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Photographing the outback (Part one)

By Paula Heelan | March 1, 2022

Photojournalist Paula Heelan has been photographing the Australian Outback for more than two decades. Her work by Ella 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 kilometers exploring the Outback, you never have to travel too far to discover a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and light, spectacular views, unique wildlife and flora, and wonderfully photogenic local characters.

Mustering at Gamarren Station, Widgeegoara QLD.

1) Plan 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.

This passing storm was off the back of a cyclone and knowing it would be a dramatic light and sky I headed out to a long dirt road and took the dog to add some extra appeal to the shot.  Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 40mm.  1/200s @ f4, ISO 125.
This passing storm was off the back of a cyclone and knowing it would be a dramatic light and sky I headed out to a long dirt road and took the dog to add some extra appeal to the shot. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 40mm. 1/200s @ f4, ISO 125.

When the wet hits, dusty, patched 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.

At an outback Ag show.  Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 32mm.  1/100s @ f4, ISO 400.
At an outback Ag show. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 32mm. 1/100s @ f4, ISO 400.
agricultural shows

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 crafts 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.

Country racing.
Country racing.
Campdrafts

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.

Country Races - a great place to capture horses hurtling along dusty tracks.  Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Ex lens @ 200mm.  1/250s @ f4, ISO 100.
Country Races – a great place to capture horses hurtling along dusty tracks. Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Ex lens @ 200mm. 1/250s @ f4, ISO 100.
country racing

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 to 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.

An outback portrait of former drover, Bob, who was watching a rodeo event.  A random portrait taken in golden afternoon light.  While he was a little reluctant to have his picture of him taken, his doting granddaughters of him insisted he agree.  Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX lens @ 200mm.  1/320s @ f2.8, ISO 100.
An outback portrait of former drover, Bob, who was watching a rodeo event. A random portrait taken in golden afternoon light. While he was a little reluctant to have his picture of him taken, his doting granddaughters of him insisted he agree. Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX lens @ 200mm. 1/320s @ f2.8, ISO 100.
rodeos

Full of color 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.

Cockatoos shot in pink, afternoon light - a common sight in the Outback.  Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Ex lens @ 200mm.  1/320s @f4, ISO400.
Cockatoos shot in pink, afternoon light – a common sight in the Outback. Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Ex lens @ 200mm. 1/320s @f4, ISO400.

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 practice, you’ll find your preferred speed for action shots. A lot of rodeos continue into the night, so you’ll need to increase the ISO to keep the shutter speed up.

3) People and portraits

Taking photos of people in the Outback is my favorite 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.

Yet another fantastic outback character, Steve Beetson, who is part of the Uluru Camel Tours team.  His red shirt and fabulous smile from him, which stood out, made for a failsafe portrait.  Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX lens @ 112mm.  1/50s @ f2.8, ISO 125.
Yet another fantastic outback character, Steve Beetson, who is part of the Uluru Camel Tours team. His red shirt and fabulous smile from him, which stood out, made for a failsafe portrait. Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX lens @ 112mm. 1/50s @ f2.8, ISO 125.

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 focuses on life in rural and remote Australia. See more at paulaheelan.com.

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