Friday, 28 November 2014

My Namibian Adventure! - 5 Nights in Sesriem

On the 3rd day after leaving our home in Irene near Pretoria we eventually arrived in Sesriem. We had just enough sunlight left to be able to pitch our tent and get the camp organized before the darkness.

    Above: Deadvlei about 60km from Sossusvlei...

The next morning we took it slow as we were still recovering from the long drive through Botswana and across Namibia. On top of that we also experienced the infamous 'South Easter' on our first night, it is a very strong wind that howled around our tent the whole night. The wind was so strong that I thought it was going to blow our tent over with the result that I had to get up numerous times throughout the night to check if the tent pegs, ropes and things were still in place.  The wind was so strong that it blew the fine desert sand right into our tent and every now and again and I got a face full of find sand as a bonus..the joys of camping! ( I have also been told that  under the 'right' conditions the South Easter can sandblast the paint off ones car! )
So we woke up later than usual had breakfast and eventually entering the park we had driven so far to reach. The Namib Naukluft National Park is one of the most spectacular places to photograph landscapes and I can strongly recommend it, not just for the photography but also for the whole experience of it...

The Campsite

We had booked a campsite at Sossus Oasis for 5 nights which would give us 4 full days in Sesriem. The Sossus Oasis campsite is just outside of the Namib Naukluft National park. The advantage of staying inside the park is that the gates open an hour earlier and close and hour later than for the people coming from outside of the Park. The extended opening times can have quite an impact on one's photography. Unfortunately we had booked too late and we had to make do with camping just outside the Park. Fortunately the Sossus Oasis the campsite and facilities were superb and it made up for the slight inconvenience of camping outside the park.

The actual famous Sossusvlei is about 60km from the Park entrance so the extra hour in the mornings and evenings will allow one to get there earlier and of course one would also be able to leave later. The problem is that in the high season the tourist companies block book the Parks campsite and unless one books well in advance its usually full...but driving past the campsite each morning we were dismayed to see all the empty campsites that were never utilized by the big tourist operators yet were unavailable for the individual like me...

Sunrise at at our Sossus Oasis campsite.

'Starry starry night'... The night sky is truly spectacular and we were in Sesriem when there was no moon, resulting in this image. I have never before made a photograph of the night sky, but with my Canon Eos 6d it was pretty easy...Manual exposure setting of F11 and 30sec at iso 16000 and viola! I chose f11 because I couldnt see anything through my viewfinder to focus on so I had to guess 'infinity'  focus. I stopped down a bit to f11 to ensure sharpness and sharp focus on my 17-40L zoomed to its widest. I always wondered when I would need a lens wider than 17mm and here I found a good reason! The sky is so wide and spectacular that I would go out and buy the EF14mm f2.8L just to be able to get the spectacular night sky all in!

Above: The staff of the Sossus Oasis and the other establishments in Sesriem played soccer every afternoon after work...from our campsite it was a but few yards to a ringside seat! 

The Namibia desert is at its best at sunrise and sunset so its a good idea to plan ahead and be at the gate before it opens, ( there is already a small queue at 6h30 ), so that one can be in the 'right' spot when the warm 'golden light' of sunrise appears over the horizon. Noon time is best to be resting back at the campsite because then the African light is flat and uninteresting...and here in Africa the golden hours of sunrise and sunset  comes and goes very very quickly.


On my previous trips to Namibia I wasn't all that successful photography wise.... I found it very difficult to capture the vast mostly empty desert and my lenses at the time was just to short to zoom in on the distant points of interest and isolate them. But this time I came prepared with a telephoto lens, the superb Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 L zoom!

 I intended to make many panoramic images because imo the desert lends itself to a more concentrated and detailed horizontal views. I didn't bring anything special with me for the panoramic images because I knew that most of my panoramic's would be made with the long end of the telephoto lens of distant scenes and that stitching images like that is fairly easy in Photoshop. Of course I also brought my tripod and tried to use it all the time even if it was a chore getting it out and setting it up and then afterwards folding it up again...but I knew that using the tripod would give me the best quality images and so I just tried to use it all the time.

