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Shades of Orange

In this article, the last two photographs appear at face value, to look completely different from one another. The first image was shot in the Namib Desert of Namibia and if you were to describe this photo to someone who had lost their sight you would have to describe it using words like dead, trees, sand and crow. The photo at the bottom, the one shot on a tropical lake in Kenya, you would need to use words like water, red and birds to describe it. So why have I selected two images so utterly different to be placed in the same article? Keep reading to the end for your answer...

Let me start with 'drum roll please' and a quote from 87 year old documentary photographer Elliot Erwitt: 'Photography is an art of observation, itís about finding something interesting in an ordinary place, it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see themí. When I first arrived at Deadvlei Pan, a white desolate clay pan in Namibia's Namib-Naukluft Park, I was very aware that I had arrived in what is considered to be an absolute mecca for landscape photographers. Here, an ancient river once wound its way through the desert before spilling its watery contents into the Atlantic ocean, but is now at a dead end in a place called Deadvlei Pan. The desert, many moons ago having decided to push back, now blocks the river from reaching the ocean. As a result, the river ends in a single pan in the middle of the tallest sand dunes in the world. Ancient Camel Thorn trees still stand in the pan, dotted about like lost souls whose woody roots once new the pleasure of a flowing stream. This extinct river ends in an amphitheater surrounded by red dunes and it has been the scene of many award winning landscape photographs. As I stood in the middle of Deadvlei Pan the severe, crippling and debilitating reality that I was a professional wildlife photographer standing in the middle of not just a landscape but a landscape famous for its landscape photographs, hit home! All about me photographers were standing next to three-legged contraptions and they attached lenses to their cameras which looked ridiculously short. They seemed utterly preoccupied with the task at hand, very focused, each lost in his or her own individual frame of choice. Bent over and peering through viewfinders they stood still, like living versions of the same ghostly trees that they were photographing.

It was as if I was having a dream, no wait, it was as if I was having a nightmare! One of the photographers started up a drone whose propellers sounded like a swarm of angry bees and shattering the silence, it took to the high skies above the pan. Looking up at the drone way above I wondered what the drone was seeing? Me standing in the middle of the bone dry pan, surrounded by cracked mud and dead trees and other photographers bent over tripods. Me standing with my hands at my side and my camera bag still closed and lying on the floor. Me, a wildlife photographer, utterly out of my depth and drowning in a desert. Is that even possible? Not even having a tripod, I was unable to pretend like I was even photographing. Stuck without a tripod in Sossusvlei I was proverbially naked in the photographic sense and slowly unpacking my camera, I attached my 400mm lens, taking it out of my bag as discretely as one can take a 400mm lens out of a bag at a landscape shoot. I began walking towards a clump of trees as nonchalantly as possible hoping that no one was watching. Trying to stay calm in both the literal desert I found myself in, and in the more figurative desert of my mind, I feared that people were watching, people who knew me and people who knew that I was not a landscape photographer. 'Damn, why did I not bring a tripod and a wide angle' I thought, as I ambled towards the middle of the pan. It was the perfect time for me to wake up from my nightmare and to realize that I was not in the middle of the Namib desert trying to shoot a landscape scene in the most famous destination for landscape photographers anywhere in Africa and with a 400mm lens and no tripod. It was the prefect time to wake up and realise that I was not surrounded by landscape photographers, some of who were top professionals in their genre. It was the perfect time to wake up and find myself in the bush on a wildlife photographic safari. But, as my feet crunched over the cracked mud of the pan, I never woke from any slumber. The reality was that I was alive, very much awake and living the nightmare of a wildlife photographer stuck with a 400mm lens and no tripod in a desert landscape. 'If only this pan would crack some more and swallow me whole!' I thought.

Scanning the pan in a series of 360 degree circles, my nightmare intensified. The dunes towered above me, the drone recorded my hopelessness from above and expert landscape photographers spread open carbon fibre tripods and assumed the bent over position like stick figures with 5 legs, two of their own and three belonging to the tripod. Off in the distance, in one of the dead trees I spotted a glimmer of hope, a ray of proverbial sunshine in my landscape nightmare. I spotted a nest of dead twigs in one of the dead trees and in the middle of Deadvlei Pan, the last remnant of a dying river in the middle of a dead looking desert. It was a crow's nest and crows, although resembling death, at least were vaguely familiar, a living thing you know and a moving thing, which was more than could be said for all the bent over figures standing beside their tripods.

