In March and April 2014, I co-led back-to-back workshops with Andy Biggs to the Namibia desert in Namibia, Africa. The goal of these safaris was to photograph the breathtaking desert landscapes of Namibia in a different way than Andy has offered on his Namibia trips in the past: in an overland fashion. These were overland photographic journeys, and we had complete flexibility to stop to take photographs at any time along the way. We wanted to put these trips together that had a good balance between flexibility, photographic opportunities and comfortable accommodations – And we did indeed stay in some very swish camps! This approach also enabled us to carry more than enough camera gear, so we were able to bring everything we needed. Personally this meant I was travelling with lenses as long as 600mm as I had travelled directly from Iceland in winter where I had been photographing Arctic Foxes at the conclusion of my annual winter workshop (You can read the Iceland Winter Report HERE).On the South Western Coast of Africa, where the icy Atlantic ocean meets the world’s oldest desert lies a place that is known for its landscapes as much as the Serengeti is known for its abundant wildlife. The unique combination of desert, grassland and cold ocean current form a one-of-a-kind terrain found only here. For this reason landscape photographers from all over the world journey to the Namibia Desert to try and capture its ethereal beauty.In this captivating region of Namibia lies a maze of mountainous valleys that look like they were carpeted from slope to slope by ivory coloured grass, criss-crossed by ancient riverbeds and dotted with a collection of photogenic acacia trees. The final unique touch is added by the large snake like dunes that rise from the grasslands like the roof of some subterranean world. These stark and compelling landscapes are something to behold with the human eye, but when it’s sweeping meadows, barren mountains and blood red dunes are captured and transformed into a two dimensional image, it becomes obvious why this place is so beautifully addictive to photographers.
We began our adventures in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. From here we travelled to the abandoned ghost town of Kolmonskop with a detour along the way to the Quiver tree forest at Keetmanshoop.
I admit to struggling with my photographs at the Quiver tree forest. As the first stop on our Namibia workshop my shutter finger was not yet up to speed with my artistic vision and as such I felt my images from this location were really just snaps and not worthy of publication. On the second workshop I had more success but still felt my photographs did not do the area justice. The location itself is interesting, but challenging to make sense of photographically. There is some good potential if you are willing to put the work in but its one of those locations that you mot definitely have to think outside of the box to get the best from. My feeling is that the best images from this location are more about intimate detail of tree bark than grand landscape and I have seen several successful images from participants that adopted this approach. I would have preferred to have overcast conditions at this location as I found the blue skies counter productive to my style of photography. Circumstances did not permit, but I also felt that this would have been a good location for night time star trail photography. This location did however serve as a good warm up, chance to loosen the shutter finger and to break up the drive between Windhoek and Kolmonskop.Kolmonskop has become an iconic Namibian location over the last decade or so and it was one of the locations I was really looking forward to visiting and photographing during these workshops. This abandoned diamond mining town offers limitless opportunities for photography and it was great fun to share this location with such passionate photographers on both workshops. One of the really beautiful things about Kolmonskop is its sheer size. With so many houses and so many rooms within those houses you rarely bump into other photographers and it very much feels like you have the place to yourself. We were fortunate during both workshops to experience strong winds which resulted in lots of sand and dust in the air to catch the light and make for dramatic images. I endeavoured to take advantage of this whenever I could as I felt Kolmonskop really needed these sort of atmospheric phenomena to help bring the images alive. The blowing sand made for tough working conditions but I really felt it added the missing element to complete the scene. I have seen images of Kolmonskop in fog and was hoping we might be lucky enough to experience this but it was not to be.
One of the fascinating things about Kolmonskop that appeals to photographers is the weathered and peeling paint, worn wallpaper and pastel colours found inside many of the stone houses. All of us found this subject matter fantastic for photography and we spent many hours exploring and photographing in and around the old buildings. We photographed at both sunrise and sunset at this location across multiple days and I quickly figured out which houses and rooms were better at a given time of day. By 10am there are shafts of hot light coming through many of the slats in the roofs that provides for pretty dramatic light and shadow. This is fairly typical of much of the photography one sees from Kolmonskop but I preferred and opted for the first and last light of day when the light was softer.Kolmonskop is one of those locations that all of us felt we could repeatedly return to and continue to make new and interesting images.After Kolmonskop we travelled to Sossusvlei where we photographed a sea of gigantic red and golden sand dunes along with the well known salt pan of Deadvlei with its ancient fossilised dead trees. Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are without question the big two locations for landscape photography in Namibia and in many ways were the highlight of these two workshops.
During our days in this area we chartered a small Robin helicopter during both workshops to take us up and over the dunes with the doors removed for both sunrise and sunset photography. This was in my opinion the real highlight of both workshops. An aerial view really helps give a sense of place, perspective and scale. The immensity of the dunes really cant be appreciated any other way and some really interesting photographs resulted from our helicopter flights. The helicopter is a recent addition to this area and it was extremely welcome. As nice as hot air balloons and light aircraft are for an aerial experience there is simply no substitute for a helicopter with the doors removed when it comes to aerial photography.
