Photographing the Amphitheatre

It is almost exactly a year ago that I stood in front of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, doing my utmost to capture an image that does the natural monument justice. Not long afterwards, I penned an article detailing my failing at the task and proposing how I might change my approach during future attempts. Well, this past weekend I tried once more to capture my own Amphitheatre masterpiece and again the tectonic wrinkle proved a worthy adversary.


 
 

At the core of my original post-failure findings were the matters of compression and light. To address the first of these issues, I suggested three measures: using a longer lens, moving closer to the subject and shifting the camera from landscape to portrait orientation. Having now spent the better part of a day experimenting with these three elements, I feel confident to rule out using a longer lens and moving closer as viable solutions to the problem. As I had suspected, finding candidate locations for long lenses was difficult, given the twisting path that the Tugela carves through the boulder-strewn riverbed. Furthermore, the narrower field of view present at longer focal lengths meant that I had to forfeit either the river or the mountains in any image as there never seemed to be quite enough room for both.

The second suggestion of moving up the valley was certainly a more promising solution, though the closer you get to the Amphitheatre, the greater the role of intervening hills and mountains in the final composition. Naturally, there is a compromise to be made in terms of the size of the foreground elements relative to that of the Amphitheatre and when I weighed this up, I found myself very close to my original location.

My final suggestion – which I was certain would be effective even before I had tested it – was to rotate the camera into a portrait orientation. Doing so removes distracting – and irrelevant – hills from the images and leaves behind only the river and the Amphitheatre. Even as I write this, the approach seems counterintuitive as everything about the scene points towards a landscape shot and yet, it worked well. I certainly prefer the results to many of the ubiquitous landscape versions that a Google images search returns.

The second core finding from my original visit was the role of light. As I previously stated, the Drakensberg is largely east-facing and its cliffs are best lit in the morning when the rising sun hangs low in the sky. It is during this period that the peaks gain their famous orange glow, and stand in stark contrast to the valleys below. However, as famous as these high contrast scenes might be, I am becoming increasingly critical of the less than pleasing orange and green hues brought on by sunrise. The colours just don’t seem to translate well into a photograph and I suggest that this is because green and orange are not complementary colours.

 Best of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre from the Tugela River — April 2017

Best of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre from the Tugela River — April 2017

And yet, despite my distaste for the morning light, I committed to several early mornings in succession in the hope that one might bring the drama required to make my masterpiece a reality. For four days, I watched every sunrise and sunset from the same location. I had established a composition that I believed was a vast improvement on my first attempt and all that I needed was for the gods to do their bit. Regrettably, the scene that I had imagined never materialised. Clouds either got in the way or were not present at all, leaving the light either flat or non-existent.

The best conditions arrived on the afternoon of the third day when low clouds just kissed the top of the Amphitheatre. Unfortunately, the event unfolded as I hurried back to my location from the campsite and, in the end, the shot – which I now consider the best from the trip – depicts only the last moments of light.

The truth of the matter is that, after two attempts at the mountain, I still sit with photos that are not quite up to standard, and a return journey to Royal Natal is, consequently, without question. Fortunately, with a lot of the compositional wrinkles now ironed out, any future trip should simply be about getting good light. Interestingly, it is in this area of my quest to photograph the Amphitheatre that my opinion has changed the most since my last visit. While I will continue to diligently photograph the sunrise on future visits, I am of the opinion that the most compelling images will result in the golden hour, near sunset. Shooting at that time will most certainly result in more shadow on the main face but I believe that the colours are better and that the chances of getting a compelling sky are also improved.