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Enter the Dragon – Part1

Joe Cornish in South Africa

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Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish

Professional landscape photographer. His personal website is www.joecornishphotographer.com/

Drakensberg from Mikes Pass

I saw pictures of the Drakensberg mountain range in South Africa twenty five years ago. The skyline of spectacular peaks and exotically-fertile foothills made a big impression, as did the evocative name (Dragon's mountains). So I didn't need persuading when Denis Hocking, friend and long term South African aficionado, suggested a trip for November of this year. His main interest was the Indian ocean shore between East London and Durban, "the Wild Coast". For me it was the Drakensberg. David Ward was also drafted into the party. Sadly for us David got an irresistible offer meanwhile (Tasmania) and pulled out.

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  • TheFlyingPig

    I’m so envious. My wife was raised in SA and I have visited once, overnighting at Didima Camp in the Drakensbergs was one stop – I wish I could go again with nearly 6 years extra photography experience! The amphitheater photo is simple gorgeous – you really did the place justice!

  • David Driman

    Beautiful images of the Drakensberg Mountains, especially the Cathedral Peak range, my favorite spot on earth. Having grown up over there and still a regular visitor, I have seen (and made) many images. Joe Cornish’s images are particularly beautiful. Those rolling green hills with the beautiful play of light are captured spectacularly.

  • Allan Harris

    I agree, a beautiful set of images and it would be good to see these as full sized prints. The landscapes are beautiful but I especially like the more intimate detail shots. It certainly doesn’t sound like travelling light, but your D800 is obviously up to the challenge.

  • Peter McCabe

    Truly beautiful, I look forward to hearing more about this trip. Think I better start saving for 2014!!!

  • Stuart Thompson

    A very memorable scouting visit to a beautiful country for landscape, and its people. We lived in SA for six years where our children grew up-it was a pleasure seeing your photographs, which brought back many memories. There are many landscape photographic locations in SA but I am sure that you would enjoy the experience of the wilderness environment of the Karoo.
    A question please: I have been researching the tilt and shift lens for my D700, particularly the 24 mm PCE model that you took on your trip. I would be pleased to know of your experience with its use, particularly as I understand that it is not possible to use the tilt and shift features simultaneously – is that a disadvantage? I do not know the Zeiss Distagon 40 mm and Mirex tilt-shift adaptor combination; how does it compare to the Nikon 24 mm PCE ?
    Many thanks.

  • Thanks to everyone for the positive comments. I really feel South Africa remains a relatively undiscovered destination, certainly for European photographers, and it has endless wonders to explore.
    Regarding Stuart’s question, I do have some mixed feelings about the Nikon 24mm PC-E, as at pixel level there is a slight harshness to it, and it does suffer quite a bit from lateral CAs. However, the latter can be corrected easily in post production, and in print form the perceived harshness is imperceptible. The tilt and shift mechanisms can actually be used at the same time, but Nikon have arranged it so the orientation is fixed in the ‘less useful’ combination. They are aware, I suspect, that the lens has considerable limitations. Even so, it’s still an immensely useful optic for the landscape photographer. The Zeiss Distagon 40mm (the last version ever made for the old V series Hasselblad cameras) is amazing on the D-800 and brilliant in print form. The Mirex adapter is a bit fiddly, but once you get the hang of it then it helps make a mini view camera from your dslr.

    • Stuart Thompson

      Thank you for your quick and helpful reply – much appreciated.

  • Thanks, Joe. I am particularly enjoying the Cathedral peaks image which is glorious, and the raiders stone image – the dripping water gives the stone an ethereal feel. It reminds me of a WWII aircraft bomb bay (Dambusters)!

    Stuart – Nikon can modify the 24mm PC-E so that tilt and shift can be used simultaneously, but they charge quite a hefty fee. Michael.

