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South Africa

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Picture Perfect

Text: Dylan Kotze. Various photographers. Article from the April 2013 issue of Getaway Magazine.

It’s hard to know where to start taking photos in a country celebrated for its landscapes and wildlife.

We’ve rounded up the top 10 photographic destinations, with tips on how to photograph them. 

Best for Breathtaking Panoramas

Blyde River Canyon Mpumalanga

In 24 years of exploration, Getaway has seen and photographed the best of South Africa. But, with a plethora of spectacular destinations across a vast and varied landscape, compiling a list of the country’s top photographic spots is no easy task. So, we called in the help of some of SA’s leading photographers to find the best of the best, those places where you’re guaranteed to find oustanding spectacles to capture through your lens.

Better yet, the pros have revealed their tips and techniques to help you get the iconic shots as well as some unexpected perspectives of the deserts of the Kgalagadi, the stormy Atlantic coast, the majestic Drakensberg and beyond.

Grab your camera, dust off your suitcase and make a point of visiting our 10 favourite photo destinations in South Africa.

Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga

Photo details: Both Mark Dumbleton. Nikon D4, 16 - 35mm lens, ISO 100, 1/13 sec at fl6.

Getting the ultimate shot: A short walk from Forever Resort Blyde Canyon takes you to the edge with astounding views of one of the only large canyons in the world covered in dense foliage. To create a panorama, hold the camera in portrait orientation and switch to manual to get an even exposure across the images. Take up to five shots, making sure they overlap by a third of the frame. Include the sunrise and use an aperture of f16 or smaller for a sunburst effect.

Alternative Shots: The public viewing point about two kilometres from the resort offers a different angle. The only downside is the gate times don’t cater for sunrise and sunsets.

Essential Equipment: A good pair of walking shoes and software such as Adobe Photoshop to stitch together panoramas.

A short walk takes you to the edge with astounding views of one of the only large canyons in the world covered in dense foliage

Photo detail : Nikon D7000, 16 - 35 mm lens, ISO 200, 4 sec at f22When to go: The Blyde River Canyon is majestic at any time of day or year, but the longer twilight periods and subtly changing colours of autumn add something different to images.

For more in formation: www.foreverblydecanyon.co.za and kruger2canyons.com.

Photo details: Both Mark Dumbleton. Nikon D4, 16 – 35mm lens, ISO 100, 1/13 sec at fl6. Nikon D7000, 16 – 35 mm lens, ISO 200, 4 sec at f22.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape

Best for Distinctive Wildlife Photos

Photo Details: Both Heinrich van den Berg. Canon 1 Ds Mk III, 600mm lens, ISO 125, 1/50 sec at f5.6.

Getting the ultimate shot: In this vast, semi-arid savannah, the Kalahari’s black-maned lions can often be found in the shadows of a tree. It’s a scene that frequently produces dull photos, but with a little patience and a lot of afternoon breeze, there’s a chance to capture a powerful, story-telling image that portrays the lions’ behaviour and struggles (in this case, against a porcupine) in bleak surroundings.

Photo detail: Canon EOS 3, 70 - 200 mm lens, ISO 100, 1/200 sec at f8 and a flash with a soft box.Alternative Shots: Summer afternoon thunderstorms create dramatic lighting conditions and add incredible mood to this harsh environment. Resist the temptation to head back to camp and look for interesting wide-angle compositions of the landscape. However, it’s sometimes more productive to spend a morning in camp than to chase after lions. For example, the squirrels here have become accustomed to people, which allows for great low-angle close-ups.

Essential Equipment: If there’s one place in South Africa where sand will attack your equipment, it’s Kgalagadi. Protective casings and a cleaning kit will come in handy.

When to go: September to December is considered the best time as peak summer temperatures reach up to 40° Celsius and winter nights are very cold. If you want to visit during school holidays, book early because campsites fill up quickly.

With a little patience, there’s a chance to capture a powerful, story-telling image

For more information: www.sanparks.org.

Photo Detail: Both Heinrich van den Berg. Canon 1 Ds Mk III, 600mm lens, ISO 125, 1/50 sec at f5.6. Canon EOS 3, 70 – 200 mm lens, ISO 100, 1/200 sec at f8 and a flash with a soft box.

