South Africa Workshop Blog (Week One)

The daily report from my South Africa Workshop

Note: while I wrote this blog contemporaneously during the workshop, what you're seeing here is on "tape delay." I'm playing back one day at a time so that you get the same day-by-day experience those of us in South Africa had. Newest entry is at the top. In some cases I'm using student images instead of my own so that you get their view of a day, too. Thank you to all the students who've agreed to let some of their images be used in this blog. One comment, though, as the question came up in emails: yes, my images look different than the students in terms of post processing. I'm just taking what they give me and not trying to touch it up or change it in any way. I suspect some of the differences you see is simply not optimizing for small size. When I process for the Web, I have an optimization action that tries to preserve small detail.

For Week Two of the Workshop, click here

Day 7: Goodbye Landscapes, Hello Animals
Aug 28--Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men result in...well, chaos. A key part of today seemed a bit like that: logistical chaos.

Our day started with an early morning drive to the airport in George, from which we then flew to Johannesburg. In other words, a non-photography morning. Or, at least, a low key photography morning, as I did note a few students taking some "travel pictures" along the way.

From the Jo-berg airport we immediately hopped on a minivan to our photography destination for the day: the Ann van Dyk Cheetah and Wildlife Center in De Wildt, just outside of Pretoria. This 65 hectare farm has been turned into a research and breeding center for cheetahs, wild dogs, and other endangered African species. Given that perhaps only 700 cheetahs existed in southern Africa when the center was founded in 1971, the fact that they've now bred, raised, and settled in game reserves as many as 500 cheetahs in the ensuing 40 years is an impressive accomplishment.

Unfortunately, getting to the center proved to be our greatest challenge so far. First, the area businesses were holding a special auction event outside the property, which distracted us into stopping, but second our bus driver had the wrong address anyway, which caused us some additional grief. The problem is that the center only does two pre-planned programs at fixed times each day. It's not like a zoo where you can walk in and wander around the exhibits. Thus, our delays in getting there were jeopardizing our ability to have any photographic experience at all.

I should perhaps back up and tell people why we're at a captive animal facility at all. One of the things that I've noticed in doing wildlife workshops and observing others is that at least some--and sometimes a majority--of the students come in with misconceptions or technique issues regarding things like focus (exposure is another area that comes up often). By putting us in a more controlled and predictable environment, it gives me (and my assistant Tony if he's along on a trip) the chance to observe and work with students on some of the basics before we get to the wilds, where anything can and does happen (let's just call that foreshadowing ;~).

Indeed, within minutes at the cheetah center I found that at least two of the students had a signficant misconception about Single Point autofocus mode. It is not what Single Area autofocus mode used to be. Single Point does not track focus. Ever. Single Area used to track focus, sometimes. This small difference is enough to produce slightly out of focus shots if you're not aware of it. Having a more fixed relationship between the photographer and animals as we did at the center (more on that in a bit) makes it easier to remove quite a few variables from the equation and makes it simpler for me to discover such problems while we can still do something about them. That's one of the reasons why we're here, and why I almost always schedule something similar at the start of any sport or wildlife workshop.

Unfortunately, logistically, things turned out a mess and I didn't fully recover from that, so the session wasn't as good as it could have been (though still quite useful and fun). The problem was that I had no time to prep the students prior to us joining the De Wildt's packaged program, as I had planned. That's because we had also had to get to the nearby Cheetah Lodge to pick up lunches that had been prepared for us. By the time we got to the center itself, the program was just beginning, so it was a race to get our gear out of the bus and rush into the facility to join the program already in progress.

First up was Baron. Every non-profit ought to have its own Baron:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Who's Baron? Well, he's an ambassador animal. The center brings a cheetah like Baron--who's been acclimated to people--to South African schools as part of a one-hour presentation on the history of the cheetah and why it needs to be preserved. Then, at the end of the presentation, students can come up a few at a time and pet Baron (yeah, try getting away with that liability in the US). At the center, the first bit of business to any tour is this: donate money to the program to bring wildlife education (and Baron) to more South African schools and you, too, will get to meet and pet Baron, and even have your picture taken with him.

Now who can resist that kind of come on? I know I couldn't ;~)

Neither could most of my students. Here's Robert with Baron:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

It's interesting to look at all the pictures of the various students with Baron (and me, for that matter): we all have these big silly grins on our faces. Baron--well, as you can tell by the shot, above--he's pretty darned relaxed. You would be, too, if you were getting a hundred massages a day followed by a nice bowl of your favorite food.

The afternoon program at the center starts with a short lecture about the center's history and founder, the Baron-meet-and-greet, and then off into a controlled game drive. Everyone piles into a big open truck and trailer (three or four across each row of seats, which means some people have restricted shooting angles, so get to the truck early if you're shooting and make sure you're at one of the sides). The truck then drives out on a winding path through the various game pens. Early in the tour you get vultures, honey badgers, servals, caracals, and African wild cat, which were good warm-up animals for our group, though a bit tough to photograph due to the enclosures they were in. Here's one you don't see every day, an albino honey badger (yes, he says that the meat he eats tastes just like chicken ;~):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

But the highlights of the three-hour program are the African Wild Dogs and cheetahs.

