This Is A Crappy Photo

A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

I captured this tree silhouette at the peak of a glorious sunset in the heart of the Namib desert. I spent some time with this tree, crafting the photo. I wanted to reduce the tree to a graphic form against the beautiful colors of the sky. Because the tree was reaching to the right, I oriented its trunk to the far left of the photo so that it is reaching into the frame and up and over the distant mountains.

After taking a look on the computer, and doing some basic processing, I was really happy with it. That is until I showed it to my wife Kerry, and was met with a frown and shrug of the shoulders. “It doesn’t really do anything for me,” was the response I remember.

Now to give a little bit of background, Kerry has a great eye for photography and is certainly not one to heap praise where it is not due. As surprised as I was by her reaction, I knew I needed to pay attention to this critique because of her impeccable taste. So what went so wrong?

A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The more time I spent with the photo, the more I began to agree with her review. I finally realized that I was the victim of an age old pitfall of art. I had spent so much effort creating the photo, I was attributing more value to its end result than I should have. Okay, so its not a horrible image. But like all good husbands, I agree with my wife – it doesn’t do that much for me either. The fine branches of the silhouette are too chaotic and it has a relatively weak subject matter. The colors of the sunset are not enough to hold the main focus of the image.

Since I share many successful photos with you, I thought I’d share a failure. Well, maybe not a failure, but one that leaves me with a “meh” feeling. The lesson here is to seek honest, unbiased feedback for your work. Oh, and wives makes great critics!

Sunset Over Azhagappapuram

Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

I took this photo on the final day of a fantastic trip to India last year. I was in the state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India staying with my friend Frans. The village in which he grew up is just on the far side of this small lake, so I only had to travel a few minutes from where I was staying to get this shot.

I had been eyeing the sky for a few days, hoping for some clouds at sunset that would catch the last rays of the day. Luck was with me for my last evening in town, as the clouds started to build in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I did not get the still water that I was hoping for, in order to create a reflection of the southern most expanse of the Western Ghats. In typical southern Tamil Nadu style, wind was whipping across the water at great speed, creating small white caps (definitely NOT what I was hoping for!) In fact, this area is known for its expanse of wind farms, which should have given me a clue that waiting for a calm day was likely an exercise in futility.

Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.
Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

However, I had previously scouted a small area of lotus plants close to the shore, which helped the photo in two ways. First, the lotuses broke up the waves that the wind was creating. And second, they added some level of interest to the foreground. This was the next best option given there was no chance for a reflection.

As a side note, these plants would have been much more beautiful had any blossoms been on the plants. But alas, they were picked clean. As I was wondering about why this was, I saw a man in a canoe further along the shore, slowly making his way through the lotuses and plucking any fresh blossoms. Oh well, maybe time for a little photoshop? Just kidding of course….

Apparently, this area doesn’t see many photographers or foreigners. As I was standing by the shoreline with my tripod, many people stopped on the nearby road to watch what I was doing. That was okay – the resulting photo was well worth the extra attention.

Every day I was there, I discovered more of the natural beauty of the area’s land and animals. I will certainly return to cover this amazing landscape more in depth.

Storm In The Desert

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The crackling of distant thunder woke me from a deep sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Instantly wide awake, I looked to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see flashes of light behind the thick drapes. I made my way out of the door of my bungalow to the balcony overlooking a wide expanse of the desert valley. Suddenly a lightning bolt ignited the night sky, silhouetting the 1000 foot dunes in the distance.

It was my last morning in the middle of the Namib Desert in western Namibia. I stood on the balcony in awe of mother nature’s light show. Lightning continued to split the sky as pregnant thunder clouds rolled across the endless dune fields. A dry cool wind was whipping across the desert floor, bringing respite from the African heat. All at once, the sky opened up and I stood in one of the most impressive downpours I’ve ever witnessed. This land receives only 10 mm of rain each year, and here was buckets of water drenching everything to the horizon.

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although I was now soaked, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. After twenty minutes of intense rain, it suddenly stopped. Ten minutes after that I was dry, thanks to the return of the desert’s typical aridity.

I gathered my gear and met up with my traveling companions, who I was planning to join to do an aerial shoot at sunrise. Obviously these plans were quickly scrapped, as none of us wanted to be tossed around in a small aircraft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead, we headed out into the desert where we got into position to capture this marvelous sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains. Clear sky to the far east allowed the sun to light up the underside of the storm clouds, painting the sky a deep red. A couple of gemsbok oryx crossing the desert floor in front of the mountains added the icing on top.

Rain falls from a storm cloud over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

With rain still pouring from clouds in places, we chased the light through the dunes, hoping to capture this phenomena.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although there was not enough accumulation to create pools of water (I was hoping to find a reflection opportunity), the wet sand lent a very different look to the massive dunes. The water softened the edges of sand cut by the wind, diffusing the contours into abstract patterns.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After about an hour of dramatic lighting, the skies cleared up into their usual blue. I felt so fortunate to witness such drama on my last morning in the desert.

Sunset Over Damaraland

One of my favorite locations I visited in Namibia was the Damaraland region. I was staying at the Mowani Mountain Resort – a collection of beautifully architected bungalows settled in among giant boulders. Each structure was connected by a series of footpaths, and situated so that each room felt completely isolated. I felt as though I had the entire landscape to myself.

The Damaraland region of Namibia is very dry, and features an occasional white-barked tree growing from the rocks.

The surrounding desert was composed of hard sandy soil and large red rocks. It was occasionally accented by gleaming white-barked trees that popped out of the rubicund scene.

The setting sun turns the boulder strewn landscape surrounding the Mowani Mountain Camp a burnt red, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

The low sun lit up the rocks all around me, accentuating the ruddy hue.

Godrays stretch out from the sun setting over the African desert region of Damaraland, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

Luckily there was an interesting cloud bank to the west, blocking the sun and allowing its light to radiate into strong beams. The only element missing was a herd of desert-adapted elephants roaming the desert floor.

Godrays stretch out from the sun setting over the African desert region of Damaraland, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

I had two camera bodies with me for the shoot, one mounted to a tripod with a medium zoom (24-70mm) and the other with a telephoto zoom (100-400mm) which I was hand holding. This way I could capture the larger scene with the tripod, and still shoot the sun’s transition through the western clouds as a dominant subject with the telephoto. The photo above was taken at 170mm, emphasizing the sun’s rays breaking through the clouds.

Twilight decends upon the landscape of Damaraland, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

After the sun had set, the landscape radiated a deep blue, beckoning me to keep firing the shutter. This is a crop of a much wider panorama. Sometimes these photographs that appear more muted lend themselves to large wall hangings. Some day I may do just that.

As usual for a sunset landscape session, the action was over too quickly. Soon it was time to pack up the gear, have a quick sleep and prepare for an early safari the next morning.