Overnight, the temperature has plunged from a mid-afternoon high 30-something Celsius to what I guess is now around 12C – it feels chilly as I shake my clothes and shoes out – a frog sharing your footwear is an unpleasant surprise, something a little more venomous can really spoil your day.
This is Africa and a spider (or worse) bite is the toll paid by the unwary. Or unseeing – it’s still not five a.m. and very dark, so a couple of seconds of agitation is good policy.
We are staying in a camp inside the Gamkaberg National Park, about 20km from Calitzdorp, one of the former capitals of last century’s ostrich feather trade. Then, fortunes were made and palaces were built in the area. Today, no-one wears ostrich feathers and while there is a strong demand for their lean meat, these giant birds have yet to regain mainstream prominence.
Yesterday, I made a half hearted attempt at a pre-dawn rise, photographed the immediate area around the camp and then spent the rest of the day chiding myself for being so unadventurous.
The camp is on the edge of the Gamkaberg (Gamka mountains) and just like everywhere else in these latitudes, the sun arrives very quickly. I want to capture its early rays and grab a Nikon, a couple of lenses and my tripod.
It’s high summer here and as the area gets little rainfall at this time, it’s hardly surprising that everything is dry, bushes are wilting and there is dust everywhere as I wander out of the camp into the surrounding bush.
If you’re thinking sweeping panoramas, there is a big view from the small hill behind the camp – trouble is, every time I get super enthusiastic about views like this, I shoot like crazy and then when I get home, I find I’ve got a full screen of sky and ground divided horizontally by a line of mountains about 1mm high.
No, this morning’s mission is to get a bit closer and photograph the bushveldt in close-up. This is going to be flora porn and I’ve chosen my AI 28 f2.8, AI 50 f1.4 and much more modern 85 f1.8 to accompany the D800.
The giant prongs of the Karoo thorn tree are everywhere, most 60mm to 75mm long. In some places, these have grown into 120mm giants and it is close to one of these that I set up my tripod.
The D800 is wearing the 50 f1.4 – it’s several decades old and I know that wide open there is a clear coma problem and lots of fringing – stopping down to f2 or even f2.8 will get rid of most of the coma and have little impact on the shallow DoF I want – a good place to start shooting.
The thorns are rock hard and those which end up on the ground are well capable of puncturing the tyre of an unwary driver. Footwear, even hard soled boots are easily pierced, along with the feet inside, so some care is required in setting-up and getting the shot(s) I want.
In the viewfinder, the 50mm focal length is doing it’s magic and I shoot against the background, foliage and rapidly lightening sky. Midway through, I swap to the 28mm to get a wider angle of view, but the DoF is just too good – not what I want this morning.
An hour in and I’m beginning to feel a pattern emerging; visually, the bushveld is incredibly complex, with little uniformity, symmetry and zero concession to the photographer. What I’m finding is that I am trying to isolate individual leaves, branches, or groups of detail from their surroundings to create a kind of optimised view of a single element. For the first time in quite a while, I’m looking forward to post-processing some images.
Very late on, with coffee and breakfast calling, I swap over to the 85mm f1.8 and suddenly, my plans really come into focus (sorry).
The longer lens really gets into the little gaps between sticks and branches. At very close focussing distances, it has a DoF which is probably no more than a couple of millimetres – brilliant when a single leaf is what I’m focussing on.
That said, the focus on the 85 is automatic (the manual option isn’t very good) and I’m quite disappointed. 85-Otus-porn thoughts drift through my mind as I struggle to get the exact shot I want as the focus continues to rack in and out at random.
Chimping – something I rarely do – reveals just how much the 85 packs down the background and in this case, turns the out of focus thorns into some kind of asymmetrical high art perspective – I couldn’t have planned for anything this (visually) interesting.
Back to the camp, uploading NEFs and an early look at the morning’s work as the coffee brews, I’m already rueing not planning to stay on for an extra day.
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