Behind the Lens
Western Australia, December 2015 by David Noton
26 November 2015
1100 Terminal 3 Departure Lounge, London Heathrow:
It’s impressive. Not exactly pretty, although I bet it is in the eyes of the pilots who fly it. I’d love to have a go at the controls, I wonder if they’d let me? I mean, I did spend two weeks learning to fly gliders as an Air Cadet on summer camp at RAF Debden in 1974. That’s bound to impress them, isn’t it? A double-decker airliner… What would my grandparents have made of it? It’s huge! Looking at the airliner on the ground, where its size in relation to the army of airport worker bees swarming around is evident, it seems incredible that it can ever get off the ground.
But fly it soon will, this Emirates A380, with us, some 500 other passengers and baggage, plus crew and 300,000 litres of fuel. It will take us all the way to Dubai, which is 7 hours away, then on to Perth, which is another 11 long hours beyond, on the far side of the world. Best not think about that now; we’ve never done the journey to Oz all in one go before. Maybe we should have planned to stop en route in south-east Asia as normal? But then again, we do want to maximise our time in the Outback.
Hey ho, we’re boarding now. Once more unto the breach and into the strange dead-time bubble of long haul flight. Hopefully we’ll not be wedged in between the mother with screaming infant and the corpulent coughing businessman.
27 November 2015
1800 Somewhere over the Indian Ocean:
We’ve been flying now for 11 hours, virtually all of it over the Indian Ocean. It makes me realise just how daunting the job of searching for the missing Malaysian Flight MH170 in that huge expanse of water below must be. Maybe it’s best not to dwell on downed airliners now. The coast sweeps under the huge wing; finally, we’re Down Under.
28 November 2015
0700 Suburbs of Perth:
I awake, not knowing where I am. Strong sunlight is permeating the gaps in the curtains. My body thinks it's evening but the sun is rising. We’re in a bland hotel room, which could be anywhere – a Premier Inn at Solihull? No, Lenny Henry is nowhere to be seen. Recollection dawns: it's warm, and there's a eucalyptus tree outside the window, and I hear strange bird songs. This must be Australia.
1100 Just off the Albany Highway:
We’re being shown around what will become our home for the next few weeks by Iwan, a Dutchman, now resident here in Western Australia, who has a small rental fleet of Toyota Land Cruiser Troopys specially adapted for camping in the Outback. Tent on top, big Roo bars on the front, chunky off-road tyres below, fridge in the back, with a compressor, dual electrical system, snorkel, two 90 litre fuel tanks, two 70 litre water tanks, gas bottles in brackets on the roof next to the solar panels, a CB radio, emergency beacon, pull-out shelter on the side, table and chairs, esky, cooker, cutlery, pots and pans, wine glasses, even a kitchen sink…I think it’ll do the job.
Iwan gives us a few tips: watch out for the road trains, the corrugated dirt roads and the kangaroos – and you’ll get used to the flies. On that last point I’m dubious, we’re no strangers to Outback Australia, but this is our first time in WA. Well, that’s not strictly true; I came here in 1977 on a 30,000 tonne container ship, but that fleeting visit to the bars of Fremantle barely counts. We’ve an adventure ahead, of that we’re certain.
Iwan helps us with a practice run of collapsing the roof tent; we’ll need to get pretty slick at doing this in the dark. Then, with formalities completed, we trundle off into the suburbs of Perth, feeling intrepid, and immediately pull into the car park of a Bottle Shop. Well, you’ve got to get your priorities right! Suitably provisioned with sauvignon blanc, shiraz, a slab of VB and a genuine cattle leather wide-brimmed hat from the Outdoor Shop next door we continue, all the way back to the motel car park. OK, I grant you, we’re not yet getting that intrepid. The rest of the day is devoted to making a start on the tan and recovering from jet lag. It is, after all, a long way from Milborne Port to Perth. Tomorrow we head north.
1800 Waterfront at Fremantle:
Down by the waterfront in Fremantle the sun is setting over the Indian Ocean, as a huge box boat slides into port. I can see the huge cranes waiting to attend to it, portainers we called them; they could be the very same ones we moored under on the SS ACT 2 just 38 years ago. I was at the helm as we glided in, a first trip deck cadet accumulating time at the wheel for my steering ticket. I was, of course, just following the pilot’s orders: port 20, wheel amidships, steady as she goes. Luckily we didn’t hit anything. Now Wendy and I are talking over the plan for the next few weeks. So, where are he headed?
