Photographing the outback (Part one)
Photojournalist Paula Heelan has been photographing the Australian Outback for more than two decades. Her work captures the everyday life of people who live and work in remote towns and on stations; the grandeur and unforgiving nature of landscapes and weather, as well as wildlife and livestock.
Here are her tips to help you make the most of your next Outback adventure.
With overseas travel seriously curtailed by the arrival of COVID-19, The Outback has never been more popular with Australian photographers.
And while you can cover tens of thousands of kilometres exploring the Outback, you never have to travel too far to discover a kaleidoscope of colours, textures and light, spectacular vistas, unique wildlife and flora, and wonderfully photogenic local characters.
1) Planning your trip
While it’s important to plan your trip around the destinations and events you want to visit, make sure you allow plenty of time for unexpected photo opportunities. If you find yourself passing a cattle muster, an approaching storm or a particularly photogenic abandoned farmhouse – your itinerary should provide enough flexibility to stop and shoot. Or return the following day.
Make sure the roads are open, dry and safe by checking websites that list road conditions and closures – or make a few phone calls. Landscapes vary significantly between the dry and wet seasons.
When the wet hits, dusty, parched country transforms to a lush, emerald green and the Outback bursts with new life. Gangs of birds return screeching and squawking, and there are insect and wildlife explosions. Dams, creeks, waterholes and rivers spill over and the dust settles.
You might want to consider booking a station or farm stay to give you easy access to all that unfolds on a property.
2) Local events
Time your visit with a festival, campdraft, rodeo, country race or agricultural show and your images will be better for it. Check tourism websites and social media to see what’s on when you’re passing through. Most events are scheduled in the cooler, drier months so that’s generally the best time to travel.
The local show is usually a big event for the town and surrounding communities. Most people, proud of their well-trained animals, their home-grown produce, hand-made craft and their bush lifestyle are only too happy to pose for a photo. Look for interesting environmental portraits and action shots of some of the bush sport events.
Men, women and children from remote cattle stations follow the winter campdraft circuit and compete as often as they can. Again, the best images can be taken early morning (competition starts at 6am) or late afternoon – perfect for that great mix of dust, fading sun and cowboy action. Ask a campdrafter how the sport works and a whole new world will present itself.
For a lot of young people, the country race day has become the new B&S venue. It’s a rare chance to dress up and mingle. With a great mix of colour, characters and action, photo opportunities range from fun and fashion on the field, horses hurtling along dusty tracks, trainers preparing their horses in rustic stables and jockeys hanging around between races.
Ask permission to enter the jockeys’ sanctuary – they generally enjoy the attention and are happy be photographed. Trackside, look for unusual angles to shoot and try something different for each race – find a high spot or lay flat on the ground near the finish line to capture horses crossing the line.
Full of colour and action, rodeos are amazing places to explore with a camera. Chat to the competitors and ask for permission to photograph behind the scenes. Ask them to explain the sport’s skills and rules, where to stand for safety and what action shots to look for.
A shutter speed of 1/1000s or higher should freeze the image without blur and sharply capture any flying dirt. A photo of a rider being thrown from a horse might wow your social media audience, but rodeo fans and riders look for images of skilled horsemen controlling their rides.
Capture quiet moments in the yards, portraits of cowboys, rodeo clowns, close up of saddles, chaps, spurs, belts, reins and boots – the opportunities are endless. With practise, you’ll find your preferred speed for action shots. A lot of rodeos continue into the night, so you’ll need to boost the ISO to keep the shutter speed up.
3) People and portraits
Taking photos of people in the Outback is my favourite kind of photography. You’ll almost certainly come across warm, friendly characters wherever you go. Take the time to chat and you’ll generally find most people are happy to have their picture taken. I find that offering to email a photo to them later on is a good way to build trust.
Some shoots can be planned but I find that most are random and unexpected. Look for even lighting and frame the image so as to avoid distractions. Simple backgrounds often work best, but sometimes you can move the subject, or yourself, in a way that helps you incorporate background elements that tell you more about who the subject is and what they do.
Don’t always shoot straight on, a three-quarter angle can be more interesting. As much as possible, try to keep things relaxed and simple.
Look out for part two next week.
About the author: Photojournalist and author Paula Heelan lives on a small farm in southeast Queensland where she focusses on life in rural and remote Australia. See more at paulaheelan.com.