Australian Light

Light is everything. Recognizing the gift and knowing how to react makes extraordinary pictures of ordinary subjects.

Australian LightThe quality of light on the continent of Australia is a real and worthy subject. The land mass is the size of the continental United States, but populated by only 20 million people, mostly settled in five main cities around the coast. That leaves vast areas of Australia without industry or pollution. The nearest continent is pristine Antarctica. The sunset image on the opening pages of this article is taken from a vantage point looking out on the Indian Ocean and the next land that the sun will touch is East Africa thousands of miles away. The result is a clarity of light that’s extraordinary, perhaps something that Americans experienced years ago. When a friend and notable photographer, Bob Krist, first spoke to me about Singh-Ray Color Intensifier filters, I remarked that I wasn’t sure I could use them with the intensity of Australian light and the red earth without committing overkill. It’s gratifying when nature doesn’t need enhancement and the only photographic challenge is to shape your subject into a picture; when all you need is an acutely resolving lens and an artistic vision.


Sundown Down Under

Surfers like Todd Burrows were the first to bring the waves of Margaret River to world attention and, subsequently, a free-spirited alternative culture dominated the area until the region was discovered to be suitable for growing wine grapes in the late ’60s. Today, thanks to the counterculture heritage, local people are concerned about conservation and preservation. For my Margaret River book, I teamed with a photographer friend, and one evening we stood on the beach looking out at this developing sunset south of Perth in Western Australia. As a photographer, people expect you to get excited about sunsets as a matter of course. To me, a sunset is a sunset, something to be enjoyed for its own sake, but not picture-worthy unless you do something extraordinary with it—or unless you’re with another photographer and there’s a bit of competition. While my friend worked on a panoramic view, I elected to get right down to the water, found a couple of rocks for a foreground, stuck my tripod legs in the water and waited for the right moment. A slow 1/15 sec. shutter speed recorded the motion of the waves while the low vantage point involved the action of the water rather than viewing it from afar. The composition and wide-angle distortion draws a connection between clouds and surf.


A River Runs Through It

Often, when you’re photographing for a book project or a magazine assignment, or on your own vacation, there are ordinary locations that need to be included to complete the picture story, but don’t easily lend themselves to extraordinary photographs. One such place is Warburton near Melbourne, where the Yarra River runs through the little town. I had passed through on several occasions, but an opportunity never presented itself until this day, when someone was burning leaves near a bridge crossing and a fisherman had waded into the river. Suddenly, I saw my picture. I say suddenly because although this photograph sits on a still page as an everlasting moment in time, my job was to react quickly. It was one of those instances when God served up a perfect opportunity and I was hurtling down the highway at 60 mph when I first saw it. As I stopped and ran to the bridge, I actually was nervous that the smoke would clear. I literally had maybe three minutes to make some spot-meter readings and expose the end of the roll before the fisherman left the river and the smoke cleared. As a professional, you must know how to get the exposure right. You can’t bracket exposures in these fluid situations because you run the risk of an imperfect exposure coinciding with the perfect cast of the fisherman or the perfect rays penetrating the smoke.

Furthermore, when you fall upon an opportunity, you have to take it when you see it. Never count on tomorrow because it won’t be there.


Ordinary Made Extraordinary

The windmill, hot-air balloon, grape leaves and kangaroos are all grouped on the previous spread as examples of how exceptional light can transform commonplace subjects. That simple concept explains a lot of what I do as a professional photographer. The best case in point is the windmill in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, when the wind conspired with the setting sun to set up the perfect reflection. With another wind direction or at another time of day, the picture wouldn’t exist.

Both the kangaroos and grape leaves benefit from the highlights of backlight at sunset. I prefer working at the end of the day because as the sun sets, the light is improving as you work. Thankfully, this is when kangaroos become active and, of course, why many drivers choose to outfit their vehicles with “roo-bars” Hitting one of these large marsupials is something like hitting a moose.

For some reason, hot-air balloon flights and picnics have become synonymous with wine country, in Australia and in California. I’ve done a lot of work out of balloons, so I know how surprising they can be when they sneak up on people on the ground. I was driving through the Hunter Valley ground fog when suddenly a UFO the size of a three-story building appeared over the highway. An 85C filter was already on my lens to add warmth to the early sunlight bouncing around in the airborne moisture, drowning out all other color.

Into The Sun

At sunset in the Barossa Valley, I looked for opportunities to shoot directly into the golden light. In order to achieve clear blacks in your photograph, you have to shoot with the sun just beyond the top of the picture frame or just outside the lens, while at the same time, shading the front lens element from extraneous flare. Generally, the manufacturer’s built-in or add-on lens shade isn’t enough. You can hold out your hand to block the sun with shorter, smaller lenses, but that can be awkward for a 300mm lens as used here. Aside from having an assistant stand 20 feet away with a hat or card, I’ve developed a variety of techniques for working solo. One is to position your car so that you sit on one side and shoot through the far window, using the roof to shade the lens. In this case, I found a nearby tree and used its branches to shade the lens. One of the fundamental rules of photography is to avoid shooting into the sun, but that’s a rule fun to break.


Mixing Light

Often, I’ll be standing with others, watching the sun slip into the sea. There’s a collective sigh and group departure. Only a few others and myself will stay to the last light. If you wait for another 15 to 20 minutes, you see the light that’s in this picture. Cunningham Pier at Geelong south of Melbourne is a historic and frequently photographed subject. The challenge here is working with multiple light sources and picking the time of day. The unusual color cast of the photography is the result of my using a CC30M magenta filter to neutralize the fluorescent lights on the pier. Normally, these lights would cast a green glow when using daylight film. A CC30M magenta renders these lights as a more pure white, but as fallout, the filter adds an element of magenta to the whole scene. This overall cast works well with a dusk scene, so the trade-off is worthwhile. As for timing, there are probably only a few minutes where the color in the sky, the ambient light on the surroundings and the lights of the illuminated structure make for a pleasing picture. Earlier, the man-made lights are overwhelmed by the ambient light. Later, when the sky has turned black and lost its color, the ambient light level is too low in comparison to the intensity of the man-made lights.