Photography in Australia’s Northern Territory

Home to one of the world’s most infamous tourist destinations, Australia’s Northern Territory has many more spectacular locations scattered amidst its outback, enough to keep any outdoor photographer happy.

Australia is a vast and surprisingly diverse country, but the landscape of the Northern Territory is true outback, vast panoramas of red and blue making it the ideal location for a three-week vacation.  I often think that a mistake people make when visiting ‘down under’ is trying to visit too large an area.  In a limited time span this is quite unrealistic, unless you are prepared to spend many days on the road, cover thousand of kilometres and generally not relax! All of Australia’s six states and two territories have something to offer the photographer but only one is home to the Red centre.

This area certainly lives up to its name, gaining its reputation due to the colour of the desert sands, however I prefer to think that it has gained this title due to the deep red hues of the rising and setting sun.  The often clear outback skies accentuating the colours of the weak yet unbelievably powerful sun as it continually paints the landscape a deep golden colour which is only to be found in Australia.  I sometimes wonder if Australian photographers realise how lucky they are? For the most part they have sunshine on a tap, although, typical Australia, when it does rain, it certainly rains!

Red termite mounds in a classic Australian outback scene.

My partner and myself planned to enter the Northern Territory in late may.  This was mainly to avoid the end of the wet season, which would have made travel in our two wheeled drive van almost impossible.  Due to flooding it can take months for some of the roads to be passable.  Our aim was to spend three weeks in the territory before continuing on to Queensland.  We travelled and slept in a second hand van and cooked all meals on our little camp stove and occasionally using the barbecues to found at some areas where camping is permitted.

My photography kit comprised of two Canon Eos bodies, a 24mm wide-angle lens and a standard zoom lens.  A telephoto lens would be a godsend here, especially if nature photography is your forte.  My choices of filters were limited, with a polariser being the only one used regularly.  Finally, I couldn’t even begin to contemplate image composition without my trusty Manfrotto tripod, which always finds a place in my camera kit! (A quick note regarding gear; I visited this part of Australia back in 2001, long before the days of digital and at the start of my photography career. If I was to return now (and I have returned to Australia a couple of times since) I would be tempted to take a single mirrorless camera and two zooms (24-70 & 70-200 35mm equivalent).

Entering the territory from the state of Western Australia, the first national park we were to visit was Keep River National Park.  Something of a scaled down ‘Bungle Bungles’, however the park is definitely more accessible than its Western Australian counterpart.  There were good walks to be found here and our first sighting of a poisonous Brown snake.  There are also some great landscapes to be photographed, with the Boab tree often seen hugging the dry creek beds.  The Boab tree is most prolific in northern Western Australia and the neighbouring areas of the Northern Territory. It is unusual that it is only found in Africa and Australia, indicating that it must have evolved before the split of the super continent of Gondawanna land.  A split which formed, amongst others, the modern day land masses of Australia, New Zealand and Africa.  The people of the Australian aboriginal are also quite unique in appearance, again gently suggesting that Australia is one of the oldest landscapes to be found on the planet.

A Thorny Devil lizard basking in the early morning outback sun.

The beliefs of the Aboriginal people are still strong, with some areas of the Northern Territory being inaccessible to the general public, including the sacred area bordering Keep River National Park.  In other Aboriginal sites, such as Uluru, photography is forbidden due to cultural beliefs, and breaking the law could result in a heavy fine, as well as being seen as an insult to the Aboriginal tribes who still live of these lands.

As we began to head south towards the tropic of Capricorn, the landscape continued to unfold into stereotypical Australian outback.  The gorges, rivers and fertile soils of the tropical north making way to kilometre after kilometre of flat bush land, the only prominent features being the deep red termite mounds and the occasional tree, managing to survive in what has to be one of the harshest environments on the planet.

Evening light illuminates the Devils Marbles.

The spectacular Devils Marbles were to be our next point of call.  It is easy to understand how these photographic gems obtained there somewhat fearful name, enormous boulders scattered throughout a small area in the otherwise flat outback, almost as if Beelzebub dropped them there himself!  But this is my kind of photographic heaven, the huge expanse of surrounding outback making both sunrise and sunset photography possible.  Of course, this also means that the sun is very low on the horizon, making the first and last rays a deep, crimson red.  Another bonus is that you can choose to illuminate your chosen subject, or simply compose an image with the silhouette, meaning yet more photographic opportunities.   There is also a permitted camping area here that makes photographing this location even easier.  No need for a long pre-dawn drive, you just need to stumble out of your tent and you’re there!

