Posts Tagged ‘Wordsource’

Getting onto an aircraft without being in possession of a visa for your destination country is not a good idea. Not in a first world country, and most certainly not in a third world one. Now if that country is war-torn Sudan, you gotta ask yourself some serious questions about your sanity.

Which is how we found ourselves “stranded” in Dubai on a recent transfer to Sudan, waiting for our visas before boarding the plane to Khartoum. Myself and business associate Johan Winterbach had been drafted in to accompany a client to the country for a fact-finding mission to a new oil field in the south of the country, and to collect video and stills material for a production aimed at shareholders.

In Dubai, we had to lay over as we had missed our first booked flight to Khartoum due to the non-appearance of our visas.  To compound matters, we had no real idea of what we would encounter. And I’m not talking political upheaval. We had no idea what we would be shooting, and could not plan accordingly. Due to space issues, I could only pack one stills camera and a few lenses, or one video camera and tripod. Lugging a heavy Manfrotto video tripod over desert terrain however clinched it, so the Nikon D4 and a lightweight Manfrotto tripod went into the bag.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai,

The Burj Khalifa, Dubai: the world’s tallest building.

But back to Dubai, where we were stationed in hotel close to the famous Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. We took full advantage of this opportunity to see as much of the city as we could, and I even found a rare Nikkor 105mm DC lens in a shop, which miraculously found space in my crowded camera bag.

Twenty four hours later, however, we were at the airport, anxiously watching an email inbox for the long-awaited visas, and literally five minutes before the gates closed, we showed the laptop screen to the airport officials to verify our visas had been issued, and we were allowed through the gates!

Khartoum, Sudan

Khartoum, Sudan

We arrived at Khartoum, a flat, sprawling city on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile Rivers, shortly before sunset. Around it, flat Sahara landscape, nothing else, with the low sun casting long shadows from the flat-roofed buildings across dusty streets. It was exactly as I had imagined it would be, and I could feel my trigger finger starting to itch. The trouble was, I had read that taking pictures without official permission was strictly forbidden. Due to the short notice period before our departure from South Africa, though, there was no time to organise anything.

Sudan, Khartoum, Muslim clerics

Members of a Khartoum mosque welcoming a returning imam at the city airport

On landing, however, my perception of this desert city and country changed completely. To start with, it was VIP treatment the whole way. I was just getting used to flying flying business class. But to be picked up ON the runway by a black van with flashing blue lights was a new experience. Whisked off to a VIP lounge, our passports were taken away and all immigration admin taken care of while we sipped water and coffee. At some point I meandered out of the airport lounge to see what was causing a bit of a commotion outside. It was a large gathering of Muslim clerics forming a welcoming party for an imam returning from Mecca. Lots of singing and dancing in a big circle. Great photo opp, but damn, I was not going to haul out the Nikon. Until one of our receiving party encourage me to take pictures. You sure? Yes of course! It is a great occasion, please do, he said.

I pulled out the D4 and tentatively started shooting some images, and was abruptly pushed in the centre of the circle by the dancing masses to get a better viewpoint. Well, OK then! I blasted away happily after that, receiving only big smiles in return. Somebody’s got to speak to Sudan’s PR people about its image …

The next morning work started and were back at the airport, boarding a chartered twin prop aircraft to Abeela, an old airport in the south of Sudan, some 400km north of the border with South Sudan. From this dusty airfield, we were taken to the airfield by very dubious means – an old Russian MI8 flown by two pilots and a flight engineer squeezing into a small cockpit. The inside panelling of the fuselage was cracked and I had to hold the door to the pilots’ cabin closed with my foot. On top of which, the MI8 had to be jumpstarted. Kid you not.

Russian helicopter, MI8

How many pilots does it take to fly a MI8?

An altimeter just above the door showed that we never went above 200 foot, and being ex-Air Force, I was probably the only one other than the flight crew who knew that from that altitude an engine-out would give us half a chance of landing in auto-rotation mode before things spiralled out of control. Grim thought. Fortunately it was a short flight to the new oil field, situated on the Muglad Basin.

Sudan oil field protection

Johan Winterbach inspects the local hardware.

