Paul Bruins
Photography

Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Victoria Falls

 

While the Victoria Falls are neither the widest nor the highest waterfalls in the world, they are undoubtedly the largest. At 1,708 metres wide and 108 metres high, they combine to form the largest single sheet of falling water anywhere on earth. It is here where the entire volume of the mighty Zambezi River, which forms the natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, gains speed and plummets down into the Batoka gorge, a narrow zigzagging channel carved out over millions of years along a fracture zone in the basalt plateau.

Scottish explorer David Livingstone might have been the first European to set eyes on the Victoria Falls on the 16th November 1855, but he never took any photographs of his discovery.  That is not very surprising though, since he discovered the falls a mere 30 years after the first permanent photograph was produced by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. After naming the falls in honour of Queen Victoria, Livingstone wrote that “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” The angels in flight probably didn’t take any photographs either.

It is not known who in fact did take the first photographs of the falls, but whoever it was, he (or she) was in the fortunate position to capture a unique composition with every single shot. These days the Victoria Falls are visited and photographed by many thousands of people every day, which means that we are now forced to work a lot harder to find and capture our own unique and interesting compositions.

Not only are we challenged to find our never-before-photographed compositions, but we are also challenged in a number of other ways, most notably by the spray, which billows up from the gorge and rises to a height of over 400 metres. It was this spray that inspired the early Batoka people to name the falls “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, which translates to “The Smoke that Thunders”, and which can be seen from up to 48 kilometres away.

Keeping your camera and lens dry under these conditions is quite a challenge when the falls are at their smallest during the dry season, keeping your gear dry during the rainy season is practically impossible.

You might think that an umbrella would be a handy tool to ensure a dry lens, but in actual fact, it is quite useless. As you approach the edge of the cliff opposite the falls, the spray shoots upwards like inverted rain, soaking everything in its path. There is simply no way to keep your lens dry here, you might as well be shooting in a drive-through car-wash.

The first thing to consider when planning a photographic trip to the Victoria Falls is when to go. It might seem like a great idea to plan your visit to coincide with the rainy season (from late November to early April), so that you can capture the falls at their peak flow. But you will probably be very disappointed if you do. There is so much spray in the air during those months that it is impossible to see the bottom of the gorge. In exceptionally wet years the spray is so heavy that it may even be impossible to see the top of the falls. The only way to photograph the falls during these months is from the air, by chartering a helicopter flight, which in turn offers additional challenges like the difficulty of shooting through the highly-reflective plexiglass windows.

Although they might not be as impressive to see during the dry season as they are during the rainy season, if the purpose of your visit is to photograph the falls, then you are best advised to plan your trip for November, when the spray-levels become more manageable and capturing photographs once again becomes possible.

There are fortunately a number of benefits to planning your visit to coincide with the end of the dry season. It is only at this time of the year where the angle of the sunrise and sunset aligns perfectly along the length of the gorge, which in turn means that this is also the best time of the year for rainbows.

So now that you have decided on the best time of year to visit the falls and where to stay, how do you go about capturing beautiful photos and unique compositions? Besides the couple of places where you can catch a glimpse of the falls through the rain-forest trees, the only other photograph possibilities present themselves at the 16 viewing-points, strategically situated along a circular path around the park. Most of these viewing-points are set a few metres back from the edge of the gorge, which limits your vision to the upper part of the waterfalls only, and not to where it crashes down into the bottom of the gorge below. On busy days, when more people enter the park than normal, you might also have to wait patiently behind a big group of tourists for your brief opportunity to witness the spectacular beauty and to take a photograph. Despite the breath-taking views of the thundering waterfalls, unfortunately the constant spray, the limited compositional possibilities, and all the tourists jostling for position, means that capturing great images of the falls is much more difficult than you might at first imagine. So how does one go about finding and capturing unique and interesting compositions here?

One of the best ways to achieve that is if you attempt to position yourself where the least number of people stand when they view the falls. Although many of the viewing-points closer to the edge of the gorge have protective stone barriers, most of the view-points further away from the edge merely have a few bundles of branches to discourage people from getting too close to the edge of the cliff. Due to the constant spray, the grass and rocks are very slippery as you approach the edge, so you are well advised to remain a safe distance away from it. Another way to ensure that you make the most of your photographic opportunities is to have a wide range of focal-length lenses in your bag. It might be tempting to fit your widest lens in an attempt to capture as much of the falls as possible, but the perspective distortion in wide-angle lenses means that distant objects always look a lot smaller through the lens than they do in reality. And since you are attempting to capture unique photographs of the largest waterfall on the planet, it seems a pity to reduce the significance of those falls by shooting them with a wide-angle lens. You could consider fitting a mid-level zoom lens to make the falls look even bigger than they really are, but then your field of view becomes more and more limited as you zoom in, thereby restricting your view to a mere slice of the falls.