I personally found the journey out to the Skeleton Coast in the helicopter the most fruitful photographically. Near the coast the dunes turn a sinuous golden yellow and there are incredible patterns and textures which are wonderfully juxtaposed against the ocean waves.
One of the things I tried personally very hard to do whilst shooting at Sossusvlei was to really focus on the light and to avoid getting sucked into the postcard scene. As a result I tended to avoid the grand vista and focus on more intimate landscapes where the sand was blowing and was often back lit from the setting sun. My intention was to capture more of the feeling and emotion of the landscape in my images and as such I made quite a number of images with the 200-400mm zoom lens to really hone in on the areas that I found most interesting. I found from experience the most interesting images resulted when I hiked up into the dunes into the blowing sand. This if course was also the most difficult conditions to shoot in and resulted in all of my camera gear needing some professional cleaning on return to Australia.Personally, I found Deadvlei quite a challenging location to photograph. Although we were staying inside the park on both our workshops and were able to be on location before sunrise and before the tourists arrived there is only so many different interpretations you can do of the ancient and fossilised dead trees on the salt pan before it starts to become somewhat cliche to me. I opted to use large amounts of empty space in my images in this location to try and give an impression of the sheer vastness of the pan, the desolation and the wonderful texture in the cracked earth. The challenge at Deadvlei in my view is to create a photograph that is both iconic and unique. I admit I would just about give up my first born to have a sunrise at Deadvlei in fog but such an atmospheric phenomena in the desert is rare at best.
Andy and I had deliberately chosen April and May for our workshops as this is typically the best time of year for clouds at Sossusvlei. We did indeed have sporadic cloud cover for some of our time in this area and we even witnessed the rare collision of a sand storm and rain storm which resulted in some pretty spectacular light.After Sossusvlei and Deadvlei we journeyed further afield to the Wolvedans area and a location known as Drifters. This was a very subdued landscape in comparison to the mighty dunes of the desert and it offered an opportunity for more intimate landscapes in a relaxed environment. We also had several successful game drives in this location and many of the species sighted are in the attached Namibia species list. The Oryx in particular are an incredibly regal animal and we saw a great many in this area of Namibia.
In terms of gear failure I can report that across both workshops of twenty people the only gear failure was my own and it was the result of sheer carelessness. I inadvertently swung my still open camera backpack across my shoulders at the Quiver tree forest on day one of the workshop which promptly saw three lenses fly out of the bag at fatal velocity into three strategically positioned boulders. Net result – three smashed lenses on day one (Canon 17mm TSE, 24-70mm F2.8L MKII and 1.4 TC MKIII). This was a careless mistake I have not made before (and will not make again!). Thankfully my camera insurance covered it and I was able make do without the lenses for the rest of the trip.
At the conclusion of the second overland workshop Andy and I ran a short extension for several of the group with an emphasis on wildlife photography at Erongo and Etendeka. This was my first taste of big Africa game driving and I was not disappointed – in fact, the experience was thrilling. The highlight of this extension was coming across three lionesses right on sunset as they were setting off on their evening hunt. We also encountered many other birds and mammals including the Pygmy Falcon (the world’s smallest Falcon) and the Hartman’s Mountain Zebra.One of the most surprising elements of these two workshops for me was the sheer number of different species we encountered during our time in Namibia. I had not expected to see desert Lions, Elephants, Giraffe, African Wild Dogs and more. We even came across a Caped Cobra high in a tree raiding a Sociable Weaver nest. I spent a good hour photographing the Cobra as it went from chamber to chamber in search of prey. Finally, just after sunset the snake became exhausted and fell from the tree against the backdrop of a desert lightning storm. It was an incredible experience. You can download a complete list of species I personally sighted and confirmed during our time in Namibia.Camera equipment across these two workshops included everything from my own Canon system to Nikon, Hasselblad, Phase One (including technical camera systems from Alpa), Sony, Leica, Panasonic and just about every other major brand. This was the first chance I had to really play around with the Sony A7R and I have pretty mixed feelings about the viability of this camera in the field.
It is a testament to the quality of camera gear these days that there were no mechanical or electronic failures during these workshops. Namibia is one of the harshest environments I have encountered for photographic equipment. The blowing sand and dust is incredibly pervasive and it is a real trial to keep it out of cameras and lenses. I worked extensively with my 17mm and 24mm tilt shift lenses in Namibia and both required professional cleaning on return to Australia by CPS.The deserts of Namibia have been high on my list for photography over the last few years. They are an incredible place for both landscape and wildlife photography. Although I personally struggled with the sweltering temperatures (I am after all a Polar photographer at heart) I look forward to returning again in the future. Namibia offers the intrepid photographer many opportunities for producing really fabulous landscape and wildlife photography. To those of you who have asked if I will be leading a future trip to this part of the world the answer is unfortunately not in the foreseeable future. I simply have too many other commitments that I wish to see through in the Arctic and Antarctic. I will have more to say about these over the coming months.
You can see the full portfolio of my photography from Namibia at www.jholko.com