We landed in a cloud of dust, surrounded by four Toyota Land Cruisers with 20mm cannons mounted on the backs. Soldiers with AK47s were everywhere. I did not know whether to feel very safe or very scared. All this doubt however disappeared as I realised what the job was going to be – it became apparent that the client needed both video and stills, but mostly video. Now this is a problem. Unless you pimp a DSLR camera to death with follow focus and LED viewfinders, all mounted on heavy rails, it is all but impossible to shoot a decent video shot with the camera on its own. You can’t see properly on the LCD screen, which makes focus exceptionally difficult. The short depth of field of the full frame sensor worsens this – any focusing error is magnified. I knew I was just about toast. However, the old saying that the best camera for the job is the one you have with you held true. So I set about to make the most of it, mounting the D4 on the flimsy Manfrotto to at least get steady shots.


A “Christmas Tree” – a capped oil well point

oild field, Sudan

The oil field in the Muglad Basin

Fear of the hardware around us dissipated quickly. The locals are quite friendly – the Miseriya tribe members in the area are not in favour of the succession from
South Sudan, so they support the government’s policies. Everything is quite peaceful and everyone gets on with the business of establishing the oil field, building the compound for oil workers and pumping the black stuff via a central pipeline north to Port Sudan.

It was a hard day. Our delayed start in Khartoum meant a rushed tour of the facilities, shooting off the hip, both stills and video, and trying to keep track (with a view to writing a video script later) of the oil extraction and processing sequence.

We had to finish the tour and get back to the Abeela airport in order to make the flight back to Khartoum before sunset.

Oil field, Sudan

Framing another video shot

Everything was done at a mad gallop, something that did my nerves no favours – I had no chance to review the footage, to check that everything was good, that the recordings were fine and properly exposed (all shot on manual). Fortunately, despite my best efforts to screw up the material, it all turned out fine. By 4pm, we were back at the airfield and boarding the twin prop again, relieved that all went well, and just about passing out with fatigue. I must mention at this point that a beer would have been great. But being a Muslim country, that would have to wait. A long time.

Traditional coffee served on a sweltering hotel stoep

Traditional coffee served on a sweltering hotel stoep

That evening, we got to sample the local fare, something I had been looking forward to. Goat meat, Arab dishes, even Coke in Arabic script, all fully accounted for at our hotel. But my eyes were on the sticky stuff – the dessert table, where a mountain of sweets were being displayed. Of course, everything had to be sampled.

Dessert in Khartoum

Sweet, sticky temptation

Over breakfast the next morning, I learnt that we had to shoot two interviews with the general manager and president of the local oil company. OK, I said, I won’t panic, seeing that I had no audio equipment with me, and that the D4’s onboard sound is shitty, to say the least. I also had no lights. Not a problem – I took over the client’s hotel suite, drew the heavy drapes to reduce the amount of light coming into the room, and placed a standard lamp on the other side of where the person interviewed would sit to act as key light, with the sliver of light coming in through the curtain would give a bit of 3D depth to my lighting setup.

I then borrowed a dictaphone from the client, and hid it just out of shot on a pillow next to the sitter. And so the interviews started. With the air conditioning turned off to reduce background noise, it was hot work, but an hour later, we had the interviews in the bag. I would not know until two weeks later what the sound quality was like, as I only received the audio tracks shortly before we started editing the production. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On our last day in Khartoum, I still had not shot establishing shots of the city skyline for the production, and could not get permission from the hotel to access the roof for that. There are very strict rules in
the country regarding shooting on the streets, I was told, and the hotel wanted to get me a permit first from the Government before allowing me on the roof. Well, Arab efficiency being what it is, this permit never arrived.

However, we were invited for a lunch at a restaurant at the highest building in town, and during lunch I snuck off and made my way through various stairways to the airconditioning ducting room right at the top of the building, which fortunately was unlocked due to window washers accessing the outside of the glass-enclosed building. They were happy for me to take footage of the city and the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, as long as I took pictures of them. Done.

Rooftop view, Khartoum

On top of the roof, Khartoum

An absolutely unforgettable experience. Sudan was fantastic, friendly and helpful. The place works and seems to be fast coming out of the middle ages. Everyone has cell phones and uses them all the time. There’s hardly a beggar to be seen, and the city of Khartoum is relatively clean. Being a majority Muslim country, things are stricter than what we’re used to, but not overtly repressive.

There is no alcohol to be had in the country, but they make up for this indiscretion with food. Lots of it. I ate so much, trying to sample every exotic taste, that I developed a very serious stomach condition which had me in bed an entire day on our return via Dubai. Let me put it this way – I came back much lighter.

Back in South Africa, we edited the program in record time, with a voice over recorded by ex-KFM presenter Allan Barnard. The audio turned out to be fine, although we initially struggled to synchronise the audio to the pictures. In the end, we reduced the playback speed of the footage on the timeline to match the audio as it turned out to be easier than to match the audio to the video. The D4 came through for me. Although not perfect, it does a reasonable job in video. Enough to complete a run-and-gun production in an emergency.

Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions. Find images such as these on

20-year old MI8. The pilot spoke broken English. Two words you don't want to mention in the same sentence as flying.

20-year old MI8. The pilot spoke broken English. Two words you don’t want to mention in the same sentence as flying.


On paper it sounded straightforward. Photograph the various fruits that you taste in the three Quay 5 wines made by Distell. Shoot the fruits on a series of water splashes to make them look fresh, glistening and delicious. Job accepted.

But then reality struck. Some of these fruits were not available, out of season in the Cape Town winter. No amount of digging, hunting down of importers or experimenting with frozen foods helped. I was going to have to make a plan.

But first, I thought, let’s do the easy stuff. Like the splashes. I sourced a fish tank to catch the spills. One Nikon Speedlight for high speed sync behind a white translucent sheet, tons of plastic sheeting on the studio floor. Then enlist the help of my wife Nicky to throw the water at a piece of glass suspended by clamp to help create multiple droplets. That should do it. But just in case, let me add some red food colouring to the water, make the splashes more visible.

Big mistake.


First, the splashes looked like blood. Or like a crime scene after a particularly nasty axe murder. Secondly, my wife  got exceptionally grumpy. The red stuff was all over her clothes. And the studio floor, the innocently-bystanding softboxes and other studio equipment. But hell, I was committed, so I pushed on. Cleaning up was a problem for much later.

Two hours of splashing later, we had sufficient shots to build the background. Two hours after that, the studio was more or less back to normal. Less like a horror movie scene.

And then the hunt began for the fruits.  I spoke to importers, I sorted through fresh fruit vendors’ bins, I selected perfect “hero” fruits, bought several “stunt doubles” to be sacrificed under the knife, and got to work.

Again, not as easy as it looked. A simple softbox three quarter back of the subject did the trick in most cases, with white card filling in some of the shadow in front but leaving just enough to allow some gradation back to front on the items. The items were placed on white plastic. But that lowered the contrast and caused the items to generally look flat. So to make the fruit really pop, I needed to boost the colour. A simple trick is to surround fruit with matt black fabric, allowing just enough white visible for deep etching.

Once the in-season fruits had been shot, I searched far and wide for the summer berries, and even shot some frozen ones, but this was a disaster. I finally conceded defeat and bought some cherry and berry images from a Russian iStockphoto colleague of mine, Anna Kucherova. Then the editing begun.

In Photoshop, I first put down the splashes, and built up a rough “5” on which to overlay the fruit. Then, one by one, I inserted the items, scaling each to be in proportion to the whole. Each item had to be either deep-etched or masked off and the background painted out. This literally took weeks. But I had to be sure every detail was perfect, as the images were intended for point-of-sale displays at huge size. Any error would be glaring.

The result was exceptionally pleasing. The colours seem to go together well, the composition works and most of all, it looked fresh, as per the client brief. This image depicts the red wine flavours, and below are the entire range.

splash_berry_fruitsFBWM Q5FruitySplashCompFBWM

To show the various layers in Photoshop, I put this little video together:

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.

Find images such as these on

_DSC4529_000_MThis was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a pro bono job that one just could not turn down. Regardless of the risk. Matt Silver-Vallance was going to attempt a helium balloon flight (read party balloons, a suspended seat underneath and a pop gun wielded by an idiot with a death wish) from Robben Island to the mainland, Cape Town to raise funds for the Johannesburg Nelson Mandela Children’s Home. And when I say idiot, I actually quote Matt himself!

Now there are several things wrong with this picture. One is that it had never been done. It’s simply not allowed because of the busy heavy metal airspace from 2000 feet above sea level. On top of that, Matt had never flown anything before. He is a medical rep and paramedic. Thirdly, I was going to shoot this from a motorised paraglider, crossing the 10km of cold water with pilot Keith Pickersgill. This too had never been done. And for good reason – it’s lethally stupid to do without support. And with that, I mean a really big boat to land on should one have an engine out. Which, it turned out, was a very real possibility.

All this should have discouraged even the most dimwitted of photographers. To begin with, my images were to be handed over after the event, to be distributed worldwide, free of charge. That would be my contribution to the charity. Yet even the prospect of just being allowed to SLEEP on the world heritage site that is Robben Island was enough to convince me when Keith, a local paramotor instructor, called me to check my availability at short notice.