To me, the Wild Dogs were the most interesting, especially since they've trained some of them to essentially hunt the truck. If you've never heard or seen Wild Dogs on the hunt--which involves them running alongside their prey for long distances--then you won't have any idea of what I'm writing about here. But for those of you who haven't had that experience, the chorus of yipping that occurs is unmistakeable and very ominous when you're the one being hunted (even if you are in a truck). Of course, almost all of you reading this have never had the experience of seeing Wild Dogs hunt, so you'll just have to imagine it. Wild Dogs are extremely rare in Africa now, and the likelihood of seeing them in the wild is getting very low and usually in only a handful of places is it possible at all (hint: stick around for the Botswana workshop blog ;~).

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

We ended our journey through the center with the cheetahs getting their afternoon feeding:

Copryight 2010 Eric Schoch

Copyright 2010 Russell Jacobs

I saw a lot of other great images from the students this afternoon, but I'll leave it to them to show them off on their blogs and image pages (pointers coming at the end of blog). The main thing I wanted to get across here is that today was practice for the real thing, which will begin tomorrow as we head to Kirkman's Kamp, adjacent to Kruger National Park in the Sabi Sands. Hopefully all the students are now a little more ready for the random animals actions we're about to encounter, and fully up to speed with their focusing and exposure techniques.

Day 6: The Tsitsikamma
Aug 27--We're still in the Tsitsikamma. There's actually far more to see and shoot here than even our three nights at the Fernery will allow.

Because I wanted to travel to the place we didn't get to yesterday, I decided to change our itinerary a bit today. We were originally scheduled to do more at the North end of the park: some lagoon work, a walk along the end of the Otter Trail, plus some beach work, but I decided to mostly concentrate on the beach work.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
We're at the end of the park where the Otter Trail ends. The ocean shore here is more beachy, but still with some minor upthrusts of rock. So our photographic opportunities are less the waves themselves and more the details on the shore that get created by them. I tried to work with each student independently, and gave many of them small assignments to work through so I could see how they were responding to the way I teach (which is a bit different than the usual photographic instruction--much more on that later this year as I finish up my new book). But don't take my word on it, here's what Robert wrote:

While on the beach at Nature's Valley, in noonish light, Thom wanders by and asks if I am up for a challenge. Of course, I said. He gave me this white abalone shell and said "Make your best image containing this shell". Wow. Black rocks all around, sand, noon light, and now this freakin' white spot of shell.

I spent over an hour (I am easily amused) working on shots with this white shell in it. I finally hit a concept I liked. Here the black rock, sand ripples caused by water receding back to the ocean, a shell in it's environment, and the surf line at the top of the image created the best image I knew how to make of a bright white shell at noon on a beach with black granite everywhere.

Here's his picture in two forms (I did a bit of work on it, but mostly just adding contrast):

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

For the afternoon, we went back to the other end of the park to the place I had wanted to get to yesterday. This involves a bit of a climb up and down a staired boardwalk, plus a walk across a suspension bridge, so part of the fun is just getting there. Once, there, yes, I was back to getting wet.

So what was there? A lot of things, but I'm particularly fascinated by the small boulder beach at the other end of the suspension bridge. But the whole short hike is a great place to work on (mostly) static compositions, so that's what I did. I worked with Russell on a Calla Lilly shot, for example:

Copyright 2010 Russell Jacobs

I like where Russell finally got the composition, but we needed to work a few more details on this shot to get it perfect, and we just didn't have the time. Like some of the others, the black and white version also works very well:

Copyright 2010 Russell Jacobs

And here's my shot from just across from where his was taken:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Or maybe you like it better in black and white:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

I worked again with Robert for awhile on the beach of boulders. I think he must have moved every rock you see here at least three times as we discussed what he was trying to do:

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

And I did a bit of scrambling onto the rock outcroppings looking for that strange angle and viewpoint that I'm known for with abstract landscapes (something I learned climbing after Galen):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

As you might note from the wetness of the rocks I'm on, the bigger waves were breaking into my position, so yes, once again I went home wet. At this point, my trail running shoes are completely sodden, and are going to need a good drying out. Here's another unusual angle on the same beach, just to the left of the position on the last shot:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Despite not having fully cooperative weather (skies too clear), all in all it turned out to be a decent day of landscape photography. Which is good, because tomorrow we tackle yet another type of photography on this smorgasbord of a workshop.

Day 5: The Tsitsikamma
Aug 26--We're in the Tsitsikamma. That's a Khoi (local tribe) word meaning "place of abundant or sparkling water." It's also one of the few areas of indigenous and old-growth forest left in South Africa, mostly because those steep ravines of water slashing down to the sea kept the loggers from getting wood out of the area.

The National Park was created in 1964 and still has that 60's US park feel to it, right down to the cabins you can rent in the park (think Yosemite). The park itself is perhaps 40 miles long and only a few miles deep along the ocean, but when it was created it also included the marine reserve, where at various points in the year you'll find dolphins or whales motoring by.

Within the park there are many objects of interest, especially photographically, including the infamous Shooting Rock (water breaks into it and splashes up high in the air basically yards away from the main parking lot). Hikers will find the Otter Trail of interest, and much like the ocean trails in Olympic National Park in the US, Otter Trail runs the length of the park along the ocean.

And it's on Otter Trail that we make our first walk and start really working on scenics. Because there are so many attractions here, we split the group into two, with part of the group following Lanz up to the waterfall a couple of miles up Otter Trail, and me leading those that wanted to work the shoreline. Here's what the waterfall group were working with:

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

We shorebirds didn't get very far very fast, as we found plenty to work with within a short walk from the bus. As typical with me on a shoreline--my former Hawaii workshop students can all vouch for this--I was soaking wet within minutes. That's because Hans and I decided to try working a small tidal pool that was being fed by the water surge at low tide.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

When you look at the photos, you'll think the waves generating the upward lifts must be mammoth. They weren't. In fact, they were the most timid I've seen here, as the seas were relatively calm. I'd say the waves and swell were no more than three or four feet. It's just that the shoreline consists of lines of granite and other material that thrust up nearly perpendicularly to the wave action. So even a four foot wave hitting these features tends to get forced upward into as much as 20 and 30 feet blasts. At low tide and with calm seas, the area we were working gets a lot of vertical water thrust. (At high tide or high seas, the waves break completely over the ridges on the shoreline, which is also impressive, but it doesn't create the "shooting effect" that Hans and I were photographing from up close, and others were shooting from a more respectable distance.

The challenge is to get a photo that feels like the wave is right in your face and overwhelms the horizon line. That means getting close and low. While our position wasn't dangerous--we were in no danger of getting swept to sea other than a massive rogue wave, which we probably would have seen early enough to gain ground behind us--it wasn't without hazard. And that hazard was that every now and again the remnants of the shooting wave would shoot right up to us, or in a few cases, over us (note that the rock in the foreground of my shot is wet). So you have to keep high recognition of what's happening around you and be able to respond quickly. Several times I found myself taking the shot and quickly turning my back to the water while protecting the camera from getting the brunt of the sea water. And so I found myself quickly wet from head to toe. (For those that want to know, I was shooting with the Olympus E-P2 here, and it definitely was sopping wet by the time I was through. It survived, though.)

Usually when I photograph shooting water like this I go for the "fireworks effect": use a longish shutter speed to get streaks of water arching up and out. Today, I decided to work more towards stopping the water and trying to catch the individual drops that form at the front of the motion. With water, I usually tell students that you have to freeze it or flow it. Shutter speeds in the range of 1/30 to 1/250 generally don't produce great images with moving water: the moving water just looks like you missed focus or shook the camera, as the movement in the water is slightly visible but not defined. So, if you work with moving water, remember that you have to freeze it (typically >1/250 shutter speed) or flow it (usually <1/30 shutter speed). The actual speed you need will depend upon the speed of the water, so make sure to experiment. That's one of the joys of the digital era, you can make that experiment and check the results immediately.

So that you get some perspective on the size of things, here's where Hans was (I was far forward and to the left of him most of the time, just at the left edge of the tidal pool--this splash would have gotten me very wet):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

The shoreline at Tsitsikamma we were working was so compelling that even when the other group returned from the waterfall, we ended up continuing to work the same basic stretch most of the day. Here's what things looked like later in the afternoon:

Copyright 2010 Russell Jacobs

We finally got to lunch at 3 pm, which seems to be a pattern we've now established. We also never got to the second location I had planned here in the main part of the park, so we'll try to fit that in tomorrow. Personally, I'm pleased when students find a location so compelling that they aren't willing to leave. Better the scenic in the hand than the two in the bush.

Day 4: The Long Drive
Aug 25--On photo workshops that last longer than a week, there are usually one or two days where you're mostly repositioning the group. Today was one of those days. That doesn't mean that we don't photograph--I try to keep photographic opportunities in mind both in the way and time we re-position. It's just that sometimes you just can't avoid a long drive or a short flight. Today was one of those days.

From Franschhoek we climbed up out of the valley and headed over the pass north into farm country. What we were looking for was a canola field in bloom in sunlight, preferably with something interesting to backdrop it. Unfortunately, we were in fog most of the morning. Bright yellow fields that quickly fade into white fog are pretty boring as a photograph. Every now and then we'd see a few trees poking up out of the fog and that was tempting to stop for, but I took a gamble that we'd manage to find something more photogenic. I say "gamble" because for timing purposes we really could only afford a single one hour stop in the fields. Thus, you have to guess at whether each visual opportunity you come upon is the "best" one. You don't want to drive a group of rabid photographers who've paid you money past the best spot to get to one of lesser quality.

