Hougaard Malan is a self-taught photographer whose beautiful homeland of South Africa proved too beautiful not to photograph. Since embarking on his career, Malan has traveled through almost all of South Africa to capture its rich and varied landscape. He tells us how it feels to capture the perfect shot, why he loves bad weather, and why the perfect camera isn't the most important thing in the world.
So much of your photography is about timing. How often can you go back to one spot and capture different "moments"?
It is very rare that I get the shot on a first try. Sometimes you can go back to the same place ten or more times before you get the exact light you want.
How far have you traveled through Africa since you became a photographer? Where else would you like to go?
I have seen almost all of South Africa, about all of Namibia. I've been to Botswana and Zimbabwe. Mozambique is the only neighbour country I haven't been to. I was in the Seychelles in Ocotber and I'll be going to Patagonia in April next year. I would love to go to Nepal, the Austrian Alps, and go storm chasing in the U.S mid-west.
Who influences your work? Particularly in the case of your parents, how have their careers left their mark on you?
There are many photographers who influence my work. Michael Anderson is probably my favorite landscape photographer. My dad's passion is indigenous flowers and my mom was a French horn player and I guess the two influences of art and nature culminated with own passion for anything electronic into a talent for capturing landscapes.
You've said that you have "an obsession with bad weather and hostile landscapes." How often, and how hard have you worked to capture scenes that are purposely difficult to get?
I spent a lot of time in 2010-2011 in Namibia capturing the desert landscape and I went in the rainy season when most days are 40-45 degrees Celsius and you usually have to walk very far for the shots. I wouldn't call myself an adventurer or explorer, but you always appreciate things more when a lot of effort goes into it so I like a good hike to get to the ideal spots, regardless of the weather.
"Stretching out for some 500 meters lay what looked like an ancient Venetian piazza of black marble tiles carved by some godly Xhosa mason. As if some tiles had been stolen, there were shallow depressions of every shape and size strewn about and every single corner on every rock was a perfect 90 degrees. Some were filled with water and looked like water ponds or baths set in the rock. Here or there was a 'stolen tile' lying on the floor and where the surf had broken away at the rock shelf it looked like a series of marble cascades in some modern water feature. It felt like I was walking on the streets of a civilization long lost to the waters of the Indian Ocean."
Do you ever get bored with certain cameras or tools? How often do you update your gear?
Not really. Digital camera technology progressed very quickly until about 2008, and then it took Canon and Nikon almost four years to bring out all the new models that were released this year. New cameras usually make a 5-10% difference in the technical quality of an image. Good photographers worry about the light and getting the shot; amateurs worry about having the best camera
How do you protect your gear in stormy weather?
Modern digital cameras are pretty weatherproof, as long as you don't submerge them in water they're usually fine!
"This gap between the hole in the wall and the cliff it used to be a part of looks like a gateway to the Indian Ocean in a medieval port. The crescent moon rising in a soft glow amongst a dark blue sky over the blurred water adds to the atmosphere of something mystical."
"The Sandhof Lily pan is a clay plain in the southern region of Namibia near Maltehohe. When it fills to about 30cm after the first heavy rains of summer, the Crinum Paludosum lily comes up for as far as the eye can see. It blooms and dies again within about 6-7 days.
Along with the flowers, hundreds of thousands of elephant beetles seem to appear out of nowhere to feast on the delicacy and once the lilies die they vanish again...Minutes before the storm reached us, a gap in the clouds opened and it rewarded us with light that made the effort worthwhile. I got a few shots of the storm sky as it started to rain and then turned to my friend to shout I'm packing up and I saw how amazing the light was towards the sun. I fired a few quick shots and then the rain started beating down, as you can see in the water."
What is your process like for one photograph? How much time goes into planning, and then editing? Do you always know the right moment to stop tweaking a photograph?
It can sometimes be 30 seconds, other times it's 30 minutes of trial and error. It depends on what nature throws at you. In the film days you got the hand that nature dealt you, nowadays there are shortcuts around certain problems, but it's nice when an image just needs a slight boost of contrast and color. It's that 'getting it right in camera' feeling.
What are your favorite phenomena to capture?
This will never stay the same...it used to be seascapes, then The Namib. Currently I'm really getting into hiking and I just want to see bigger and wilder mountains!
When you look back at a picture, can you tell what time of day it was taken, and where you were standing relative to the landscape?
Absolutely. A critical skill for landscape photography is the ability to project yourself into any image and imagine what something looks like from a specific angle. Being able to read and predict light is also a very important ability. I also immediately recognize composites when I see them. Your eyes instantly see that the lighting in the sky and land don't match up.
How important is the time of day? Do you wait for a particular kind of light?
Light is everything and light is dictated by the weather. So you'll inevitably end up a weather boffin if you're into landscapes. You learn what cloud types give you which colors, shapes and textures and you're always looking at the cloud levels and wind that you'll be getting to predict what type of shots will be possible. Photography is visual communication and you have to decide what you want to communicate. Abundance, desolation, summer, winter? Then plan to get that weather.
You always get the best light and color at sunrise and sunset, but every now and then blue skies, puffy clouds and strong composition can make for a good shot in the middle of the day.
What goes through your head when you get a really satisfying shot?
Adrenaline, Contentment, elation, sense of achievement!
Do you go out seeking shots, or do they find you?
Well you go looking for them, then they find you...they won't find you if you're sitting behind the computer. The more you're out there, the more shots will find you!
Have you every imagined a scene first and then discovered it?
I wouldn't say I imagined it– it's usually inspired by someone else's shot and then I see where I can get something similar and go looking for my own version of that shot.
Is there anywhere in the world that you would love to photograph but haven't been to yet?
Storm chasing is at the top of my list. I'm fascinated by such dangerous weather systems. Standing below a roaring thunderstorm humbles me and makes me feel alive.
Are you only interested in landscape photography or are you also interested in other types of photography?
I've dabbled in other genres and lots of friends just know you're a photographer, they don't know that photographers usually specialize in a specific genre. When good friends ask me for a family shoot or a portfolio shoot then I'll usually do them the favor.
What is the most challenging and the most rewarding part of your profession?
The business side of it. Photography and especially nature photography is such a dynamic industry and it's going through a boom as more and more people take it up as a hobby. People have a lot of money to throw at it. Being able to make a living from something that most people call holiday isn't easy, but when you sell your images for handsome sums or lock down a deal to go to a great place with a wealthy client to help them get the shots, then it comes with a great sense of achievement. I still struggle to believe that I earn what I do from having such a great job while most of my friends are still struggling to find work with good degrees.
To see these images in much higher resolution and to read Mr. Malan's vivid descriptions of his photography, visit Hougaard Malan Landscape Photography.