Keith is one of the most experienced pilots in the country and has an incident-free record which only comes from prudence and wide safety margins. Being a former paramotor pilot myself, I understood the risks and limitations. My background in imagery made this a natural fit. Which is how we found ourselves on a ferry to Robben Island one late Friday afternoon. The forecast was good, a light NW going West.

Flight nr. 13

The world media interest in this was intense. Not only because of the association with the hallowed names of Mandela and Robben Island. There was a darker reason. Only 12 such balloon flights had been attempted before, two pilots had died doing so and others had gone missing. This would be flight nr. 13. Get the picture?

So I was understandably upset when I discovered, on the ferry, that the one and only lens I could take on the flight, my 24-70mm f2.8 fitted to a Nikon D4, had somehow got bent and as a result, I could only zoom from 24-50mm. There was no turning back – we were committed, tents, food and sleeping bags packed for the night, since the balloon inflation was due to start the next morning at 4am. There would have been no time to dash back and get another lens, as we would have to launch as soon as conditions allowed. I had packed a little compact as a backup, a small Canon IX30S, but did not relish the idea of shooting with that on such a job. But at least I had another option. No pressure, noooo!

On arrival, we were bussed to the Robben Island runway – a largely overgrown, unused airstrip – which would be our camping spot for the night. Yes, tarmac. No mattress, hard ground, mist setting in, wet equipment … It sounded like it was going to be a fun evening. _DSC4533_001_M

While the inflation crew set about putting out the 25m lines at each of the four helium inflation stations, making knots in the lines every few metres where the balloons would be attached, Keith, myself and our support guy and fellow pilot John Lazarus set up tent and tried getting as comfortable as possible. A flask of whiskey provided some creature comfort.

We woke the next morning at sparrows’ to an unworldly scene – trucks idling away on the runway, their headlights illuminating four groups of people inflating multi-coloured balloons in a thick cloud of mist. I grabbed my D4 and starting shooting away at 6400ISO, trying to capture the backlit scenes literally fuelled by truck exhaust fumes, making for some spectacular shooting opportunities. Matt, stressed to his limit, was dashing between the four stations, prodding, cajoling and encouraging the teams to work faster. Miraculously, the zoom had sorted itself out and I had full but scratchy travel on the lens.

4am portrait. Matt looking worried.

4am portrait. Matt looking worried.

At once stage I managed to corner Matt for long enough to shoot a picture of him against the backdrop of some fumes and balloons, with John Lazarus giving me an edge light with his headlamp to fill in the side of Matt’s face. The shot is not sharp, unfortunately, due to camera shake or Matt moving, but considering that it was pitch dark, it had to do as Matt had to go – yet it somehow perfectly captures that eerie feel of the scene, its unworldliness.  _DSC4541_002_M

The volunteer teams working gave ample opportunities for behind-the-scenes shots, and since the fog was extremely thick and we were increasingly worried of not having a flight window, I shot what I could, not knowing if the opportunity would present itself again.

At dawn the fog was still thick, but the NW had come up and was gradually creating light spots and eventually, some blue sky patches. Around 11am, Keith suggested we launch the paramotor and recce the intended flight path from above the clouds. We radio’d Matt, who by now was strapped in and equalising the helium/weight ratio so that he was just slightly positively buoyant, to warn us before he cut away. It took a determined run in the light wind to get the tandem wing up and flying, but since we both knew what we were in for, Keith and I sprinted like mad. A steady climb up to 100m and we could see the mainland. Keith informed Matt, and before long, he cut away to the delight of the volunteers and hordes of international and national media.

_DSC4602_007_MUp and up he went – much faster than intended, and soon his voice came over the radio saying that he was climbing at 10 meters per second. Which would put him into controlled airspace in a matter of minutes! Keith suggested he start popping balloons fast, which he did, with a poke stick, taking out the control balloons at the bottom of the pile. But still he was going up like a cork, us chasing at full power and not getting anywhere near his climb rate. Out came Matt’s BB gun, but it was underpowered, the pellets just bouncing off the higher balloons. Eventually he resorted to pulling down the individual lines and popping the bottom balloons by stick.

Then the descent rate started – in earnest. Matt lost his positive buoyancy and plummeted down. Bailing out his ballast to stop the dreaded oscillation that occurs due to the delayed effect of adding or dumping helium, Matt sank to right on the water line, enough for us to warn the follow boats that we had a splashdown. Fortunately, as soon as Matt’s water ballast bags hit the surface, their combined weight was neutralised and they thereafter acted like sea anchors, keeping the pilot about 2m above the water line.

