How to photograph Australia's bush (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on photographing the Australian bush. You can see part one, from last week, here.
Your gear does matter, up to a point
I’m not one to stress that you need to calculate the hyperfocal distance for optimal sharpness. Or that you need a medium-format Fujifilm GFX 100S. But I do have a couple of gear and technical tips to help you produce the best images possible.
Lenses: Bring two lenses. Ideally, a wide-angle and a telephoto. While a 24-70mm could probably cover about 90% of the frames you’d end up capturing, having the reach of 200mm (or even 400mm) will help you isolate key elements. And given the wider range of potential scene snippets at 200mm, you’re also more likely to create a truly unique image to call your own.
Aperture: Unless you want to isolate flowers or leaves, generally, you’re after front-to-back sharpness. That might mean f/11 for a wider shot or closer to f/20 for a telephoto image. (You may even need to focus stack—so capture the different focus points while you’re out in the field.) Be sure to review the image afterwards and zoom in to ensure each core element is in focus.
Shutter speed: Particularly in dense regions, the bush can be a surprisingly dark environment. And if there’s a slight breeze, leaves and branches will often appear blurred even at 1/10 second. So even if you’re using a tripod, don’t be afraid to bump your ISO to 640 (or higher) to freeze the frame at a faster shutter speed. A shot with slightly more noise is better than a blurred one from too slow a shutter speed.
Dynamic range: A common distraction in bush scenes are patches of overexposed sky burning through the canopy. First, try to gain elevation to angle your camera down or consider a telephoto shot to eliminate the sky altogether.
Then, if the sky simply can’t be avoided, my advice would be to underexpose in the field and then boost exposure in the darker areas in post-processing. (While you can exposure bracket, this technique can be more trouble than it’s worth—especially on days with a breeze where branches move between frames.)
The extras: Particularly on overcast, rainy days, a polariser can make ferns and foreground foliage pop. And as always, consider using a delayed shutter on a tripod—particularly when using a telephoto lens—to eliminate camera shake and guarantee crisp images every time.
Not all those who wander are lost
When you’re on a well-worn track, you’re likely only seeing a fraction of the potential frames on offer within the broader bush.
So leave the path behind every now and then to explore the scene from other angles and vantage points.
Climb a ridge to gain height and exclude patches of white sky in the distance. Get down low to emphasise ferns or rocks in the foreground. Push past the undergrowth to see what frames are waiting just beyond.
But above all: Be careful—and considerate—when going off-track. Take caution not to disturb any native vegetation. Remain a safe distance from cliff edges. And keep an eye out for wildlife taking shelter underfoot.
If the area looks pristine or delicate, leave it that way. No photo is worth ruining the scene it was taken in.
So don’t go tearing down ferns or walking over wildflowers to reach a better angle. But at the same time, the bush is one of the hardiest environments out there.
If there’s typical ‘scrub’ around, then let your inner child free and explore. Too often, we settle for the comfort and safety of the established path.
I’ve found that slipping on a flexible pair of gumboots provides excellent protection from scratches through the undergrowth. They’re also a solid safety barrier from the likes of leeches and snakes. (I recently got a pair of Bogs and they’re perfect for shorter hikes off-track.)
Come prepared. Be responsible. And give yourself the confidence to explore beyond the well-trodden path.
So, where will you go?
Now only one question remains, where will you go?
Try revisiting familiar scenes with fresh eyes. Return to popular tracks that lead to a destination, like lookouts or waterfalls. But instead of rushing to the major attraction, slow down and see what you might find on the way. Or return at golden hour to see the track in a whole new light.
If you’re eager and energised to explore new bush scenes, walking apps like AllTrails are a fantastic way to find new hikes around your area. Plus, GPS tracking is also a great safety tool to help you re-find the track, should you wander off. (Even in remote areas with no reception, GPS tracking has saved the day for me on more than one occasion.)
If I were to summarise my views in this article in one idea, it would be: Give the bush a chance.
The bush isn’t a monotonous expanse of messy scrub. And even in patches where it seems to be, spend a moment to unearth hidden details in the bark or new growth.
Likewise, don’t judge it by zipping past on the highway in the harsh midday sun. Instead, find a firetrail or gravel road to explore the landscape under a soft morning glow.
The bush is mysterious, not messy. It’s complex, not chaotic. And it’s brilliant, not bleak. So do some planning. Charge your batteries. Set that 5am alarm. And go bush. ❂