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Photography: Capturing Durban by the pier

The photographer for our Durban City Life feature, explains how she captured the sun rising over the Golden Mile

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Image: Teagan Cunniffe

South Africa’s Durban is known for its tropical, humid climate and warm ocean shores. I grew up here, and I’m always up for a nostalgic return visit. While the city has grown, one of the enduring trends is how Durbanites flock to the beach when the sun shines. All along the Golden Mile, stretching from Addington Beach to Blue Lagoon, you’ll find surfers and swimmers, religious Zionist ceremonies, dogs and their walkers, cyclists and joggers. You’re guaranteed to stroll past a familiar face: this is Durban’s unofficial meeting ground, and I wanted to capture it in a single image.

To do this, I woke up before sunrise and headed towards the start of the Golden Mile, where Moyo restaurant perches at the end of an iconic pier. After the initial colours of dawn, the sun settled into a soft, warm glow, and joggers and cyclists filled the promenade. I stepped back to find a vantage point that would capture it all: palm trees, pier and people.

Backlighting is a useful method when framing for magazine shoots, as the blown-out highlights create a natural space for where text can be placed on the page. Secondly, I want my images to look natural and true to what I see. For this reason, I chose my Canon 24-70mm lens. It’s wide enough to give scenes space to ‘breathe’ but without distortion.

I positioned myself so I was shooting into the sun’s light and, on manual mode and shooting in RAW format, set an exposure that still kept detail and colour in my subjects, while also blowing out the highlights. A narrow aperture of f/9 gave me a deep depth of field, from the people in the foreground all the way to the pier in the background. I wanted the whole scene to be in focus. The higher ISO of 640 allowed for a faster shutter speed to freeze any movement.

Shooting in backlit conditions can be tricky. With light cascading into your camera, it will struggle to find a point with enough contrast to focus on and starts to ‘focus-hunt’. To stop my camera doing this, I used my hand to cast a shadow across the lens. Once it had picked up a focus point, I removed my hand and let the light fall back into my frame. Light flares across the lens and shows up as golden haze. The resulting image often looks somewhat washed-out and flat. It’s in the post-production stages that they get their punch. By introducing black back into the image, the golden colour saturates, contrast deepens and images spring to life, making for more atmospheric lifestyle shots.

For me, this image sums up what I’d wanted to capture: a busy early morning on sun-drenched Durban shores. An image that hopefully makes you want to be there too.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)