Fortunately, we've got one of South Africa's leading photographers, Lanz von Horsten, as our local guide. He's photographed this area extensively, so he not only knows where all the fields are, but can read the local weather patterns. I trusted his sense here, and it paid off when the last couple of canola fields we were to pass were out in sun. The one we stopped at was a bit tricky photographically, though, as there was no obvious "payoff" that the lines in the canola plants would lead to. A few of the fields we had passed in the fog have some great little features that you can use as visual payoffs (but require light); the field we got in the light we wanted forced us to work the more abstract nature of the patterns in the field. As it turned out, it was a useful teaching exercise, and we spent a little more time working the fields than I'd planned.

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

Here's where Robert was positioned for his shot:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

And here's the shot that I decided I liked (a pano, who would have guessed? ;~):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

It was in these fields that we had our first real problem of the workshop. With eight people over two weeks, something is bound to go wrong. You work hard to keep that from happening, but it does. Entropy is a harsh mistress. Worse still, we didn't know we had a problem until late in the afternoon, when one of the students realized they no longer had their iPhone.

One thing I do as we pack up at each location (as does Lanz), is to walk the grounds around the vehicle and where most people were photographing. Lens caps, filters, and many other small things--and sometimes big things like lenses if a student changed them in the field--often get dropped or set on the ground and left behind. The problem with the canola was that a lot of the students had gone into the fields (see Robert, above), and many had been down low or even laying on the ground at times. Thus, short of plowing the fields, there wasn't any easy way to do a full ground search as we packed up. In reconstructing events, it is pretty certain the iPhone is in that field and slipped out of a pocket unnoticed. Unfortunately the phone is turned off, so we can't send Lanz back to visit the field while we do something else and have him ring the phone to find it.

We discovered the missing iPhone as we headed into another area called The Heads for lunch (at 3 pm!). But before lunch, we had stopped at one other popular location, where we got our first view of the Indian Ocean:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Here's my view of the same place, taken during my scouting trip:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Note that I've elected to go ahead and include the train tracks at the bottom rather than try to mask them with the foreground foliage. One thing about landscape photography is that there is no "perfect" composition. Robert's shot looks slightly more wild (this is the town of Wilderness, after all), while mine implies something different (would have liked to have a train in the shot, too, but apparently they don't run very often, and usually at times when they wouldn't be in the right light). One of the things that I teach is that you have to be receptive to the attraction compelling you to photograph. Robert and I had two slightly different attractions, and these produce different compositions naturally, despite us being in the same place.

After lunch, we did a tiny bit of photography at the mouth of the inlet at the Heads, followed by some more driving. We finally made it to The Fernery around sunset, our accommodations for the next few days. Besides being a working fernery (yes, ferns), it also contains a small four star resort (it would be five star if it had televisions and Internet access, but we're in the middle of nowhere here, so four star is as good as you can do). We're not roughing it here: individual cabins with tubs and showers that have a view, big comfy beds, private decks overlooking the small creek that winds down to the Indian Ocean, and a central lodge that is spectacular (and serves spectacular food). There's a pool and hot tubs, not that we'll likely get around to using them, but for being at the end of a long dirt road in the middle of a forest, it's a small oasis that gives us a nice comfy base for our local scenic work.

At the lodge before dinner, I pulled a Thom and played a little photography game. If you've got a bunch of photographers in one place, you can play it, too. Simply take a semi-random shot, pass the camera to someone, and have them explain how they'd "improve it." Then have them reshoot it (or do it yourself the way they asked). Pass the camera on again for another set of comments. Keep doing that until you either decide the shot wasn't worth taking in the first place or you refine it to a high enough level that you're all satisfied with it. You never quite know where the game will end up when you start it. But it's always interesting to hear the differences of opinion and talk through them. (You also usually find out who thinks they're the alpha male of the group ;~). I started our game with a simple, but very awkward shot, and it ended with a decent shot. Here's the original (left) and the shot after six iterations by students (right):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

You can see that there were a lot of small changes (including, believe it or not, changing the logs on the fire). There's still more to do (the umbrella on the drink is overlit and someone has been drinking our subject ;~), but this should give you an idea of where we started and where we were headed with the image.

Day 3: Out of the Cape
Aug 24--Those of you who've been on one of my workshops before or have read about them probably wouldn't recognize today. While we had a fairly long drive to get out of Cape Town and up the Eastern coast, I had a few surprising things up my sleeve photographically.

