How to photograph Australia's bush (Part one)
Messy. Chaotic. Bleak.
If you were to ask someone on the street to describe the Australian bush, there’s a good chance those words would come up. (And not without reason.)
The bush is well-known for its unyielding nature. Swaths of monotonous scrub reaching out to the horizon. Dry leaf litter crunching underfoot. And gum tree after gum tree after gum tree.
However, when you venture a bit deeper and spend some time immersed in the landscape, there’s another side waiting to be appreciated—and documented through photography.
A side that’s richly storied. That transforms from brittle to burnt to beyond beauty. That’s teeming with variety, dispelling the myth of monotony that misleads many first impressions of the bush.
Because when you look beyond first glance, there’s so much more waiting to be seen. And as photographers, it’s up to us to notice, capture and share that beauty for others to experience too. Here’s how you can do just that.
From distraction to attraction
For a long time, I didn’t photograph the bush. In fact, I actively avoided it. Growing up on the coast, I stuck to seascapes. I’d centre each scene around sunrise, where the clouds were the main attraction—making or breaking the scene.
At best, the bush happened to contain other noteworthy features like a striking waterfall, lush river or scenic view.
At worst, it was a nuisance, crowding around—and distracting from—otherwise serene scenes. It was an obstacle to bash through on my way to a better vantage point.
Yet after moving to Victoria four years ago, my bias against the bush began to wane. With fewer world-class seascapes at my front door, I sought photographic inspiration elsewhere. Eager to explore the natural landscapes around me, I was lured into the swaths of mountain ash that tower over the Yarra Ranges. Then the lush forests of the Otways. And the exposed granite peaks of The Grampians.
Hooked on the beauty of the bush, I wanted more. So I set out on treks just to explore it. Not as an obstacle to pass through, but as a destination in and of itself. These hikes opened my eyes to the sheer variety of scenes on offer. They shattered my assumptions of what ‘the bush’ was and could be.
Where to begin? What to photograph?
So you’re keen to give the bush a chance. You’ve chosen a hike. But what should you look for and point your camera at? Here’s my advice: When you enter a scene but find it too distracting, focus on the details. The broader bush might be too busy. Dead branches. Distracting elements. Or a lack of balance.
So start by simply exploring the smaller elements. And approach the scene with a curious mind. You might ask yourself:
- Are there patterns in the gnarled trunks? Swirls, lines and textures?
- Is the bark peeling in strips or revealing fresh colours underneath?
- Are there wildflowers around or ferns with fresh growth?
- Could a shallow depth of field help to isolate these elements?
- Can you change your elevation to shoot top down on the patterns in the growth?
- Stepping back, could you swap to a telephoto lens and use tree trunks as a window frame, bringing order to the more chaotic scene within?
Often, the bush can be overwhelming at first glance. But as landscape photographers, that’s the challenge we’re up against each time we go out to shoot new, complex scenes. It’s the problem we must solve to capture art—and not mere snapshots.
It’s worth emphasising that as you focus on trying to capture the details, not every image will be a portfolio-worthy shot.
The point isn’t to produce perfection with each frame. But to experiment. To try new angles and new details. To see what works and what doesn’t. And then refine that particular composition until it’s as good as you can make it. Not every hike is going to result in epic shots. But if you dismiss the scene with a critical eye before you even begin, you’re not going to capture anything at all.
Right time, right light
Once you’ve started developing your eye for what scenes work, it’s time to do it all again. To return at 6 am. Or hike out again in late spring when the wildflowers emerge from their slumber. Because rarely will you rock up at a new location and snap the best shot possible.
Instead, give yourself time to scope out the different trails and angles. And then return in the pre-dawn glow—or once the fog rolls in, helping to clean up the background elements and better direct attention towards your subject.
And depending on the type of bush you’re immersed in, the surrounding light can be as variable as other, more exposed landscapes.
Sometimes direct sunlight might reflect and diffuse off a nearby rock shelf. Or a sky full of wispy clouds might produce softer sidelight. Or an exposed hillside could be ignited in a red glow for a fleeting few minutes after daybreak.
Once you’ve found the perfect tree, return again and again. And invest the time to create the best image you can to showcase the scene in all its glory.