As we crossed the tropic of Capricorn, thoughts of Uluru came to mind, a location which I have always dreamt about and one that I was finally about to see, in just over 1000 kilometres! It took us two days to reach the true red centre, nothing preparing me for the first sighting of Uluru on the horizon.

Unfortunately, as we were now far south of the tropics, we were also vulnerable to normal seasons, in particular winter.  I never imagined this area to be cold but we did have to resort to thermals, hats, gloves etc.  Items that had been packed away since our time spent in the alpine areas of New Zealand.  This was unbelievable and to make matters worse the sky was overcast.  The dreary white colour that photographers hate.  I was still hopeful that I would capture a classic changing colour image of Uluru, but not entirely convinced!

Uluru at Sunset (Stock Library Image)

Time was against us.  We could only spend two days at Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park before we had to leave and start heading north towards Queensland, there was however going to be another photographic location on route, one which proved to be something of a finale to our time in the Northern Territory.

The route was simple.  We would head north via sealed road to the Kings Canyon National Park, where we would obtain a permit to take the unsealed road across aboriginal land to the West MacDonnell National Park.  In practise all was not so simple with the unsealed road being one of the worst that we have experienced.  There is something quite disenchanting about driving 300 kilometres on a badly corrugated road that is barely suitable for a 2 wheeled drive vehicle.  As is always the case with these kinds of trips, it took us longer than expected to reach the camping area at Ormiston gorge, with us arriving at our destination well after sunset.

We were to be rewarded in the morning with a wonderful sight.  The West MacDonnell National Park is located within the MacDonnell ranges, the largest string of mountains to be found within the Northern Territory, and one that I was determined to explore – by foot!  Hiking in Australia is hard work.  Due to the heat, there is a need to carry large amounts of water, especially as there are very few lakes, streams or water holes to find water.  Also, there are not many official tracks but many rough routes, making map reading skills essential and the desire for a light backpack all the more critical.

Wild Camping next to a Billabong in the outback.

We planned an overnight trip following the dry creek upstream towards Mt Giles.  We found a suitable camping area next to a billabong (waterhole) and began to enjoy the sunset, however the clouds started to move in and we were about to experience a full-blown storm, miles away from civilisation and any sign of people.  We couldn’t be more alone!

The storm, which seemed to last a lifetime, blew over after three long hours.  The tent was flattened, we were soaked and I didn’t even get to photograph the lightning!  But this is Australia, and soon we had forgotten the storm (probably due to the howls of the Dingoes!) and actually started to relax.

The next day saw us returning to our starting point via a different route.  We chose to hike down Ormiston Gorge itself.  We had heard that it was spectacular but you do have to see it to believe it.  This is Mother Nature at her strangest, huge blocks of red quartzite organised in almost impossible formations.  The finishing touches are the lonely ghost gums clinging to the rocks, again proving how versatile the Australian flora has to be to survive.

The vibrant colours of the spectacular Ormiston Gorge.

For the photographer, there are still many more locations to visit in the Northern Territory and each one would stimulate their creative ambitions beyond their imagination.  Due to time restrictions, we continued north-east to the state of Queensland and the tropical rainforests which form part of its world heritage area, and provide a home to its numerous leeches, but that is a another story….

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A Beginner’s Guide to Using Underwater Strobes

Underwater photography is a tricky thing to master, but one of the most important aspects is light. Water sucks the life out of light turning it a dull blueish hue within a couple of metres from the surface.

All the best underwater photographs are produced with the aid of artificial light (unless they are right at the surface). Land photographers know the kit we use as flashguns, but to use aquatic types, they are strobes… and they give life to our pictures.

Flash puts the light back into an underwater scene, so every underwater photographer needs to know how to use it effectively.

One of my favourite underwater photography techniques is to balance the ambient light with the light from my strobes.

Underwater flashguns are sort of like land flashguns, only they are waterproof of course. They have an on and off switch, and a power dial (not many have LCD screens as using displays with gloves on its hard, dials are better). There are a handful of makers and you can even buy housings for terrestrial flash units. They are though, all expensive. There isn’t really a ‘cheap’ way of using a flashgun underwater, so it’s best to understand that before walking into a shop and asking how much.