When faced with distant and sparse landscapes like this it is quite difficult to photograph because there is often not any foreground elements to add interest and 'balance' to the images. What I did was look at this desolate and sparse landscape in a graphic way as shapes and lines. Choosing ones perspective is important and afterwards looking at the photographs I saw many instances where just a slight change of my point of view also changed the whole image. As always landscapes are 90% 'stopping & getting out of the car' and 10% 'creativity'. Here in Namibia its even more true...except that stopping is often not good enough, one has to hitch the tripod and camera over ones shoulder and start walking..... 

I don't really like the word 'creative', what I mean is choosing the best point of view to isolate and create some 'order' of what one sees through the lens. IMO that is not so much creativity  but rather a certain way of 'seeing' things, which takes a trained eye, the appropriate equipment, experience and a bit of luck.... 

To illustrate, I saw this dune (image below) in the distance and took my first photograph of it at 9h00. I shouldered my tripod and camera bag and started walking towards it, stopping every now and then to make a photograph. I kept on walking until I eventually reached the dune. Then I spend some time exploring the dune and surroundings, which of course look totally different up close than from a distance. Eventually by the time I got back to my car it was 11hoo. I had taken me two hours to photograph just one dune. The tree at the bottom of this dune held a nice surprise. My wife noticed that inside hidden by the leaves was a huge nest made out of sticks!

The two photographs above is a good illustration of how I approached my photography here. The tree looks like it was photographed from the same angle, but the background is totally different. Just a small change in viewpoint can have a dramatic effect. These two photographs are also good examples of the 'compressed perspective' one can achieve with telephoto lenses. In the vertical photograph it looks like the dune rises almost vertically behind the tree, but of course this is just an illusion achieved by walking away from the dune and then using the telephoto lens to 'pull back' the background. I made many many exposures of this dune walking stopping and zooming in and out to change the elements within the image. Just walking a few meters forward and backward, left and right changed the image completely!

Above: Just look at the sharp line of the dune where it meets the desert floor!

Dune 45

Dune 45 (below) is the most famous dune in the Namib National Park. People love to climb it and one can drive right up to the bottom of the dune, where ther eis a parking area.  The problem is that there are always people walking around and on the dune so it is covered in footprints. In my opinion It is a much better idea to photograph  the other dunes, of which there are so many, and where one is all alone, with nary a tourist in sight! The tourists avoid these dunes because there is some effort required to get there...

Dune 45 in the warm rays of the afternoon light....

The Two photographs above once again illustrate the effect that compressed perspective can have on a scene. Same tree but the bottom photograph was made closer to the dune and the lens zoomed out a bit to include the dune & sky behind and for the first photographed I walked further away from the dune and zoomed in to eliminate the sky and the dune behind. 

On our second morning we drove along admiring the landscape when we noticed three hot air balloons in the sky. If ever I go for a hot air balloon ride I think it will have be here as it must be truly spectacular to glide slowly and silently over the desert seeing the first rays of the morning sun creeping over the horizon. We got quite excited because it looke like so much fun and  for a moment or two seriously contemplated booking a spot for the next day, but sanity prevailed... it was just too expensive for the 45min flight  ( about R10000 or 1000 USD for the two of us ) ...but next time.... just maybe !


Another famous 'photography spot' in the Namib National Park is Deadvlei. In all my previous visits to Sesriem and the Namib Naukluft National Park I had never actually managed to get there. To reach it one must drive about 60km to the very end of the paved road where there is a parking lot.  From there one can take a taxi to Sossus Vlei, about R100 or 10USD,  From the parking lot at the end of the tar road, to Sossus vlei is only a few kilometers but it is a thick sandy stretch and unless one has the necessary skills, which I don't have, ' one can easily become stuck.From Sossusvlei it is about half an hours walk to Deadvlei over a couple of smallish sand dunes and dried up pans..