In the mean time, Keith and I descended as we were flying in cloud with very little visibility and lots of moisture. My D4 was soaked, my flight suit and shoes were soaked, and behind me, Keith had water running down the toggle lines into his flight suit, causing wet ballast underneath his elbows which he had to let out at times. I got concerned – a wet wing means flying closer and closer to deep stall, and any collapse would mean very little chance of recovery as the glider material was too wet to separate in a re-inflation. On top of which we were forced to fly lower and lower due to the cloud base dropping. Which meant our glide to safety decreased at the same time.

We estimated that we would have 90 seconds from 600ft to release harness buckles and get ready for a wet landing, but we were flying far below that height. The boat we were supposed to land in during an emergency was a rescue rubber duck, and would be easy to miss. _DSC4661_018_MOur only chance would have been to land on the Navy minesweeper that accompanied the flotilla of boats, but we had no authorisation for this. “F*** authorisation!” I said to Keith. “If we go down, head for the big grey boat!”.

_DSC4649_015_MMatt was drifting at a slower than expected speed, which meant our fuel reserves (just under 2 hrs) were getting low. We’d been in the air for over an hour, and still had 3.5km to go, and the mist was closing in again. Then we spotted a huge anchored fuel tanker directly in Matt’s flight path, too high for him to go over. We quickly radio’d the follow crew, who could not see the boat in the mist.

At this point, I suggested to Keith that with a wet wing, very little visibility to shoot in or to fly by, and very little fuel left, it might be a good idea to look for somewhere more dry. He did not argue the point.

Below us, the follow crew grabbed Matt’s throwrope and tried tugging him away to the side so that he would miss the tanker, but the force from the balloons was too big and eventually, a few hundred meters from the shore, Matt cut away, dropped into a boat and was brought ashore in the rubber duck to a massive worldwide contingent of media. Keith and I requested a boat to follow us to dry land through the mist, and landed on the beach with 200ml of fuel left! We got picked up and taken to the media centre, where I had to quickly process some images and footage, and hand over to the media.

I was amazed at the D4 – it was soaked and had to be wiped all the time to clear the front lens element, yet it did not malfunction or act up at all. The picture below shows just how wet the lens got – and stayed.

In the week that followed, the images and footage went viral. It made BBC, ABC, SABC, Top Billing and was featured in hordes of international magazines and papers. We’ve even had a request from Ripley’s Believe it or Not for images. I was disappointed in the conditions, hoping for a clear shot to Table Mountain and being able to show the whole of Robben Island, but we had no chance with all the cloud around. Nor could we fly close to Matt while he was at sea level for closer aerial footage without serious consequences to us in case of an engine failure. But that’s the nature of the beast – you do what you can. As Matt said in the post-op debriefing: Nelson Mandela took much bigger risks. This was nothing in comparison. If you’d like to donate to this cause, SMS “balloon” to 40301 (R20 per sms).

Safe at last. Note the wet camera.

Safe at last. Note the wet camera.

A short video clip on the flight:

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.

In March this year we started work on shooting a corporate for Reutech Mining, a Stellenbosch-based international firm supplying some of the world’s most sophisticated movement detection radar systems for open pit mines across the globe. We had to imitate the use of these machines in mines, but since access to actual mines was extremely difficult and fraught with all kinds of safety issues, we opted for shooting in a deserted quarry outside Cape Town.

This moon landscape was perfect, except for one thing – the timing for getting the right light effect was critical. Too early and the sun was too low and contrasty, too late and the same happened. Because of the monotone nature of the quarry rock, the Reutech units had to stand out from the background properly. This separation was only possible with an ND2 filter coupled with timing of day – shooting backlit towards the shaded parts of the quarry. This meant the script had to be exactly and precisely planned for the right time of day for particular shots.

Now put into this mix a few unexpected rainy days, fog in the morning, problems with unlicensed vehicles not permitted to leave the factory to come to the location, and the remoteness of the area, and you have a recipe for some stress.

We approached the project by doing several site visits to check on the average lighting situation, shadows and direction of light before committing to shoot days. This meant earmarking particular shots for a particular part of the day at a particular part of the quarry, and then shooting reverse and additional shots of the same scene out of sequence on a different part of the day to make sure the lighting and backlighting feel remained consistent. It called for very careful scripting and strict adherence to our time limits.

We shot on a Sony EX1 at mostly f2.8 or as wide open as the situation allowed to get the separation from our backgrounds. Being at the beginning of spring, the light was really nice and soft and in our favour, with the result that we got most of the shots in the bag as planned.

