Chasing The Light: Chapter 1
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Al Lisaili, UAE

Three Gulf Vantage contributors (Praveen, Phil, and I) decided to buck our slothful ways and make the first desert trip of the new season…gasp…in the early morning.  None of us were keen to get up at the unholy hour of 4:30am but the curiosity of this “sunrise” phenomenon was enough to rouse our sleepy heads and get us on the road heading for the dunes.  What follows is an account of that morning, along with a few illustrated samples of the trials of learning, including some failed shots as well as some decent attempts.

We were on location about 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled 6:15am sunrise, but we were afraid we were already late, as the darkness was quickly receding into a warm morning glow.  I had been to this particular stretch of dunes before and was frustrated that all of my intended frames seemed to be aimed right into the afternoon sun.  Now with the light coming from a different direction, I was hoping to finally get the shots I wanted.

I also had two new toys to try: a Tokina 11-16mm wide angle lens and a Nikor 70-300mm VR telephoto zoom lens.  My abandoned kit lens, a Nikor 18-105mm VR, was probably a better choice to tackle the dunes, but I was anxious to sample the new gear.  I couldn’t help it.  Like most guys, I love gadgets, especially the ones I don’t need.

Like kids released into an amusement park, the three of us jumped out of the truck and scattered off in different directions across the landscape.  I climbed up a dune and savored the cool humid air.  The light was also cool, with the sands bathed in shades of blue.  Click.

Early Morning Dunes

Early Morning Dunes. 1/130 F/8 16mm

Nope.  Not enough light.  And not much happening within the frame.  I must have been tired as well because I had the lens extended to 16mm, and there’s no real point to zooming in with a wide angle.  I should have opened it up to 11mm and left it there.  I took a few more comparable shots but I soon realized that I didn’t have too many interesting foreground subjects to really show off the wide angle, so I quickly switched over to the tele zoom.

Another poor choice, but in the opposite direction.  The light was getting better, but I was struggling to get intended subjects all in the frame, even at the 70mm wide end.  I saw some interesting beetles scampering across the sand but I had to stand several meters away and attempt to shoot.  No luck.  My 18-105mm kit lens would have been much easier.  I wasn’t giving up though, and I wanted to get comfortable with this new lens.  I hiked into the desert and up the tallest dune I could find, figuring this would give me a bit more breathing room for the tele.  Click.

Sunrise behind Xterra

Sunrise behind Xterra. 1/250 F/4.7 116mm

I had turned around and fired a shot back at my truck on the side of the road.  The sun was up over the horizon now, but the hazy air was blocking much of its intensity.  A mediocre pic, but I liked the strange glow.  Then I turned once again to the open desert and scanned the scenery with the lens extended the full 300mm.  Movement.  And then four gazelles appeared on the horizon, casually exploring spots of foliage.  Nice, but even at 300mm the animals were barely visible.  Not worthy of a photo, but I could see where they were going and I knew there was a gravel section about 2-3 kilometers up the road where we could try to catch up with them.  I scurried back down the dune to collect Phil and Praveen, taking a few pics along the way.  Click.

Dunes

Dunes. 1/250 F/8 70mm

The light was getting better and the 70mm didn’t seem to limit me too much.  I liked the contrast that was formed from the light side and the dark side of the dunes.  This might have been a nicer photo without all of those footprints I just created though!

By the time I located the guys I was soaked with sweat and laboring to catch my breath.  The sun was climbing higher, cooking the landscape, and having to lug the SLR around was no easy task for someone who spends most of his day sitting behind a desk.  I noticed Phil looked as tired as me; he was also hauling around a Nikon with a telephoto zoom lens.  Only Praveen was unflustered, casually carrying his Panasonic Lumix pocket camera in one hand.

I explained the gazelle situation, we got back to the truck, but we were not alone in this quiet stretch of desert.  Groups of bikers were streaming past as we emptied the sand out of our shoes and loaded up our gear.  It looked like some kind of event and I’m sure these early hours are the only safe times that bikers can cruise Dubai’s roads without the dangerous traffic around.  Praveen captured a couple of nice photos (see the bottom of the page) as the bikes zipped by, the riders looking just as surprised to see us and we were to see them.

We moved on down the tarmac and veered off-road unto the gravelly plain that I had crossed on previous trips.  About two kilometers in there was a small barbed wire enclosure with hay and water, similar to camel feeding stations I’ve seen in other parts of the UAE.  I was sure the gazelles were heading that direction, hoping to squeeze their petite forms through the wire and sneak off with some hay.  Sure enough, as soon as we sighted the enclosure, we spotted several of the small animals milling around the outside of it.

But then something else caught my eye: behind the feeding station and up on the dunes there were larger animals, much lighter in color than the sandy fur of a gazelle.  While slowly creeping the truck ever closer, I rolled down the window and sighted up with the telephoto.  Oryx!  At least ten of them.  I’ve only seen one solitary oryx in the wild for all of last season, and now we had stumbled upon a whole group!  Phil and I had our cameras clicking but we were still too far away.  I continued to edge the truck closer while hoping not to scare the animals away.

At that moment another vehicle went flying past us on our right.  The small pickup truck seemed oblivious to our presence, and certainly oblivious to the wildlife up ahead.  With lightening speed the gazelles cleared out first, followed by a slow organized retreat from the oryx.  Click.

Retreating Oryx

Retreating Oryx. 1/640 F/5.6 300mm Cropped

Not quite.  Even at 300mm I had to crop the photo down later to see the critters.  I was heartbroken.  My best chance at capturing some good oryx photos were suddenly dashed by this crazy little pickup truck.  Why were they in such a hurry?  The vehicle had stopped in front of the feeding station and two guys jumped out and started checking on the supplies inside. That explained it.  If you’re working out in the middle of the desert, I guess seeing an oryx or gazelle is probably not a big deal.