Would you believe we spent the morning in the cellar of a winery? That's so unThom-like that it might even shock a few people. After all, I don't drink, so a winery isn't exactly a place I typically visit. But I'm also not known as an indoor photographer, either, so down in a wine cellar is a rare place to find me, let alone one of my workshops.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

But there's method to my madness: what better place to try teaching multi-flash lighting than someplace that isn't lit? And so I went into my best McNally imitation, though without the frenetic chatter, the jokes, or the blur of activity. (Sorry Joe, but you have to admit that you sometimes look like a speeded up movie when you're talking up a lighting situation. If Joe's movie is running at 12 fps, then I must be at 36 fps ;~).

Let me step you through the multi flash lighting process, Thom-style.

One of the great conceits (of both Nikon and Nikon pros) is that "you just turn on TTL and fire away." One of the things I always teach is to take control of everything. You make hundreds of decisions when you photograph. Hundreds. Or you can let the camera make them for you and get some, perhaps many, of them wrong. Or you can take control and get them all right.

Light is the life of our photographs. Without it, we don't have a photograph. With the right light we have a remarkable photograph. Running light from the pop-up flash or hot shoe flash controlled by the camera is highly likely to be the wrong light, in the wrong place, with the wrong intensity.

To demonstrate this, I arranged with the Vrede en Lust winery to have access to their cellar. Yes, it has some overheads so the workers can see, but with them turned off, the place is nearly lightless. I had brought my "small" location lighting kit, which consists of two flashes and all the accessories to shape and modify the light, plus a few other goodies that are helpful. Here's the short version of what we did:

  1. Establish the ambient. If you do have ambient light--and we had a small amount--you first figure out where you're going to use that and set your exposure for it. Often times I'll set a slight underexposure for the ambient and run my flash to create pockets of light where I want something above the underexposure (typically the subject and perhaps a few supplemental details in the background). We had almost no ambient in the cellar, so there wasn't much to do here.
  2. Light the subject. The first flash went off camera at a pleasing angle on the nearest wine barrel and was set as the Master. It's off the camera axis both to establish mood and to allow us to hide shadows out of frame. Our first test shots established the value on this master light (everything else was going to be triggered off it, though I did bring Pocket Wizards so that we could go to the radio if we couldn't get the line of sight the Nikon i-TTL system needs).
  3. Light the next layer behind the subject. The second layer of barrels needed just a little less light than the front barrel, so obviously we dialed this flash down some from the main flash (This flash is Slave: Group A). We positioned it with a NastyClamp I had brought, which we clamped to a handy nearby rack.
  4. Light the third layer behind the subject. In this case, it was a wall that had been painted yellow. But we didn't want it yellow, as we didn't think the Canary yellow of the wall gave much contrast or support to the warm colors of the casks. That's the fun thing about doing flash manually: you control everything. So out came my Strobist filter kit and we put red filters over the third flash head (Slave: Group B). Voila, the wall was a reddish color that was more pleasing than the yellow paint. We could have made it blue, green, a different yellow, just about anything we wanted. It's just a matter of finding the right filter. (Remember, if you're putting colored light on a colored wall, you may have some additive color issues to deal with, so the color of the filter you use may not be the final color you seek.)
  5. Light the background, if necessary. Usually the ambient lights up the background, but we had almost no ambient, so we decided to add another light to the far background at this point (Slave: Group C).

Put another way: we built the light bit by bit, controlling the intensity, direction, and color for everything. I'm sure McNally would have nailed it in 20 minutes, but it took us an hour, partly because I don't talk as fast as McNally and partly because we got to the second light setup and discovered my batteries were fast running down. Of course extra batteries were the one thing I hadn't carried down into the cellar with us, so we had a small delay as someone went back up to the vehicle and retrieved batteries. Note to self: extra batteries should go in the case labeled Flash Accessories. Oh wait, they were. Doh! Darn it if I hadn't thought of that when I built my cases, but somehow I didn't remember that I was anal enough to think of everything, so I didn't actually look for batteries in my lighting case. Too bad we couldn't tap the casks while we were waiting for replacement batteries that I actually had but didn't notice.

Here's me working at setting up the first light:

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

And here's the shot we were working on (note that the plan was to stick a model behind the first row of barrels, but because of my slowness in getting everything set up, we never quite got to that step):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

The wall is a little too red and hot. Next step would be to dial that back a bit. But note the change in the color of the barrels: we've lit them warmer than they are, and intentionally so. Once the wall was dialed down, my next step was to bring in the model and light her, but as I noted, we were running out of time (we still had a scheduled wine tasting and lunch to get to).

Okay, so I didn't think everything out quite as well as I thought I had before heading into the cellar. Still, it was a nice teaching hour, and everyone got a taste of exactly why pros have assistants and spend a lot of time setting up lighting before the models show up.

And yes, we stayed and tasted wine. Well, at least the others did, I just watched and sniffed, as I don't drink. And we had a fabulous lunch. All of which lasted far too long for a photographic workshop, but not long enough to keep us from another unThom-like destination.

