Georgia; A Diamond in the Rough

This story first appeared in Light & Landscape magazine; find out more at http://www.lightandlandscape.co/ 

Georgia, in the South Caucasus, is a country of great diversity, the perfect place for a keen landscape photographer to hone their 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.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  The Sentinel: 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

The Sentinel: 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 national 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 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.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  Dappled Light; 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

Dappled Light; 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 slightly lower altitudes, but still 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.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  The Reveal: 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

The Reveal: 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. 

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  Hidden: 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

Hidden: 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.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  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, provide 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

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, provide 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

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. 

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  The Phoenix: 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

The Phoenix: 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

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.