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Desert Travels in Namibia with the Nikon Z7

Five years ago my wife and I travelled to Namibia. Like many others I marveled at the beauty of – and photographed – the Sossusvlei sand dunes. Simple shapes set against an impossibly blue sky.

Sossusvlei Dunes, Namibia
Sossusvlei Dunes
NIKON D800E + 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 180mm, ISO 400, 1/1250, f/8.0

As it then seemed a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I took a Nikon D800E with a range of prime lenses, including the Nikon 80-400 f/4-5.6. I guess about 3.5 kilos of kit. We always travel with hand luggage, so that was challenging on space, as well as tiring on my back!

This year, we decided to return and spend more time in the Namib Rand Desert, a private reserve just south of Sossusvlei. Our trip included a 3 day guided hike called TokTokkie Trails. And this time I travelled very light: a Nikon Z7, Z 24-70 f/4 S and 70-300 f/4-5.6 AF-P VR. Only 1.8 kilos in total.

Desert near Swakopmund
Desert near Swakopmund
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 62mm, ISO 64, 1/125, f/7.1

But first, you have to get to the Namib Rand. You can drive 6 hours from the capital mostly on gravel roads, but my wife has back trouble on long car journeys, so we flew in a small Cessna (around 80 minutes).

Here we are about to make turn for the final approach into the Namib Rand airstrip. Yes, somewhere among that endless sand is a serviceable gravel strip…

Close to the Namib Rand Airport
Approaching the Namib Rand Airport
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 70mm, ISO 180, 1/500, f/5.6
View of the Namibia desert from lodge deck
On the ground: view from our lodge deck
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 70mm, ISO 64, 1/160, f/8.0

The Namib Rand is a private reserve with a very limited amount of accommodation, so it is much less visited by tourists than Sossusvlei to the north, with its iconic dunes and the Dead Vlei. What it loses in dramatic 400 meter high sand dunes, the Namib Rand Reserve gains in tranquillity, mountains, trees and oryxes.

A forest in Namibia
A forest (relatively speaking)
NIKON Z 7 + 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 220mm, ISO 720, 1/60, f/5.6

Surprisingly, settlers tried to farm it but without a lot of success. The Namib Rand Reserve was formed from 7 or 8 old farms, which had their fencing taken out, stock removed and left for the few oryx’s to freely roam.

Onyx in the Desert
If there were 2 oryxes we’d have a herd…
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 49mm, ISO 110, 1/500, f/5.6

We decided to get even closer to the desert by signing up for a 3 day, 2 night walking trail – Toktokkie Trails, based at the southern end of the reserve. This involved sleeping out in the open on camp beds with a lot more bedcovers than you think you could possibly need after the heat of the day – until at night the temperature drops at like a stone.

Namibia Canyon View
En route to our second campsite
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 39mm, ISO 64, 1/200, f/9.0
A close up of a desert field in Namibia with a mountain in the background
Gravel bed
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 31.5mm, ISO 64, 1/160, f/10.0
Second camp. Setting up the dinner table.
Second camp, setting up the dinner table
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 27mm, ISO 64, 1/125, f/8.0
Lone trees in the Namib Desert
Lone trees in the Namib Rand desert
NIKON Z 7 + 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 95mm, ISO 64, 1/320, f/11.0

I’m delighted with the Nikon Z7. I used to have 2 systems, Nikon D810 / D850 and the Fuji XT2. 2 sets of lenses, agonizing over which to take, especially when traveling.

I used to hate EVFs until the Fuji XT1 came along. Now I really do value the what-you-see-is-what-you-get view, and I find myself using manual much more than aperture priority, adjusting exposure as I look through the viewfinder. But I have occasionally been caught forgetting that I’m wearing sunglasses! (Not a big issue at home in Scotland..)

A lone tree in Namibia
A tree in the Namib Rand desert
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1/125, f/9.0

The Z7 performed flawlessly. The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S is excellent, but so is the 70-300mm AF-P with the FTZ adapter. All my photos on this trip were hand-held.

Image stabilization is excellent, but of course there is a risk you over rely on it, forgetting about subject movement. With no tripod, I did miss out on the stunning (at least if you know what you’re doing, like one of our travel companions) astrophotography opportunities afforded by the total lack of light pollution and the clarity of the southern Milky Way. I won’t embarrass myself by including the few images I took on time release with the camera lying on its back on a table…

A close up of a desert field with a mountain in the background
The distant mountains
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 70mm, ISO 64, 1/80, f/9.0

There are a few desert issues. Firstly, as with the snow, autoexposure will tend to underexpose, as the sand is generally brighter than the matrix metering expects, even if it recognizes the scene as a landscape. Second, unless there is a lot of blue sky in the scene, I found auto white balance way off. The problem is, the Namibian sand is very red, so many shots on import to Lightroom were showing a green tint of up to -25, and a color temperature 1000 below typical daylight. All easily fixed, of course.

A dead tree in Namib Desert
The fallen tree, Namib Rand Desert
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1/30, f/11.0

What I love photographically about the Namibian desert, is the combination of lack of detail and red/orange against blue complementary color schemes.  Simple shapes, broad areas of subtly changing tones. Generally, my post-processing was limited to a grad filter over the sky, a little clarity & vibrance boost, and lifting the shadows, particularly in higher contrast scenes. Yes, the Namib Desert really does look like this…

Lone oryx departing into an empty landscape.
Lone oryx departing into an empty landscape
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 52mm, ISO 64, 1/320, f/5.6
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