It’s the quiver tree’s distinctive shape that makes it so photogenic. It’s one of the most striking natural symbols of Namibia, a nation with no shortage of such icons. These strange, spiky plants aren’t trees at all, but a type of aloe, and they’re a defining characteristic of the southern Namibian landscape. Sparsely scattered over the Namib desert, quiver trees survive where little else grows. But in a few special places, they not only survive, but thrive, creating bizarre, beautiful, other-worldly landscapes that beg to be photographed.
The best known and most accessible quiver tree forest lies on a farm a few kilometres outside Keetmanshoop, a work-a-day town, 500km south of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. We’ve been there numerous times, always finding something new to point our cameras at. We spent two nights on location there earlier this year, but could happily have spent a week. It’s one of those places where the longer you spend photographing, the more images suggest themselves, and in the golden light at dusk or dawn it’s sheer magic.
In the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months when we visited, the best of the evening golden light lasts barely an hour. Visit from April onwards into the winter and the lower sun is a lot more generous. The trade off is the sky can be less interesting, with little or no cloud. If you’re lucky the ever-changing cloud formations of the summer can make up for the small window of good photographic light.
Short zooms are the order of the day here either for portraits of a single tree or for wider scenics of the forest. A tripod is also essential, unless you are prepared to shoot at very high ISO because some of the best shots to be had are at twilight when the soft, diffuse light produces a lovely ethereal effect.
With so many surreal trees clustered together – the site is a national monument – the biggest challenge is choosing where to start photographing since there are so many possibilities vying for your attention. Arrive well ahead of the best light and walk around before you settle on your first composition. There’s a strong temptation to start at the first stand of trees you see. Resist it and check out the trees further in. You can always come back after scoping the place out. If you find a composition that strikes a chord it’s worth checking it out several times as the light changes; shooting into the light as well as with the light behind you.
Quiver trees are crowned by a dense lollipop of forked branches, each tipped by a rosette of spiky leaves. It’s these branches that give the quiver tree its common name because traditionally the local San people used the hollowed-out branches as quivers for their arrows. The shapes of these lollipop branches are brilliant for dramatic silhouette shots as the sun sets. This is where a longer lens can be helpful, the narrower field of view and compressed perspective making it easier to pick out a prize specimen against the reddest part of the sky. The quiver tree’s bulbous stems, covered in a thick, corky, yellow bark that glows gold when illuminated by a low sun and is broken up into sharp-edged flakes, make for stunning textural close-ups.
If anything, the quiver tree forest is even more compelling at night, and if you’re into star photography, you’ll struggle to find better foreground interest. Namibia is renowned for its dark skies and is one of the best places in the world to photograph the Milky Way. On our recent visit the Milky Way wasn’t at its absolute best, but was still spectacular. We used a torch to paint the trees, exposing the scene at around 25 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600. A 17-40mm lens was barely wide enough, but on this trip our kit was skewed towards longer lens wildlife photography. Something like a fast 14mm would have been perfect.
Speaking of wildlife photography, the quiver tree forest does have its share of fascinating fauna too. There’s a healthy population of laid-back dassies (rock hyrax) clambering among the rocks – early morning, when they are warming themselves is a good time to photograph them. Lizards are also abundant, and there are some interesting birds. A pair of pygmy falcons were nesting in the huge sociable weaver nest that had been constructed in one quiver tree while we there; using the crown of a neighbouring quiver tree to court. The sociable weaver nest was also being used as a roosting place for a small flock of rosy-faced lovebirds.