    • Michael, did you serve in the RAF during WW2? If so, huge kudos to you; if not then we are of the same generation (as me) who remember that film from childhood years! Barnes Wallis and all that. It was quite an intimidating object to walk beneath, if only because, sooner or later, you suspect it will finish its descent into the river bottom (and unlike the Dambusters it won’t be bouncing anywhere). For now it remains suspended as if frozen in mid flight. Quite an amazing sight.

      • Hi Joe

        I’m too young to have served in WW II and will probably never come close to achieving anything as selfless as so many did in that generation, but yes I remember Dambusters well from my childhood (if you want a more accurate estimate of my age, I’m not sure if you recall but I was at the Edward Weston exhibition in Edinburgh a few years ago when you were with a certain gifted photographer who spends a considerable amount of time in Glen Etive)! I love the image because it has such tension. That rock just doesn’t look like it should be there. Michael

        • Ah yes, forgive the short term memory issues! Anyway, many thanks for your observations; tension is a little-discussed quality, being quite difficult to define. But I agree, tension is probably what makes that image.

          • Thinking about tension (given your comments), I now realise that it’s probably an inappropriate word (I now realise that I don’t know what it means in a photographic context!). Whatever the case, I love the fact that the boulder looks so unnatural, so uncomfortable, in its position!


  • Joe, as always, your images never fail to amaze me! I hope you will share some more from your trip. My trip to SA this year finished before even started (arm in plaster) so it is great to be able to see these places through your eyes! Raiders stone is sooo very atmospheric! All the best, Beata

    • Thanks Beata, and thanks too for your contribution to the magazine this week, a really illuminating and enjoyable read. And great to hear about what you are doing now,

      • Thanks for your kind words Joe, it means a lot!

  • TivFoto

    Amazing landscapes Joe, the Drakensberg Amphitheatre picture makes me want to ‘get up and get out there!’, it must be amazing conquering new ground with different geology to what you’re used to, something that can dishearten you in this country if you are in the wrong mood. Also, its great to see that your Nikon D800 made the images.(the photo you took named catherderal_peaks demonstrates the camera’s ability to record fine details and texture so well, such a great capture and composition!) I’m still paying for my Nikon D800 (especially with the missus) but I love it!, and have been really satisfied with the results, the colours are softer and more accurate and really rich in sun light (and sometimes need taming), I find it records the information so well, so much that old post processing techniques have changed for the better, but it’s an unforgiving camera if you don’t treat it with respect regarding the technicalities you must adhere to when exposing, it has so many pixels to pack in!, however, I have never used a medium format camera to compare it to and can only gain confidence when the likes of yourself are complementing its capabilities and output. I’ve never sold as many prints as I have do now, now I own this camera and I am reaping the benefits (especially with the missus), a testament to its precision in recording what we see with our eyes. Thanks for showing us these images and I was over the moon when I saw you used a D800, at least I can now say to her, ‘Joe Cornish uses one of these’, it might get me a few more trips out up the Coppermines and Walna Scar when we’re in Coniston next month. Merry Christmas, Steve Whitaker

    • Thank-you Steve, in the interests of balance I should say that the Linhof Techno/Phase One IQ180 combination remains my main working tool for landscape. But I am delighted that when pressed into service shooting landscapes the D-800 is remarkably capable. As an all-round camera (in the natural history field) it is top of the pile at the moment I’d say. No doubt Canon will be back before long of course. However, what makes me happiest is that I really do feel now that these digital cameras (MF or 35mm) can deliver, and that therefore the arguments about what to use are, relatively speaking, rhetorical.
      I still strongly believe in large format film cameras, their ‘sense of occasion’, the discipline they encourage, and the physicality of the negative or transparency; and I for one hope that film continues to be available, so that we have that creative choice.
      In terms of a final print workflow though, for the working photographer, high end digital is logical, more flexible, predictable, and easier. I am not saying it is better though. It is so much a matter of your relationship with the camera. If your camera allows you to “Get it. And forget it”, as in, you can now truly concentrate on your photography, it is the right camera, whichever format, and whatever advances arise in the future.

