The chill factor: Tips for capturing Australia’s alpine regions (Part one)
The Australian Alpine region is a rugged landscape that can produce hugely challenging conditions for photography. If you’re ready to push your image-making this winter, here’s how to get started.
Offering a diverse range of subject matter in an ever-changing landscape, Australia’s alpine regions are popular destinations for many landscape photographers. However, due to their remote location, these areas are not ones that many people will ever visit regularly. This makes it difficult for photographers to get a good understanding of the environment and how best to shoot it.
In 2017 my wife and I decided to leave Melbourne and move up to the Victorian High Country, seeking a quieter lifestyle to raise our children. Since arriving, I have been fascinated with the local landscape and the challenges it poses for landscape photography.
Having close access to the Alpine National Park, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the landscape both with and without a camera trying to understand all its intricacies and, most importantly, how to capture the essence of the High Country. So, let’s get started.
In the field
Loosely described geographically as the mountainous parts of the Australian Alps, the high country covers areas that feature national parks, our highest mountains, lakes, snow resorts, vineyards and a rich history including gold discovery, cattlemen and bushrangers.
While these regions are beautiful to photograph at any time of the year, I spend most of my time out in the wintery months during the toughest conditions. I have also found that the images I’ve shot in the harsh colder climates are the ones that resonate with me and others the most. As such, in this article I’ve focussed on shooting in the winter months, however most of these points can be applied at any time of the year.
What and where to shoot
Due to its vast beauty, the High Country and Alpine regions around Australia can initially appear as a photographer’s delight, however with the lack of ‘iconic’ locations like in other parts of the country, it can pose a challenge for the less seasoned photographer. I find these areas require a more creative approach to finding landscape compositions.
But despite a lack of iconic locations, there is really no shortage of subject matter synonymous with the Australian Alpine region waiting to be explored.
The most obvious of these are the scores of cattleman’s huts scattered across the Victorian and NSW High Country. These huts make for excellent subject matter all year round, and if you are willing to hike out to one during the snow season, some of which are not far from roads, you will be treated with stunning photography opportunities.
Whether it be in the snow or in Spring amongst the vast array of wildflowers, you will likely find a suitable place to begin shooting some traditional alpine scenery.
The iconic Snow Gum (eucalyptus pauciflora) is also synonymous with the high country. With their twisted trunks and unique shapes, no one tree is ever quite the same, and as the weather starts to cool leading into autumn, the trunks of these unique and unusual trees take on a transformation of colour that at its peak can produce spectacular colours.
Finally, some of the more iconic locations that have been popularised by landscape photographers in Australia are the large granite tors found in the Alpine regions such as the Cathedral at Mt. Buffalo and Aries tor at Mt. Kosciuszko. These large granite boulders provide spectacular subject matter for sunrise and sunset shoots and are particularly stunning in Winter when covered in snow.
When to shoot
Due to the unique and unpredictable conditions in the alpine region, particularly in winter, photographers will need to approach their craft in a slightly different way than they would when shooting seascapes or waterfalls.
I strongly believe the key to producing dramatic imagery in the alpine is to chase the conditions, not the light. This is most important if you are wanting to come away with images that convey the types of conditions you experienced yourself.
You’ll want a good weather app that can predict fog and snowfall, so you can identify the optimal time to be out shooting. I have found the app Clear Outside (clearoutside.com) to be reliable for predicting fog in the mountains. In terms of snowfall, I have found the website’s snowatch.com.au and snowsbest.com to both be reliable.
When shooting snow scenes, the best time to be out is early morning, just after a decent amount of snow has fallen overnight. By getting out early you will be treated to fresh snowfall and will hopefully be the first to witness it before the crowds of skiers and tourists arrive and trample all over, leaving footprints in potential scenes or compositions.
With snow gums, the best time to shoot these trees is after heavy rainfall as the rain saturates the bark and brings out the vibrancy of their rich colours. Typically, the bark itself is quite smooth, so the dampness on the bark will also give it a nice shine. In Autumn there tends to be a lot of fog around due to the changing temperatures. This can aid your compositions by providing separation in the dense bushland and help simplify your scenes – more on that soon.
Certain lenses suit different compositions depending on the subject and type of scene you are shooting. But if I had to choose only one lens to take with me on a trip up into the Alpine, it would have to be my 24-105mm.
This is my go-to lens for shooting snow gums, and for anytime I head into dense bushland. It’s the perfect focal length to isolate a set of trees for a more intimate scene, whilst still allowing enough space in the scene for some background context. It also allows the viewer to get a sense of the surrounding area without being too wide that you fill your frame with unwanted sky and other distractions.
My next choice would be a telephoto. I use my 100-400mm to isolate interesting parts of a scene that I find in the ‘grander’ landscape, such as patterns formed by the mountain ridges or light peeking through the clouds lighting up a part of the landscape.
Lastly, a wide-angle lens comes in handy when shooting a wide scene of the mountains, exaggerating foreground interest such as wildflowers in the warmer months and having the mountain peaks in the distant background. I have also used my wide-angle lens to get in close to some twisted gnarly snow gum trunks to exaggerate their shape and size.
Look out for part two next week.
About the author: Jeff is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Victorian High Country, where he has lived with his family since 2017. He spends his time trying to understand the intricacies, and capture the beauty, of this special part of Australia. See more at freestonephotography.com.