Makes to look out for include Sea&Sea, a Japanese company with a long pedigree of producing great underwater photo gear. Inon, who are younger, but have still be around a while and produce some great gear too. And Ikelite who like the previous two make great quality equipment. I have used and broken all three main makes and I would recommend them all. There are also a host of slightly cheaper makers which I cannot vouch for, but in my view you really do get what you pay for.

Without any addition light, underwater images look a bit flat and lifeless.

With the addition of artificial light from strobe units you can see how much more striking a shot becomes.

There are strobes with different power outputs and strobes with one flash head up to three flash heads, some have a sort of ringflash built in and it’s hard to say one is better than the other. Personally I love and still use the defunct Sea&Sea YS110 range which have three flash heads angled out in a triangular pattern. I love them because they give a consistent and broad light. So your choice should be personal to you.

The strobes are connected to your camera housing with arms. Arms can be fixed or flexible. I prefer fixed arms with joints which allow me to achieve different flash angles. There’s also the choice of having the strobes wired into the camera housing or fibre optically triggered. This system uses your camera’s onboard flash, which triggers the strobe through a fibre optic cable.

Shoals of fish show their true colour with the help of artificial light.

In use

These days you can put everything on auto and shoot away and get acceptable results, but if you really want to dazzle, then you need to flip over to manual and play creator. Most serious underwater photographers use two flashguns, positioned either side of the underwater camera housing. So you have three elements to play with: the light from each strobe and the ambient light around you. You control the first two and with your camera, controls how the third looks.

You can balance the daylight and artificial light to create much more vibrant images.

There are basically two ways to shoot underwater: wide angle and macro.

Wide angle: To get the better images with wide angle lenses use your strobes in combination with the ambient light. Set the exposure to keep some or all the detail in the ambient light. I actually prefer about a stop underexposed to push some contrast into an image, but whatever works for the look you are trying to achieve. Then the secret is to set each strobe to make the subject look naturally lit, even through it’s not. You could go for the same flash setting from both guns, but I often prefer a main light and a fill (lower powered) light. So I will swim around adjusting the strobes throughout the dive. The danger here is you forget on the most critical shot of the dive and mess it up.

Most high-end strobes have a number of power settings much like a terrestrial flashgun. You can dial in around 12 power settings to get the balance right. When you start off a lot of times it is hit and miss, so don’t expect award winning images to flood out of your camera (pardon the pun).

At night strobes allow a diver to light up subjects normally out of sight.

Macro photography: This is all about picking your subject out from the background. Tiny critters abound underwater and shot in close-up make beautiful images. Getting the light positioned correctly and at the right power when working with an animal the size of your little fingernail is not as easy as the pros make it look. And it’s the strobe position which will shape the light.

Even in quite turbid water, like this Cornish estuary, strobes balance out the light thus making the scene look more inviting. 


Many photographers opt for the side by side approach which gives a good spread of light, which works well in most situations, although the lighting can be bland. When shooting reef scenes or what’s referred to a close-focus wide-angle, I like to lift one strobe above to mimic the light coming down from the sun. It adds a dimension to the images that flat light doesn’t have.

A word of caution though about strobe positioning. Light is refracted when it moves through different mediums. So objects underwater when viewed through a mask look larger and nearer. If you position the strobe to where you think the subject is, you may be positioning it it too near and the subject is actually further back. That’s why many strobes have small lights inside. They are primarily used as focusing aids, but are also good for aiming the light correctly. I always thought a small laser pointing type light would be good, but don’t know of a strobe with one.

You don’t have to be in the sea or a lake to make the most of flash light. This shot was created in a swimming pool with the sun streaming through a window above the pool 

That is just a touch of underwater flash photography. It’s very similar in principle to terrestrial strobe photography, but with a few added dimensions.

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10 Tips to Make Better Wedding Photos

Are you looking for a few tips to improve your black and white photography skills? Look no further! Here are 10 tips written by professional photographer (and regular contributor) David Taylor. All of the photos are by Jason Friend.

Before the Big Day

Get to know the couple before the wedding if you don’t already. Find out exactly what their expectations are on the day so that they aren’t disappointed afterwards.

Run Silent

Cameras can be noisy devices. Either beeping when focus is acquired or clattering when the shutter fires. Confirmatory sounds should be turned off before the wedding and, if available, try using electronic shutter to shoot completely silently, particularly during the ceremony.

Go Prepared

If you can, visit the location of the wedding and reception before the big day. This will help you plan shots and lighting so that you’ve less to think about on the wedding day itself. On the day of the wedding get to the location early to see if anything has changed since your last visit.