  • Flyby34

    There are some truly great pictures, wow! I like the ‘Ballito shore’ and ‘Mt Thesiger’. Despite the 2:3 format one can tell these have your signature. Because you travelled ‘light’, would a Mamiya 7 be an option so you can use Velvia50?

    • That is a nice idea. However, I did have use of a Mamiya 7 for a year some time ago, and never got on with it. Even with the 50mm lens, my interest in ‘near-far’ images made the lack of tilt (depth of field control) a real drawback. And although the lenses are pretty well as good as it gets, IQ still fell well short of 5×4, at least using the Imacon scanner for both formats. Saying that, used carefully and scanned properly the M7 can deliver brilliant results. But personally I don’t like it as a camera. If I want to use Velvia in a lightweight form I would probably try a Chamonix 5×4.

      • Flyby34

        Joe thanks, I own the Chamonix 045n2 and as it is my first LF camera, I’m very pleased with it. I also do use a Linhof 6×7 back mainly for $$ reasons-) With that system I have the tilt/shift possibility’s and a LF (slow) workflow.
        Bert Vliegen.

        • Bert, a very logical conclusion regarding enjoying LF workflow at an affordable price while not carrying too much stuff. And you can switch to 5×4 when the economy improves!
          I occasionally wonder about the Ebony SW23, a beautiful fully featured light 6×7/9 roll film only view camera. But I really don’t want to go back to scanning regularly.

          • Flyby34

            Joe, I must admit that the compete workflow thus including development, which I do my self and scanning (Epson V750), takes a lot of patience. But on the other hand, for me it’s a bit of excitement and also realising that I do something else than most of the photographers do today, especially in the Netherlands.
            Merry Christmas and a good 2013! Bert.

  • jennym

    Gorgeous images Joe, that brought back happy memories of hiking in the Drakensberg in the ‘pre-family’ era, and camping in a most ferocious storm at the foot of the escarpment that came out of nowhere. I’m glad you enjoyed these magnificent mountains in such magical light.

    I’m intrigued by your use of a 3:2 aspect ratio and wonder if this represents a shift in the way you see, or whether it is perhaps more driven by the camera you were using. I’m also interested in the amount of shadow detail you pull out which is rather different to the look I would expect velvia to provide. I appreciate that the final print may look different to the screen image, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Is it a result of exposing to the right of the histogram, the way the D800 records the image, post processing, the nature of the light, your own vision or some other reason?
    All the best, Jenny

    • Hello Jenny, yes it is really a fantastic place isn’t it?
      Re the aspect ratio, that is driven entirely by the camera; I have always preferred to ‘go with the flow’, and this is the native aspect ratio of course. Saying that, I have used the 5×4 preset in the D800 to reasonable effect on occasion (although it is only represented by a line at each edge of the frame within the viewfinder, it isn’t nicely “greyed out”, as in the original D3). As to the shadow detail I really can’t be sure; that might be slightly a screen image effect? However, the main reason is likely to be simply that the light was frequently quite soft from mist and rain, and I revelled in that. It’s true the camera’s raw file is much flatter than a Velvia transparency; clearly though I ‘tune to taste’. So if my pictures look softer it may well be a matter of my approach changing a bit, informed I hope by what I have learned the last few years. Or it could be that (with age) perhaps I am just fading away…!

      • LShepherd

        I thought I remembered you talking about the image area not being greyed out and then struggled to find where, but here it is! It was something I found disappointing too as I find my eyes just don’t obey those faint lines! However, I’ve just discovered that, if you switch AF points illumination to OFF, as opposed to ON or AUTO, then it greys out the unused area. It’s a bit of a fudge but at least there is that option.

        • Lizzie,
          I am sure I won’t be the only D800 owner wishing you a hearty thanks… and a happy New Year. Cheers,

  • jennym

    Thanks Joe, I’m challenged to spend some time thinking about what makes a ‘look’ rather than accepting what my transparencies give me. Fading away…? I think not! More a case of sprouting wings, I would suggest….