The best way to capture a unique composition of the Victoria Falls is to think outside the frame. Don’t limit yourself by what you can see through the camera’s viewfinder – choose the best focal-length for the scene that you are attempting to capture, and then take as many photographs as necessary to entirely capture that view. With the dozens of computer programs available on the web these days (many of them freeware), stitching several digital images into one single panorama is now quick and easy. And since panoramas are always made up of two or more images, you are more or less guaranteed to double the megapixel count of your images. More pixels = more details.

The above photograph of the Devil’s Cataract was created by combining two separate images (both captured with a 50mm lens at f/11), stitching them one above the other into a single vertical panorama (or Vertorama). This might not be an entirely unique composition, but the longer focal length that I used in an attempt to accurately capture the size of the falls, along with the wide-angle view, has helped me to create a more-unique image.

Although it may be entirely possible to capture the images for your panorama while hand-holding your camera, for the best results it is always advisable to mount your camera securely on a tripod, preferably one fitted with a special panoramic tripod-head.

So now that you have found the least-trodden place to setup your tripod, and have spent a few moments thinking about which of your lenses would be best to capture the scene, all that remains is to mount your camera to your tripod, press the shutter and capture the images. To protect your camera from the inevitable spray-factor, it is recommended that you place it inside a plastic bag (with a hole cut in it for the lens to point out). Your lens will get wet, that is inevitable – even on the best days (during the dry-season) you might only have a window period of five or ten seconds before the first drops start wetting your lens. This might be enough time for you to remove the lens-cap, take a single photo and replace the cap, but when you’re shooting multiple images for a panorama, you will have to accept that you will be wiping your lens dry between every single photograph. It is for this reason that a plentiful supply of super-absorbent lens-cloths becomes an absolute necessity. Shoot, wipe, shoot, wipe, shoot, wipe, shoot, wipe – that should become your mantra while photographing the Victoria Falls.

The photo shown above is a horizontal panorama, made up of three landscape-format images shot at 24mm, and the panorama shown below is made up of four portrait-format images shot with a 50mm focal-length.

The photo shown on below is another Vertorama, created from three 50mm landscape-format images, and stitched together one above the other.

The best way to capture unique and compelling compositions of the Victoria Falls is to think outside the frame!

Even if your primary motivation for visiting this region is to photograph the falls, there are also a multitude of other interesting things for landscape photographers to point their cameras at. The calmer sections of the upper Zambezi offer ample opportunities to capture reflective images, especially towards the end of November when the first pre-rain storm-clouds are starting to build up in size. This is also the time of year when the pretty (but troublesome) Water Hyacinths are flowering, providing additional foreground interest for your compositions.

There are also a wide range of opportunities and activities on the Zimbabwean side of the falls for non-landscape photographers. You could book yourself on a leisurely sunset cruise on the upper Zambezi, you could take a game-viewing drive through one of the nearby nature reserves, you could go on either a horse or elephant-back safari, and you can even go for a bush-walk with tame lions. All these activities offer plenty of photographic possibilities, and they all ensure that you will return home with full memory cards.

More adventurous (and less photographically inclined) visitors could entertain themselves by tying their legs to a bungee cord and launching themselves from the 111 metre high Victoria Falls bridge which spans the gorge right below the falls. Alternatively they could experience the raging river below the falls either by jet-boat, or by running the rapids in large inflatable rafts. They could also try the gorge swing and the flying-fox zip wire, or they could take to the air by chartering a helicopter or microlite flight. The less adventurous visitors could spend their time shopping for curios at the local markets, or they could simply relax with a fishing-rod or by playing a leisurely round of golf.

Whatever your thrill, you will definitely find it here at the Victoria Falls. This truly is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. However you decide to experience the falls, you will certainly be guaranteed a really unforgettable experience.

Victoria Falls Photographic Workshop – 14-18 November 2013