I did the initial research for this trip some months ago. Initially, this crucial late November slot when we annually migrate south in search of light and warmth had been earmarked for a return to Chile, with night sky photography very much in mind. A few minutes spent browsing Stellarium soon convinced me of my lack of prescience with that plan: the Milky Way in the southern hemisphere is largely hidden below the horizon during December. So we thought again. A return to Australia had long been mooted, and this time we could do the one state I’d yet to visit: Western Australia.
A Sunday afternoon spent browsing the excellent Visit WA website sold us on the plan. I booked flights, found Iwan’s site and reserved a troopy – it was all coming together. What did we do before Google?
With the decision to go made, it just remained for us to decide what we’d be doing, and where. But Western Australia is a big place, a very big place. A map of WA laid over one of Europe reveals the north to south dimension of the state to be the equivalent of John O’Groats to Gibraltar, while east to west would be akin to travelling from Warsaw to Cape Finisterre. With enticing attractions all the way up the coast north to Shark Bay and beyond to Broome, inland in the form of lonely and wild national parks, and south to the wine regions and forests of the Margaret River, to name just a few, we’d have to make some tough choices.
Obviously with just three weeks in the country we couldn’t do it all. Iwan suggested an itinerary taking in all the highlights, but it was immediately apparent to me that to avoid spending all our time driving we’d have to prioritise – travel less, see more, that’s our motto these days. So it boiled down to a simple choice: north, or south?
The Aussies from Perth I sat next to on my flight to Reykjavik in October had thought we were mad to even contemplate going north at this time of year – too hot. But three places up there had jumped out at me as potentially enticing and interesting photographic locations as I researched more deeply: the world famous Pinnacles, of course, but also Kalbarri and Karajini national parks. Inspiration was starting to flow; we’d just have to deal with the heat. A loop heading north up the coast then inland to the Pilbara and back down to Perth now became the bedrock of our plan.
29 November 2015
1000 Supermarket car park in northern Perth:
We’ve bought the shop. Surely, this is the biggest food shop we’ve ever done? Bags full of provisions are strewn across the tarmac by our tailgate, as Wendy empties ice into the esky. Iwan had warned us that grocery shops become scarcer and more expensive the further north you go, but this is ridiculous. We’re creating a spectacle; other shoppers are stopping to watch. I guess we’ll not starve.
Finally, we’re heading north beyond the suburbs of Perth. The Troopy feels heavy, like a truck; with full fuel and water tanks, plus all our stuff, I guess that’s not surprising. Compared to my Loved One it seems agricultural, but that’s OK; where we’re going its bulletproof back-to-basics leaf suspension and technology will be an asset.
1700 Campsite at Cervantes:
Erecting the roof tent for the first time becomes a comedy of errors, embarrassing really. We’re the ones used to watching others struggle with unfamiliar kit on campsites around the world, but now it’s our turn to look like plonkers as we work out the function of various nondescript metal hoops. We’ll get better; we’ll have to, as in the dark before every dawn shoot and after every dusk shoot this will be our lot. A stiff, surprisingly cool, wind is blowing from the south, making our first night of camping a less then laidback affair as we shelter in the lee of the Troopy. After the palaver of getting the tent up, I’m wondering about the wisdom of opting for a roof tent. Early days – we’ll get into it. Tomorrow the first pixels will be exposed.
30 November 2015
0800 Campsite at Cervantes:
The wind has dropped a bit, making bacon and eggs by the Troopy in the early sun a pleasant way to start the day. We slept in, guiltily, but deliberately to nail the last vestiges of jet lag. It must be said that the roof tent is a dream to crash out in: level, snug and airy. Going for a pee in the night is an adventure, but at least we don’t have to struggle with banging pegs into rock hard earth. It took us 14 minutes to collapse it this morning – not bad.
In the site’s camp kitchen there’s a Health and Safety notice: BEWARE, all recreational and leisure activity is potentially hazardous. I knew from previous visits that Australia, like Blighty, has Nanny State tendencies – but this takes the biscuit. It seems so out of keeping with the country’s laidback national character and swaggering confidence.
