Photographing the backcountry (part two)
By Paula Heelan | March 8, 2022
This is part two of a two-part series on backcountry photography. You can see the first part of last week, here.
When and where?
The best time to photograph is early morning or late afternoon when the light is soft and the colors subtle. Midday, when the light is harsh and contrasting, will usually result in blown highlights and blocked shadows.
Midday is the perfect time to scout places you can return to when the light is better. If you must take pictures in strong light, a polarizing filter will help reduce glare. If you are photographing people, ask them to step into the shade. Out of the sun, you should be able to avoid dark shadows on faces.
In the sun
The mix of setting sun, hovering or flying dust, cowherds, horses and cattle is the magic combination for an iconic Outback shot. To capture this, it often involves shooting towards the sun. Spend time trying out different camera settings for varying effects. While the silhouettes can be a bit cliché, the backcountry silhouettes can be stunning.
If you can, position yourself lower than your subject and make sure that the background is not too crowded, the goal being to bring out the outline of your subject. Expose to a bright light source (e.g. clear sky), then bring the camera back towards your subject and take the shot. This will help darken your backlit subject.
Light and angle are everything when it comes to landscapes. The right light and angle will result in a crisp shot. Set up a tripod in the late afternoon and shoot when the light fades. If you can, come back in the morning to do the same. Get to know and understand the light and shadows of the region. Light, colors and textures are constantly changing.
Sometimes different animals will also pass through the landscape – kangaroos, emus, birds and cattle can make your landscapes more attractive. Look for guidelines to draw the viewer into your image.
Often, the success of a landscape photograph depends as much on what you leave out as on what you put in. Compose your image to avoid distractions, such as light reflections or signs. While many landscape compositions work well with sharp focus, sometimes it can be helpful to use a narrower depth of field, removing blurry foreground or background with a wide aperture. Experiment with different approaches to see what works best.
What to take?
If you are traveling by plane you have to be selective, but in a vehicle you can take anything. My Canon kit includes a backup camera, a wide-angle lens (17-40mm) for landscapes and environmental portraits; a 50mm macro and a 100mm for close-ups and portraits; 70-200 mm and 100-400 mm telephoto lenses for shooting from a distance (with the possibility of zooming, they are ideal for bush equestrian sports); a general purpose 24-105mm, tripod and macropod.
Carry extra batteries, a charger and large memory cards so you can set your camera to high resolution to capture high quality RAW images. If you have a drone they are great for Outback photography, but always check that it is legal to fly where you are. Everywhere around airports or national parks, there are no-go areas.
Graduated ND filters will help reduce overexposed skies and UV filters and lens hoods provide lens protection. A tripod can be useful if you’re shooting an equestrian sporting event, night sky, or landscape, and a monopod lets you move with the action. Pack sunscreen, plenty of water and backup photography gear – you probably won’t find batteries, chargers or SD cards (especially for DSLR cameras) for sale in many places.
There will be a lot of dust, dirt and heat, so be sure to protect your gear and keep it clean. ❂
About the Author: Photojournalist and author Paula Heelan lives on a small farm in southeast Queensland, where she focuses on life in rural and remote Australia. See more at paulaheelan.com.