Our final destination of the day (our third--I've skipped over one in this blog, otherwise I'd be writing deep into the night) was the monument in downtown Franschhoek. Yep, Thom is photographing human-carved stone for a change. Oh, and flowers again (we had a few hours in a garden late yesterday that I didn't write about). Go figure. Nobody said this workshop was going to be just about animals (that would be the Botswana workshop that follows this one). Indeed I'd long planned this workshop and tour as a real smorgasbord of photographic opportunities. So here we were photographing a local monument. It took a bit for people to warm to the challenge, but eventually I found that everyone deep ended into working a shot that they liked.

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

One of the interesting things about so many photographers in a constrained space with a constrained subject is that they all still manage to find different shots. The "reference shots" are easy: just stand in front of the thing, frame it all, and fire. But shots that capture the character of the place, the lighting, the accouterments, the environment, or the location take a little thinking and result in seven photographers going different directions. Eric spent a lot of time down low and close to the water to get his shot (above). I ended up behind the monument, because I became more fascinated by the shadows it threw:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
So a very unThom-like day, but don't worry, there will be some Thom-like ones showing up soon...

Day 2: South Africa History Day
Aug 23--Today we took a step back in time, visiting sites involved in the Cape Town area's history. It's both a depressing and encouraging story. Depressing in the sense that suppression of any kind--in this case racially motivated--is one of the recurring themes in human history that is, well, not one of our better ideas. Encouraging because progress is being made and the people of this country are aware that it is.

First up on our town history tour was a visit to the first residential area of Cape Town, Bo-Kaap*, where the small brightly colored homes dominate the hill above city center. These days the area is a mostly Muslim neighborhood. And like almost everywhere you go throughout Cape Town, you find mostly friendly, encouraging people. For instance, one of the students was photographing a house and asked a woman who came out of it if she wouldn't mind posing for a picture. Most city and street photographers know that being polite, respectful, and willing to listen to a few stories often pays off with willing subjects, and this time was no different. Not only did she gladly pose, but next thing you know the whole group was being invited into her home for some baked goods she was preparing for her family and friends, which were about to set off on a Haj to Mecca. After politely chatting and thanking her for her hospitality, we made sure to get her name and address so that we could send her a copy of the picture that the student took when we get home.

*Even in South Africa there seems to be some confusion over the actual name, as I've gotten five different spellings and punctuations on this. But after a little more research, we'll go with this one. The area is also known as the Malay Quarter for those of you trying to find it.

Copyright Robert von Mayr

I'm not known for people photography, but when the situation arises at a workshop, we try to take advantage of the opportunity rather than let it pass by. I suppose it helps that I'm not particularly trying to collect pictures to publish of people in the places I visit, so generally almost all of my people encounters are friendly and often lead to experiences that there is no other way to get. Obviously, you have to take care when and where you deal with locals, as not every situation might turn out so pleasant, but with a small workshop group like this and a knowledgable local guide moderating where and who we interact with, I'm not afraid to put my friendly side forward and see what happens next. If they say no--heck, if they're not 100% cooperative--I have no compunctions about moving on. I don't need the shot and the potential subjects don't need the grief. But it's those times when you make a new foreign friend that makes travel such an interesting and rewarding experience. So our day started with some of that.

(I should note here that you won't see much in the way of "people pictures" here on the my Web site. I do not like to use images that contain people in them on the Web site because it feels a bit like exploitation. It would be one thing if I were paying modeling fees to someone and getting them to sign releases, but for casual street photography, I do not tend to publish such images, especially when children are involved, so you won't see many people in the images you'll see in this blog. That means not many of the images we took today are going to make it on the blog. Pity, that, as some of the students got some excellent portraits today.)

The big item on our itinerary today was a slightly more risky venture than wandering through friendly city neighborhoods, though. We were headed to one of the cornerstones of understanding the recent South African experience: a township.

When we got to our destination at Khayelitsha I was a bit surprised. Visiting the same multi-block area of the township as I did last year I immediately noticed changes. For the better. Last year, the block we visited consisted of perhaps three or four constructed homes and dozens of more impromptu metal lean-to type shelters (see left side of image, below)--shacks or shanties in local parlance. This year in the same block I'd guess that about half the shacks were gone and replaced by constructed homes (see right side of image). Still modest, of course, but real structures that were built to real construction codes, and which the residents now own (assuming they live in them for seven years). Yes, there are still tin-metal shacks about, but fewer than before. Noticeably fewer.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

It's difficult to describe, or even show in pictures, partly because the history of the area is a big part of a backstory you need to know to fully understand what is going on. This is a township of a million or so people in what most of us would consider a modest-sized area for that population. And it all came about in very recent times. When I was born, Khayelitsha didn't exist. It was just an open area 10km from Cape Town. When the legal system here changed after the British handed over rule and Apartheid begin to rear it's ugly head, the story starts as a very sad one.

