A Diamond in the Rough by Gareth Goldthorpe
Georgia, in the South Caucasus, is a country of great diversity, the perfect place for a keen landscape photographer to hone his skills. Indeed, the hardest thing about putting together this piece was to find a way to represent Georgia pictorially with only eight images. At just under 70,000km2, it is a relatively small country but, within its borders, it offers a wide array of landscapes, wildlife and cultures. It is nestled between two impressive mountain ranges to the north and south (the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, respectively), the Black Sea to the west and, to the east, a large and secretive Central Asia.
Mount Kazbek, in Khevi, dwarfs the Gergeti church that sits at its’ base (it was on these slopes that my beloved 6D was stolen). Canon 6D with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens; 1/200 seconds @ f/11, ISO 100.
Being so small, Georgia is an easy country to get around (whilst public transport is pretty much restricted to inner-city settings, there is an excellent network of private minibus-taxis or marshrutkas) but, for complete access, spring/summer is definitely the best time to visit. Photographically speaking, the most challenging (and therefore rewarding) places are found along with the Great Caucasus mountain range. More experienced photographers would have a better idea of why this is but I suspect that it has something to do with the harsh quality of the light at these high altitudes, tending to make for very high-contrast images (as above) that can fail just as easily as not. Of course, good light can still be found in the mountains and, when storm clouds conspire to diffuse the otherwise concentrated sun, the resultant pools of light and shadow emphasise the highly textured rock faces and grass-covered slopes of the mountains.
The Greater Caucasus mountains, whose time-weathered rocks are occasionally lit by cloud-filtered sunlight. Canon 6D with 40mm f/2.8 STM lens; 1/200 seconds @ f/11, ISO 100.
At a slightly lower altitude in the mountains, the light is less harsh and more favourable to a subtler landscape. The softer and shallower valley walls that can be found around remote villages, such as Sno in the Greater Caucasus, are often shrouded in mist which further softens the landscape. In the image below, one of the centuries-old fortified towers, that the Caucasus are renowned for, is lost in the wide and green valley.
Valley, mist & water on the road to Sno, Kazbegi. Canon 6D with 40mm f/2.8 STM lens; 1/30 seconds @ f/18, ISO 200.
Similarly, the thick, low mists that often shroud the mountains of the Khevsureti region, east of Kazbegi and Sno and bordering with Chechnya, create incredibly mysterious, even sinister scenes that lend themselves well to black and white photography.
Thick mists in Khevsureti, combined with the folded and bare slopes of the mountain valleys, make for extremely atmospheric scenes that cry out for the monochrome touch. Canon 6D with 28mm f/2.8 lens; 1/100 seconds @ f/11, ISO 125.
In complete contrast to the high-altitude rocky slopes of the Greater Caucasus, the Vashlovani Protected Area, in the south-east of the country, is a semi-arid region typified by vast, open vistas and soft light. It is also a harsh environment, particularly in the summer when it is incredibly hot and water is scarce, but at the right time of year, this is an incredibly rewarding place to photograph. During the winter months, much of the savannah-type landscape is dry and monochrome but the clear skies and soft light provide epic landscapes that stretch for many kilometres.
Vashlovani in spring; vivid yellows and reds contrast well with the subtler orange of the surrounding sandstone hills which, themselves, take on a myriad of interesting forms. Canon 6D with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens at 100mm; 1/50 seconds @ f/11, ISO 800.
In the spring, before the conditions get too dry and hot, the grasslands reignite with colour, contrasting spectacularly with the orange sandstone that gives the landscape its sculpted look. The sandstone is responsible for some interesting shapes and lines that make for compelling compositions and both this and the spring colours (here, mostly yellows and greens with splashes of purple) are illustrated below.
The main, or at least original reason that this area has been protected is because of the wild pistachio trees that abound there. They are relatively rare in the region and are an important source of food for wildlife such as bears and wild boar (though the nuts are far too bitter for human consumption). They grow far apart from each other and so make for very open woodlands that break the landscape in quite a poetic way. Their squat trunks and wide-spread branches also make for compelling photographic subjects, especially in the summer when their leaves and fruits are in full bloom.
The iconic pistachio trees of Vashlovani and, in the background, the limestone cliffs that form a myriad of narrow gorges in the heart of the reserve. Canon 6D with 40mm f/2.8 STM lens; 1/100 seconds @ f/16, ISO 500.
Being a semi-arid area, the air can become quite dusty, particularly when the cold winds from the mountains to the north whip up the bare ground in winter. Whilst this can be a problem for camera gear, it does also make for some spectacular sunsets where even a relatively cloud-free sky can be thrown into the most vivid hues of orange, red and yellow. When combined with the interesting forms made by the soft rock, overnight stays in the area are highly recommended.
Sunsets in Vashlovani are often vivid and colourful with the sandstone ridges thrown into a silhouette to create other-worldly images. Canon 6D with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens at 105mm; 1/125 seconds @ f/13, ISO 800.
To summarise, Georgia is an incredibly photogenic country (and we haven’t even touched on the wildlife and culture) whose many treasures are easily accessible to the adventurous photographer. Most importantly, there is only one thing that Georgians love as much as their country and that is to show it off to outsiders. With only around four million people living there, they have a lot of space to share and they are happy to do so; as long as you don’t stay too long, of course. It was my home for seven years and I will certainly be returning when I can.
From one to the Other
Vashlovani in late winter; most of the grasses that dominate the pastures are either dead or munched-away by the sheep brought here from the mountains in the north that, nearly 200km away, provides a clear backdrop for this scene. Canon 6D with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens at 160mm; 1/60 seconds @ f/11, ISO 100. (Post Image).
Without a doubt, my passion for photography is borne from a love for, and fascination in the natural world. It has also shaped my professional life as a conservation biologist. Working for various international NGOs has taken me to some fascinating and beautiful parts of the world and, when I started on this path, it seemed only natural to try and capture some of this beauty. Photography was an obvious format to use and so, about twenty years ago, I bought a Canon EOS 300 camera (a film camera which I still have but, sadly no longer use) and began trying to translate the world around me onto film.
I stuck with that camera for about 10 years and there is a cupboard in my parent’s house that is full of old slides and negatives. However, when I met some photographers (far better than me) in Malaysia, I was persuaded to go digital and so, sticking with Canon, I bought a 50D and a 100-400mm lens. Since then, I have upgraded to a 6D (which was stolen last year from the base-camp on Mount Kazbeg, in Georgia) and then, about a year ago, to the impressive (but pricey) 5D Mark IV. Most of the images here were taken in the mountainous region of the Caucasus where I lived and worked for eight years.
Currently, I find myself taking some time-out from work in order to build a portfolio and evolve my photography skills. This hiatus from a regular income cannot last forever (or, indeed, much longer) and I am looking for ways to bring photography into my professional life in a more formal way; a way for my photographs to become a tool for helping biodiversity conservation. Any suggestions are welcomed.