MAJESTIC ESCARPMENT | A STORY ABOUT CHASING LIGHT

Updated: Jan 7


For a while now I have been working on a landscape panoramic print collection called "Majestic Panoramic". The title was chosen, not because the places photographed were necessarily majestic, but more because of how the lighting had transformed an ordinary landscape into something extraordinary. Photographs for this body of work have not been added regularly but when the elements of weather, combined with complimentary light align one can create something really special.

Last week my family and I took a few days off while visiting Montagu in the Western Cape. The opportunity came about when I was asked to address a photographic conference and we decided to take some time off and stay over a few more days with the hope of also getting in some time for photography.

My address at the conference went about defining the difference between Photography, Art Photography and Fine Art Photography, a wonderful subject which I cannot get into now. On the third day of our stay a cold front was forecast to move through overnight bringing with it some cloud cover and hopefully with it some interesting light, so my daughter, Samantha and I decided to go out early the next morning to do some landscape photography.

Admittedly, as time had not allowed for it, we had not scouted for possible locations, plus the weather up until that point had been beautiful for R&R, but without a cloud in the sky, landscape photography was admittedly off the radar.

That morning we headed out about an hour before daybreak. Now for those of you who know the area will understand when I say the topography is breathtaking, the little town of Montagu is engulfed by high mountains on either side and the arid "karoo" landscape is just special. The predicted cloud cover had come through overnight and besides a small break on the eastern horizon, there was very little chance of early morning light, but we knew that if the sun came through the gap we saw, it would be sublime for a short while.

You have no doubt heard of the storm chasers, well that morning we felt like light chasers, as we drove all the way to the next town Barrydale towards where the action was more than likely going to happen, and happen it most certainly did.

As the sun started to rise, it felt like a stage performance was about to start and we were running late for the show, and a very short show at that. The curtains had started to open and we were still driving around like headless chickens looking for some foreground interest to include in a composition.

As the light started to break through we turned onto a side gravel road and headed down into a valley which the light had already started to fill. I recall saying to Samantha, "I have always said to my students, If you see the light and you are not set up, you are going to miss the shot", and miss it we did! As the light streamed through I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Soft, warm directional light flooded the valley displaying her majesty, and all we could do was stand by and witness her utter glory for just a few minutes, and then the sun moved behind a heavy bank of clouds as the curtain closed on what was a short but magnificent performance.

Damn!!! I felt like a child staring through the window of a candy store. So close you could taste it, but alas the lessons I preach on my landscape course came back to haunt me. It all comes back to time. Time to prepare, time to explore, time to set-up and time to wait. Then one can add in a bit of favourable fortune for good measure.

We drove back to Montagu in silence and although we kept glancing back in the rearview mirror, we knew the morning was done and dusted. A somber reminder that photography seems really easy when all elements come together, but man! extremely frustrating if not, especially when you can see the potential from a mile away.

In the area we were staying, the evening light is not really an option for photography as the Western horizon falls behind a high mountain range very early in the afternoon.

The weather forecast for the next morning was similar to the day before and Samantha convinced me to try again. I reminded her that we had not scouted the area, and I feared a repeat performance but agreed to another early morning session.

Again after getting up really early we drove out of town, everything looked the same as the morning before, except the break in the clouds on the eastern horizon was now further south toward the Langeberg mountain range and the Koo valley. A short distance out of town, it became evident that we would need to get out of the valley and up to a much higher vantage point should we wish to utilize the first light of the day.

I turned off onto a gravel road and headed up a mountain pass, it was still dark and we had about an hour to go to sunrise. We drove down into another valley and soon we were once again surrounded by high mountains. A few kilometers in the distance I could see a red light shining off a signal beacon at the top of one the highest points. I said to Sam "that's where I think we need to be". The GPS was not working properly as we did not have a mobile signal, but we managed to navigate our way through the gravel roads towards the peak.

When we finally arrived, I could see a possible opportunity for a panoramic shot but would still need to climb up quite a way to the top of the mountain to obtain a suitable vantage point. The sun had already started to rise but was once again the light was suppressed by clouds, plus it had a way to go before it cleared the eastern mountain ranges.

Samantha and I have an understanding that we will not stand side by side and photograph the same subject, so she grabbed her camera and headed off in another direction. Still weighing up whether it was worth it to test my fitness and brave the steep slope, I decided that I could not face it if lightning struck twice, so I grabbed my camera gear and headed up towards the beacon.

The view was spectacular, but the light did not seem to do it justice plus I feared the angle of light for the composition I wanted would be too flat. Nevertheless, I set up for a panoramic composition in any case. After such a steep climb, I felt I had justified at least one attempt. Just before the light started to clip the first peaks of the mountain range in the far distance, I did a few test exposures to double check composition. Well, I have been shooting for over thirty years and would like to believe that I have some experience when it comes to working with light, but what I saw on the camera compared to what I was seeing with the eye was amazingly different.

My mood changed from doubt to utter elation, I frantically double and triple checked focus, and then quickly photographed a series of exposures that would be later stitched together. A few minutes later the light I initially expected started to clip the tops of the mountains in composition, it then quickly lost color and the scene became far too contrasty to shoot. Had I waited, the shot would have been a complete waste of time.

Light is unquestionably the magic ingredient in photography, therefore learning how to work with it is imperative to achieving consistent success, but to say one has mastered light...I think not.

Light in photography will always remain a law unto itself, taunting and teasing, as it reveals mysteries and surprises along the way. What's there not to love about Photography!

Best wishes,

Martin Osner

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