The Deadvlei Retraction

I am not without my faults, and even I have to concede that I can be a little arrogant. This arrogance is especially prevalent when it comes to topics related to travelling in Southern Africa. I have done more than my fair share of wandering around the subcontinent that I call home, and have been privileged enough to see many of its greatest landmarks. For this reason, not only am I on a continuous quest to find the region’s more unusual destinations but I can also be decidedly critical of traditional tourist attractions. After all, there must be more to Southern Africa than simply Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta and Table Mountain?

But nothing can humble a person quite like being forced into a set of circumstances that they might otherwise have avoided and my visit to Deadvlei proved that the same is true for photography too. In the lead up to our trip to Namibia, I penned a prologue in which I rambled on about my approach and aspirations for the tour. I concluded the self-indulgent monologue with an unprovoked swipe at Deadvlei which – given the multitudes of photographers that visit it annually – I dismissed as a venue incapable of producing the unique and compelling images that I so dearly seek. It was not my choice to visit the pan, there were forces beyond my control that were taking me there and that crusty little puddle of sand in the middle of the desert was determined to show me that my arrogance was misplaced. Photographers flock to the site specifically because it has the qualities necessary to produce evocative images and I was about to be reminded of that fact.

To be fair, it is spectacular to stand in the pan surrounded by the chapped ground and dead acacia trees, but at the same time, one is in essence standing in the top row of results from a Google Images search for the term ‘deadvlei’. In every direction, the skeleton forest pops off of its orange sand dune backdrop and were it not for the ubiquitous nature of those scenes; I could have spent the entire day shooting and walked away satisfied.

Nonetheless, in an effort to hang onto whatever modicum of photographic dignity I had left, I was determined to find a unique composition. I began to focus on the light’s interplay with the dunes rather than on the trees, only trying to work them into the frame once I had identified a potentially unique background. This approach immediately liberated the images on the back of my camera from those that dominate search results. The sunlight, which only peeks over the dune horizon well after daybreak, scribes luminous crescents and casts dark shadows all around the Deadvlei bowl. Combine these features with the intense reflection from the nearly white earth, and one has a light show that may well be the hero of the whole Deadvlei production.

Having stumbled upon an approach for the location that was sure to result in images that I could be proud of, all that remained was to work different angles to produce the most powerful composition possible.

 Midas Touch – Deadvlei, Namibia – 1/100s at ƒ/8, ISO 100, Focal Length 33mm

Midas Touch – Deadvlei, Namibia – 1/100s at ƒ/8, ISO 100, Focal Length 33mm

Interestingly enough, capturing the Midas Touch image required the application of a photographic trick that I had never used before. The scene dictated that I shoot directly into the blazing sun which completely overexposed the top of the frame. I remembered seeing a Sean Bagshaw video where he used his thumb to block out the brightest part the image by placing his finger in front of the lens so that it covered the sun’s hotspot. This technique worked brilliantly and was the only way that I could get the bright but even exposure seen in the final photo.

Notes

When I first visited this area – broadly referred to as Sossusvlei – in the mid-90s, Deadvlei was not the focus of attention that it is today. Back then, seeing the sunrise from the top of the nearby Sossusvlei dune was the thing to do. Even today, being atop Sossusvlei at dawn is a phenomenal experience and the fact that far fewer people do it than did in the 90s, only makes the encounter even more rewarding. From a photography standpoint, taking a long lens to the top of the dune allows one to capture some pretty spectacular intimate landscapes. However, if long lenses and the early morning atmosphere are not your ‘thing’, then it is worth noting that neither Sossusvlei nor Deadvlei are lit until at least an hour after sunrise.

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