Deadvlei is a spectacular sight to see!.... I have seen countless photographs made here but it was truly an amazing sight to see for the first time! 

Once again I looked at it from a graphic point of view. The earlier one can get there the better because the 'crowds' only arrive later and one should really spend a few hours here here to capture the ever changing shadows and light. This is when staying inside the park is advantageous because it means one can get there much earlier than the crowds and also stay much later.... the only problem with Deadvlei is that the dune at the far end of Deadvlei, called 'big daddy' is popular to climb with the result that there are always people in the background and also footprints all over the dunes. But such is life...

I tried to create 'order' out of the shapes, textures, shadows and trees. I again mostly used my Canon 70-300L zoom and played around with the perspectives. Many of my desert landscapes include the sky but here the orange dunes filled up the background. It was a matter of juxtaposing the trees in front of the dunes trying to find pleasing shapes, putting them in order so to speak. I also made quite a few panoramic images because the whole place lends itself to long thin 'sliced' letterbox views. I only tried a few wide angle shots. 

The two images above are the only wide angle photographs I made at Deadvlei. 

The earlier one can get to Deadvlei the better because the 'maddening' crowds (or the 'evil hordes' I sometimes call them irritably when they just walk into my photograph...) only arrive later and one should spend quite some time there  to capture the ever changing  light and shadows. This is when staying inside the park is advantageous because it means one can get there much earlier than the masses of tourists and also stay much later when they hopefully have left. Another problem with Deadvlei is that one of the highest dunes in the park, called Big Daddy is at the back end of Deadvlei. Big Daddy is popular with climbers with the result that there are always people in the background and also footprints all over the dunes. But such is life...


I haven't processed many of my images of Sesriem as B&W but here is one of a tree that I had also photographed 10 years ago on my last visit. The branch in the foreground had fallen down since I photographed the tree back in 2004 on my 4x5 view camera. This time I used my 'digtal view camera' a vintage 2006  Mamiya ZD which I try and use for B&W only.  I find that If I designate a camera for B&W images only it helps me to 'see' the images better as B&W....!

Above...this is perhaps my favorite photograph made in Sesriem...

Soccer players, again...I just wanted to see what it would look like in B&W...


Each day as we drove into the park we saw Oryx. I just couldn't help myself and stopped every time to just look at and photograph these elegant animals juxtaposed against the desert backdrop of distant mountains, colourful dunes and endless grass plains..

Sesriem Canyon

We had a quick look at the canyon on our last day at Sesriem. I had left it for last because I had been there before and from what I could remember there wasn't much to see. We drove over to the canyon about an hour and a half before sunset...I was actually quite surprised at how beautiful the canyon was and regretted not being able to spend more time here....

Sesriem Canyon is quite small, but its easy to get down to the canyon floor and with the right light makes for interesting photos. The deep and narrow canyon walls also offer some respite from the relentless midday sun...thus a nice place to have a picnic lunch!

Panoramic images

Post Processing

My standard RAW converter is Lightroom 5. After processing the raw images I used mostly Nik 'Viveza'  ( and Topaz 'Adjust' & 'Detail3' )  to get my more than usually saturated and contrasty images. 

Normally I process my people and landscape photographs so that they look a bit washed out with desaturated colours. My usual type of photography of people and structures is more documentary and austere in nature. This journey was all about the Landscape.

With the dramatic Namibian landscape, red sand dunes and warm sunsets I tried for a more saturated and colourful look, I tried to make the images as 'pretty' as I could.  I am not sure if I have succeeded or if that was the best way to treat these images, and frankly I am not sure if I really even like these very colourful and saturated landscapes ...they are so far removed from what I usually do...BUT I could not help being in awe of the stark graphic beauty of this unusual desert landscape...maybe once in a while one should look at things differently and here I was looking for 'beauty' in the normal sense...Perhaps at a later stage I will come back to these images and process them differently...

Regards, Ivan

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