Have Backup Gear

Don’t just rely on one camera, one lens and one memory card. Accidents and mechanical failures can happen so have spares that you can switch to should the worst happen.

Scruffy Doesn’t Cut It

Dress so that you fit in with the wedding guests. Don’t go casual unless that’s the look the happy couple have specified. You don’t need to wear a morning suit or dress, but dressing smartly is professional and respectful.


Look for a simple – though still interesting – background to shoot the shots of the wedding couple during the service, or the formal group shots afterwards. The more busy the background is, the more it will distract from the people in the shot.

Quirky Is Good

Taking formal shots of family and friends are still a big part of a wedding photographer’s job. However, look for interesting details too to help tell the full story of the day. Having a second camera to hand fitted with a fast prime lens will let you change shooting style without changing settings.


Weddings rarely run like clockwork. People are usually enjoying themselves too much to keep an eye on the time. Be prepared to start shooting long after you originally planned, and try not to get too stressed by the relentless ticking of the clock.

Take Five 

Try to find times during the day to take a few minutes’ break. Keeping your energy levels up is key to remaining buoyant and not looking – and acting – like a worn out grouch.

Crowd Control

Use someone to herd everyone to the right spot for formal shots. This could be an assistant or willing family member. They shouldn’t be a shrinking violet but tact and humour are useful qualities.

The above 10 tips were taken from the ‘101 TIPS TO MAKE BETTER PHOTOS’ ebook.

If you would like to find out what the other 91 photography tips are, please click here to download a free copy of the book.

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Photographing the Cumbria Way

Seventy miles is an unarguably long distance to cover photographically, however this is what I agreed to complete when I received a commission to write a book regarding the Cumbria Way track back in the summer of 2004.  My brief for the images to be captured for the project were that they would achieve photographic justice of every nook and cranny of the popular long distance route, and the splendor to be found in the National Park and surrounding areas of Cumbria encountered en route.  In addition, the commission stressed that every season of the year should be covered, producing a true representation of the walk for the reader intending to hike the track at any time of the year, which entailed that I would be required to revisit the track – on numerous occasions!

Logistically this produced various difficulties.  By the nature of the book, the only way to capture the images was by reaching the locations on foot.  This often dictated the carriage of all of my normal hiking and camping equipment, as well as the carriage of heavy photography gear including my trusty tripod – a piece of equipment that I feel is as important as the camera itself, with over 99% of the images captured for this project being produced utilizing it.  The actual cameras to be used were an assortment of digital and traditional film equipment.

The early morning colours of dawn illuminate fields and farm land near Ulverston and Morecambe Bay.

At the point of receiving the commission, I was totally dedicated to traditional film capture and the decision to make the step of using digital equipment was not one that I took lightly.  There were obvious benefits with digital capture such as the eradication of film and processing costs, but there were also concerns regarding battery life, image storage and the final reproduction quality of the images.  I finally bit the bullet, and purchased a Canon 10D digital SLR (with a whopping resolution of 6mp) and soon discovered that by shooting RAW files I was able to produce an image that would easily match the quality required for this kind of publication.  

With the advent of using digital equipment, I decided to abandon the traditional 35mm format and to concentrate my film captures to medium format equipment.  Again, the weight of my rucksack meant that I could not physically carry a medium format SLR alongside my digital gear, so I opted to use a rangefinder camera.  The panoramic images for the book were to be captured on a Hassleblad X-Pan, a unique camera hardly bigger than a 35mm SLR, capable of producing true panoramic images.  Towards the end of the project, I upgraded my film equipment to a Mamiya 7II, a truly remarkably lightweight 6x7cm medium format rangefinder camera, although I still found myself mainly using the digital gear.  However, in turn digital is somewhat of a double edge sword, and I found myself having to spend an immense amount of time editing and processing the files, which is not entirely surprising if you consider the actual amount of images captured digitally for the book exceeded over 1700 photographs.

Dawn looking across the still waters of Coniston Water, within the Lake District National Park.

But as is so often true with landscape and general outdoors photography, the choice of equipment is irrelevant without suitable subject matter.  Thankfully, the route I was to cover had an abundance of photographic highlights. The Cumbria Way track meanders some seventy miles from the market town of Ulverston in the southern Lake District peninsulas, to the thriving historic Cumbrian capital of Carlisle found in the north.  The ‘Way’ must be considered as one of the finest walks to be found in the British Isles although it is not designated an official long distance route.  The reasoning for this was the complexity of creating an official route such as The Pennine Way, Britain’s first in 1965, and the length of time involved to make a new long distance track a reality.  

