Namibia, surreal beauty

This text belongs to the introduction of the e-book "A photographer's vision: Namibia", from Rafael Rojas. As a special Xmas gift for all Outdoor Photographer readers, this E-BOOK  can be downloaded FOR FREE during a period of 30 days by using the promo-code "opgift" at the checkout of Rafael Rojas' website. Get your free e-book here.

Three trees, Deadvlei, by Rafael Rojas

There are places that create a real turning point in our perception of the natural world, places that spur in us a total immersion and a deep connection with our surroundings. Places that, for the photographer, cast a magic spell of inspiration, enlightenment and reflection. Namibia produced such an effect in me.

I felt something different as soon as we approached the airport at Windhoek and through the window I saw a sea of hills spotted with acacia trees and an infinitely stretching horizon under the blue sky. That was the first time I visited Southern Africa, but somehow, it was as if I already carried in my blood a small part of this ancient land, a genetic souvenir of this continent; the cradle of humanity.

Alone, Namib-Naukluft NP, by Rafael Rojas

When we hear about Africa, we tend to visualise a world of opportunities mainly targeting the wildlife photographer, a place where the last Eden of wild animals can be found at home in their natural environment. We think about safaris, about the savannah and about those stereotypes that have become associated with the African dream... If this is indeed the reality in most of the Western African countries, Namibia stands apart by providing a whole new set of particularities which create a visual feast for all nature photographers.

Nestled on the south-western part of Africa, Namibia is a land of deserts, infinite coasts, rugged mountains that expose their naked geological features, incredible wildlife, surrealistic vegetation, ink-black night skies and one of the lowest population densities in the world.

Namibian dusk, NamibRand, by Rafael Rojas

This combination leads to a huge number of photographic opportunities for the landscape photographer, which I would say even outnumber those available for the wildlife photographer. This is a place that defies all familiarity, where surrealistic is the word to use to define the experience and where the concept of time takes on a whole new meaning.

Some of the most impressive landscapes in Namibia can be found in the Namib-Naukluft area, home to the biggest sand dunes on the planet, where trees have been transformed over hundreds of years from living beings into natural sculptures.

Desert ghosts, Deadvlei, by Rafael Rojas

In other places, sand gives way to rock, and isolated mountains like the Spitzkoppe pierce the sky turning gold as they are kissed by the first and last rays of the sun every day.

In the South, the graphical and otherworldly Quiver trees grow amongst the rocky plains, raising their fractal beauty towards the sky and begging to be photographed.

To the West, the Skeleton Coast, a sailors’ nightmare for centuries, sees the convergence of ocean and desert in a wild setting where only the wind and the sound of the waves break the silence...

Fractal beauty, Quiver tree forest, by Rafael Rojas

But even if the smell of the grass, the quality of the light and the purity of the sky would suffice to remind us where we are, it is the wildlife that completes the African experience for the nature photographer.

Namibia possesses some of the finest jewels for the wildlife photo­grapher from the whole continent; an incredible wealth of wildlife roams free in Etosha National Park; sea lions gather in Cape Cross in what is the biggest colony of this species in Africa; desert elephants, a particular rarity of Namibia, roam the dried riverbeds quenching their thirst by digging into the phreatic level; lions stand proudly on sand dunes on the Skeleton Coast or the Kalahari Desert...

Giraffe Symphony, Etosha, by Rafael Rojas

One of the primary decisions to make when visiting Namibia is when to go. Although the country could be defined as an arid place, two main seasons exist: the dry and the wet, each providing different implications for nature photography. The dry season, which still occasionally sees clouds in the sky, occurs during the austral winter (May to December) and decorates the landscape in browns and yellows. During this period, transportation is easier, the temperature is bearable and wildlife concentrates around waterholes, making them easier to observe. During the wet season (January to April), however, moisture and heat can make the experience suffocating. Strong and sudden rains can cut through roads making transportation a challenge and wildlife tends to spread further afield, making finding them less predictable. However, advantages are offered by the wet season too, and so booming clouds fill the sky, flowers can carpet the arid plains and water can even fill the desert vales where the sand dunes are mirrored.

