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, there’s something in the human psyche that bluntly refuses to believe that a heap of sand can be that high. Photograph it with a wide-angle lens and it looks like it might be 20 meters high. When the light is just right and you can find the right subject below the dune, the scale of these sand mountains just jumps out of the frame at 200mm. In the shot below they seem to almost climb to the clouds.

There are so many great shots at Sossusvlei, but if you’re thinking wide then you’ll never even see half of them. When the sun is relatively low, it creates a deep black shadow on the Eastern side of the dunes and a vibrant orange on the other side. If you choose the right trees and isolate them with a long lens, the result can be spectacular. I tried to photograph these dune spines with my 24-70mm in 2012 and the results were deleted from my archives without much hesitation.

Just How Big is Big Daddy?

Big Daddy is the dune at the Southern end of Deadvlei and it climbs to a mind-boggling 1000ft. Attempting to give scale to Big Daddy is a task that very few have succeeded at. It isn’t really possible to do it in a shot with one of the iconic trees, as one can’t get far enough from the trees and thus they will always look too large in relation to the dune. This doesn’t mean that one should opt for the wide lens in Deadvlei. If you look to the Southern corner right below Big Daddy, there is an amazing spectacle that unfolds on the right mornings. On hazy days, a giant beam of light shines in below the dark backdrop as the sun climbs in the East. On very windy days this light won’t be visible in the clear air, but if you watch closely as sand gets blown into this light you will witness something amazing.

The fittest and bravest of tourists visiting Sossusvlei climb to the peak of Big Daddy at sunrise. After enjoying the view, they run down and then walk back across the deceptively large Deadvlei pan. This finally presented me with an opportunity to show just how large Big Daddy is. It may not be the most interesting photo, especially not viewed so small on the Internet. It is however the only photo I’ve ever seen that does the scale of Big Daddy justice.

If you’re shooting these things with a wide-angle lens, you will end up with a load of useless shots. If you visit Namibia with a wide-angle state of mind, then you will miss all these opportunities.

The Dune Streets  

There’s a certain combination of elements that is just undoubtedly unique to the Namib Rand. The dune streets lined with grass, dotted with beautiful acacia trees, all against a mountainous backdrop. Its one of those landscapes that no matter how hard you try, you just fall short of capturing the grandeur and unique feel of the landscape. Turns out that my mistake was once again my choice of lens. I spent 11 days in the Namib Rand and over the course of my stay I got to know the landscape through the long lens. I had to learn how the elements combined at different times of the day. It wasn’t easy finding a functional combination of elements as the trees can often be too cluttered, but on the last day my efforts were rewarded. I have images of these dunes with double rainbows in the sky and these telephoto shots can’t compete with those wide-angle shots when it comes to internet popularity. I do however feel that the telephoto images do better justice to the feel of the landscape.

Kokerboomkloof/ Quiver Tree Valley

This narrow, deep and steep valley in the Richtersveld is an absolute treasure chest of photographic opportunity. While it’s undeniable highlight is the little tree on top of the rock hill, the valley is dotted with Quiver Trees that just beg to be photographed with a long lens. I didn’t realize it when I visited in 2010, because I had no experience with a long lens. Driving into the valley this year, I couldn’t wait to go exploring with the 70-200mm. The shot below was a momentary spot of luck. As I was walking around I saw that there was a slight shadow behind the Quiver Tree that would make it stand out against it’s backdrop. As I set up the shot I noticed that the shadow was gaining height rapidly and that the tree wouldn’t be in light much longer.  When the shadow was near the bottom of the tree I got my shot and about 15 seconds later the shot had disappeared. I would never even have noticed this opportunity if I were in a wide-angle state of mind.

I am by no means trying to convince you that you should burn your wide-angle lens. I am simply saying that it is very easy to get addicted to a wide lens and that when the time is right, you should give it some rest. My long lens is still the one I use the least, but if I didn’t take the time to familiarize myself with it then I would continue missing the amazing opportunities that if offers. If you’re headed to Namibia, make sure you have a 70-200mm in your bag!

July 22, 2014

Namibia Photo Tours 2015

There are a lot of very photogenic places on our planet, but a certain few stand head and shoulders above the rest. Areas where there are an abundance of remarkable and easily accessible photographic opportunities. Landscapes like Iceland, Patagonia and The Colombia River Gorge jump to mind. I’ve been lucky enough to have one such place within a day’s drive all my life; Namibia. My first two visits were when I was still in school and when photography played no role in my life. The first time I explored Namibia solely for photography was in 2010 and that was the first of many trips to come. In total, I’ve spent roughly 5 months photographing Namibia and I’m confident that I know Namibia’s photography hotspots better than most.

An Aerial view of Hidden Vlei

Having some of the world’s most unique and inhospitable terrain makes Namibia a bucket list destination for any tourist and especially so for photographers. It also boasts the title of the world’s 2nd most sparsely populated country, which explains why the average distance between towns is 200km. If there’s one thing that Namibia has no shortage of, it is pristine wilderness.

Namibia doesn’t get much rain, but when it does rain, it’s an amazing sight to behold. The Namib Desert’s rain comes in billowing thunderclouds from the mountains East of the red sands, mostly from February to May. In normal amounts, the clouds guarantee dramatic sunsets and fields of grass. In abnormally dry years, it can turn the desert into a barren hell. In abnormally wet years it turns the desert into a wetland and it brings fierce thunderstorms to the dunes. I was lucky enough to witness such a year in 2011. The three years since have been quite dry, so a wet year is bound to make a return soon.

