Posted by Joe Lategan on Monday, May 13, 2013 Under: Lesotho Highlands Water Commission PhotoShoot
I was once again commissioned by the Lesotho highlands water commission to capture images of the development mainly for banner sized images for shows and at the same time gather images of cultural, historical and other interesting subject during the week of the 15th to the 20th of March to do this. The brief was to get “wow” shots of LHWC structural objects. The most impressive are always the dam walls as the water project has been one of the most challenging in the engineering world. In essence the Lesotho highlands water project is to capture rainwater in the mountain country of Lesotho and to generate electricity and forward water to South Africa via an ingenious method.
Write about the project.
As always I chose Jan Oberholtzer a local guide from Ladybrand as my guide through Lesotho as he is undoubtedly the best person by far to have with as his knowledge of the plants, animals the project itself and the history of both Lesotho and neighbouring Free State is unequalled by miles. His knowledge of the local language is also extremely useful and border crossing with him makes it an intolerable experience as I absolutely hate crossing African border posts for reasons well known to most that have to do so.
We crossed the border Maseru that on the best of days rates as the most unlikable experiences and then travelled to Mohole dam trough Machache, past the Qiloane falls, and the town Likalaneng.
Photographing Mohale dam in Lesotho
At Mohale dam I captured some generic images of the lodge and met with the officials that were to assist with the logistics of the shot I envisaged. The Lesotho Highlands water project is a coordinated effort by various countries and the total system is a very sensitive and secure area so to get permission to overcome various obstacles had to come from representatives of various countries. The problem I had was that the sun due to the winter season that was approaching fast, was already moving over the waters end of the walls and the main structure was thus in shade for the whole day while the rest of the mountain and landscape around the dam walls still had sunlight on them which made the contrast levels too high. I therefore had to be creative and try a low light shot in the evening if I wanted to make it stand out next to other conventional daylight images of dam walls anywhere in the world.
There is a single road that zigzags up the dam wall and I asked the officials for a driver and vehicle to drive down and up the wall with lights on to paint some light up and down the road. Seeing that the vehicle never would shone its lights directly onto the wall but rather create a steak of lights along the wall created the challenge as I knew I had to then compensate and burn light into the wall in the areas where the vehicles lights did not lit up.
There was no other way as to frame the image as everything in the viewfinder was dark. I could thus not see the outline of the dam wall. I had to use intuition for this as I had only stars to lit up the wall and surrounding landscapes as the moon was right in front of me and still dark moon only. To complicate matter I had a few lights behind me shinning into the dam wall area but very far away, but I realised it would still burn some light in the form of noise onto the dam wall with a lengthy exposure though nothing was visible with the naked eye.
As a reference shot I captured one image with an estimated ISO of 500 and f- stop of 18 to test the amount of light the vehicle lights burnt into the shot. The exposure of around 10 minutes was only faintly showing the lights of the vehicle zigzagging up into the dark. Nothing else was lit. I increased the ISO drastically otherwise I would have had an hour exposure I estimated. I knew I had one other attempt as the engineers had a long day and it was already close to 21:00. I also woke at 03; 00 earlier that morning to catch my flight from Cape Town to Bloemfontein and then had to drive to Mohale dam. The day was thus already 17 hours long for me at that stage. Various other images were captured on route to Mohale as can be expected in Lesotho such as the donkeys, goats, sheep and herd boys as well as village scenes.
So just getting the frame and composition right had to be done in the lights of the first vehicles’ escapade down and up the wall. To top it all the wind was gusting over the steep ledge I was standing with the tripod so besides not being able to move 5cm forward I had to keep my hand on the tripod pushing downwards to reduce the potential vibration on the camera. It must also be said that driving the zigzag route down and up the wall is also not the easiest thing as the bends are extremely sharp as can be expected on the back of a steep dam wall and 2 and 3 point turns had to be avoided and would have burnt too much light at the turns into the image. This was explained to the driver as well as the required speed he was to travel including a very short turn around at the bottom of the dam wall and my image. During the trail run he drove so slow it would have burnt too much light onto the wall with my revised settings. It however allowed me more time to compose the image however and my eye was glued to the viewfinder for the duration of the trail run as I had no other way of determining where the edge of the image was. The scene was too dark and no portable light could light the wall at such a distance and like I said there was no moonlight. An advantage I had however was that there were no strong spotlights on the dam wall shinning towards or away from it. This makes the exposure very complicated and multiple images were not possible due to the sensitivity of the structure.
After checking the camera settings I briefed the driver that had to make his second attempt at painting the dam wall with the vehicle lights. As soon as I saw him entering the top of the dam wall I tripped the shutter with the remote release. While I captured the image my mind was racing through a million things including the fact that the client might not want to have an evening or low light image and I made the decision to let enough light burn into the scene to have a very balanced day/evening shot at the end if possible. It turned out exactly what I wanted.