The wind has picked up again. It’s always windy here at this time of year, according to the lady at the General Store; we should have come at Easter. Yeah, right – thanks!
1100 The Pinnacles, Nambung National Park:
We’re hiking the trail that winds through the Pinnacles to determine where I’m going to be shooting this evening. These are a unique feature, more extensive than I imagined. No one’s really sure how they were formed. After the hike we lock the front wheels, engage four-wheel drive, and trundle around the dirt track that winds between the rocks, for fun as much as anything else, before heading for Hangover Bay, enticed just by the name. This is a white sand beach with azure waters, which is totally deserted. But the stiff wind and harsh sun makes it a pretty bleak place today, so we press on to take in the stromatolites at Lake Thetis on the way back to Cervantes.
Peering at the nondescript lumps by the water I’m trying to summon some enthusiasm, not exactly bowled over, despite the fact that here is one of only a few places in the whole world with such living marine organisms. Stromatolites are, in a nutshell, the earliest records of life on Earth and have been dated to be about 3,370 years old. The trouble is that I know they’re venerable and biologically fascinating, but they just look like large cow pats on the shore.
1800 The Pinnacles, Nambung:
Behind the lens, at last, and beside the tripod in amongst the Pinnacles, waiting for the light. Through the afternoon spent back on the campsite the wind really started to wear us down, but it feels so good now to be on watch – we’ve travelled a long way for this. The plan is to shoot here in the evening light then stay on as darkness settles to do a night sky shoot. I know the Milky Way won’t feature at this time of year, but stars are stars – it’s got to be worth a punt.
The light now is low, slanting and appealing, but will only get better. We wait, speculating on how this feels like a Down Under version of Stonehenge, except here the graphic artistry is all by Mother Nature. I wish she would oblige us with some interest in the cloudless sky. But then again, I do want clear heavens for the night shoot – I can’t have it all.
As the shadows lengthen I start to expose, using the 24-70mm lens on my 5DSr with a polariser fitted. We’re not entirely alone, an occasional tourist wanders into shot, but I can easily hide them behind the stones. The wind is still strong, visibly buffeting my camera on the tripod. Will my images be sharp? I can only reach for my bungee, suspend my camera bag, shield the camera with my body, time my exposures for less gusty moments, and hope. At least the wind is keeping the flies at bay.
The light gets better and I fine-tune my composition, resisting the temptation to relocate. Stick with this and make it work, Noton. I also resist the temptation to zoom out wide; the longer the focal length, the more I’ll emphasise the dense profusion of the Pinnacles. Time for a panorama. By now, standing in the wind, we’re wearing every layer we brought with us. What were those Aussies on the flight to Reykjavik talking about? This is cold!
1900 The Pinnacles, Nambung:
The light softens then fades; it’s game over, for now. We sit in the Troopy to escape the wind, waiting for dusk to give way to night. As the first stars appear I set up for the night shoot, wanting to finalise my composition and focus while I can still see something through the lens. For this shot I’ve switched to the 5D Mk III, which is a better performer in low light at a high ISO, and I’ll be using the 17mm TS-E to keep the Pinnacles perpendicular. I’ll be shooting virtually wide open, at f4, which is why focusing is so critical, as is the lens’ optical performance. It’s at times like this that we get what we pay for in a lens.
The wait for complete darkness seems long, but it should actually be shorter than I’m used to, as we’re in a sub-tropical latitude. An hour passes; all the other tourists have now gone. I can already see stars twinkling, but still the last twilight is lingering. I make a few test exposures and realise a white glow is becoming apparent on the horizon to the south-east; that’ll be the moon. It’s not due to rise for another hour, but already its reflected light is starting to contaminate the purity of the night sky, and it will only get brighter. For now, though, it contributes an ethereal element to the picture: moonrise over the Pinnacles.
This, then, is my Decisive Moment. I shoot, sticking with the formula honed under night skies in Burma, Utah, the Yukon, Argentina and Iceland: ISO 12800, 20 sec at f4. It never fails.