  • Ross Brown

    Thank you for an interesting article and sharing the pictures from your recent trip – in particular I like the images “Aloes Tryme Hill” and the “Drakensberg Amphitheatre”. It looks like an amazing landscape to explore and what comes across is a real freshness to the colours and a new unique flora.

    Having recently moved from Velvia/Provia LF to digital I would be interested in your approach to colour management? During your trip did you shoot your raw files in a consistent colour setting e.g cloudy or adjust each image at the time of shooting using the ‘K’ mode to best reflect what you saw at the time? Once you are back home after a trip, how do you remember the actual colour rendition from a scene, such as the tones in the sky / clouds? Did you use Lens Cast Calibration with your D800?

    With Velvia I tended to get a consistent colour workflow, but now I find myself developing the colour more to taste with digital (with obvious benefits but at times I wonder personally if this approach can lack consistency when producing a set of images). In photoshop I always found myself reducing a little magenta from my Velvia scans. With digital I am now finding I am reducing the cyan especially with regards to the colour representation of the sky. I have also found it interesting seeing a completely different colour representation of the same raw file by different raw software – Capture One 7 v Lightroom 4 – with my preference being Capture One (especially for the blue tones).

    With regards to the D800 – I can testify that it is indeed well waterproofed. To my horror I recently saw my tripod tip over into a small freshwater lake with the camera clamped on top. My camera must have been completely submerged for about 10-15 seconds and after 24hours of drying out it was working completely normally again.

    all the best, Ross.

    • Ross, a lot of questions! I’ll try to deal with them in order.
      1. I wish I could say I was consistent about white balance, but I am not. I use variously, daylight (sun), cloudy, and auto, and hardly ever fiddle with the ‘K’ mode since I reason that the raw file is infinitely adjustable. It’s really a matter of getting an OK-looking playback on the screen, and ultimately that is not a priority.
      2. I really do think that printing the image back home is a matter of memory, and above all what works for the image. If that means minimal adjustment to the raw file, so much the better. However, as you will know, some adjustments are usually necessary, and ones history of preferences from using transparency film inevitably influences the look of ones adjustments.
      3. I did not use LCC with the D-800 on this trip, but would like to do so if time allowed, especially with wider lenses and with more neutrally-coloured subjects as it pretty much guarantees perfectly even colour rendering. Fortunately, dslr sensors are less prone to conspicuous casts than medium format ones.
      4. I don’t agree that digital means less consistency; at least, I don’t think the fact that developing colour to taste is a bad thing. On the contrary, responsibility to tune colour to the needs of the images could be more ‘artistic’; while having the raw file as the reference point for colour may not necessarily be as unhelpful as might be implied. After all, you could set all raw files at the same white balance in the raw converter as a starting point (but I wouldn’t!).
      5. I concur with your regarding cyan in skies with digital (as I do regarding the magenta in Velvia’s skies). You are not the first person to say that Lr is less successful than C-1 in regard to blue skies. Desaturating blues somewhat is a common essential in digital print finishing I find.

      Finally, your anecdote re the D800’s dip in the lake is both salutary regarding tripods and wind etc, and also encouraging for D800 users. I imagine Nikon might be interested in your testimony!
      I look forward to seeing your Nikon-originated prints soon.

      • A bit off topic, but Ross adventure with dipping D800 in the lake reminded me of my adventure with my Canon 5D MKII; to get the very first picture in my article (the caves in Portugal)I hired a boat and had to get off it inside the cave. The problem was that the waves, although not huge, but were unpredictable and significant. Timed my jump, off the boat safely, and here it comes – a wave covering me up to my neck, tripod and camera as well! Took the pictures and to my surprise, the camera still works a year later, despite all the salt and water! Beata

        • Wow, kudos to Canon as well!

          • Yes! Let’s start the war, Canon or Nikon is better? Only joking! Merry Christmas Joe!

