Last year in May I had to attend a directors' weekend-away-meeting in Lady Grey for the Photographic Society of South Africa which is about 650 kilometres from where I live in Johannesburg. For those of you unfamiliar with South Africa, the only way to get there (and back) is by self-driving.
On our way back we took the scenic route from Lady Grey using the R392 via Herschel, turning left after Sterkspruit onto the R726 towards Zastron and then right onto the R26 towards Bethlehem via Wepener, Hobhouse, Lady Brand, Fiksburg and Fouriesburg. This is a very beautiful part of the Free State and South Africa. As photographer one can easily spend one or two weeks to explore this area.
(Here is a link to a google maps pin of the small town, Van Stadensrus)
But as we have left Lady Grey after an early lunch we knew we had to push on in order not to get too late to Johannesburg - stopping for photos was a low priority.
Van Stadensrus is on the R26 between Zastron and Wepener and when we passed it by I noticed that there are some interesting trees eking out an existence in what looks like a man-made lake. I made a mental note of it. About 30 kilometres further along this road we passed Wepener on our right side, and again I noticed what looks like a natural vlei area just outside Wepener. Note number two...
Back at work, I realised that 16 June is a public holiday coming up shortly. I started to follow the long-term weather report for Wepener and surrounding areas...
A week before the long weekend a cold front was predicted for the Saturday of the long weekend. I also noticed that the moon will only rise at midnight on the Friday night so there is also a good possibility for a clear night and thus a star trail photo opportunity. So my mind was made up, we will go back to photograph those trees. I phoned the only B&B in Wepener and was pleasantly surprised to found that they did have space available for the long weekend.
So all was set, we were going to Wepener for the long weekend.
As you most likely noticed in the previous paragraph, I had two contradicting wishes for the weekend and do not know which one I wanted the most - a cloudless sky for a good star trail session, or a cold front moving over to get some beautiful sunrise or sunset landscapes. What are the odds of getting both? (Spoiler alert: the cold front was right on time for a Saturday sunset - but that I might show in a future article...)
We arrived early evening on Thursday and decided to go out for a sunrise shoot at that man-made lake near Van Stadensrus. We were hoping for some mist on the water but because the cold front did not arrive yet, we did not find any mist - in fact - it was unusually warm for the middle of June in the south of the Free State - not even frost!
The trees in the water had some beautiful shapes but because it is in a low lying area they were in shade until quite late. The natural rift on the opposite side of the water was also in shadow so there was no separation between the trees and the background. I had to wait until the sun was fully up to lit up the background before I could get enough detail of the forms of the trees. By that time twilight colours were unfortunately gone.
I decided on the following two techniques in order to get the emphasis on the shapes of the trees in the water:
Firstly, I decided to photograph in monochrome so that all the colour distractions such as the blue sky is eliminated and therefore brought the attention back to the shapes of the trees. When I decide a scene lend itself to monochrome, I change my camera to monochrome, even though I still shoot in RAW (and JPEG) - it is just easier for me to see what I am going to get as the end result. I often use the JPEG file as a reference when processing the RAW to get the photo to look the same as what I saw while photographing.
The second technique I wanted to use was a wide angle lens. Using a wide-angle lens diminishes objects far away. Unfortunately, the trees were quite a distance from the side of the water so I could not use my ultra wide angle lens. I ended up using a 50mm lens which renders the background rift quite prominent. There was one tree right next to the water's edge which means I could get really close and use a 16mm focal length.
For me, the last photo taken with the ultra wide angle lens is the star of the session. I like the spread-out branches at the top as it fills the clear sky and forms a frame of sorts for the scene. I know there will be people who do not like the very central placement of this tree, but for me, it gives context and better balance to the forms of the trees in the background.
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