But that was not the only part of the story. For the intro to the movie, we had to create a rockfall. And show a crack appearing to indicate the start of a slope failure. This meant scouting the area’s very unfriendly slopes for a perfect location – one that would allow continuity of lighting through a series of shots, all shot in different places, but made to look as if they were all in the same location. We found the perfect spot, and set to it with spades and pick-axe to first dig a camera platform into the slope for the close-ups, shot at the top of the hill in the image right. Once we had a platform dug into the clay, I could set up the tripod while we started excavating into the same hill to create a weak spot, crack and eventually a small rockfall.

This was a bit dicey, as the rockfall would start uphill of the camera position. But there was nothing else we could do – we had to chance it. The digging and filming ensued and pretty soon the wall of earth caved in and collapsed, fortunately rolling harmlessly past the camera position, and we had our crack and crumble shot.

The rest of the landslide sequence was shot at an adjacent active quarry, courtesy of Lafarge, who kindly tipped a crapload of rocks over an edge for me to film! This we shot on overcranked 720p at 60fps for beautifully clean slow motion. Thanks to the amazing editing skills of Ruan Neethling, the sequence cut beautifully, aided by no less than 26 layers of sound effects to enhance the danger mood!

Michal Wozniak (left) and I jibbing the jib.

Rusty metal in foreground makes for great shots!

The jib got a lot of use, and really helped give a smooth and professional feel to the production. While on set, it however keeled over and crashed onto the head, fortunately without the camera on board, but stripping out the main tripod connector bolt. I needed to rebuild the head completely, and it was a good thing I did, as the J-Jib version 3.3 is now sturdier than ever.

Making dust to indicate weather resistance. Sadly we got very little dust but a shredded tyre on the MTX bike.

Thanks to Michal Wozniak and Johan Winterbach for invaluable support during the shoot days. Here’s the final product:

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.

The stock photography industry depends on new content, created and added to stock libraries all the time. Which is part of the reason Istockphoto hosts content creation events worldwide called Istockalypses, and allows contributors to host smaller-scale events along the same format called minilypses.

The latter are run as private events but with full Istockphoto participation in infrastructure, release forms management and editorial direction. That, in short, is the situation world-wide. A nice system, except for one thing – it had never been run in South Africa. Or Africa, for that matter.

So, feeling particularly energetic in May 2011, I took it upon myself to organise such an event for Cape Town – the iKapaLypse. What followed was months of high stress, but capped this February by a fantastic event that stretched every one of the 25 photographers attending from the US, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Wales, England and Germany. The three-day event was part sponsored by transport partner Springbok Atlas, who supplied large buses to cart the photographers and a group of 25 models to Langebaan, Muizenberg, Camps Bay and Franschhoek.

Henk Badenhorst (SA) helping Monique Heydenrich (SA) to nail the shot

Groups of 7 photographers were grouped with 3 or 4 models at a time in a particular setting, shooting a creative idea of their own choosing. You have 15 minutes to complete lighting and shoot your images, thereafter you are lighting assistant to the next.

After each shoot, the photographers would rotate to the next station for another cycle of 15-minute sessions, using different models and different props. It’s a high-stress but addictive environment bringing out the best in the best.

Working alongside the likes of Steve Cole (US), AJ Rich (US), Ferran Trait (Sweden) and Henk Badenhorst (RSA) was an enlightening experience.

Stellenbosch designer Saskia Wicomb models her own creations in 44 degrees heat. Jim O’Neill (Ireland) is the cameraman, Monique Heydenrich (SA) the human light stand.

Their creativity is astounding, their ideas flowing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. Even in the 40+ degree heat we were working in during the three days. It was not unusual to find yourself in the pool, with model and photographer, holding a reflector board to help soften the lighting. And yes, it was an excellent excuse to get wet!

Purely by chance, three of Istockphoto’s top officials (amongst others the worldwide Lypse event organisor Elissa Cook), live in Cape Town and were a tremendous help in getting the event logistics sorted. Istock further added value in the form of two top inspectors attending from the US and Netherlands, acting as group leaders and helping attendees fine-tune lighting, giving composition advice and encouraging members to be bold.

The event generated an enormous amount of excellent content, and attendees retired exchausted but happy each day.

Our models, a mix of actors, pro and amateur models, were equally astounding, facing each new photographer’s demand for energy, smiles and projection with ease, all day long. I have never seen people work this long and hard and still remain as pumped as they were.