Pause; check focus, check composition, shift back a little to incorporate my old friend Orion on his side rising over the most prominent rock, and shoot again. Wendy is beside me, and we’re revelling in the experience of being here, all by ourselves in the Pinnacles Desert under the night sky – it’s a very special moment. One that is well worth travelling over 9,000 miles for.
I think the shoot is in the can, but before packing up we experiment with a bit of light painting. I ask Wendy to stand some 30 meters away off to the side and splash a touch of light from her torch across my Pinnacles. Will it work? I’ve never previously been able to create anything that looks at all realistic with light painting, and I’m not convinced that I’ve succeeded here, as the light from the torch is just too harsh and unnatural.
By now the moonlight is just too bright, so we’re done. The drive back through the Pinnacles that are illuminated by our headlights is evocative. The first shoot is nailed, and it was a good one. This is what we came for – we’re buzzing.
1 December 2015
1300 Port Gregory:
It’s pink, it really is pink. We’d read about it, but we didn’t expect it to be this vibrant, this pink, and this big. Pink water stretches as far as the eye can see, assaulting our conception of reality. Is this what an LSD trip is like?
The Hutt Lagoon at Port Gregory is pink due to the presence of algae. I wouldn’t say it was pretty – novel, more like – but I am going to make something of this photographically. It’s not going to be easy, but is it ever? We drive on into the Big City of Port Gregory; a, shall we say, functional settlement? Hmmm, well, we can’t expect the old world charm of a village in the Périgord.
It’s Windy Again in Western Australia. By the time we packed up this morning at Cervantes the incessant wind was stronger then ever, blowing gusts of dust over the bacon sizzling in the pan. It’s backed from the south-west to the east now, which would indicate a low pressure system to the south moving through from the west. Maybe it will soon abate, or maybe not. I’ve no WiFi or cell phone signal so I can’t check the weather; we’ll just go with what we get.
1700 Hutt Lagoon:
We’re out for the evening shoot following a rough track around the lagoon with the Troopy’s wheel nuts locked and the low-ratio gearbox selected. Up and over dunes we go; this is fun, a bit like driving in the snow in Iceland. I bet that’s the first time Port Gregory has been compared to Iceland. Prudence eventually overtakes exuberance and we disembark to hike up a bluff to overlook the lagoon. This will be my spot for the evening shoot.
The view is elemental, surreal almost, with the pink waters below contrasting with the rich green vegetation of the headland. Birds are wading in rich waters; there’s a strong, simple composition to be had here. All I need is one solitary figure to bring a sense of scale. I know someone who has become remarkably proficient at that.
It’s a formula that has worked time and time again when I need to emphasise scale with a long lens perspective. Such emphasis only works if there is strong, simple shape of recognisable size just in the right place in the frame, and there’s no better shape then the human form of my wife to give scale. Wendy knows what I’m after; she’s perfected the pose. I wait for her to hike back down into position then I start shooting as she walks out on to the sand bar; tight, tighter and tighter, using the 100-400mm tele-zoom.
2000 Port Gregory:
This evening I’m chuffed; chuffed to be here, chuffed to have made the decision to give this area a couple of days, and chuffed to have made this shoot come together. Photography is all about decisions: where to go, what to shoot, and when. This evening we got it right. It’s doubly satisfying because while the pink lagoon is a curiosity, it’s not one that’s been shot to death. In fact, I’ve yet to see a decent picture of it. End of Day 4: just a couple of sessions nailed so far, but they’ve been good ones. Quality over quantity, every time.
2 December 2015
0530 Hutt Lagoon:
The wind has dropped overnight, and there’s a dramatic sky hanging over the lagoon, which now in the dawn light appears deep purple and flat calm, like glass, with perfect reflections and occasional lightning flickering to the north. This is looking good. I get to work on a minimal composition: just a twig in a sea of red to contrast with the angry blue sky above. It’s a whole lot of nothing really, but simplicity rarely fails me.
0700 Hutt Lagoon:
I’ve moved around to utilise a foreground of leaves from a plant thriving on the bleak shore. This morning I bolted on the 5DSr the 17mm TS-E with filter adapter and a circular polariser, plus a 0.6 ND grad (hard). I don’t need any of the TS-E’s movements; I’m just using it as a wide-angle lens, and a damn good one it is – super sharp and high contrast, which is just as well on this high-resolution camera.