The Ramblers’ Association formed a route which was to allow the walker to fully immerse themselves in the spectacular and picturesque landscape to be encountered in the county, by devising the Cumbria Way long distance route.  By planning a route that used existing rights of way and small country lanes, they were able to avoid legal red tape and quickly introduce the walk that we know today.  The route predominately follows many of the tranquil valleys found in the Lakes with a couple of high and exposed mountain passes.  

The pastel colours of dawn, reflected in the still waters of Derwentwater.

My initial attempt to walk the track coincided with a typical display of British weather.  High winds, torrential rain and poor visibility resulted in me having to abandon the trip after only 3 days – this project was evidently going to be difficult! I quickly returned to the lakes with my long suffering partner Lynette, to complete another other night stretch with the prospect of a night wild camping near Caldbeck common.  Lynette, as ever, volunteered to carry the tent, food and cooker and still managed to find the energy to be a model when I need images of people hiking the track.  Apart from a grotesque onslaught of biting midges on the moors, the trip was highly productive and the project was back on track.  Now it was time to walk the complete length of the Cumbria Way.

We returned in the late October of 2004.  By this point my 10D had been replaced by the 20D and I was excited to explore the capabilities of this new body.  We completed the track in nine days and for once the weather was mainly on our side.  We started the track in Ulverston and headed towards the tiny settlement of Gawthwaite and the Lake District National Park boundary.  From here the route heads towards Coniston.  We wild camped near Beacon Tarn before reaching Coniston and then spent another night there to allow me to capture more images.  Moving on we passed Tarn Hows before reaching Skelwith Bridge and another night in the tent.  From there we had the prospect of a more arduous day, as the route continued through the langdale valley and traversed Stake Pass and descended down to the picturesque Langstrath Valley and our campsite for the night.

Stream and the purple flowers of heather on moorland on lower Lonscale fell.

The weather had turned by the time we finally reached the small national trust campsite in Stonethwaite.  As we struggled to erect our tent in the torrential rain and escalating gale force winds, we both knew that this had all the hallmarks of being a somewhat unpleasant night in the tent.  As the wind speeds increased our tent was being subjected to yet more and more stress.  In the morning, when thankfully the winds had declined and we were greeted by blue skies, we discovered that our tent had actually ripped in a couple of places and that a pole was looking a little bit worse for ware.  However, this was not a time to ponder on the logistics of a somewhat unstable tent as we had an important task to complete.  We were now half way through the track although we still had to traverse the highest mountain pass, and for that we both knew that we would need exceptional weather.

The way now continued through Borrowdale and began to follow the banks of Derwentwater before reaching the town of Keswick and the next overnight stop.  Upon reaching Keswick, we decided to spend another day there to help us recharge our batteries.  I didn’t have to worry about the digital batteries though – they were still going strong.

The setting sun illuminates Lingy Hut, a welcome sight for hikers on the Cumbria Way track.

The last couple of days on the track were the hardest although at least the weather conditions were impeccable! Our last night on the track we decided to stay at a rustic mountain hut atop Lingy Hill, a night shared with a far too friendly mouse! After a night of broken sleep, we completed the remaining seventeen miles to Carlisle, through the sleepy village of Caldbeck continuing to loosely follow the course of the river Caldrew.

The next twelve months consisted of many more trips to the track, both solo and accompanied by Lynette and other enduring volunteers!  Cumbria became a second home for both of us, as I continued to capture the features of the Cumbria Way track throughout the seasons.  By the end of November 2005, I finally completed the project, ironically with an early morning shoot at Carlisle Castle at the very end of the Cumbria Way track and another display of extraordinary Cumbrian weather!

The Cumbria Way was released by Zymurgy Publishing in July, 2006. 

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Saving Photo History

At some point in the early 1900s or so someone asked their family to get together and experience the wonders of photography. They’d spent a fortune on a camera and the glass plates that go in it. They rounded the family up, got them dressed in their finest clothes and dutifully worked out the exposure and took an image. Back then every single exposure was precious. Once taken it was wrapped up and either posted or taken to a processing house. If the glass didn’t break; if the exposure and focus was right; and the subjects stayed still enough, one glass plate negative was the result. 

All that effort for one negative. They were precious objects, not like photos today which are looked at for a few seconds before they are lost forever, if they are seen at all. 

