Tuesday 28 June 2016

Aus Workshop 2016

Tree and Dune - Fuji x100s, 1/100, f/8, ISO 200, Polarizer

The Aus Photography Workshop with Wicus Leeuwner and JJ van Heerden was a great success! It was an excellent learning experience for me, I had much fun and got some decent shots.

I suspect that my blog has in common with Playboy that most people come here for the pictures rather than the text. So I'll oblige with lots of pics below the fold (SFW, don't worry), along with some descriptions.


Although not officially part of the workshop, a few of us took a day off to do a tour of the Sperrgebiet, the restricted diamond zone along the Southwest coast. Its history is fascinating (go read it elsewhere), and the landscapes are pretty stark. There are also various ghost towns and abandoned mining machinery rusting in the desert.

Bogenfels - Canon 40D, Tokina 11-16, 60sec, f/16, ISO 100, ND Filter

This is the famous Bogenfels rock arch in the Sperrgebiet. I used an ND filter to blur the motion of the waves and clouds, making the arch look more solid and permanent in contrast. I was hoping for a wilder sea, which would have made the foot of the arch appear to emerge from fog, but the day was unusually calm. The arch is huge, by the way, I should have included a little figure for scale.

Nara Plant - Canon 40D, Sigma 8-16mm, 1/100, f/16, ISO 400

Naras are melons commonly found in Namibia. They're edible, but for some reason the horses there don't eat them.

Garub Plains - Fuji x100s, 8x1/250, f/8, ISO 200, polarizer
The above panorama gives a nice feel of the Garub plains, with the various workshop participants enjoying themselves. I stupidly left my polarizer on, hence the darker portion of the sky. Because only the region at approximately right angles to the sun is polarized, that region looks darker, which is not ideal for wide angles of view.

Petrified Dunes - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/1250, f/8, ISO 400

Long lenses are great for compressed landscapes. That lovely Sigma 150-600 Contemporary was loaned to me by Sigma South Africa, along with the 8-16mm ultra-wide angle lens and the fast 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. All three lenses were very impressive. I wrote up my experience with them for Sigma's blog here.

The Celebritree - Canon 40D, Canon 17-55, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 100

This is the Celebritree, one of the most-photographed quiver trees in the world (or would be, if more people came here), standing at the edge of God's Window with an amazing view of the Garub Plains. It really is a particularly lovely specimen.

View from God's Window, Canon 40D, Tokina 11-16, 3x1/8, f/8, ISO 100

Here is a view from God's Window. It's three shots, stitched into a panorama. I still didn't get enough in, so the bottom two corners are actually fake, courtesy of Photoshop's "content-aware fill" function. Did you notice?

B&W Sunset - Canon 40D, Canon 17-55, 0.4+1/10+1/40 HDR, f/5.6, ISO 100

Okay, not the world's best sunset image, but I made some HDR images of sunsets, and frankly this one looks better in black and white than any of the others do in color.

Geisterschlucht - Fuji x100s, 6.5sec, f/11, ISO 200, IR filter

JJ and I arrived a few days before the workshop and hung around exploring and taking photographs. I had a great time in the noonday sun with my little Fuji x100s and an infrared filter, while JJ napped, and photographed the charismatic acacia trees in the Geisterschlucht valley where we stayed. I can really recommend the little Fuji for infrared (and for little flowers, and for nightscapes...)


Six-Headed Hydra - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/1000, f/8, ISO 640

Most of our time was spent at the Garub water hole, an artificial water source created for the feral horses. These six ostriches showed up nearly every morning.

Three Desert Horses - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/200, f/8, ISO 200
The famous feral horses near Aus are the main attraction for this workshop every year. This year, though, the horses are in serious trouble. It hasn't rained here in ages, and there's almost nothing for them to eat, to the extent that they're getting fed once a week. Because they rely on the water, they cannot migrate away to greener pastures. That, combined with hyena predation means that the population has halved in the last few years, and we didn't see a single foal.

A Frank Exchange of Views - Canon 40D, Canon 70-200 f/4 IS, 1/125, f/4, ISO 500
This is one of the few instances of sparring between stallions that we saw. Most of the horses looked miserable and listless.

Desert Horse Sunset - Canon 40D, Canon 70-200 f/4 IS, 1/500, f/4, ISO 500
Rim lighting is always beautiful, which is why we often photograph these horses against the light.

Golden Dust - Canon 40D, Canon 70-200 f/4 IS, 1/1250, f/4, ISO 200
Yep, the plains are very dusty.

Cartoon Horse - Canon 40D, Sigma 8-16, 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 400
Okay, this is not a wild horse, but a tame one, on the guest farm where we stayed. Much fun can be had with ultra-wide angle lenses. This shot was taken a few centimeters from the horse's nose.

Sociable Weaver - Canon 40D, Canon 70-200 f/4 IS, 1/1000, f/4, ISO 800
Sociable weavers build enormous nests, which can house hundreds of birds. One often sees fallen nests under acacia trees, where the nest kept getting enlarged until the branch broke under the weight.

