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!

2016 Round-up – Top 100 Photos Of The Year

In years past, I’ve curated a list of my best 40 photos of the past year. However, with trips in 2016 to India and Africa, I couldn’t whittle down the set to just 40. So here is the best 100 photos of 2016, many of which are previously unpublished. As always, there is a mixture of bird, wildlife and landscape, but this year includes much more wildlife than usual.

Please enjoy the gallery below. For best viewing (especially if viewing on a mobile device), please click on the following photo:

The endangered african wild dog has a hunting success rate of 80% due to its pack hunting and ability to chase large prey to exhaustion, reaching speeds of over 40 miles per hour for 5 – 10 minutes.

To view the gallery, click here to see individual photos.

If you are interested in compilations from previous years, please see the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 lists.

Deadvlei – A Study In Graphic Forms

The clay pan of Deadvlei contains numerous camel thorn trees that have been dead for at least 600 years.

Welcome to Deadvlei, one of those mystical places on earth that simply takes your breath away. There are a few places in the world that have spoken to me this way – whether it’s 5,000 year old Bristlecone Pines clinging to life on a windswept mountain slope, or morning sea fog rolling through a quiet stand of old growth California coastal redwoods (why do these special places always seem to involve trees?). Deadvlei is certainly one of those places.

Deadvlei is a dry and dusty river bed, located in the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Deadvlei translates to “dead marsh”, taking the Afrikaans word vlei, meaning a seasonal pond or marsh. This area once lined the banks of the Tsauchab river, flooding at times of abundant rainfall. Around 600 to 700 years ago, a great drought hit the region, drying up the river. Blowing sand encroached upon the flood plain, blocking the river’s path and forming the massive dunes that cover the land today. The camel thorn trees that grew in this marsh died, but due to the extremely dry climate, none of the wood decomposed, leaving skeletal husks still standing for hundreds of years. Centuries spent in the hot African sun have scorched the remains into blackened ghosts.

600 years ago, a drought dried up the Tsauchab river, 1000 foot dunes encroached on the dried up marsh, and the river was blocked.

In order to do an on-sight scout and be ready for the light, I arrived before dawn. This involved rising about 4 AM, hopping in a hired safari vehicle (with giant tires) and taking the 45 minute ride among the largest dunes in the world. The asphalt road soon turned to dirt, which turned to sand. Low tire pressure, 4-wheel drive, and high clearance are all musts in this area – no sedans allowed.

From the drop off, it was a 15 minute hike into the dunes before I topped a rise and saw Deadvlei down below me, surrounded on three sides by immense walls of blood red sand. The tallest point is south east of the clay pan, nicknamed Big Daddy. Standing over 1,000 feet tall, it towers above everything else in the area.

I did a quick scan from my vantage point before descending to a stand of trees. I set up a composition, and waited for the light.

The wood of the dead trees does not decompose because the area is so dry.

Based on my trip research, I knew much of my shooting at this location would be a study of form and separation. Before I set up for any particular shot, I spent a lot of time looking for the right composition. I needed to avoid unnecessary converging lines, and try to separately my subjects from each other. I would walk around clusters of trees, trying to discern how I would render three dimensions onto a flat, two-dimensional plane.

I imagined the trees in silhouette, reduced to graphical elements of lines and shapes. I moved forward and backward, up and down, trying to find the angles that would convey the subjects in a compositionally elegant manner.

Sun spotlights the side of a dune wall behind a desiccated tree.

The sun moved higher in the sky, spotlighting parts of the landscape through lazy clouds. I looked for new patterns that the light played out across the desert surface.

Tree husks reach out of the clay pan toward the morning sky.

As the desiccated trees moved from shadow to light, their dark forms contrasted against the bright ground and red sand, emphasizing the graphical nature of the scene.

Pulling a three-dimensional stand of trees into a flat plane can be challenging.

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. As I was standing in that dusty, dry, ancient river bed, I could hardly believe I was there. I was half a world away from home, and my surroundings could not have been more alien. I truly relish these experiences. Being able to capture an area photographically and share it with others is rewarding, but there is nothing that could replace being there in person.

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.