Bethal views

As part of my quest to learn to see, understand and use light, I participated in a morning landscape course with Lou Coetzer of CNP Safaris. The more involved I have become in wildlife photography the more I have realised that landscape photography is an essential foundation. While the ultimate aim is to capture extra-ordinary wildlife interaction, the number of high drama images captured in the wild are few and far between. So many of our wildlife images are in fact landscapes, wildlife landscapes.  The beauty of landscape photography is that it is an ideal method of training ones eye to see more. Everyone looks but not everyone sees.

“Learn to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

Learning to see in a photographic sense is not a technical journey. It is presumed that you understand the technical elements of your camera. It is more of a sensual journey where one learns to see patterns, colour, texture and visual balance in an image. No one can tell you how to see, you need to learn this sense.

We visited a cattle farm near Bethal in the Mpumalanga province in South Africa. We rose at 4h00 on a Saturday morning in mid-winter to travel to Bethal which is about two hours drive from Pretoria, to be in position before sunrise. At the expected sunrise time it was still relatively dark due to a thick bank of cloud. The cloud helped warm the temperature somewhat to minus two degrees centigrade. A few days before that it had been minus seven degrees centigrade. One aspect of landscape photography which I like is that you should not be put off by bad weather. Since you are playing with light, the overcast weather can be useful. Anyway, the weather is not always sunshine in wildlife photography so you have to learn to shoot in all kinds of weather and light.  Often adverse weather conditions provide some unique lighting opportunities.

“To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.” ~ Stephen R. Covey

The next image was taken of an empty feeding trough in a paddock where Basotho ponies were kept. These are tough horses able to endure the freezing winter night temperatures. These ponies are used to help round-up and herd cattle on the vast farm. The perimeter of the paddock was lined with trees. Being winter all the trees, except the confers, had lost their leaves.

Cast judgement aside and look. What do you see? Do you see leading lines, or patterns. Perhaps the colours are distracting or would the different tones in the image lend themselves to black and white treatment.

The sun did not manage to break through the thick layer of cloud until much later that Saturday morning.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” ~ Aldous Huxley

Part of the reason for the workshop was to learn to take landscape images without a tripod. Traditional landscape photography is tripod centred which dictates that you and your camera are much less mobile and flexible. Often when in position it is useful to move a short distance to change the perspective. Also the light can change quickly in a scene with the passing clouds and you need to react quickly. If the camera is hand-held you have more freedom  to react quickly. This was just one such scene where a herder with his dogs came past us unexpectedly. No time to set up with a tripod. Modern day cameras have much improved ISO (light sensitivity) to noise capabilities allowing you to shoot at higher ISOs than the traditional ISO 100 without too much image noise. Image noise is random variation of brightness or colour information in images. Vibrational reduction is a feature of modern lenses which gives a major improvement to shutter speed flexibility. The vibration reduction feature can give as much as a four F-stop benefit allowing you to shoot at shutter speeds below 1/60th of  a second.

Being able to hand hold the camera and move around easily meant that one could change position easily to alter the perspective from the edge of a river. This is the same Olifant’s river which eventually flows through Kruger Park hundreds of kilometres to the east. The scene was still relatively dark at around 8h00 in the morning due to the thick cloud.

After a few hours of shooting in low cloudy diffused light we at last got some sunshine, a natural element of which we have plenty in South Africa. One of the aspects of landscape photography with short focal length lenses was that you need a focal point in the foreground to add interest to the image, otherwise the middle and background appear far away and less interesting. The focal point needs to be at or just beyond the hyperfocal distance of the lens which in the case of a short focal length lens is close, usually just a few metres. The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity, acceptably sharp.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” ~ Ansel Adams

This was a classic example of shooting a simple scene of the river looking onto leafless willow trees in the middle distance. In order to improve the interest in the image we knelt down to include some of the bushes growing out from below the bridge. All images were shot at F22 using a Nikon 14-24mm lens. The key here was that at 14mm the hyperfocal distance was around 0.3 metres. A critical element of a landscape is that the entire depth of the image should be in focus because that is what your eye sees. That is assuming you are not trying something more artistic.

A similar perspective from the bridge looking onto the river but with a black and white treatment to better see the tonal range in the image.

“The task is…not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.” ~  Erwin Schrödinger

Away from the river in the open lands we found this dilapidated windmill which looked as though a serious gust of wind had buckled it. Again the trick was to try various angles and perspectives, looking to see what to include in the image and what not to include. This was all part of the process of learning to see.

The cloud remained quite heavy for most of the morning but every now a then a patch would clear the suns rays would shine through creating some interesting colour variations. This is where the flexibility of hand-held camerawork came to the fore.

In landscape photography one quickly learns that clouds are photographer’s friend, not foe.

We had a fascinating morning trying new techniques. The hand-held landscape photographic technique is not a catch-all approach but puts another arrow in the technique quiver. The hand-held approach certainly improves the photographer’s productivity such that they will come back with four to five times the images in a morning.

“Seeing is a skill which can be learned. See what is rather than what you expect. Look closer and new worlds of perception will open up. In that stillness you will start to see shape, colour, textures and connections which you never noticed before and a wonderland will unfold.”~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


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