Rain showers are illuminated in golden light over the mountains of the Namib Rand

The Photography

Namibia has great tourism infrastructure and all the destinations are very tourist-friendly, but thinking you can just pitch up and get great photographs everywhere is foolish. I have learnt from experience that each destination has its tricks of the trade for ensuring you get the shots. At some places you need to know which tree is the special one and at others you need to know which dune is worth climbing. At Sossusvlei you’ll watch sunrise from your car if you’re not staying in the right lodge and at Kolmanskop you need to know which rooms are right at what time of the day. When you only have two or three days at each location, you can’t afford to be in the wrong place at the right time or vice versa. When you attend a workshop with CapturEarth, we bring that experience to the table. We ensure that you stay at the right lodge, photograph the best subjects and that you’re set up and ready when the magic light comes.

Sunrise light falls into one of Kolmanskop's off-limit rooms.

Demand for our Namibia workshops have far outstripped the offer in the past year, so we’ve made sure to set aside enough time next year to meet the demand. I’m already guiding two other fully booked trips next year over and above the ones mentioned below.

CapturEarth will be hosting three photographic workshops in Namibia in 2015 and there are certain key differences between each. The following information should assist anyone considering one of these trips to select the product suited for them.

Tour #1

This workshop is in partnership with fellow landscape photographer Erez Marom. It will start in Windhoek on the 28th of February and end in Windhoek on the 11th of March. This trip is ideal for people flying in from overseas, who want as little responsibility and as much convenience as possible. The only thing you need to worry about is getting to and from Windhoek International Airport on the right days. Everything from park fees to transport in a luxury 24-seater bus is included. It also includes a one-hour helicopter flight over Sossusvlei for aerial photography. While in the Namib Rand, the other two tours go to the Greenfire Desert Lodge, which is a great location. This tour however, will visit Wolwedans. It is considered one of the best lodges in Namibia and has been featured in many best hotels in the world lists. This tour will be guided by Erez and Myself and we will be accepting 13 participants. There are only five single spots available, so if you don’t want to share I advise that you reserve your spot immediately. For pricing, dates and other information please visit this page.

Dawn light colours the skies over Quiver Tree Forest in blue

Tour #2

This workshop is in partnership with C4 Images & Safaris, whom I’ve worked with for years. It will start in Luderitz on the 11th of April and end at Sossusvlei on the 19th. This trip is ideal for people who can’t get away from home for too long and it is also more affordable than the other two tours for various reasons. It is ideally (but not specifically) aimed at people living in Southern Africa who own a 4×4 vehicle. All meals and park fees are included, but not transport.  There is no aerial photography included in the price, but it can be arranged as an optional extra. This trip will be guided by Paul Bruins and Isak Pretorius, who have both been to Namibia several times. We will be accepting up to 10 people on this workshop and there are only two single occupancies available. We have been doing this exact workshop for the past 3 years and we’ve gotten many return clients out of it, which speaks of its success. For pricing, dates and other information please visit this page.

The magical juxtaposition of a rainbow in the desert

Tour #3

This workshop will be guided only by myself and its aim is to be more exclusive than the other two tours by only allowing six participants. This tour will start on the 25th of April at Quiver Tree Forest and end 12 days later at Sossusvlei on the 5th of May. The key differences between workshop 1 and 3 are that this one is self-drive where as transport is included in workshop 1. This workshop has 2 more days of shooting, one at the Fish River Lodge and another in the Namib Rand. Another advantage of this workshop is that it will be noticeably cooler by the end of April. There are plenty of great car rental companies in Southern Africa and we’ll happily assist you in the administrative process of renting a 4×4. For pricing, dates and other information please visit this page.

Tour #1

Tour #2

Tour #3

Below is a simple comparison of the three tours listing what is included in the price. If you wait ages to book, you will find yourself on a long waiting list!If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to mail me at info[at]hougaardmalan[dot]com.

April 22, 2014

Lessons from the Desert

I always tell my ‘students’ that nothing is more important than putting yourself in a landscape and practicing as much as you can. Those words always hit home when I revisit a place that I thought I knew. After spending 7 weeks in Namibia (bringing my total time spent there to nearly 5 months) I would certainly like to consider myself wiser.

There were quite a few differences this time, but the most prominent was probably that I had two cameras instead of one and for the first time I had a long lens. People who own one camera will think of every imaginable excuse to get a second one…I can say this from experience. I finally justified buying second body to start shooting timelapse so that I could shoot stills AND TL when the light is great. The two bodies certainly fulfilled that requirement, but I also learned the pain of dragging 2 bodies, 4 lenses, 2 tripods and enough water around the desert. Having a second body was by no means revolutionary to my experience of Namibia, but a long lens was.

I have always been stubbornly addicted to wider lenses and ever since getting Nikon’s super-light and ultra-sharp 70-200mm f/4 I have been in love. This lens truly came to life in the Desert where so many landscape features lose scale through the 14mm. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Sossus- and Deadvlei. This location has never really spoken to me and prior to this year I had spent more time chilling than shooting in Namibia’s iconic sandy bowl full of petrified trees. Approaching it with a longer lens changed my view completely and I really enjoyed Deadvlei for the first time. Capturing the scale of the place is not an easy task, but I think I may have a shot or two that does it justice.

Below is just one little spoiler of my Namibia images from this year’s trip. There are many still to come and I think that my relationship with the desert has taken a few steps forward. I enjoyed Kolmans as much as Deadvlei, I had three opportunities over Sossus for Aerials, the light was at it’s best Spitzkoppe and I even ventured north to Etosha. I depart for the Wild Coast tomorrow and after that I’m taking a short breakaway to Magoebas. I’ll have the best of Namibia up on my site before the 10th of May!

Larger Resolution on 500px

Four of Deadvlei's most famous trees below a lip of sand blown into golden light by a gust of wind. D800e, 70-200mm f/4, Pano of two shots

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