The Amphitheatre, KwaZulu-Natal

Best for Dramatic Drakensberg Landscapes

Photo Details: Mark Dumbleton, Nikon D3s, 16 - 35mm lens, ISO 100, 8 sec at fl6.

Getting the ultimate shot: Shoot in the early morning, with first light falling onto the highest peaks and a few clouds scattered overhead. This soft light allows for longer exposure times that will blur the water’s movement.

Photo detail : Heinrich van den Berg, Canon IDs Mk II, 16 - 35mm lens, ISO 50, 1/5 sec at f20.Alternative Shots: Shoot in portrait orientation, include a person in the frame to add a sense of scale, shoot star trails at night or play with panoramas. The dam near reception in Royal Natal National Park’s Mahai Camp has a great view of the Amphitheatre and often superb reflections too. Any of the hikes in the Drakensberg offer breathtaking vistas.

Essential Equipment: A tripod is needed for long exposures and a polarising filter reduces glare off the water and saturates the sky and vegetation. Good hiking shoes are recommended.

When to go: Summer is far more photogenic with strong-flowing rivers and green landscapes. In winter, there’s a possibility of capturing the mountains draped in snow.

For more information: www.drakensberg.org.za. Find a place to stay at accommodation.getaway.co.za.

Photo Details: Mark Dumbleton, Nikon D3s, 16 – 35mm lens, ISO 100, 8 sec at fl6. Heinrich van den Berg, Canon IDs Mk II, 16 – 35mm lens, ISO 50, 1/5 sec at f20.

Shoot in the eariy morning, with first light falling onto the highest peaks and a few clouds scattered overhead

Cederberg’s Wolfberg Arch, Western Cape

Best for Captivating Night Skies

Photo Details: Hougaard Malan, Canon 5D Mk II, Zeiss 18mm lens, ISO 200, 100 minutes at f6.3.

Getting the ultimate shot: To create a star-trail image, set up the camera while there’s enough light to focus and compose the photo, bearing in mind the stars will rotate around the southernmost point (use the Southern Cross or a compass to determine this). Set the ISO low (less than 400, depending on the camera model) to reduce noise, or grain, on the image. Wait until the stars twinkle to release your shutter for between 20 and 100 minutes, depending on how much star rotation you want. Then make yourself a cup of coffee and be patient.

Photo detail : Dylan Kotze, Canon 7D, 15 - 85mm lens, ISO 200, 1/125 sec at f22.Alternative Shots: The Cederberg is littered with interesting rock spires and shapes. Most notable are the Maltese Cross, Lot’s Wife and Window Rocks and the bushman paintings at Stadsaal Caves are also worth checking out.

Essential Equipment: A tripod, cable release and compass are vital for extra-long star-trail exposures. Take full hiking gear and enough water, as there’s no water on the mountain. Two permits are required to camp at Wolfberg Arch. Contact CapeNature, tel 0861-227-362-887 (costs R150 a person a day) and Dwarsrivier, tel 027-482-2825 (costs R100 a person a day).

When to go: Autumn and spring are generally the best times, as temperatures soar during summer. Ideally, go when there’s no moon to get the best night skies. Visit www.kwathabeng.co.za to check moonrise times.

For more information: www.capenature.co.za.

Photo Details:  Hougaard Malan, Canon 5D Mk II, Zeiss 18mm lens, ISO 200, 100 minutes at f6.3. Dylan Kotze, Canon 7D, 15 – 85mm lens, ISO 200, 1/125 sec at f22.

To create a star-trail image, set up the camera while there’s enough light to focus and compose the photograph

Kommetjie, Cape Peninsula

Best for Moody Sunset Seascapes

Photo Details: Both Lee Slabber. Canon ID Mk III, 16 - 35mm lens, ISO 100, 4 sec at f20.

Getting the ultimate shot: Clouds can make or break sunset seascape shots; too much cloud cover could block the sunlight and too little results in lacklustre images. When the weather looks favourable, head down to the coast early to find your desired composition (find a prominent subject such an interesting rock) and set up before the sun dips below the horizon. You’ll be able to use longer shutter speeds that result in ‘misty’ water in these low-light conditions.

Alternative Shots Apart from changing compositions to include various foregrounds, weather conditions and times of the year will affect the light and result in very different images.

Canon ID Mk III, 16 - 35mm lens, ISO 100, 30 sec at f22.Essential Equipment: A tripod to steady the camera for long exposures and graduated neutral-density filters to balance the light between the sky and the foreground.

