Rather than focusing on a narrative with this post, I want to key in on two takeaway lessons. 1) Revisit compositions and 2) let the scene speak for itself.
I went away for a long weekend to an area of the Western Cape in South Africa that I have visited a couple times before, but never photographed properly. Despite my prior (albeit limited) knowledge of the area, I still found getting that first shot difficult. I often hear photographers challenged by this phenomenon. My first takeaway is to revisit a composition you have previously explored, just to get the ball rolling. Maybe try put a different framing on it, throw on some filters, shoot in colour or black and white, just change it up.
The scene in question has lovely valley leading to layered mountains in the background. To the righthand-side in the foreground is a large collection of rock formations. What I discovered upon visiting this scene was that my composition skills (taste?) have drastically changed – I am more aware of foreground, how to balance elements in a scene, edge conditions (trees and bushes falling out of frame for instance), aspect ratios, etc. The list goes on. While it was a scene I was familiar with, I approached it with new eyes. It clued me back into what makes this region of South Africa so special – sandstone and fynbos (an exceptionally biodiverse ecoregion, fynbos on Table Mountain in Cape Town alone holds more species of flora than the whole United Kingdom*). With a composition lined up, I sat and watched countless species of birds fly in and out of the scene before me before sunset.
I took the photo just has the sun crested the mountain range. While I used a 2-stop soft edge grad filter to help balance to the exposure by bringing skies back a little, I also bracketed my exposures. Watching my histogram in live view, I knew there would be shadow detail to recover and blown out highlights. This shot really required exposure blending and luminosity masking to get the desired post-processed result (I’m not a huge fan of HDR softwares as I like to have a bit more artistic control over the effect). It’s not my favourite image from the trip, but it certainly got me going.
This single photo set me up for the rest of the trip. This brings me to my next lesson from the trip. When you hone in on what makes an area special, let the scene and composition have some say in its final resulting image. Typically shooting in black and white, I found myself with a lot of compositions calling out for colour, and so I left them as colour photos. Rich greens, yellows, browns, and reds of the area paired beautifully with gorgeous unfiltered light. I slowly learned to keep my eye out for favourable conditions created by this incredible landscape: reflected light in the sandstone areas, mud cracks and cloud inversions in the valleys, crystal clear skies at night.
I’m still learning to embrace all the creative options available in photography, (rather than pigeon-holing myself into a black and white corner). And the funny thing is, some of the following shots are definitely portfolio worthy keepers.
* Information source from discussions with local geologist/professor at Stellenbosch University.