The story of how I came to be shooting at the Royal Natal National Park instead of at the more exotic Parc Nacional do Mozambique, which was the original plan, is a short story that has a whole lot to do with a broken down Land Rover. However despite being 'plan B', the thought of trying to capture an image of one of South Africa's national treasures, still filled me with excitement. However, the difficulty with shooting national icons is that almost everybody, including the photographer, has a distinct mental image of what the perfect rendition looks like and with such a sharp point of reference, the likelihood of returning from such and undertaking 'disappointed', is more than just plausible. Still, despite any risk of a possible double blow – a cancelled 'plan A' and bad photographs of 'plan B' – I approached my second choice location with typical fervour.
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is as South African as Rooibos Tea. The range may be less photographed than its diminutive sibling Table Mountain but the escarpment is substantially higher, significantly more majestic, and frankly, overshadows all other geographic features that the country has on display.
The Royal Natal National Park sits directly in the shadow of this mountain and is the only real location from which to shoot the monolith. With easy access and all the amenities, one would be forgiven for thinking that a good shot of this tectonic wrinkle is 'in the bag.' But the reality is, however, a little less cut-and-dried and getting a good photo remains a challenge.
In the interests of helping my fellow photographers and indeed to solidify my thoughts on why I failed to capture my personal Amphitheatre masterpiece, here are a few things I learned during my attempt.
The truth about the Amphitheatre is that despite its apparent magnitude, it is little more than a distant object and the camera manages to bring this fact into sharp focus. The greatest shots of the subject use the Tugela River as a foreground element, with the mountain in the background. But my attempts to capture this using a 16mm focal length on a Canon 7D with its APC sensor, failed to result in an image where the escarpment has sufficient dominance of the final image.
There are three ways to solve this problem. Firstly, one could choose to hike up the river closer to the cliff face itself, dramatically increasing the size of the mountain in the frame. I am likely to take this approach during my next visit, but while it could potentially resolve the problem altogether, I am probably going to combine it with one of the next two methods as well.
Secondly, one could conceivably get into a position where it is possible to capture both the Tugela River and the Amphitheatre in a single frame using a longer focal length. The choice of this focal length will determine the amount of compression that one can achieve, but it is worth noting that you will be working against the river which twists significantly, seldom having straight sections long enough to genuinely stretch-out the focal length.
A third and surprisingly less obvious solution, one could opt to shoot using a portrait layout. I consider myself well versed in the application of the portrait layout, and yet in the heat of battle, it never occurred to me to make an attempt at using such a format. The scene seems perfectly tailored to the normal landscape orientation. However by rotating the camera, one reduces the horizontal field of view by 30%, dramatically lessening the role of the mid-ground hills in the final image.
As with almost the entire Drakensberg Mountain Range, its lofty cliffs all face east. The direction means that if you not on top of the 'hill,' then the venue is principally a sunrise location. However, when the sun is low on the horizon, the acute angle of the light means that there is strong contrast present on the front face of the Amphitheatre. There are dark shadows caused by the folds in the rock and naturally, highlights posed by the rising sun. To my eye, sunrise is not the ideal period for photography. I suggest that waiting for a little later in the morning, with the ideal time being when a compromise can be reached between the contrast of first-light and the flat light of midday.
The 500px photograph located here is a perfect illustration of the phenomenon I have described. It is one of my favourite images of the scene. It shows how rotating the camera to a portrait orientation effectively compresses the elements in the picture, as well as showing how much contrast is present at sunrise.
In conclusion, shooting the Drakensberg Amphitheatre is challenging, and the best photograph I produced through this attempt is underwhelming, to say the least. However, creating a masterpiece is not meant to be easy, and I am determined to get my copy of this photographic staple. I'll be returning to put a few of these lessons to use.