“Ok, so we know the West Coast is a unique place, we know that it is rugged and has a harsh and unique beauty to it, we know it has a simplistic and fantastic culture, and we know it has beautiful skies, colours and sunsets. Any visitor to the region will experience all of the above, and a lot more besides. So, what is so secret and special about “our West Coast”. Only that it is has probably one of the best sites for landscape photography in this beautiful country of ours!”
Articles and Photographs by Marius Martens
Let’s look at the West Coast in Photographic terms. Not only is this the place where you find the “Big Sky” experience (for some reason the sky is just more “visible” here than in other regions), fantastic cloud formations, colours so vivid that people think the photographs have been manipulated, unique bodies of water with great angles and colours, abundant bird life ideal to jazz up that great sunset picture of yours. There is also the romanticism of the fishing trawlers, the portrait characters of the fishermen, the wild flowers (in season), sea life, river life, old decrepit jetties and more. It is a place for “scape” photography, land-, sea-, river- and skyscapes. Indeed a “phototog’s” heaven. Whether you are a serious amateur with a fancy SLR and specialized lenses, a pro, or semi-pro with a couple media and client successes behind you, a tourist visitor with the typical “mik-en-druk” digital camera so small you carry it in your change pocked or even (especially with the new generation) a mobile warrior believing you can actually produce quality landscape photographs with your cellular phone, the West Coast will give you the opportunity to capture unique images and memories.
Some Pointers for Capturing Images on the West Coast
There are, however, a couple of things to remember when photographing in this region, some general photographic pointers and other unique to the region.
- You will be photographing into the light (with a strong sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean). You biggest help with this is to know your camera, your setting and composure compensations. The difference between a good and a great picture is, for instance, the ability to catch the unexpected flight of birds against the sunset – be ready for it. Sometimes there is just no time to start fiddling with your camera settings.
- For the serious photog: you ARE going to use your wide angle and medium telephoto lenses.
- Composition, composition, composition! The sites are great for applying the composition rule of thirds. Not many great images are made with the sea horizon sitting slap in the middle of your viewfinder. Furthermore, there are ample geographic features, old jetties, dirt tracks etc. to use as a lead-in focus to your main subject (do not forget about all those great old jetties out there – get in low for a different perspective and wow your viewers). Oh, and for those with digital cameras (probably 95% of people), please check that the horizon is straight. Some unexplained quirk causes an unaware digital photographer to produce consistent skew horizons (even worse for those that do not edit their images later).
- It is an absolute must to get off the main tar road onto the dirt tracks and lesser known river and sea views (which are there aplenty). What a frustration to look at an article from a national magazine only to see the typical travel photography images covering only the main areas along the tar road, taking at high noon flat with zero creativity. Example: how many people travel on the West Coast Road through Velddrif, never take the Port Owen turn-off, not knowing about the fantastic images at Port Owen Marina or the mouth of the marina with the thousands of Cape Cormorants on their dusk return flight their sleep-over at the salt pans.
- Relating to the above, the serious amateur or pro will know to case-out the available photographic sites, the direction of the sunrises and sunsets, possible compositions and the difference in seasonal environment. Not as complicated as one thinks, just a mental note to return to an area if the conditions are not right. In this way I actually managed a “winning shot” of an old decrepit farm barn in the corn field on the road to Piektberg, just 4 years after first identifying the potential site!
- Critical for all would-be “scapers” is obviously our Golden Hour. If you are on holiday, it would unfortunately mean getting up in the darkness on some morning and having everybody wait for you to start the braai fire (because the sunset on the West Coast in peak summer will only be between 8:00 and 8:30 pm). Positioning yourself at a previously identified spot, waiting for first light, make sure that your tripod is set up to capture the absolute tranquillity of the water in the pre-sunrise light that is your objective. Same routine for the sunsets, with the last rays disappearing extremely fast, you need to be at your selected site and vantage point before the time. Even more true than in other areas, NEVER leave your spot after the sun is down. Now the magic of the West Coast only starts to reveal itself. Moment by moment you will experience changing colours and changing clouds and somewhere in this process is a winning image.
- Take a break from the “scapes” and hang out at the harbour sites. You will find fantastic character portraits amongst the old fishermen. Mostly ready to chat, a good shoot can be had with willing subjects.
Some Good Photographic Spots
For the visitor, photographically the West Coast is regarded as the section of coastline between Melkbostrand and Lambertsbaai and the immediate inland section of the Sandveld. Local phototogs will obviously have their favourite sites (some kept secret, others not), but a personal list of favourite sites and subject matter is produced here to help the keen photographer.
- Starting at Melkbosstrand, you will find some awesome coloured sunsets and interesting subject matter if taken from the beach.
- Just north of Melkbosstrand the turnoff left to Ganzebaai. During the week it is very quiet and the tidal pool and cottages makes for great contrasting low sun, and somewhat abstract images.
- In the flower season any number of smaller places on the coast next to the West Coast highway can be easily reached. You will be surprised at the beauty of flowers contrasting the rough seas.
- Darling and surrounding areas in winter and flower season, makes for lush green and interesting landscapes.
- Yzerfontein’s landscape is somewhat urban, contrasting with some great offshore images. Although on the must-see list, the area lends itself more to travel photography than land-and seascapes.
- Next in line, Langebaan, offers a somewhat mixed bag of potential imagery. Firstly, the awesome sunset images off the sand at the lagoon. Here you will have to scout the best areas on the day. Also, on the main beach there are water sports and kiting. Shark Bay in the Flower season, as well as the abutting West Coast National Park makes a trip worthwhile.
- Saldanha: The Yact Club might be worth a visit, but the action is actually on the opposite pier, with fishing travels tightly docked in rows making for some fantastic early evening images (even night photography works well with this scenery). Personally, the only other interesting scenes found in Saldanha were panoramic images from the hilltop, from where one can see the full vista of lagoon.
- A great favourite, Jacobsbaai needs to be approached towards the bay in front of the Weskusplek. Out of season there are normally crayfish bakkies tied up in the small bay. Combine this with late afternoon light and you have a wonderful atmospheric seascape. Terrible winter weather with heavy fog also works well here.
- Well, everybody would know about Paternoster: picture perfect for post cards with its white beaches, quaint architecture and bakkies on the beach. What then is the photographic challenge? Why not spot the only place on the West Coast where you can cover sunrise and sunset from one location? Try focusing on unique angles and visit Cape Columbine lighthouse and Tietiesbaai for some closer-up images on the rough shore side of the reserve.
It is always the objective to provide that uniwue and different viewpoint of a known landmark, activity or subject. The aim is to tell a story, create a mood and interest the viewer. Photography serves as to make the practitioner constantly aware of the surrounding beauty of the land, the sea, the mountains, the birds, the animals and the skies. And is that not a blessing?