Ghost Trees, Namibia

Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom are leading an exclusive flying photo safari in Namibia in May 2012. Check for details.

Deep in the Namib Desert of southwest Africa, there’s a remarkable place. A river once flowed here, but these days it’s a dry clay pan with a scattering of dead camel thorn trees, surrounded by huge sand dunes. Many photographers have been lured to this spot by its stark beauty, and when I traveled to Namibia on assignment for National Geographic, I wanted to see it for myself.

I went early one day to scout the scene. It was serene and surreal at the same time, but once the sun came up, the light quickly became harsh. I left with only a few pictures—and an idea. The next morning I went back before dawn to a group of ghostly trees that had attracted my eye the first day. I framed them with a telephoto zoom to include a towering sand dune in the background that was dotted with golden grasses, and stopped the lens all the way down to compress the perspective. I applied a two-stop graduated neutral-density filter to reduce the contrast between the shady foreground and the sunlit background. Then I waited for the sun to edge down the dune. The magic moment came when the sun reached all the way down to the bottom of the dune just before it touched the edge of the clay pan.

When the image was first published in the Geographic, it went viral on the Internet overnight. People around the world wondered whether it was a photograph or a painting. Some thought it was altered in Photoshop, which it was not. What makes the image so arresting to viewers, and so confusing to non-photographers, is the extreme juxtaposition of bright sunlight right next to deep shade. With the sun igniting the warm, red sand and the white pan turning cool blue with the reflected color from the sky, the ghost trees rise through the boundaries of light, apparitions come to life.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.