In my wide field of view I have just three colours, all saturated, at full throttle, and primary: red in the waters of the lagoon, green in the bush, and blue in the heavy sky. I’m concerned this image will look a touch too surreal; then again, this place is surreal. But will anybody believe these colours are real?
It’s a relief to be out of the wind for a change, but as the sun rises the flies start to buzz around our heads, desperate to crawl into our nostrils, eyes, mouths or ears, if they can. I hate them. Bring back the wind. We don our head nets, which quickly become stifling. It’s a hard, harsh country, Australia, but this solitary morning is serenely beautiful, apart from the flies. Once again I’m struck by the contrast between our initial impressions and what we have since witnessed here, both yesterday evening and this morning.
1200 Port Gregory:
We walk down to the beach via the general store. I think even Wendy would struggle to go on a shopping spree here. The heat of the day is now oppressive so I steal a hot nap after lunch, and wake up feeling dreadful.
1700 Port Gregory:
Now I’m standing waist deep in the warm water, clutching my camera, captivated by the ripples of light on the seabed. OK, I’m becoming self-indulgent here, but that’s what these trips are all about. I’m playing with simple graphics under another dramatic sky, aware that one stumble with the 5DSr in hand could prove very expensive. I spend an hour or so playing with the patterns in water, sand and sky, telling myself that it’s art.
3 December 2015
1000 On the road to Kalbarri National Park:
On to Kalabarri, one of the priorities of the trip: a short one-hour drive under a hot sun and cloudless sky. We check out the coastal locations as we drive in; it’s certainly a unique shore with sharp red layered rocks and steep cliffs perched on the edge of the continent. On the last headland before the town we come across a memorial to the Zuytdorp, a Dutch merchantman shipwrecked on this fatal shore in 1711 while en route to Batavia, modern day Jakarta. The fate of its crew is unknown, although there’s speculation that some survived and integrated with the local Aborigines. I love stumbling across these historical traces.
1200 Tourist Information office, Kalbarri:
The lady in the information office informs us that the wind is due to pick up again. Damn! On sale is a book, Batavia by Peter Fitzsimmons, which is the extraordinary tale of another Dutch shipwreck on these shores, with murder, abandonment, betrayal, sexual slavery and courage thrown in, all true. How can I resist? Next door there’s a sign outside a shop: sunnies and thongs are in stock…
We’re out shooting the coast: nice light, good wave action, it all comes together, but I just can’t bring myself to write about it. These are the lost images of Kalbarri, which could be irretrievable due to memory card failure.
5 December 2015
0400 Campsite, Kalbarri:
I’m on top of the Troopy, collapsing the tent in the dark. It’s taken 12 minutes this morning. This is a job we could do without at this time of the day, but we’re on the road, dodging the loitering kangaroos early enough and well before the first glow is visible in the sky to the south-east. We’re headed inland and into the national park to one of the lookouts over the Murchison Gorge that we scouted yesterday. Another Joey appears in the headlights, bounding across the road in front, and I hit the brakes. Don’t swerve, Iwan said, this is a top-heavy vehicle. OK, but I could do with my Loved One’s stopping power now.
0530 On the road to Hawk’s Head Lookout, Kalbarri:
At Hawk’s Head Lookout the tranquillity is tangible: birdcalls are echoing around the gorge in the still air and a flock of swans swoop past, as I set up my tripod on the overhanging rock. Below is the landscape of the Kalbarri. It’s the essence of Australia we came for: red rock, strange plants, strange animals. It is at times and places like this that all the talk of this continent evolving as a world unto itself, separate, detached and unique, seems so evident.
But it’s a tough location to shoot, as all gorges are. The only option I have is to shoot straight into the rising sun, which is never an easy trick to pull off. I will have to resort to exposure merging, inevitably, to capture the range of tones that reach from the gorge below to the bright backlit sky, and I’ll have to time the shot for the very moment the sun peeks over the rim of the world. Leave it a few seconds too late and flare will kill it.