Travelling through Namibia is easier than would be expected. Distances are not too far, and one can normally reach any one of various interesting areas on the same day, using the time to photograph instead of being behind the wheel.

Granite glory, Spitzkoppe, by Rafael Rojas

However, despite the extensiveness of the road system, a 4x4 vehicle is needed in order to visit some areas. This applies particularly to the end section of Sossusvlei where driving on sand is compulsory (and fun), visiting the Spitzkoppe area or crossing the Damaraland region, for example. Even if local transportation can be arranged for these particular places, the price to pay for doing so is losing the flexibility that is so crucial when approaching photography.

In terms of planning, Namibia is a place to be enjoyed slowly, and even more so for the nature photographer who wants to connect with the place and go beyond the iconic trophy shots. This is why the minimum duration for a first trip to Namibia for photographic purposes should be at least two to three weeks.

Another possibility is attending an organised photographic tour to this country, which can reduce the required time since the group leader has optimal experience at placing participants in the right place at the right moment. This can be a solution to make the most of the photographic opportunities offered by this country in a lesser amount of time, while maximizing the possibilities of bringing wonderful photographs of this amazing place.

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    Rafael…Your photography is just Beautiful…the place’s you photographed are so surreal looking…I too am a photographer and have won awards with my photography, but no where in your league…I live in the State of Texas, USA…I live in the section that is call the Big Bend area or West Texas as we call it. We have some Sandhills about 30 miles west of us called “Monahans Sandhills State Park. They were left behind by the Permian Sea that covered all of this area Ten’s of thousands of years ago…The Permian Era… My husband & I have also been to Switzerland…what a Beautiful country…very Fairy Tale country…Best wishes with your photography…Judith PS…check out my website to see photo’s of West Texas…

    Rafael, great shoots and good info! I had a question about the ambient light for “Desert Ghosts”. I assume that’s moon light. Was that taken in consideration of the percentage of the moon lit up? I keep reading that I should use the ambient moon light several days before and after the new moon or several days before and after the full moon. Is this correct? What do you suggest?

    I’m off to the San Jaun badlands in New Mexico next month and want to plan around the moon light.

    Another question: Is it still possible to capture the Milky Way during winter months.

    Thanks, Paul

    Dear Judith, thanks so much for your really kind words. I am really glad you liked the post. The truth is, we are all in the same league! Do not compare to any other photographer, we are all unique, and if we share the love for the outdoors and the urge to say it through photography, then we really are in the same league!

    I am sure Texas is a wonderful place. Really need to go there someday soon. I really miss photographing in the US again… Switzerland is indeed a fairy tale… now that winter is coming I can hardly keep myself at the office! Thanks for passing by. Regards.

    Dear Paul, thanks to you for your kind words. Answering to your question: yes, the moon was half moon if I remember well. As you mention, you need a good balance of moon light in order to illuminate the landscape, while at the same time faint enough so that it does not drown the luminosity of the stars in the sky. Using a wide open aperture and a high ISO will in any case show more stars, while the luminosity on the trees will be the same provided you shorten the exposure time accordingly. As always with night photography, it is just a matter of trial and error, until experience whispers in the ear what to do… It is really fun though! 🙂 Good luck with your photography session in New Mexico!

    Rafael, I had one more question. Answer only if you have time. I was reading about a “500” and “600 rule” with regards to star shots and focal length. According to this rule, on a 16mm lens, you would need to keep your lens open for just over 30 seconds (500/16). Is that true? At 30 seconds the stars get really blurred out. The rule seems to ignore iso settings.To make a long question short, should I ignore this rule, given modern iso abilities? Can I apply iso settings into an equation ( ie… 500/16 [ + /, or – ] iso = xxx )? Am I completely off base?

    Thanks for your prior advise and any you can give,


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