When to go:  Sunsets can be admired from anywhere along the western seaboard during Cape Town’s long, beautiful summer evenings. Winter is great for moody skies and equally moody seas, which create dramatic photographs.

For more information: www.capetown.travel. Find a place to stay at accommodation.getaway.co.za.

Photo Details: Both Lee Slabber. Canon ID Mk III, 16 – 35mm lens, ISO 100, 4 sec at f20. Canon ID Mk III, 16 – 35mm lens, ISO 100, 30 sec at f22.

Clouds can make or break sunset seascape shots; too much cloud cover could block the sunlight and too little results in lacklustre images

 Niewoudtville, Northern Cape

Best for Colourful West Coast Flowers

Photo Details: Both Heinrich van den Berg. Canon EOS 3, 300mm lens with an extension tube, ISO 50, 1/500 sec at f5.6.

Getting the ultimate shot: The key here is creativity and an eye for detail in seemingly endless fields of wild flowers. Lie on the ground and photograph from an ant’s perspective to make viewers feel as if they’re among the flowers, rather than just looking at them. Also look for lines, shapes and textures among the colours. For a beautiful, out-of-focus splash of colour, experiment with positioning your camera with a flower between the lens and the in-focus subject. A longer lens will work well here, as it exaggerates the shallow depth of field.

Canon EOS 3, Fujichrome Velvia, 15mm lens, ISO 50, 1/125 sec at f16).Alternative Shots: Go wild, think outside of the box and just have fun. Get up high, shoot with the sun in the frame, zoom out while using a slow shutter speed to create a streaky blur or use your children as models.

Essential Equipment: A macro lens is vital for closer focusing distances between the subject and your lens. Pack antihistamine tablets if you suffer from hayfever.

When to go: The flowers are best in August and September.

For more information: www.nieuwoudtville.com. Find a place to stay at accommodation.getaway.co.za.

Photo Details:  Both Heinrich van den Berg. Canon EOS 3, 300mm lens with an extension tube, ISO 50, 1/500 sec at f5.6. Canon EOS 3, Fujichrome Velvia, 15mm lens, ISO 50, 1/125 sec at f16.

Lie on the ground and photograph from an ant’s perspective to make viewers feel as if they’re among the flowers

Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, Greater Kruger Area

Best for Intimate Big Cat Photos

Photo Details: Laura Dyer. Canon 7D, 300 mm f2.8 lens, ISO 1000, 1/40 sec at f5.Getting the ultimate shot: The big cats in the private reserve are usually quite relaxed and this, combined with the chance to go off-road, create excellent opportunities to get up close. The royal blue or golden orange sky just after sunset provides a perfect background for leopards lounging in trees. Ask the guides to shine a soft spotlight on them for a balanced exposure.

Alternative Shots: Try a few shots without a spotlight, especially if the background is not cluttered with branches and leaves. You may have to underexpose slightly to create a strong silhouette.

Essential Equipment: A 70 mm to 400 mm lens range will cover most situations. An f2.8 or f4 lens is a huge bonus if you’re shooting in the low light of dawn and dusk or under spotlight (which you can do easily thanks to the absence of gate times). Most importantly, take a beanbag or other support to keep the lens steady.

When to Go: The reserve is beautiful in all seasons, but game viewing is best between May and October when the grass is shorter and days are warm and dry.

For more Information: www.sabisands.co.za.

Photo Details: Laura Dyer. Canon 7D, 300 mm f2.8 lens, ISO 1000, 1/40 sec at f5.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary, Gauteng

Best for Brilliant Bird Images

Photo Details: Stuart Bowie, Canon 50D, 100 - 400 mm lens, ISO 800, 1/2000 sec at f5.6

Getting the ultimate shot:: Great bird photos are dynamic – usually of birds in flight. If you want to try something different at Marievale, walk away from the hides and into the grasslands to capture pin-tailed whydahs, long-tailed widow-birds, yellow bishops and many other species. Start with a simple, out-of-focus background, so position yourself accordingly and pre-set your camera. Go for a wide aperture, a fast shutter speed of more than 1/1000 sec, a high burst mode and a servo focusing mode that tracks with the subject. You’ll also need a keen eye to anticipate the action and bucket loads of patience.