My own energy levels were stretched between trying to shoot and organising props for everyone, making sure people were looked after and that the location owners were happy with the hordes descending on them.

Still, no regrets – I got great images, not as many as I would have wanted, but it’s my first ever. Live and learn.

Saskia in an outfit that stretched our creativity. This was not part of the main shoot, but one organised after the event for photographers wanting to do a bit more avant garde work.

The shooting and admin crew after the event. Smelly, but happy!

One of the most rare privileges of this world is meeting living legends. In January, I had such a pleasure, working with !Khomani San tribal leader Dawid Kruiper. But it was an experience I came away from elated and at the same time saddened at what is probably soon to be a lost treasure.

Yster Fester

Living on tribal land near Askham in the Kalahari, oom Dawid and his small band precariously balance their ancient Bushman lifestyle with the inevitable push of Western culture. The pressure has ravaged their band. Alcoholism is rife and the people of the tribe have resorted to peddling artefacts next to the road, doing San dances for tourists wearing the traditional !gai loincloth in what !Khwa ttu anthropologist Michael Diaber describes as the “worst form of prostitution” ever.

Over the years, the bushmen have retained much of their ancient and extensive knowledge of the veld. It’s an instinctive sensibility that seems hardly dimmed by time.  But it’s under pressure as years of living away from their ancestral land is now taking its toll. The young bushmen are mostly not interested in retaining the old ways, the older bushmen. They  grow up in towns, not in the veld, and only on rare occasions are taught field craft and hunting. Most of them seem to prefer wearing mirrored shades and hanging around the many bottle stores in the area, music blaring from cell phones.

I have worked with the !Khomani tribe before, photographing oom Dawid in the 90s while they were living at Kagga Kamma in the Ceres Karoo during a resettlement attempt. I also visited them here with the late dream interpreter Rozelle Mazetti, and following Michael’s career from resident Kagga Kamma anthropologist to starting !Kwa ttu a few years ago. It’s a subject close to my heart. With this dwindling treasure in mind, I visited the !Khomani tribe in the heat of January to shoot footage of them in their traditional clothing, recording their tribal tongue and searching for the elusive hoodia gordonii plant with them – the latter discovered by the bushmen centuries ago and used for its appetite suppressant qualities.

After obtaining advice from Michael on how to approach the tribe with suitable sensitivity after so many years of not seeing the Kruipers, I travelled to Askham and met first with Elias “Yster” Fester. I shot some footage of him pretending to be hunting, feeling a bit silly until I heard Yster mumbling away and pointing at the ground. “The steenbok stood around here in the shade, and ate from this bush. And a muskeljaatkat (genet) was chasing a dune rat over here.” At first I assumed he was doing this for my benefit, to add authenticity to the footage (a true professional, he is!), but then discovered he was actually reading spoor. To my eyes, there were slight indentations in the ground, and faint marks on the bush. To his, the signs told of what time of day it happened, and what the animal’s state of mind was, unhurried or pursued. Suddenly my “canned bushman” experience became very real.

We sat down in the hot veld, and my lesson in field craft started. Yster pointed out the tracks to me, explaining signs I could barely follow, indicating a dragging of a hoof indicating the slow, hot progress of a buck at midday, the crisp and finely defined spoor of the dune rat indicating early morning movement over slightly damp soil. He shot with his bow and arrow, showing the effective distance of the arrow (not much more than 20 metres), which meant having to stalk a buck to well within that distance. He indicated, where we sat, how he would have stalked this steenbok, one of the most renowned of alert animals, showing his path from bush to final clump of grass. How long would this take? Several hours, he says, not even blinking.

Because of the lack of effective range, the prey would inevitably only be wounded, necessitating in many cases many hours of running after it. And this is where the hoodia plant became indispensible – rich in moisture, the semi-bitter juice would quench their thirst while suppressing their appetites, allowing them to physically run down the wounded animal without expiring themselves.

My next stop was the 67-year-old Buks Kruiper, brother of the tribal leader. Oom Buks is no more than 5 foot tall, wiry, wily and extremely witty. His tales are tall, in the tradition of bushman storytelling, but nevertheless entertaining. He is experienced in the film industry, having played in several movies and rubbing noses with an Eskimo in a TV commercial. As a tracker, he is renowned and used extensively by Sanparks in tracking cheetahs for research. His popularity however is not shared by the neighbours, coloured subsistence farmers whose land had been largely expropriated and given to the bushmen. It was on one such farm that Oom Buks and I were accosted by the irate female farm owner, accusing him and his tribe of taking away their land. Oom Buks just shook his head, tears in his eyes and speechless in the face of such aggression. I got him away from there as quickly as I could, moving our shoot elsewhere.