The 17mm TS-E is pressed into duty again, this time with a touch of drop shift dialled in to allow me a downward angle of view without diverging the verticals of the gorge walls. Such a flexible tool for landscape photography, these tilt-and-shifts; where would I be without them? As the sun pops up I shoot, auto-bracketing five exposures for the merge – but just at the crucial moment I fill the memory card. Damn, I should have checked the frames remaining. I switch card, but the replacement is corrupted; it won’t read, or be formatted. What is going on? I swap to another card and carry on shooting, but precious seconds have been lost. Lessons will have to be learned from this glitch.
Relocated on the edge, shooting down into the gorge, the light is harsh already. Here in the sub-tropics the window of opportunity is so brief, but the contre jour now illuminating the gorge below is still appealing. As I shade the lens with my hand, Wendy points out with anguished earnestness the drop below – oh yes. Rainbow parakeets are playing (or are they fighting?) in the tree above; it’s a magical morning that’s over all too quickly.
1000 Campsite, Kalbarri:
Back on the campsite the wind has picked up again, so much so that we actually feel cold. I’m mulling over my memory card problems. I screwed up by not checking the frames left before the Decisive Moment, but undoubtedly I have some technology issues too. Perhaps these cards are not as failsafe as I thought?
1630 On the road to the Z-Bend lookout, Kalbarri:
Back on the road inland: it’s a deeply corrugated dirt road – a real boneshaker. We see a few normal cars on the road; it is the weekend, but I can’t help feeling reassured that we have the right vehicle for this territory. On these road surfaces it is marked how different the feel, traction and stability is driving in 4WD as opposed to 2WD.
1700 Z-Bend lookout, Kalbarri:
On the path to the Z-Bend lookout I get diverted by the potential of a eucalyptus tree, backlit and windblown. A long 30-second exposure using the Little Stopper ensues before we trudge on. That worked, but the shot I have in mind, looking down into the gorge that is now deep in shadow, just won’t whatever I do. What was I thinking? There’s only one option: we must relocate to another lookout, but time is now of the essence – the sun is due to set in 40 minutes.
1800 Nature’s Window, Kalbarri:
At Nature’s Window I’m rushing, scrabbling to get into position. This is not how to work. The red rock arch framing the valley below has become the symbol of Kalbarri, so consequently it’s a predictable and contrived shot, and the most popular spot in the park. This means that we are not alone on a Saturday evening, but remarkably there are still no other photographers about. That’s a relief, but I’m struggling to make a decent composition. Pixels are exposed before the sun dips, but I head back knowing I didn’t plan this shoot properly. Today has not been my finest hour. It happens. Tomorrow is another day, and we have some strong locations scouted.
6 December 2015
0500 On the road to Ross Graham, Kalbarri:
Back on the road again before dawn, dodging the kangaroos and heading for Ross Graham. Ross Graham? He was a schoolteacher in this region in the 1960s, before the national park came into being. It was partly his championing of the beauty and unique environment of the Murchison River Gorge that led to the formation of the park in 1963. He died a young man, but his legacy is a lookout over a beautiful section of the gorge in his name.
That is an indication of just how young this nation is: a geographical feature named just 50 years ago. But of course, it’s not really young at all. The Aborigines were here 66,000 years ago, give or take the odd 10,000, and the land itself, here in north-western Australia, is, quite simply, the oldest on the planet, in geological terms. This is all good stuff to ruminate upon, trundling along the empty road in the hour before dawn.
0600 Ross Graham, Kalbarri:
Ross Graham is a particularly appealing location. In fact, it’s our favourite spot in Kalbarri; I have numerous shoots planned here. We walk down into the gorge, surprising a flock of black swans, and set up with the 5DSr and 24mm TS-E on the tripod under an overhang perched on some rocks mid-river. I say ‘river’, but it’s more a still pond, seemingly shrinking and drying out by the day.
However, its reflections are key to my image; this is a spot we scouted on the first day we spent here in Kalbarri, and of all our locations this is the one I’m keenest on. It just says north-western Australia, and Kalbarri in particular. Now, we wait, under a cloudless sky, for the sun to rise, clear the trees on the east bank then paint the walls of the canyon above and around me. Contrast will, inevitably, be a problem – it seems it often is here – and I’d like some information in the sky. Nevertheless, there’s a strong shot here – I can feel it in my bones.
You can watch the accompanying Video Blog.
Article By David Noton