Latching onto the tree with the nest in it, I lifted my 400mm lens. As a peered through my lens I noticed a couple other trees in the background and walking a few paces to the right I positioned to have these two trees in the background. Suddenly it occurred to me that if I zoom out by a hundred millimetres or so, I could include another two trees in the background on the right. Moving back across my frame I now had the tree with the nest slap-bang in the middle of my viewfinder. Standing with my legs apart, I tucked my arms into my rib cage. There I was, like a human version of a tripod, and although I had walked just a few steps back and forth, I had actually taken a giant leap forward - for a wildlife photographer that is. I had composed a frame and one full of trees! Hek, I had even zoomed out! I stood like that for an hour or so, like a dead Camel Thorn tree and waiting for the sun to appear as well as a crow. I was one with the desert. Not sure what I was doing, a wildlife photographer and a human tripod in a desert, I was more than a little bit relieved when I saw a black-winged figure flying towards my framed scene. My heart quickened and my shutter finger twitched. It was a crow and it was flying towards its nest. Unlike my usual practice of tracking a moving subject in a single fluid panning motion, I held my ground. I resisted the urge to zoom in. I thrust my elbows deeper into my ribs and I kept my feet wide apart. I was trying my best to be the very thing I had left at home - a tripod. I was trying to blend in and I kept my aperture at F11 which was highly unusual for me but seemed appropriate considering the company I was keeping in Sossusvlei's Deadpan. The crow flew into my frame and I tripped my shutter. My nightmare was over. I had found life in the midst of death and embarrassment.

I am not going to wax lyrical about the next photograph as this article is already way longer than I had intended but suffice to say that the photograph below was not shot in a desert! I was not feeling like a fish out of water (or like a wildlife photographer at Sossusvlei) when I took it. There are no trees in this photograph, there was no drone hovering above, like Big Brother looking down when I took it. There was no tripod involved or '5-legged' landscape photographers dotted about. No, I was in my comfort zone when I took this image, lying prostrate on the ground with a bean bag and photographing moving subjects with heartbeats. The photo below does however have a few similarities to the one above. The first being what is alluded to in the title of this article, both photos have saturated shades of orange and red. Perhaps I could have (or should have) titled this piece 'Shades of Red'? Both shots were taken in the spectacular light of dawn and there is actually only a 4 minute time difference between the time of day that both images were taken. Ok, so they both reddish orange or orange reddish, so what else? Well both of these images were selected by the judges of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 (WPY) to be reviewed in the final round of judging which is what got me looking at both frames in the same day, which in turn is what got me thinking about these frames and what they have in common. They both have a third commonality and being a wildlife photographer who only photographs free and wild subjects (so no captive bred or staged scenes), is a rather unusual one. Both of these photographs involved the framing of a scene which I wanted to photograph and both entailed having to wait for my respective subject to move into a pre-composed frame. For the desert photo I stood like a chicken with my arms tucked into my sides for over an hour waiting for the crow and for the image below, I framed the two feeding flamingoes, before waiting for a pelican and a stork to swim/walk into my frame. This is unusual because wild animals are unpredictable and waiting for one to appear in a single frame is very different to simply photographing an animal as it moves through its own self created frames. As a result of this preselected framing, both of these images are layered, with multiple points of interest and I think that this what has attracted the eye of the WPY judges.

You might be reading this and thinking 'gee whiskers, good grief man, this whole article was just to say that you bloody set up a frame and waited, whoopi-de-twang!' Or you might, like me, be someone who ponders the profound mystery and ability of a still photo to transport a person glancing at it, into another world and into the realm of the supremely finite moment. This moment, commonly called a photograph is singular in nature and yet it has the ability to ignite the human imagination, transporting the viewer on a fixating journey that is far greater than the sum of the elements in the photo itself.  If a photograph has the power to do this, and it does, then as a photographer how does one capture or create photographs that arrest, that communicate or that even better - catapult the human mind along on an instantly wonderful journey. The power of a still photograph is unique, it is different to both words or cinematography or documentaries. To end off let me quote my mentor Jim Brandenburg: 'Photographs only need to speak for themselves. They are their own language.' The question I leave you with is how will you make your photographs talk?

The end.

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