Mark Dumbleton, Canon ID Mk III, 500mm lens, ISO 1 000, 1/2500 sec at f5. Alternative Shots:  Beautifully coloured malachite kingfishers frequent the perches in front of the popular Hadeda Hide (arrive early as seating is limited to six). Try the Duiker Hide for capturing terns or the Shelduck Hide on the opposite side of the dam for an afternoon shoot. Look for birds interacting with one another, feeding on insects or splashing in the water. Also play with longer exposures to create motion blur.

Essential Equipment: A long lens, from 200mm to 600mm, is mandatory to fill the frame with small birds which are far away. A camera with fast frame rate will capture that perfectly timed pose and you’ll need a memory card with lots of space.

When to Go:  Marievale is great throughout the year, but early mornings offer the best light and a chance to capture birds fishing for their breakfast.

You’ll also need a keen eye to anticipate the action and bucket loads of patience 

For more Information: www.nigel.co.za/marievale

Photo Details:  Stuart Bowie, Canon 50D, 100 – 400 mm lens, ISO 800, 1/2000 sec at f5.6. Mark Dumbleton, Canon ID Mk III, 500mm lens, ISO 1 000, 1/2500 sec at f5. 

Tankwa Karoo National park, Namaqualand

Best for Expansive Karoo Landscapes

Photo Details: Karin Schermbrucker, Canon 5D Mk II, 24 - 70mm lens, ISO 100, 1/50 sec at fl 1

Getting the ultimate shot: Capturing vast, open spaces isn’t easy. Start by finding an elevated perch and pay specific attention to composition by adding a prominent subject as a focal point. If that’s a person, always take a few shots of them in different positions. Often it’s only afterwards that you really see which photos work. Soft, side lighting creates interesting shadows and allows you to balance the exposure between white clouds and darker land.

Scott Ramsay, Canon 10D, 12 - 24mm lens, ISO 100, 1 /45 sec at f22.Alternative Shots: Adjust where the horizon line lies in the frame or include stretches of streaky clouds in the vast sky. Find a strong subject to anchor the image. Another great exercise is to photograph the same scene at different times of day to see how the changing light affects the mood.

Essential Equipment:: A wide-angle lens (anything less than a 24 mm using a full-frame sensor) with a polariser to saturate the blue sky and a tripod for self-portraits with a timer.

When to Go: Any time of the year is fine, but late summer offers dramatic cloud formations that bring images to life and spring is when the flowers are at their best.

For more Information:  www.sanparks.org.

Photo Details: Karin Schermbrucker, Canon 5D Mk II, 24 – 70mm lens, ISO 100, 1/50 sec at fl 1. Scott Ramsay, Canon 10D, 12 – 24mm lens, ISO 100, 1 /45 sec at f22.

Start by finding an elevated perch and pay specific attention to composition by adding a prominent subject as a focal point

Your Garden

Best for The Beauty of the Ordinary

Photographer: Albie Venter, Nikon D3, 105mm macro lens, torch and SB 800 flash, ISO 800, 1/50 sec at f5.6.

Getting the ultimate shot: You don’t need to travel to the far reaches of the country to shoot beautiful images such as this one of a Natal tree frog. It was side-lit by a torch to add shadows and create depth and a flash was used to illuminate the raindrops, which created magnificent bokeh (the aesthetic quality of the blur caused by the lens in out-of-focus areas of an image). Be careful that unnatural objects such as a wall or hosepipe don’t creep into frame.

Dylan Kotze, Canon 7D, 15 - 85 mm lens, ISO 100, 1/10 sec at f22.Alternative Shots: Find subjects that you enjoy; after all, photography should be fun, creative and unintimidating. Photograph your family, pets, bugs, birds, braais and whatever other wild and wonderful things tickle your fancy. Use this space to experiment.

Essential Equipment:  There’s a saying that cameras don’t take good pictures, people do. While tripods, filters, flashes and special lenses can help in certain situations, don’t let it hold you back if you’re without the gear. When shooting in your garden, any camera will do.

When to Go: Year-round (with time away for a holiday, of course).

Photographer: Albie Venter, Nikon D3, 105mm macro lens, torch and SB 800 flash, ISO 800, 1/50 sec at f5.6. Dylan Kotze, Canon 7D, 15 – 85 mm lens, ISO 100, 1/10 sec at f22.

You don’t need to travel to the far reaches of the country to shoot beautiful images

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