Updated: Aug 12, 2022
Several years ago I received a message from friends travelling out in the countryside: "We have just driven past an interesting burnt forest that could be great for photography".
I am based quite far from this particular location but decided to go on a short weekend trip with my daughter Samantha, who shares my photography passion, to have a look. As we approached the area, we knew it had excellent photographic potential.
Let me take a step back and explain our motivation for visiting a burned forest. A few years back, after the bush fires ravished Silvermine and Hout Bay near where we live, I photographed what turned out to be a very successful abstract fynbos series called After The Fire and have since wanted to expand on the collection.
At this particular location, the fire had burned right up to the mountain's higher slopes, creating brilliant uncluttered backgrounds. All that was missing was some soft directional light. The slopes were southeast facing, which meant that early morning light would work best, so we returned to the forest before dawn the following day.
As we arrived, clouds were building on the eastern horizon, which subdued the light at daybreak. As the clouds parted, a little light came through, and we caught a glimpse - a teaser if you like - of what was possible.
Sam and I went our separate ways to start shooting, and soon I found myself getting frustrated as I ran up and down the slopes chasing after any lighting opportunity without success. After an hour or two, we packed up and refuelled in a nearby town, hoping to grab a cup of coffee to heighten our spirits. Fuel yes, coffee no - you had to be kidding!
Funny, I don't mind waiting hours, days or even years in some cases for an opportunity, should the logistics pan out. Still, when I know that I only have a short time available in an area and will probably not be returning, it makes it tougher to accept. I don't know if it is just human inclination, excitement, or just lack of patience.
A short while after leaving the town, we noticed that the sun was still relatively low in the sky, and the heavy cloud cover of the morning had lifted a bit. I couldn't help wondering, "What if?" so we turned around and headed back. The light continued to tease, but I knew a photograph was to be had and was determined to capture it before the opportunity got away. The light continued to tease, and although we both got one or two interesting shots, it was still not what I was after.
I know it sounds strange, but this is one of the things we love about photography. Some days, when the light and weather conditions come together, it seems effortless, and on others (especially when you can see the underlying opportunities, but the light and circumstances do not work), it becomes an extreme test of one's patience.
Driving back along the main road, disappointed, grumpy and feeling sorry for myself, I suddenly spotted a large burnt area just behind some heavy scrub. The burned area in the background was obscured, but fortunately, we found an entrance through a burnt-down gate that gave us access. I could now get to where I wanted to shoot, but the light had become harsh and was too high in the sky. We earmarked the location and called it a day.
That evening and the following day, I accompanied Sam as she wanted to shoot some seascape work for her new upcoming exhibition (Eternity). I thought nothing more of my obsession with abstract compositions and God's apparent injustice. That afternoon, the day before we were set to return home, some mist and light clouds rolled in from nowhere. Suddenly the shoot was on, and my callow mood turned into excitement.
I asked Sam if she wanted to accompany me, and we packed the vehicle and drove back, very excited. A short distance into the forest, I discovered a large, isolated area where the fire had burned so intensely that very little shrubbery was left, only blackened wood and white ash. Yes! This was exactly what I was looking for: black burned tree trunks, white light ash backgrounds combined with the mist and soft light ... yep, a marriage made in heaven.
I tried several "normal" shots, which didn't work. I felt like a child without money in a candy store. I knew the opportunities were there but just couldn't extract them. I then decided to go with a creative approach. The neutral density filter came to help slow down the shutter to create an abstract impressionist feel. From the first exposure, I knew I was on the money. And wow! After that, exposure after exposure just popped up and shouted, "Use me, Use me!". Yes, this was it ... finally!
I shot two formats, one horizontal and one vertical, both of which worked equally well. The combination of soft light, burnt tree trunks, powdery ash backgrounds and camera technique all came together beautifully. I had an absolute blast, but an hour or so later, the soft mist lifted and just like that, the curtain came down on an incredible lighting performance.
Photography is a reality-driven medium, and therein lie the challenges and opportunities when using a camera and lens, especially to create art. These pictures are an excellent example of this. Had I persisted in taking sharp "normal" compositions, the photographs would have probably turned out alright but predictable. And though there is nothing wrong with sharp images for the right subject, I felt it would not have worked for this particular scene.
Ansel Adams, one of the most technically proficient photographers ever, summed this up beautifully when he said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept". You see, photography can also conceal reality within the abstract. It is not about what is being photographed, it has more to do with how it's been photographed.
Thank you, Patrick and Sus, for pointing us in the right direction; if it were not for your prompting, we would never have discovered this wonderful find.