A nature photography tour of Madagascar, part 2: The Red Tsingy: Digital Photography Review

Back-lit Red Tsingy.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6
214mm | 1/640 sec | F8 | ISO 400

In the last article, I surveyed the diverse and beautiful wildlife of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Today, I’d like to continue the tales of my Madagascar trip with a visit to the very north of the island.

Getting to the Red Tsingy is a bit of a task. Its location at the northern tip of Madagascar, together with the lack of adequate roads from the center of the island, means that you have to fly to the coastal town of Antsiranana (Diego Suarez). From there, it’s a 2.5–3 hour drive to the park entrance, where you get the permit and hire a person to accompany you on your visit. If you wish to avoid the long daily drives, there is a very nice camp with relatively luxurious tents, which allows much quicker access to the Tsingy.

Layers of Red Tsingy. To my eyes, they looked like lost souls.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6
95mm | 1/50 sec | F10 | ISO 200

Before continuing, I’d like to explain what the Red Tsingy even is. “Tsingy” in Malagasy means “the place where one cannot walk barefoot.” This pertains mostly to the Grey Tsingy, which is found in the Tsingy De Bemaraha National Park, located hundred of miles away, in the west of the country. The dark, karstic Tsingy De Bemaraha is indeed extremely sharp and hard, and I wouldn’t dream of climbing them barefoot, but the Red Tsingy (or Tsingy Rouge in French) is a totally different phenomenon.

Not karstic, not hard or sharp and extremely gentle to the point that it’s forbidden to touch them for fear of harming the delicate structures, The Red Tsingy are basically dried-up pinnacles composed of laterite and iron oxide-rich soil, which are the result of erosion, caused by the massive deforestation practiced throughout Madagascar. As always, deforestation eliminates the plants’ ability to hold the soil in place, which leaves it vulnerable to being swept by rain and wind. The remaining shapes are made smooth by years of being sanded down by winds, which leaves truly wonderful, almost organic-looking shapes. New structures keep being formed and unveiled every year.

The Red Tsingy area is predominantly red-colored, but the different hues and textures make it diverse and elaborate enough for landscape photography. Three natural pigments are found here in the soil: ochre, vermilion and magenta. Malagasies use them for face paints and natural dyes.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 11-24mm F4
11mm | 2.5 sec | F13 | ISO 100

There are several sections in the area with short driving distances between them. Some areas are smaller and can be covered in one session, and some require much more time to traverse and shoot. As a regular tourist, the area can be seen in its entirety in one day, but if you’re coming to shoot, I recommend spending at least three days exploring the area well enough to get good compositions of the Tsingy. Another problem is the opening hours of the park; it opens after sunrise and closes before sunset, so you need a special permit to stay there for sunset and post-sunset glow.

A Red Tsingy “castle” shining under a strong post-sunset glow.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 11-24mm F4
13mm | 6 sec | F14 | ISO 100

Shooting the Red Tsingy is, surprisingly, quite challenging. In general, I find that the more compositional elements an area has, the harder it is to find the really good images. Since the Tsingy are usually very closely packed, some of them can get in the way and ruin an otherwise good composition. The fact that the Tsingy are all the same color makes it difficult to create separation between the photographic elements. The photographer thus needs to actively search for compositions with different colored elements, which happens, for example, when the ground is different in color from the structures.

The difference in color between the Tsingy and the red Earth helped me create a better sense of depth in this composition, even though I didn’t really have a background element or a strong foreground element.

Canon 5D4 | Tamron 24-70mm F2.8
44mm | 1/40 sec | F14 | ISO 200

There are many other elements and factors that must be considered when shooting in the park. One of these is the relatively short time we have with good light. The sun is very harsh in Madagascar, especially in the north (since it’s closer to the equator), and drops very fast before sunset. This means the light changes quickly in quality and that the sun can be difficult to incorporate into your images.

To get this shot, I had to stand very close to the Tsingy, raise my hands as far as I could above my head and shoot blindly at burst mode. The camera had to be placed high to get the composition (the Tsingy were very tall – next time, I’m definitely bringing a small stool), so I couldn’t even look at the eyepiece or at the screen. This is a case where quantity prevailed over precision for lack of other choice. One shot turned out great.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 11-24mm F4
11mm | 1/125 sec | F16 | ISO 200

Another factor is the critical need to be aware of yourself when standing close to the Tsingy. They are very fragile, and hurting them must be avoided to preserve the park’s beauty. It’s often compositionally desirable to shoot from very close distances, but extra care must be taken. Focus-stacking is sometimes needed when some of the elements are very close to the camera.

I had to take extra care venturing into this semi-circle of red Tsingy. Some of them were very close to my arms, which affected the variety of angles I could shoot at.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 11-24mm F4
11mm | 1/100 sec | F16 | ISO 400

The last problem is the lack of background elements. As you may remember from my composition series, a combination of near and far elements is often helpful in order to create a sense of depth in our two-dimensional image. In Tsingy Rouge National Park, the background is usually red slopes which climb to meet flat plains – not exactly the equivalent of Patagonia’s glorious mountain ranges. This leaves the photographer with the choice to either have no background elements (perhaps apart from sky and clouds), or to include the background and risk lack of depth perception in the image, due to the elements being similar in color and texture.

In this image, I tried to incorporate several tools to create a good sense of depth. Two worth mentioning are the different lighting in different sections of the image and the use of the shadow cast by the plant on the left of the Tsingy. The green vegetation added a much-needed splash of color.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 11-24mm F4
20mm | 1/100 sec | F14 | ISO 100

In this composition, I could use the faraway Tsingy as background.

Canon 5D4 | Canon 11-24mm F4
11mm | 6 sec | F13 | ISO 200

In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about photography in the wonderful Kirindy Forest, a private reserve holding spectacular wildlife and a very nice landscape.

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveller based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Greenland, Madagascar, the Lofoten Islands, Namibia and Vietnam.

Erez also offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

More in this Series:

Part 1: Andasibe

Selected Articles by Erez Marom:

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