One of the men motioned us over to talk.  When he started speaking I didn’t understand a word, but luckily Praveen did, and the two had a rudimentary conversation in Tamil, a Dravidian dialect from parts of India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore.  The man explained that the oryx that we saw would be heading to another area to catch up with a larger herd, and that they had some work to do near there, so they would show us the way.  Great!

We hopped back in the truck and followed their rig off the gravel plain and unto the road again.  Just like we had witnessed before, their pickup didn’t seem to have a “slow” gear and the workers cruised the twisting desert road like it was an open highway, narrowly missing the bikers we had observed earlier.  So much for biker safety during the morning hours!  I slowed down while passing the pedal people and then had to jump on the throttle to catch up with our speeding guides.

Eventually the tarmac ended and a flat sand track became our road, the pace of the pickup ahead barely reduced by the change in driving surfaces.  I had neglected to bring my GPS along and now I was thinking it might have been a good idea.  Who knows where these guys were taking us?

The pickup suddenly stopped at the crest of a hill and I pulled up alongside.  The man on the passenger side smiled and pointed across the other side of the slope; off in the distance there was another feeding station, and about half kilometer from that you could see oryx—an entire herd of at least 30-40 individuals!  Slow, slow, the man told us.  We thanked him and the pickup roared off in a cloud of dust, back toward the tarmac road.

Slow, slow is exactly what we did, until we moved up to within a hundred meters of the feeding station.  The herd looked interested by our presence but didn’t make any movements to clear the area.   Then we got out of the truck and enjoyed the scene.  Click.

Oryx everywhere!

Oryx everywhere! 1/640 F/11 300mm

Amazing animals, and amazing to see so many in one place.  Oryx were hunted to extinction in the wild in the UAE and Oman by the 1970s.  A breeding program of captive animals saved the population and in the last few years, the oryx has been reintroduced into the wild.  It’s good to see them running free in the desert, back where they belong.  We didn’t get the chance to ask, but maybe these feeding stations are for the wildlife, not the camels.  Unlike the other feeding stations I have seen, the barbed wire on this fenced area was about a meter off the ground; this would allow gazelles and oryx to duck under, but would most likely stop a camel.

Two young oryx were particularly brave, venturing away from the herd to go play near the enclosure.  They didn’t seem to notice the food nor the three humans, but looked to be having a great time kicking up sand and bumping heads.  At one point they went for a run and that’s when I got the photo at the top of the page, and just at the moment when they stretched their legs out and were really galloping along, I thought I had my money shot.  Click.

Almost Two Oryx

Almost Two Oryx. 1/800 F/7.1 300mm

Nooo!  Even the closer oryx in the photo looks like he’s annoyed that I cut off his nose.  I didn’t have time to sulk though; suddenly the pair of them turned direction and came charging right for us.  If you ever want to see how quickly three guys can scramble into a truck, just send a big animal with sharp skewers running in their direction!  Within seconds we jumped inside as the oryx passed by, continued around the truck, and back to the feeding station.  I don’t think they even noticed the terrified photographers; we were just part of their obstacle course.

The rest of the herd also got used to our presence and soon we had animals all around the truck.  They seemed to moving toward the feeding station, so we decided to leave them alone and tiptoe (as well as you can with a 4×4!) our way back out.

That was enough excitement to call it a day, but on our way back out we spotted a few more critters.  Gazelles spotted the horizon here and there, but again too far away for a decent photo.  Then we saw something splash into a dune as we passed by.  When we got out of the truck a little skink lizard (aka “sand fish”) popped out of the sand and ran up one side of the dune and down the other.  We tried to get in position for a shot but such a tiny fast moving target was difficult.  Click.

Skink on dune

Skink on dune. 1/800 F/7.1 300mm Cropped

Got him.  But just barely.  I had to crop down the photo later, but I was happy to get a shot.  Last season I saw many skinks but I could never get one imaged.  They’re normally very fast and can dive into the sand like water.  I was lucky enough to get this photo since this is the smallest skink I have ever come across, no more than about 10cm nose to tail.  After he had submerged into the sand I crept up very slow and waited to see if he might pop up again.  Click.

Peek-a-boo

Peek-a-boo! 1/1000 F/8 300mm Cropped

There we go.  He peeked up through the surface to see if I was still there and I was again lucky to get a photo.   The focal plane was so tight and my target (the skink’s head, specifically his eye) was so minute (2cm at the most) that I was proud to nail this one.  A moment later I was spotted and he was gone.  And that was enough for Phil, Praveen, and I as well.  After an early wake up call and the sun beating down on us all morning, our moods shifted from photography to finding a place for a nice big breakfast, a great way to end…I mean START the day!

Summary

To kick off the season I had wanted to try new things, namely to shoot by the light of dawn and to play with two recently acquired toys: a wide angle lens and a telephoto zoom lens.  The morning rays were decent, but I think the dust and humidity soaked up a bit of our color.  I actually thought the extra diffraction would help spread the color out, but the thick haze ate up too many of the sun’s beams.  As the days progress into autumn and winter, the humidity and dust will decline and hopefully we can chase down some nicer tones.  As for the equipment, I did no justice to the Tokina 11-16mm; I definitely need more practice finding the right kinds of subjects, compositions that really highlight foreground and background elements.  The Nikor 70-300mm VR was somewhat awkward at first, but once I got comfortable with the range of it, the lens was perfect for our critter encounters.  It generally allowed me to keep out of the animals’ way and, more importantly, to keep me away from anything with pointy daggers on its head.

Click on the thumbnails below to see more photos from Praveen and I.  As soon as Phil fixes his computer we’ll have some of his shots as well!