Updated: Aug 12
A few years ago, in January, my family and I had taken a short break to the countryside to get away from the hustle and bustle of life for a few days. Just for the record for outdoor photography, January, in my opinion, is a notoriously uninteresting month in the Western Cape where we live.
We saw nothing but the blue sky as expected for the first three days, great for a holiday, bad for photography. To add to this, the area we stayed in was nestled in a deep valley, so the first and last light of the day was non-existent. On the fourth-day cloud cover was predicted so, Sam, my daughter and I headed out before dawn to photograph the mountain peaks of the Winterberg from a vantage point that we had scouted the day before. While on the way, I managed to capture this photograph of two old farmhouses that found their way into my Abandoned Collection. So the shoot was already a success.
The morning before, we were scouting possible compositions in the area, with the idea of returning later in the year if necessary. As we approached a rise, the view of the mountains opened up before us, I said to Sam, "I have been here!" "Really?!" she replied. I said that I wasn't sure, but the scenery felt very familiar. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the scene we were looking at had been photographed by Peter Corbett (an artist whom our Art Photography Gallery represents). I quickly checked on the internet with my phone and opened the image in question. "Absolutely!" I said to Sam, and showed her the photograph, "Look here - Peter could not have been more than a kilometre away from where we were now when he took this picture".
There is a fundamental principle in play here, and one that we both feel strongly about. The last thing that I will do is photograph a similar composition to that of a colleague, be they a professional or amateur photographer. Once I am aware of the picture, and I know I cannot photograph it dramatically differently, it is a no-go area. Doing so borders on plagiarism, especially so if the composition is identical. I recently had a few of my photographs copied by photographers whom I know were aware of what they were doing. Though some may say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the awareness of being copied is horrible. Copying someone else's composition point for point is disrespectful.
So, I said to Sam, "Let's turn around and go look elsewhere", which we did. About ten kilometres away, the Wintersberg and the Wittensberg mountain ranges converge. The area is known as the "Horse Shoe". Here the upper slopes are more challenging to get to as most of the farms through which one has to gain access are fenced and gated.
That afternoon the light was so poor that it felt like we were wasting time.
Nevertheless, we parked outside one of the farm entrances, where the main gate was locked. We went through a pedestrian/staff entrance and walked up the slopes to get a better view of the area. The hillside was steep, but before long, a magnificent vista opened up in front of us. The light was still poor, but the opportunities, on the other hand, endless. Using an app on my phone called PhotoPills, I checked the path of the sun, which confirmed that the early morning light would be ideal for this shot. We left for the day and headed home. I liked the photograph's potential so much that I said to Sam that I would travel back at another time to get the shot.
Getting back to my story, that morning, cloud cover had filled the sky overnight, and the light was atmospheric. After photographing the abandoned farmhouses, we headed up into the horseshoe mountains again. To our surprise, the gate to the farm we had earmarked the day before was open. Working on the principle that it's usually easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, I drove onto the property and parked the 4x4 just out of sight of the main farmhouse. Again, a steep climb up mountainside to get to the spot I wanted to shoot from now lugging camera gear. Sam then headed off on her own to see what she could find.
The clouds were moving across the landscape quickly now, and the sun had climbed high enough to light the top of the mountain peaks. The intermittent breaks in the clouds created dappled light on the majestic landscape. It felt like a stage performance with spotlights following the production - although the star in this show was the light itself. At one point, I realised that if I didn't shoot in the next few minutes, I would miss the opportunity. Then, just like that, in a short brief moment, it all came together, and I knew the shot was in the bag.
While packing up my camera, I looked down onto the gravel road and saw the farmer prowling around my vehicle - obviously wondering who was trespassing on his property. I whistled and waved to him from the mountainside while preparing my story of forgiveness. Like most folk, he turned out to be a nice person, and when I explained what I was photographing, he had one bit of advice for me. He said, "Sell the Land Rover and buy a Toyota Land Cruiser". We all had a good chuckle.
Before leaving, he said that if we wanted to gain access to the mountain's upper slopes, we were welcome to drive through his farm. He gave us directions and Sam, and I grabbed the opportunity. The pathways were challenging to navigate and very steep in places, but we reached the most spectacular viewpoint a short while later, even with a Landrover. The sheer majesty and absolute beauty of the area were heightened by the light's quality that morning. I was very fortunate to find a second composition just before the rays of sunlight entered the valley. I couldn't believe my good fortune. The beautiful weather of the day that was reminiscent of winter delivered spectacular light, two shots in one morning. Thank you, Lord!
Driving home later that day, we were once again reminded that the quality of light is undoubtedly the magic ingredient in photography, transforming an ordinary scene into something extraordinary.