For instance, in an area in town known as District Six (I believe their were nine districts in town at the time), the government began tearing down the small homes of the colored and blacks that lived there. In a short time, over 60,000 people lost their homes. Mostly because the government wanted the land for potential development for whites. Because "black" and "colored" mean different things in South Africa, the fates of those that lived in District Six were different. But both lost their homes and were moved elsewhere, usually to new townships. The government would take some open land outside of town, construct some minimal infrastructure and move the displaced there. That's how Khayelitsha started.

The townships are both chaotic and organized. Chaos can be seen at any stop light (which generally would only be near the edges of the township as within the township you see few vehicles and there's no need for them): from one signal I counted 18 unauthorized wires connected up to the signal that were drawing power down to nearby shacks. The joke here is that if you've managed to acquire a radio or TV, your channel will be changed every time the signal changes. Seriously, power lines snake all over the place here, with people grabbing power from any source they can find. Dr. Random has arranged the overhead wires in ways that are sometimes amusing and sometimes mind-boggling. On top of this there are people everywhere due to the high population density, and from the edge of the township looking in you see very little regularity, just a lot of incongruent metal, wood, plaster sides and impromptu roofs, all with a teeming mass of people in the midst.

Inside the township you discover something else: there is structure and order. Neighborhood Watch means something much more here than it does where I live. Neighbors look out for one another, watch the children, police for crime, participate in councils that decide what people can build, and much more. Small collectives are present, too. There's a part of the neighborhood that specializes in washing vehicles; somehow certain areas seem to have been designated for business instead of residential. There are day care centers, and in a few places there are small non-profits that have established centers where people can come to learn a craft and sell their work.

Don't get me wrong. This is not nirvana. This is poverty. But here's the thing: these people appear to be mostly happy, there is obvious progress happening in their township (which I've now witnessed), there is pride in ownership of what they do have, and they are generally friendly. More than once I've been spontaneously invited into their homes, such as they are. And when you do take someone up on that, you find that their home may be simple, but there is an obvious pride in what they do have, and things are always remarkably clean, especially considered all the dirt and chaos just outside the door.

With school out due to a teacher's strike, the children were all hanging out and playing around their homes when we got there. Within minutes, our small group of photographers became the new toy in town. No child asked us for anything, no one begged, none made faces at us or gave us anything other than joy and love. One small child just walked over to me, hugged me, and then walked away. I don't know what that was about, but to me it felt like a positive experience. Maybe he just thought I needed a hug today, maybe he does that to all visitors to show that it's friendly here, maybe he's heard a story that boycotts from those overseas people are one of the things that broke Apartheid and he wanted to thank me. I'll never know. All I know is that it was a touching moment.

Most of the children had never seen so many cameras at once, and our group became a giant attraction to them. Especially after we started showing them the pictures we were taking (again, I'm not going to post them here, as I feel that's exploitative). Here's another thing that touched me: at one point I had been taking pictures of a few of people and children when one of the children gently--yes gently--pulled the camera away from me and indicated for me to pose. When through his English-speaking sister I managed to ask him why he thought it important to take a picture of me, the answer I got back was that he was afraid I wasn't going to get any pictures of me in his town.

Hope is a strange thing. It's hard to grow without a real seed. What I saw, both last year when I visited this area during a scouting trip, and again this year, is that there are lots of seeds here. As little as these people have, as much as these people have been through, as far as they still have to go, there are plenty of seeds of hope here.

What I found in almost every encounter with the children of Khayelitsha, both this year and last, is that there is a hunger to be taught, to learn. Learn almost anything. After one child did something I liked, I gave him a high five. He understood that. I tried to follow that with a low five and he was perplexed at first. Guess he hadn't seen the "give me five high, now give it to me low" routine before. But you could just see his eyes light up with the "want to learn this new thing" look, and next thing you know he's teaching it to the next child in the group, and the next, and the next... By the time I left the area, everyone was giving me the high/low and grinning up a storm.

As I've noted several times, I generally don't publish street encounter pictures I take. In fact, I normally don't do anything with them other than keep them for memories. I don't wish to even give even a vague impression that I wish to exploit those that have less than me. But every time I look at the pictures the students and I took today, I'm going to remember the hope, the eagerness to learn, and the welcoming nature. Children here are like children everywhere. They are the future. I'm now going to see what little things I can do to see that their future is a little better than it was before, because today they made my present better than it was before.

Damn. And I thought we were here to photograph. ;~)

Oh, and one other thing: since the children all saw us pressing buttons while taking pictures, every time they got their hands on a camera, they'd press buttons, too. Unfortunately, they pressed buttons randomly. So if you're ever in such a situation, be sure to check to make sure your settings are all still intact afterward. You'd be surprised at what a couple dozen random button presses on a camera can set it up to do.

Day One: Wet and Dry
Aug 22--
One thing about photo workshops is that you sometimes encounter either not enough weather or too much. Not enough weather refers to the dreaded deadly clear skies. All blue--or all gray in some of the more smoggy and dusty places of the world--makes for a boring topping to almost any scenic. A lot of amateurs think that just pumping up the blue factor, perhaps by pulling out the polarizer and turning it all the way to Max, will fix sky problems, but it doesn't. It just makes it look like you used a polarizer.

