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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Climbing the Ladder Again - August Drakensberg Workshop

For the first time in over a year African Impact and myself ran a photography workshop that took us to the top of the Amphitheatre and the world famous Tugela Falls (one of the two highest waterfalls in he the world with a drop of 946m). For the past year we have only been doing workshops lower down in valleys of the Little Berg for various reasons. So it was with some excitement that I found myself approaching the chain ladder once more to reach the summit. This, after a sparrow's fart start to reach the viewpoint at the Witches by sunrise (requiring a walk in the dark of about an hour to an hour and a half depending on fitness). The photography as ever was fantastic, and the weather, amazingly, was dramatic without being uncomfortable. Perfect for a weekend of photography.  

We started off this weekend by traveling through to the Cathedral Peak section of the Drakensberg uKhahlamba National Park and the always dramatic Cathderal Peak range. This was an easy start to the weekend as we spent the afternoon going over some post-processing tips before heading up the short but steep incline to the viewpoint above Didima Lodge. The recent burning has left much of het he mountainside blackened, but already there are a few small shoots of green starting to emerge. Not enough for the true green flush of spring, but a start nonetheless.

The following morning an early start saw us at the trout dam to photograph the beautiful alpine glow reflections of Cathedral Peak at Dawn. A stiff walk after this and we were in the tunnel at the end of Rainbow Gorge. This narrow sandstone gorge inevitably has everyone whistling the theme tune to Indiana Jones as they make there way along the slippery boulders, walk between hanging ferns and dodge round multitudes of hardened yellow wood trunks. Every time I encounter this incredible gorge it feels like I am exploring it for the first time.

The second to last morning was of course the push for the Amphitheatre summit via Witches Peak and the chain ladder (97 rungs of vertigo inspiring height). All in the weekend was a wonderful few days of shoots in varied locations and interesting light. An interesting point was photographing the glass like reflections of Cathedral Peak in the Trout Dam below the mountain.

Working with reflections is always interesting as the first thing that most people do is slap the horizon dead centre and create a symmetrical composition. This can work, but the thing about reflections is that reflection is often 2 stops darker than the sky. Although the reflection of the mountains and clouds might be absolutely symmetrical in terms of detail, the difference in tone means that the image ultimately ends up perceptively asymmetrical. Because the composition has been crafted to be symmetrical and the asymmetry is literally down the middle of the image, the photograph ends up feeling top or bottom heavy and the compositions falls flat. The image ends up looking boring.

The way to deal with is to either change the composition or use filters or exposure blending to balance the tones. Changing the composition can change the emphasis from symmetry to an emphasis placed on either the sky or the foreground. Possibly the darker tones of the reflection create a better sense of drama. Tilting the camera down and filling most of the frame with the reflection can lead the eye toward the mountain and give a sense of perspective while also highlighting the drama of the sky. Tilting up emphasizes the sky and does much the same as tilting down, with the exception that the sky's vastness becomes the focal point of the image, rather than the mountain.   
If symmetry is the goal of the image then some kind of balancing of the tones is basically necessary. I personally work with 100mm Lee filters usually. In the example presented here a 0.6 ND soft grad carefully placed just above the water effectively balanced the exposure so that the tones were more or less even. Although there is an emphasis on the sky in the image, I wanted there to be sense of a glassy reflection. The alternative to achieve this is to photograph an image with the exposure set for the foreground and a second image with the exposure set to the sky (i.e underexposed compared to the foreground). Layer the image in Photoshop and blend the two together to simulate the effect of a neutral density graduated filter (There are two tutorials on this on the Limephoto website).  

The advantage of the multiple image approach obviously extends to other images where a broad range of tones is evident in the image. The gorge image here is an example of this that required a total of 8 exposures. These were then blended manually in Photoshop to achieve the range of tones visible in the final image. Blending was done using a  combination rough masking through layers (my personal favourite is the lasso tool feathered using the properties panel), changing the blend mode on several layers to get the sunburst through and selective masking using luminosity masks (see Tony Kuyper’s excellent tutorials on this). the final ‘trick’ to the image is my way of removing the flare that inevitably occurs when you shoot directly in the sun. This is to create an exposure for the shadows with my hand (or anything that can be held in place) blocking the sun itself. This shadow exposure can be blended into the final frame sans bright flare.

My thanks to a fantastic group of photographers that made the weekend an intense photography experience and a fun one to boot. I always love it when I am surrounded by people passionate about photography :)

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