Across South Africa

We’ve been out of Internet access for most of the week, so what I’d hoped would be a series of  blog postings has turned into one long update…

 Our early sessions and outings are a chance to get to know the group. Our workshop leader, teacher and advisor is photographer and Nikon guru and author Thom Hogan. Our local guide and driver is also an accomplished South African photographer, Lanz von Horsten.  The rest of us are dedicated amateurs – a couple of aerospace engineers, an independent filmmaker and one couple, both of them biomedical researchers. The woman of the couple is the only non-photographer, and the only female, in the group. A brave soul, but she’s holding her own. Two of the group were also in the Patagonia photo workshop I attended two years ago. We all seem compatible.

Sunday we drove out to Cape Point, or the Cape of Good Hope, the rocky coastline where ships start heading east more than south, but not where the Atlantic Ocean ends and the Indian Ocean begins, as some believe. (That’s some 90-100 miles to the east.) The park draws a lot of tourists, who either make the steep climb up to the lighthouse on foot or by a van. Fortunately we were there early to beat the crowds and did our ascents on foot, camera gear in our packs and tripods in hand, looking for potential photographs. This is a workshop, not just a tour, so we were challenged by Thom to think carefully about what was so attractive in the potential image that would make us want to stop, set up our tripods and take a photo. Then, having explained that in depth (no simple “I just like it” answers, please) we were asked to look at the potential “things” in the image and determine what should be included, what should be eliminated, etc. This inventory includes objects, colors, lines, anything that could make up an image.

My first thought was to photograph the cliffs and cove far below with a group of bushes in the foreground, using a wide angle lens to provide the feeling of depth, using a near object and a far object of interest. Wide angle lenses are best used (in landscape photography, anyway) to show depth, not to simply bring in a wide panorama. Anyone who’s enjoyed a spectacular view from mountainside to a valley below then taken a photo of it will remember the flat, boring image that likely resulted. That’s because the three dimensional sensation your eyes provide is removed in the two dimensional image. At any rate, I felt the plants would also provide an organic contrast to the cliffs and pounding surf below, which seemed harsh and desolate to me. After some discussion and a bit of tromping around, Thom suggested an alternative using a single bush that would provide a simpler composition. I labored over this for some time and finally gave up because it simply wasn’t possible to take the photo without the shadow of the camera falling over the flowers. Nothing to be done, so I moved on and found a different set of plants from a different (and higher) angle that worked, at least from the shadows point of view.

Before long rain squalls began moving in and stayed with us the rest of the day, both at Cape Point and the Boulders penguin colony we visited later. Some spectacular stormy clouds over the ocean shots were available between showers. It was spitting rain and more most the time at the penguin colony, but they’re so much fun it was no big deal, thanks to rain jackets and some lens protection. I got my first practice with the 200-400 mm lens here.

What with the weather the final photo destination was the Cape Town aquarium, where I spent part of the time (actually a good hour, I was told later) practicing panning and focusing on a school of fish circling in a tank. Good practice, hopefully, for later when the subjects are large mammals.

Bo-Kaap and Khayelitsha

We started off the day with what was dubbed "cultural tour," led by Norman, our well-versed guide for the day. First was a visit to the traditional Malay Muslim neighborhood Bo-Kaap, where most of the houses are brightly painted, reminiscent of the la Boca area in Buenos Aires, minus the tango dancers and tourist shops.  Another good challenge for making decisions about composition and exposure.

We then drove to the Khayelitsha township – the second largest black community in South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid remains on display. Much of the sprawling township is seemingly unchanged since the end of apartheid, but the tin shacks are slowly being replaced by small, but real, houses. It has become, in a bizarre twist, something of a tourist destination. It’s an uncomfortable sensation initially, but the feeling faded as we piled out of the bus and began interacting with people as we photographed them and their environs. I got my first stint as a soccer photographer, shooting a pickup game in the street. The kids crowded around periodically to see the images on the back of my camera – one of the great advantages of shooting digital. We all collected names and addresses to send prints back later. When taking photos in this way, making an effort to communicate, showing some respect, and a simple smile go a long way.

The final stop for the day went to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, which is world class gorgeous.

Off to Tsitsikamma

Two days of driving in a 12-seater van took us through wine county, past canola fields and ostrich farms, and along the Garden Route to the Indian Ocean near Tsitsikamma National park. Shooting stops along the way included a winery with Victorian era buildings painted bright white and beautiful grounds. One of the more seasoned workers there was sporting a beard and wearing an animal striped print cowboy hat. His striking appearance prompted me to approach him and ask, via a bit of hand-waving and pointing, if I could shoot photos. He assented and I worked with a wide lens to capture his labor as he cut branches away with hand snips, while trying to also incorporate the environment including the distant mountains and of course, that hat. In the end I took 36 shots, equivalent to a roll of film in the old days, and really wasn’t happy with any them as I looked at them later. In too many, the hands were not enough in focus, too much of his face of his face was in deep shadow due to the hat blocking the overhead sun, or the hat itself was hidden. Some fill flash or an assistant holding a reflector would have helped. Nonetheless, another address, more prints to send back later.

At a second winery stop – Vrede en Lust – we did a flash lighting exercise in the dark cellar where the wine sat aging in oak barrels. In an iterative process, we set out three flashes, each of them with an amber/orange gel affixed to warm the light in the case of the two foreground flashes, and red gel on a flash used to set off the back wall. Much discussion, rearranging and power adjusting ensued, along with a scramble to find enough batteries that still had a charge.

We followed that up with an excellent wine tasting – I’ll be checking more carefully for South African wines in the future.

In Tsitsikamma

The next big shooting destination was Tsitsikamma (land of plentiful or sparkling waters) National Park, which runs 40 miles along the coast, five miles deep and two miles out into the ocean. We’re staying at the Fernery, a working farm that supplies ferns and such greenery to the floral industry in Europe. They’ve added tourism to the business, having created fabulous accommodations with individual cabins and a main lodge perched spectacularly on the edge of a ravine, with a waterfall below and the ocean in view. The farm and the accommodations employ nearly 200 people.

It was a short drive to the park, followed a couple days scrambling on and photographing the rocks and pounding surf, trying to keep from getting drenched or falling. Like surfers, we were trying to catch the perfect waves, which means a lot of shooting – more than 500 images in my case. We got a couple nice hikes in as well, with more up and down work than hiking in Indiana usually brings.

Off to Jo'berg

An early start today. We’re on the highway as the sun is rising, giving us a light pink sky. We’re headed to George, where we’ll catch a plane to Johannesburg. With all the gear, the van is riding low again. As always, people are standing by the side of the road waiting for a bus or a ride.

At the Jo-berg airport we’ll pick up Thom’s assistant Tony, who’s joining us for the wildlife shooting at Sabi Sands, adjacent to Kruger National Park. This afternoon we’ll do some photography at the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre, where they’re breeding cheetahs in hopes of helping saving the species – some last minute practice before seeing the big animals in the wild. Before they take people off on the tour, they offer the opportunity to pet one of the cheetahs and be photographed doing it for a donation of 165 Rand – about $25, which goes to their education fund. Did I do it? Heck yes. How often do you get to pet a trained, yet still wild, cheetah, sprawled out on a table in front of you (with a handler close by) and purring? (Yes, cheetahs do purr…) Not often.

Nice kitty...

Tomorrow, off to Sabi Sand and another week or so without Internet access. Stay tuned…


Eric SchochComment