Dream-like quiver trees captivate our cameras

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.

Quiver trees at sunset

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.

Quiver trees at sunsetIn 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.

Quiver treesShort 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.

Quiver trees and Milky WayIf 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.

Quiver trees at sunrise

Sand blast – Shooting the Namib’s iconic ghost town

The wind takes a deep sigh and enters the house through the broken windows. It deposits a dusting of sand in the parlour then wafts out the open front door like a phantom…

This is how the Namib desert is reclaiming one of southern Namibia’s most famous and most photogenic ghost towns, taking back its territory mournfully, grain by grain…

Kolmanskop ghost town
Nothing can stop nature and the passage of time – you feel like you’re inside the mind of a surrealist painter

It’s hard to resist the poignant photographic appeal of Kolmanskop. Everywhere you look you’ll find a picturesque decay – peeling paint, shards of glass, broken boards. Everywhere you look you’ll find inspiration for pictures.

Architect's house, Kolmanskop ghost town
Expect the unexpected – it’s a surreal scene

In its heyday Kolmanskop, about 10 kilometres from the coastal desert town of Luderitz, was a shining gem in the dust; a thriving diamond mining town on the edge of one of the world’s oldest deserts. At the peak of the diamond rush in the early 1900s the residents here toasted their good fortune in Champagne, listened attentively to the European opera companies that visited their theatre, exercised in its pool, bowled in its skittle alley and boasted about having southern Africa’s first-ever X-ray machine in their hospital.

Today the place is a tumbledown ghost town left to the desert’s devices. When richer diamond deposits were found further south the writing was on the wall for Kolmanskop’s luxury lifestyle. Now the once fine buildings are skeletal; the debris of the residents’ daily lives strewn widely across the sprawling site. Inside the homes the rising tide of sand is already up to the light-switches, marooning cast-iron baths and old bedsteads in the middle of sitting rooms. Doors have drifted into passageways, or rock crazily on rusting hinges, window frames have been cast against walls and the tracks of jackal and brown hyena crisscross the floors of former bedrooms. Occasionally a prettily-stencilled frieze, a small piece of china, or an eerily silent classroom pulls you up short – all that’s left of someone else’s hope and ambitions.

Interior detail, Kolmanskop ghost town
A picturesque and poignant decay is ever present

Yet people are drawn here from across the world – these days mining for images. We’ve made several stop-offs in the past during visits to Namibia; making full use of the special photography permits, available from the nearby town, that allow access to the site for the whole day, and from first light when the place is deserted – well before the daily guided tours get underway. This is when the footprints of yesterday’s visitors, that might otherwise stomp across your images, have been neatly swept away by the ever-present desert wind – another compelling reason to be first on site.

Kolmanskop is a hugely atmospheric place and the fact you’re allowed to roam all over the expansive site and explore inside the countless dilapidated structures makes photographing here overwhelming at first. Where the hell to begin? Our advice would be to start with a few exterior shots, exploiting the subtle colours and intense mood just as dawn breaks; perhaps concentrating on the impressive, well-to-do homes that will catch your attention on arrival.

Interior detail, Kolmanskop ghost town
A tripod is essential if you are to exploit Kolmanskop’s full potential

A tripod is essential to deal with the low light conditions at sunrise, but also for later when shooting interiors. Ideally pack one that can be used at low levels and in awkward places as some of the rooms are so full of sand you might end up on all fours. A tripod will also help you consider and perfect your shots – tweaking camera settings and making minor, thoughtful adjustments while framing.  That said it’s quite possible to work free-hand if you have a DSLR that performs wells at high ISOs. It’s up to you.  We ended up doing a combination of both; losing the tripod where we wanted the freedom of movement to go for a few more abstract, creative shots.

Interior detail, Kolmanskop ghost town
The play of light as you photograph inside the houses will keep you glued to your camera for hours

Try not to trample over and ruin potential foregrounds as you move around, particularly doing broader landscape shots of the town; once you’ve spoiled the pristine sand ripples that’s it.

Book-keeper's house, Kolmanskop ghost town
Be on site at first light for evocative exterior shots and don’t forget contre jour can be effective

Once the sun’s up we tend to find the conventional syrupy, postcard light less evocative to work with so this is when we move the operation indoors to where the real photographic treasures lie.

Interior detail, Kolmanskop ghost town
There’s potential for great framing everywhere you look

As it climbs in the sky, the sun streaks into the empty rooms through cracks and empty windows creating a wonderful, changing play of shadows, shapes, textures and patterns – the raw materials for capturing great, dream-like room studies and abstract detail shots. Each building and room you enter draws you in further and there are lots of buildings and rooms. Allow yourself plenty of time. Window frames, doorways, inner passages – provide endless opportunities to construct images that lead the viewer in, and for shots that frame ‘frames’ within a frame. The worker’s houses at the far end of the site might look less prepossessing than the big houses, but they harbour plenty of photographic potential, so don’t limit yourself solely to the posher-looking buildings. The captivating paint colours, decorative touches, surreal build-up of sand, and the surprise bits of old furniture offer a rich seam for images on this side of town.

Looking for a fresh take on the place in February this year we set ourselves the challenge of capturing images that summed up the ‘ghostliness’ of the place – it is a ghost town after all. images that might better convey the strange and unsettling feeling of journeying through past lives; through endless abandoned rooms filling with sand. We attempted this in some shots by deliberately overexposing our images to create a high-key effect. We quite liked the way this made our pictures look ‘ghostly’ pale and washed out as it the life and colour had been drained away – just like in the town.

Book-keeper's house, Kolmanskop ghost town
The book-keeper’s house is usually shot in golden light. For a change we tried some serious over-exposure to wash out the colour

Our other approach was to go even more abstract. We used very slow shutter speeds when shooting some interiors (experiment by reducing your ISO and increasing the depth of field), and purposefully moved the camera a little while releasing the shutter, to create a sort of ‘ghosting’ in the final image. You have to trial this a bit to get it right according to whether you want a really ‘out there’ effect or just a hint of things off-balance, it’s really up to you. When reviewing our pictures afterwards some of these more off the wall images really caught that surreal sense of another reality we both got walking around this sad, but strangely beautiful place.

Interior detail abstract, Kolmanskop ghost town
Interior detail abstract, We used impressionistic blur to exploit the mood, colours and shapes of the dream-like interiors

If you fancy discovering the photographic possibilities of Kolmanskop ghost town for yourself it’s easy to arrange as part of a self-drive trip to Namibia, perhaps as an add-on to one of our photo safaris.

Window, Kolmanskop ghost town
The potential to play around with framing idea, to help draw the viewer in, proved hard to resist
Kolmanskop ghost town abstract
Being bold when getting creative can pay-off. We like the ghostly feel of this more high-key, slow shutter speed shot