  • Hi Joe, as ever a great article and images, I particularly liked ‘Raiders Stone’. Also interesting to hear you took a D800, though you have said in one of your replies that your Linhof/Phase One remains your main working tool do you think that cameras like the D800 are getting at all close to becoming your main working tool, or is the gap still fairly big?
    (at the moment I am wishing for a Sony RX1 as I am a great fan of small cameras, and it looks really, really good, but at that price I fear Santa will not be able to deliver :( )

    Have a good Christmas and I hope next year is good to you. (and the same wishes to all the other OnLandscape fans, contributors, Staff and of course Tim! – keep up the good work.)


    • Peter, the gap remains, but in reality, even cameras like the Sony RX100 (a diminutive compact in real terms) are now capable of producing exhibition quality prints. Thus, what you use is a matter of your priorities, and whether you feel that technical view cameras etc (film and digital) bring more out of you; which in certain situations I believe they do. But in a certain sense the paradigm is indeed shifting. Like you I have my eye on the RX1, and for this reason I think the price will not be likely to fall (until perhaps Sony have the second generation of it in the production line). There are far too many of us who want it!

      And thanks to you and to everyone who contributes so constructively to all our correspondence threads at Onlandscape. And please keep reading and subscribing, because Tim has many more treats and surprises in store for next year!


  • LShepherd

    Hi Joe – wonderful images, as ever! Having just returned from Namibia, I’m struck by how green and damp everything looks in this part of South Africa (as opposed to grey and soggy in Yorkshire!). I have somewhat mixed feelings about visiting South Africa but seeing such beautiful photos and reading your account, does make me think again…
    Was there a reason why you opted for the D800 for this trip and not for the Ladakh trip – or just a case of wanting to try a different combo this time? I had a D800E with me in Namibia and I’m increasingly impressed with its ability to handle light – it just seems so much easier to get the RAW file looking as I remembered the scene. I’m still trying to work out the best combination of settings for processing but hope I’m getting close!
    Anyway, I look forward to seeing/reading part 2 and wonder whether you will do a talk on this trip? We so enjoyed the Ladakh talk and I returned a few days later to have a proper look at the photos – really superb!
    Happy Christmas to you and all the team! Lizzie

    • Lizzie, the green landscape was a surprise to me too; and I also had mixed feelings about going to SA, but in reality the country is a fascinating example of 21st century Africa. With a huge population (compared to Namibia) it is inevitably having some problems during the post-Apartheid era. But certainly where we went it was possible to travel freely and tolerably safely, and fascinating to hear various accounts of the politics, hopes and prospects for the future. Geologically I doubt whether too many other nations in the world are more ancient and interesting.
      I did not take the D800 to Ladakh partly because it was so new (I hate to travel with unfamiliar equipment), and also because I was genuinely concerned about battery life while trekking for 12 days, quite legitimately as it happened. The Hasselblad with colour neg film option neatly avoided that issue. But having had the D800 as first choice camera in SA I can see that is, in general, a better bet (certainly with access to electricity.)
      I’ll ask my gallery colleagues about a SA talk (and maybe exhibit?)
      Happy Christmas to you too.

      • Out of curiosity, Joe, what was your choice of colour neg film and how did it work out?

        Great article, by the way. And a very tempting trip… ;)

        • Julian, As ever I trusted Mr P’s greater knowledge of these mysteries and he advised Kodak Portra 160. It worked out fine, although my Imacon scans do produce rather grainy (in a good way) prints and I am bit of a novice in the converting from neg to pos process. They are indeed unbelievably flexible, and exposures all came out fine as the DR is huge. They also proved exceellent as a basis for making black and while prints. I suspect I would have even more joy from them if I asked Tim to drum scan and convert them for me.

  • John Irvine

    The luminosity in the Mist of Mahai Narrows image is breathtaking, along with the wonderful composition.

    I would love to join you in 2014 :)

    • Thank-you John, David is keeping a log of interested participants! I have to point out that I cannot guarantee a day of mist and heavy rain during the descent of the Mahai…

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