Too much weather, of course, means that conditions get past the point beyond which workshop students are comfortable (or prepared for) shooting. Snow, rain, tornado, hurricane, monsoon...well, you get the picture (or don't get the picture).

I try to schedule workshops where we'll have the chance of weather (clouds, dramatic skies, etc.) but also have the likelihood of not too much weather. Today, the first full day of the South Africa workshop I failed. We clearly had too much weather.

Not that we didn't get a fair amount of photography in.

Our first subject this morning was Cape Point, and as we arrived the skies opened up enough that we had time to get everyone working on landscapes and seascapes that interested them. Cape Point itself has quite a bit of variety if you've got the time and energy to explore it. Rock gardens. Rocky shores. Beautiful pocket beaches. Lighthouses. And the ubiquitous "more." I found myself drawn towards images looking straight down:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

But it also became clear that we were going to get hit by too much weather.

Often you get waves of storm hitting you here in the cape. We could see individual rain bands as they approached from the Northwest (the usual direction, I'm told by locals). We had been happily shooting for almost two hours when I made a prediction: 15 minutes until complete downpour. I was wrong. It was 12 minutes. So we scampered down the hill back to the van, did the towel-dry-your-equipment-before-yourself thing, and...sure enough, squall number one passed. When the sun popped out briefly we flipped over to the other side of the point and got a few more shots in (see below). And yes, that's squall number two headed our way.

It was time to move on when the second squall got to us, so we suffered through it while driving to our next location, the penguin colony on Boulders Beach. As we got there, the penguins were doing pretty much the same thing as we were: drying out. Not too long into shooting the birds a minor squall (number three) hit us, but most of us kept shooting through it. Or I should say, kept trying to frame something up. Apparently the penguins pretty much would rather hunker down during a squall just like us humans. But after rain comes sun on a day like today, so we quickly returned to shooting wet penguins trying to get dry.

Copyright 2010 Russell Jacobs
Unfortunately, this was also a day that one student happily shot with no card in his camera. Dang those Nikon defaults. So that student had lots of practice framing, focusing on, and shooting penguins, but not much to remember it by.

After a "let's eat indoors, no it's great outdoors so let's move outdoors, no it's getting wet outdoors so let's move back indoors" start to lunch, we finally got somewhat dry and back to good humor (workshop students get a little grumpy when they get wet ;~). The afternoon plan had been to do some close in work in gardens (it's just hinting at spring here, so we're getting first blooms popping up in lots of places), but squall number five (or was it six, somewhere I lost count) ended that plan. So we went for my backup plan, which was to drop into the Two Oceans Aquarium for a little tank action.

Good aquariums these days are very photographer friendly, and Two Oceans is no exception. I worked with individual students for a while, then as they got exhausted and headed back one by one to our nearby hotel, I started puttering on a few images for myself, while also practicing some slow pan shots. I'm trying to get ready for doing some slow pans on safari. You need to practice slow shutter pans a lot to get them right, so panning with fish in the big tank gave me and the others some much needed practice. Here, for example, is one of Eric's pan shots from his time practicing at the aquarium:

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

Note how the central fish is reasonably sharp while the rest tend to be blurred. That's because Eric is panning on that central fish. If you look at the other fish, you can see varying degrees of blur, as they are swimming at different speeds than the one Eric panned with. The trick with slow pan blur is getting your pan just right. There's a strong tendency to stop the pan the minute you press the shutter release (and possibly move the camera up/down, too). But since you're using very long shutter speeds (typically 1/15 to 1 second), if you stop the pan at or near the start of the shot, you don't keep your subject correctly framed during the shot and lose the acuity and sharpness on your selected subject. This particular exhibit was great for practicing pans because the fish were in a constant motion going around in circles. There was always a group of them passing by in front of us. When you shoot groups like this, you have to pick one subject to follow, and then hope that the rest of the group around it create some interesting pattern and/or are moving at just enough differential to create interesting blurs. Prepare to have a high failure rate at this type of photography. I'm usually happy with about 1 out of every 50 shots I attempt this way. But the more you practice, the higher your keeper rate will be.

By the time the aquarium pushed me out the door so they could close and go home, I walked out into a mild, but very nice sunset. I looked around to see if any of my students were about shooting it, but didn't see any. Hmm. I didn't wear them out already, did I?

Day Zero: Lecture and Shoot
Aug 21--
The workshop kicked off this afternoon with my lecture on the compositional side of photography, then some practice in the wharf area, where I went from student to student doing one-on-one practice of the things I teach. Unfortunately, rain terminated our practice shoot a bit earlier than I had hoped, but some of the students are still a bit tired from the trip to get here from the States, so calling it an early night was mostly met with yawns. | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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