Lizard - Canon 40D, Canon 70-200 f/4 IS, 1/200, f/11, ISO 100
I have often lamented that my otherwise wonderful 70-200 has a back-focus problem when focusing on nearby objects, and my old Canon 40D doesn't do focus micro-adjustments to compensate for this. But this time I nailed it, using manual focus override to pull the plane of focus back to the lizard's eye. Luckily, the little fellow obligingly posed for me at a distance of less than two meters.

Gemsbok - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/1000, f/9, ISO 400
There are plenty of gemsbok (oryx) in the region, though they are poached and hence very skittish. Otherwise they look sleek and healthy, in marked contrast to the poor horses.

Bat in Flight - Canon 40D, Tokina 11-16, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO 800, flash
This little bat was flying regular patrols along the balcony of the lodge where we ate our dinners. Well, if you can anticipate it, you can photograph it. So I got Tanya's flash, mounted a wide-angle lens for an extensive depth of field, set the flash to manual (after almost frying the poor thing with my first test shot, I dialed the flash power down to about 1/32) and took a number of pot shots (which needed extensive cropping). The results, though amateurish, are surprisingly good, given the limited preparation. If you know what species this is, leave a comment.


Lithops - Fuji x100s, 1/80, f/8, ISO 500
There are very interesting plants in the Namib. These Lithops are also known as "pebble plants", and clearly try to game their surface area to volume ratio so as to conserve moisture.

Fenestraria - Fuji x100s, 1/110, f/11, ISO 200
These Fenestraria, or "window-plants" take conserving moisture one step further - photosynthesis actually happens inside the leaf, behind a transparent window.

Bushman's Candle - Fuji x100s, 1/1250, f/5.6, ISO 200
Bushman's Candles are covered by a thick layer of wax, which remains long after the plant itself is dead and gone. This can actually be burned to produce a bright yellow flame, hence the name.


Staircase 1 - Canon 40D, Sigma 8-16, 1.6sec, f/8, ISO 100

Kolmanskop is a ghost mining town, that was once very prosperous and advanced. It had the first x-ray machine in the Southern hemisphere, though this was used for finding smuggled (or swallowed) diamonds rather than broken bones. The visit here is always one of the highlights of the workshop.

Staircase 2 - Canon 40D, Sigma 8-16, 0.5sec, f/8, ISO 400

Now the houses are being reclaimed by the desert.

My Door is Always Open - Canon 40D, Canon 17-55, 1sec, f/11, ISO 100

Triptych - Fuji x100s, 1/950, f/8, ISO 400

This is not really a triptych, but a plain photograph of three toilet booths which are overdue some maintenance.

After Dark

Setting Sun - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/250, f/8, ISO 100

I was invited to join the workshop as a night photography "expert" (the real experts demanded real money, I guess ;). I had a great time in this capacity - I love being out in the desert, I love photographing and I love teaching, and here I had the chance to combine all three.

Crescent Moon - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/200, f/8, ISO 800

The workshop was held over new moon to guarantee dark skies. So when the moon did arrive, it was a lovely crescent, and with the 600mm at my disposal I got some nice shots of the side-lit craters.

Saturn - Canon 40D, Sigma 150-600 C, 1/90, f/8, ISO 800

I even got a picture of Saturn, though it is only some 20 pixels across.

Galactic Heart - Canon 40D, Sigma 35 f/1.4 A, 15sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 turned out to be great for photographing the Milky Way. Clearly, aperture is king. The field of view is a bit narrow (on my 1.6x crop sensor), so I stitched a number of exposures into a panorama:

Milky Way Rising - Canon 40D, Sigma 35 f/1.4, 12x15sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

I didn't anticipate how much people would struggle with their cameras in the dark; initially even experienced daylight photographers found themselves stymied by their lens caps, HDR modes, mirror lockup, etc. With hindsight I should have known: all of this has happened to me, too. Focusing was a huge challenge, and so the Focus Bush was born - a torch left in a bush some 20m behind us, which people could use to focus on.

Ghost Car - Canon 40D, Tokina 11-16, 2x30sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

The above is a first for me: I had never used Photoshop for panoramas before, preferring to use the infinitely versatile and immensely frustrating Hugin. But in very simple cases (e.g. the above is made of only two exposures) it works quickly and easily.

The above car has sat at the entrance to Geisterschlucht for a long time, but has been mysteriously accumulating bullet holes over the decades.

Early Morning Shoot - Canon 40D, Tokina 11-16, 10x30sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

We left horribly early on our trip to the Khoichab River, and stopped for an impromptu night-sky shoot, which was great fun. So in the early morning the Milky Way has moved across the sky so that in a typical panorama, the two Magellanic Clouds lie outside the arch of the Milky Way, instead of inside it, as happens when you shoot this in the evening (example).

And if somebody can tell me how to get rid of that stupid panosphere icon that Google plasters onto my image, I would be very grateful.

Heavens Above - Fuji x100s, 4x30sec, f/2, ISO3200

This was pretty much the last serious picture I took at the workshop, and here I discovered that my little Fuji x100s is very well suited to night photography (the f/2 aperture is useful, especially combined with the excellent sensor), provided one makes panoramas to get a decently wide field of view. Also, I should shoot more in weak moonlight - in fact, perfectly dark skies are overrated - my best images typically involve some light pollution or at least moonlight.

I hope you enjoyed these pics. See you in Namibia next year?

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