Buks Kruiper’s family. He is second from left.

On my final day on shoot, Yster took me back to Askham to meet with Oom Dawid Kruiper. Strangely enough, he remembered me from the shoot we did in the 90s. Sitting with him under a lone camel thorn on a blanket, the heat now a humid 41 degrees, it was like stepping back into African history. The only difference was that we were meeting as fellow human beings, not as the hunter and hunted, the appalling memory of these people being licenced as game that may legally be killed by farmers not far away from my mind. Did we actually do this?

We were now hunting hoodia. And the only place where we would be able to find it, was back in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 80km away. The !Khomani have access to a section of the western park where they train youngsters field craft, tracking and hunting. Oom Dawid offered to take us there – he was convinced he saw some hoodia between some dunes. I jumped at the opportunity – I would see part of the Park that is closed to the public, a once-off opportunity sweetened by the fact that I was being guided by the original inhabitants of this land. It does not come any more real, any more authentic.

Yster with the hoodia plant

But it would not be that easy. Did I mention hoodia was elusive? Over the dunes we went, in lion country, with literally one arrow and a bow as protection. I was banking on the fact that I was the youngest and probably the fastest, in case of being chased by lion, but ten minutes into our search for the plants, I was panting badly and dragging my feet and tripod. Lion food, no doubt.

Yster found a plant. It’s spiky, like a cactus, and in springtime carries oddly pink or lilac flowers. Using his arrow head, he cut a section, skinned it and ate the flesh. Inside, it looks like a cucumber – juicy and green. And bitter, apparently. Stupidly, I did not taste it – in hindsight, that would have perfectly rounded this privileged experience. During our shoot, Oom Dawid wandered off into the veld and returned with a carrot-like root, apparently also extremely rare. He was very pleased at finding one, which he uses to prepare medicines. He talks about his preparations, and I quickly realise he is famed for most notably those that, shall we say, rival the effects of Viagra.

Walking the veld with the 76-year-old tribal chief was as intense an experience as I could ever have hoped for. Thankfully, I could record this in sound and motion, as most likely, it would be one of the last such opportunities, as time and reality catch up with their ancient ways.

Full Kalahari footage lightbox here.

Oom Dawid, Yster and I at the hoodia shoot

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.

The brief was simple – the client wanted a Christmas tree look for a magazine cover shot, the Christmas edition. Lots of lights from the city, the containers visible in the foreground, the cranes silhouetted. The only problem was that the overhead lights in the container yard were not all operational, causing a massive dark hole centre to my shot. And the southeaster was blowing the crap out of everything. And I only had this evening to do it. There weren’t really any other angles I could shoot, and the light above the mountains was fading fast into exactly the right intensity to allow for that magic moment when foreground and background light were balanced. The dark hole, however, was spoiling everything – I was hoping for the container yard lights lifting the exposure level in the foreground at least two stops to retain some detail, which would allow me to shoot slightly earlier and retain some more sky detail as well. But with the lights dead, it meant I had to wait until the background light was two stops less before I could balance foreground and background. And that meant that I would lose some of the beautiful sky detail. The only option left to me was an HDR shot (high dynamic range), a combination of a series of images shot locked-off on tripod keeping the focus and aperture the same, but altering the shutter speeds of the shots to expose for the sky, then the middle of the exposure range, then the dark areas, and combining the three or more images using specialist software. HDR images require a rock-solid tripod with absolutely no movement whatsoever, even using a wireless remote to trigger the camera without touching the tripod.

Hanging on to the tripod and shielding it as much as I could with my body, I got the shots, and got the hell outta there. Back home, I put the images through Capture NX2, rendered the raw files to 16 bit tiffs, and combined the images using NIK’s HDR EFEX Pro. The HDR shot was OK, but it lacked the really punchy feel that the client wanted. In her words, “Gaan bos met die filters.” That I did, selecting the dead spot in the centre of the frame and punching that up with a bit of bleach bypass and localised contrast enhancement, and I cooked up the sky to get rid of the inevitable banding, then added a bit of grain to even out the colour transitions and banding in the sky. I even cloned in an extra light on top of the nearest post (the dead one) to “decorate” the Christmas tree a little bit more. All the post-processing absolutely ruins the quality of the shot, making it noisy as hell, but that was inevitable, given the requirement. And it was done on time, which was probably more important.

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.