An Otherworldly Lens on Namibia and Kenya

Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Ken Geiger on shooting two African countries in infrared black and white.

enRoute Why did you want to shoot in Namibia and Kenya?

Ken Geiger Well, I have to laugh a little at this question, because I didn’t go to Namibia with the intention of shooting photographs. It was supposed to be a birthday celebration for my girlfriend. And it’s one of those magical destinations you always think about but seldom make the effort to visit. I was told we were going, and to start making reservations. I’m glad I listened, as Namibia truly is a magical country.

Namibia and Kenya are two different mindsets. Sure, Namibia has a great national park, Etosha, with amazing wildlife. But Namibia is more a place to go if you enjoy unspoiled landscape and the wide–open spaces. If your main goal is to see African animals and have a traditional safari experience, I’d suggest Kenya, Zambia, Botswana or Tanzania. Or mix in a little adventure and do a self–drive to Kruger in South Africa. Rent a car (small to midsize is fine, and cheap) in Johannesburg and drive five hours to Kruger. You can stay in the park at many of the park–run lodges. I’ve done this twice – it’s an amazing experience.

March 21, 2019
Photo of cheetah standing on tree in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

ER Are there any particular places or experiences you’d recommend to someone travelling to Namibia?

KG Etosha National Park, in the northwestern part of Namibia, is a must, and is accessible with a normal car. Waterhole animal viewing, even in the camps at night, is amazing. The giant red sand dunes of Sossusvlei (part of Namib–Naukluft National Park, located in the southern Namib Desert) are not to be missed – I’d go back to Namibia just to experience the dunes again. And don’t short yourself on time in Sossusvlei. We stayed in a lodge the first night and then camped two nights. We could easily have stayed two more days. Swakopmund and Walvis Bay on the coast are great little towns if you need a break from camping. The beer and seafood are incredible. And if you want to get a feel for the giant sand dunes, there are numerous companies that will take you out to sandboard the dunes.

Cheetah sitting under a tree at Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

KGOne tip: Make sure you hit the supermarket before hitting the road. The lack of infrastructure in the rural areas is what makes Namibia a special place; it also means convenience stores are almost non–existent, and gas stations are few and far between. You can literally drive for hours on some of the rural dirt roads and not see another vehicle, house or power line – just pristine, unique landscape.

Sand dunes in Etosha National Park in Namibia

ER How did you decide to shoot in black and white infrared for this series?

KG Since I was in school, back in the film days, I had played around with infrared. What it does to a mid–afternoon sky full of puffy clouds is stunning, and slightly unreal. Blue skies become almost black, contrasting clouds even more. The format also lets me explore the relationship of space as part of the landscape. By including a dramatic sky as part of the landscape composition, I think the black and white images convey the grandiose, endless spaces of Namibia and Kenya.

Zebras standing by trees in Etosha National Park in Namibia

ER What elements were you looking for when you composed these shots?

KG When you are shooting infrared, you have to bend your mind a bit to the process. You can’t think in normal greyscale, because you are not dealing with visible light. Infrared cameras capture the non–visible part of the light spectrum; the filter on the sensor of my camera is 830 nanometres. If you looked at it, it would appear black, as it cuts out almost all of the visible light.

Green grass, leaves and indirect sunlight appear nearly white in an infrared black and white image. Normal light meters will only give you a ballpark exposure setting. It’s a medium that takes a lot of experimentation, and a lot of “give it a try and fail,” before you begin to think you know what it will do. But when you do piece the elements together and you see that image pop up on the back of your camera, it’s like a little bit of magic happened, and you’ve just received a gift.

Baby elephant with its mother in Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

ER Are there any particular dos and don’ts for someone shooting in this format?

KG Be patient. Experiment. Ninety–five percent of what I shoot with my infrared camera is junk. But you live for the gems, they make it worthwhile. After a while you’ll learn to see infrared images coming together in the distance. You’ll watch the thunderstorm building and then all of a sudden slam on the brakes, pull off at the side of road, dig out the infrared camera and start testing for the proper exposure, hoping you don’t lose the light.

Cheetah walking by tree in Maasai Mara National Reserve Park in Kenya

ER Would you say there’s one essential item a photographer needs to include when packing for a trip?

KG Make sure to take some sort of tripod for your camera or cellphone. The night skies in Namibia are phenomenal – there is no light pollution – so stargazing is out of this world. I guarantee the first time you see the Milky Way rising over the giant sand dunes, in the Namib sky, you will curse yourself if you don’t have a tripod.

Tree in the distance at Etosha National Park in Namibia

ER You are a master of iPhone photography. Do you have any tips for amateurs who are interested in improving their travel photography, even if they’re only using their phones?

KG First, don’t underestimate what you can do with the camera in your phone. I use mine all the time. It’s a serious camera, so use it as you would a serious camera. Take the time to look for moments, whether in the form of light or action. Think, use your mind to create an image or a composition fitting the scene. After I shoot, if an image needs a little cropping, colour adjustment or sharpening, I do my post–processing in a phone app called Snapseed. It’s all I need before sharing an image on Instagram.

Zebra walking through Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya