David Ward explains how he took this ethereal photograph of acacia trees in Deadvlei in Namibia by taking advantage of some unexpected misty conditions

Photo Insight with David Ward

David Ward is one of the UK’s finest landscape photographers. With more than 20 years’ experience in large-format photography, he has photographed extensively throughout the UK and in countries such as Canada, Iceland, Norway and France. He has also led workshops for Light & Land. David has written two books on his photographic philosophy called Landscape Within and Landscape Beyond. Each month, he will discuss the story behind one of his fantastic landscape photographs

This is Deadvlei, a white clay pan set among sand dunes near the salt pan of Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft Park in southern Namibia. Standing here, you’re in the middle of sand dunes that are a couple of hundred metres high. Occasionally, there is water, fed by a nearby river, but whether there is water or not this is an incredible place because the dunes are so large. In fact, they tower above you.

On the drive into Sossusvlei you can see the famous Dune 45 that everybody photographs, but if you push on for another 15-20km (9-12 miles) you will find a host of other views. You have to drive on sand, so you need be in a four-wheel drive. There comes a point when you have to leave your vehicle and walk into Deadvlei. The terrain is a mixture of hard pan and hot sand. It’s not a hard walk, but it’s not overly easy, either. Eventually, you reach a low ridge and can look down into Deadvlei. Dotted across the area are acacia trees that started to grow hundreds of years ago. They are long dead, but the air is so desiccated the trees don’t rot – they are preserved as ‘skeletons.’

I was leading a tour to the region when I took this image. I’ve run tours in this part of Namibia several times before, so I know the landscape well. I always make sure we reach Deadvlei well before dawn. This means leaving before 5am and setting up the cameras in the semi-darkness when there is perhaps just a glow in the sky.

The desert is fantastically quiet, which is one of the things I love most about shooting there. I find the surreal landscape very relaxing. As the sun comes up, there is a line between shadow and sun that crosses Deadvlei, and I try to make compositions that include this division. You have about 20 minutes to capture the mixture of warm light and cooler light of the blue sky that can provide some interesting colour combinations. If you’re using a digital camera, you need to set your white balance to daylight to capture the colours faithfully.

We arrived just as the sun was rising over the dunes. The mist started to creep over the ridges – just tendrils at first, but then thicker and thicker until it started to fill the area. You can see the light on the dunes just shining through and the blue sky through the haze. It was a surreal situation to be standing in mist in the middle of the desert, as these are quite rare weather conditions. The river had been running at Sossusvlei, so this may have caused moisture to be in the air. Fortunately, we could still make out the trees. The mist makes all sorts of compositional things possible, but more than anything it adds an emotional element.

Normally in this location I wouldn’t be able to shoot towards the dunes like this as the light is too bright in the background, but this time the mist’s softening effect made the composition. I’m still shooting into the light, which has silhouetted the trees, but the effect is more subtle. You can also make out patterns in the clay in the foreground that are not totally in shadow.

I made about five pictures with my Linhof 5×4 camera, although this particular image was actually shot on a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 set to a 16×9 aspect ratio. I was shooting at f/4 at 1/800sec and ISO 80. My camera was on a tripod, although I was really only using the tripod to make sure I framed the picture accurately. This is eye level for me, and while I don’t often shoot at eye level it worked for this image.

In terms of composition, I try to simplify things as much as possible. I found a viewpoint so the trees were separate from each other. I try to make a picture I feel is most appropriate from the scene in front of me. At that moment I act instinctively – I don’t rationalise much, because if I do the image becomes a bit stilted. What I’m trying to do when I make a picture like this is reach for the simplest way I can to express my feelings towards what is in front of me. By removing the clutter, there is room for the viewer to interpret the scene.

There is that old dichotomy of do we make pictures or take pictures. I like to think we make them, as I feel there is the suggestion of a creative act rather than it being a case of wandering along and thinking, ‘Here’s a picture. I’ll pick that up.’ Having said that, referring to the photographic process as ‘taking’ is in one sense absolutely right, as we want to take some portion of a moment back with us. What I think we’re really trying to do it to capture a sense of our emotional response to a moment or to a scene.

To see more of David’s images or to book a place on one of his workshops, visit www.into-the-light.com

David Ward was talking to Gemma Padley