I never left the camera and tripod and concentrated all the time trying to guess the amount of light that was burning into the scene. My guide and driver were standing behind me at the vehicle asking very suspicious questions as they could not work out what this madman was doing in the dark as the dam wall was not even visible in the slightest with the naked eye.
All the time I realised that to capture this type of image is almost always a serendipitous event as it is just intuition and help from around, above, below and within. Fact remains that I cannot help but praying while attempting a shot like this as so many factors come into play that it could confuse one in the process and that leaves the mind with no reference if you attempt something similar. To write down the f stop, exposure, and other elements that contributed to the image and try and copy it in future is a futile exercise. I for instance knew all the time that I had at the most two days and night capturing this type of image as a massive frontal system was making its way up country with heavy showers predicted. A frontal system normally makes for the best images but for structure or architecture continuous rain is the worst weather one can get.
So after 25minutes and 13 and 1/64th of a second I closed the shutter with the release cable I shouted “it is done” in a very self assured way and started packing the equipment. All the way back to the lodge camera on my lap, I kept sneaking at the back of the camera to see when I could view the result of the captured image all the time. After more than 5 minutes I started getting worried as did my guide at the length of time the camera took to process the image. I did not keep time but it must have been more than 10 minutes. When the green light flashed I saw in an instant that it was close to what I envisaged and I couldn’t help showing the guide instantaneously. I made another quick prayer as I knew as I felt all along that the result was going to be special. When I showed the image to my guide and driver they were dumbstruck to say the least. To my driver I was now on par with his sangoma as the image showed the mountains in the background and all the detail of a daylight image. And he stood in pitch black darkness behind me all the time while capturing the image.
Now the challenge like always would be to hope the memory card lasted and I copied the images onto my laptop immediately and the challenge was double that stressful to ensure the memory card and the computer did not get damaged on the torturous roads and conditions. So only at midnight I could go to bed and wondered if the client could appreciate that my first day was a physical, mental and spiritual 21 hour day. I wonder how someone that did his work only for money would have captured an image like this under the same conditions. How do you get rewarded or motivated with money for a day’s work if you worked 21hours nonstop to get an image. As a matter of fact I haven’t been paid my deposit yet. Something I don’t tolerate normally.
The next morning I was up to see if there would be no sunlight on the front of the dam wall but to no avail. I captured the structure as best I could and drove around the dam to get images from across the water and below the wall where they once again opened both the sluices to 80% just for me.
On route to Katse
From Mohale dam we drove straight east to Ha Marakabei through the centre of Lesotho highlands to Thaba Tseka. The route to Katse is breathtaking and uninhabited and the route travels over mountains close to 3000meters above sea level. From Thaba Tseka we turned north to Ha Soai then Katse. Driving over the Mokhoabong pass was a great experience and one of my favourite places in Lesotho. Keeping in mind that I had only the afternoon and evening to get image of the Katse Lake we had to leave as quick as possible. Capturing image of scenes on route had to be restricted due to the race against the weather. The condition of road at places did not help. From Thaba Tseka the gravel road is very bad and the speed at with the driver impacted through the potholes and corrugations tested the durability of the screws and rods in my back.
Photographing Katse dam in Lesotho
When we arrived at Katse an arched dam wall of 180 plus meters high the structure was also in harsh shade. The colour of the concrete and the contrast made it a very unpleasant view for any creative photographer. Only the sheer magnitude of the engineering achievements made it impressive but to translate that respect of the human ingenuity onto an image in such conditions is close to impossible I might say.
I also had to attempt an evening low light shot but a few things made it extremely difficult from the onset. First was that there were a few spotlights on the structure that would have burnt too much light onto the image if a single long exposure was attempted. I had to plan for multiple images and leave it to my image enhancer and editor Hardus to make something of the mess in post production. A further problem I had during the day was the fact that the veldt was already going grey brown as the country had received their first cold front a few weeks earlier. I captured three images of respectively 318 seconds at f7.1 and ISO 200; another at 47 seconds at f 7.1 and ISO 1000 and a third image at 423 seconds at f 5.6 and ISO 800.
The next evening I once again tried to do long exposures, but the wind was howling to such a degree that camera shake was inevitable. Like expected it was also not going to be as smooth as Mohale dam’s long exposure as I knew it was exceptional to get an image like that.
The following morning the sunlight also didn’t shine on the back of the dam wall as the sun just like Mohale was already too far north (winter season) for direct sunlight. I took some images of the wall as best I could also hoping my editor would be able to get something as the camera and me could not do anything spectacular.
As expected the rains started the afternoon late and it didn’t top for three days. We still had a whole days travel to the new Pulihali dam basically around the northern boundary of the country. I called it off and saved the client around R6000 in travel expense only as it was to be a futile exercise in the rain. We could however capture some images of the hydro electrical station close to a kilometre underground.
Tags: "lesotho highlands" "lesotho photography" " lesotho dams" "lesotho dam walls" "lesotho water project" " mohale dam" "katse dam" "lesotho photography" "lesotho photographer"
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