Over a century after the picture was taken, possibly 110 years, possibly more, the descendants of the people in the picture passed away and the negatives found themselves in a secondhand shop. Something that had taken so much care and effort to produce lost and forgotten. Until, that is, I found them. Still in the box they were sent back from the processing house in London. 

These were the faces staring back at me the first time I scanned a glass negative. (Glass negative).
I hope you can see why I am hooked on saving these things. (Glass negative).

I held each negative up to the light and because my eye is still capable of remembering what it’s like to see and translate the negative image, I could see the impressions of people staring back at me. I bought the box and took it home eager to see the faces of people long dead, but provably alive. I was holding a piece of photographic history, yet I doubt anyone cared in the coffee shop I stopped in on my way home. 

It’s not their fault. For a start photography today is a disposable commodity. It means nothing apart from a bit of marketing. And secondly, I was possibly one of the few people in the area with a scanner with the capacity to take a 5×4 inch glass negative and turn it into a digital image. 

In my studio, I gingerly removed the first negative from the box, gently placed it onto the scanning plate of my Canoscan 9900f and requested it start a scan. As the image appeared I realised I could be the first person to see the image in a hundred years. On the screen was a family of 4 women and 2 men looking directly at me. The women, coy and shy unsure of what to do, an innocence not seen in the modern world anymore. 

Did all these little scamps make it to adulthood and into old age? I will never know. (Glass negative).

I picked up the next slide and scanned it, then the next and the next. Some had missed the exposure mark, others had motion blur, but all were amazing because they had survived a hundred years. 

My trouble with the scans was they looked too perfect. It’s a problem encountered by period dramas on film and TV. Modern people expect old things to look old, without thinking that at one time they looked new. So I had to make the digital image, which was a perfect black and white, look sepia as that’s how people expect old photos to look

I picked up another box of glass slides a while later and gave them the same treatment. This time the images were mainly children, their innocent grinning faces staring back at me through a century of time. Each of those fresh eyes, I hoped had grown strong and then wrinkled and faded. However, I was aware that two world worlds had been fought between the picture being taken and me seeing it, so maybe not all of them made it to old age. 

The first bike negative I found was this. It was poorly exposed, but made an awesome image. (Film negative).
The first bike negative I found was this. It was poorly exposed, but made an awesome image. (Film negative).
The second in the box was this amazing looking dude on what is I believe a Norton motorbike. (Film negative).

My next purchase was a box of old medium format film negatives. The box contained maybe 20 negatives. Two stood out. One of a pair of guys on Norton motorbikes, the other a man on his own on a bike. I am not interested in bikes, but the images jumped out at me and I scanned them and was surprised by the detail and closeness the images instilled. I have no idea who these people were (I have to assume it’s a were), but they looked cool. And it reminded me why I do this. Why I save old negatives whenever I come across them. And I urge you to do the same. To save little pieces of history. Search your grandparent’s loft and basements. Generally families kept the paper prints, which fade and die. It’s the negatives and transparencies that are important. Save them now, before they get lost to time and someone in a hundred years walks into a secondhand store and realises they have no means to scan the negatives they are looking at. 

These slides are a look back into a frozen moment of time and are a piece of photographic history.

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The Dusky Track

“It’s not unusual for this area of Fiordland to receive more than the annual rainfall of the UK in less than a week” cheerfully announced the driver to the full coach of tourists who were heading on a day trip to the picturesque Doubtful Sound.  This was quickly followed with “We’ll just have to stop a moment to let a couple of trampers off”. Lynette and I had hitched a ride with the group to the start of the Dusky track, undoubtedly the most infamous track to be found in New Zealand.  It had been nearly seven years since our last visit to Fiordland and we had always vowed to hike the ‘Dusky’ on our inevitable return.

Traversing a distance of 84 kilometres through a remote area of the Fiordland National Park, part of the Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World heritage Area, the Dusky track has gained its reputation as a challenging trail due to its terrain and the fact that large areas are prone to flooding.  The ‘Dusky’ has claimed the life of numerous trampers in the past and as such requires a certain degree of preparation before it can be attempted.  With this in mind, we carefully chose the time of year to undertake the tramp, opting for the autumn months when on average the levels of rainfall are lower and the hours of day light sufficient enough to complete each days hike.

When planning our route we included extra days to complete the track so that we could sit out any foul weather, particularly periods of high rainfall as this could lead to rivers and sections of track becoming unpassable safely. This dictated the carriage of extra food rations (resulting in us carrying provisions for 15 days in total) and in addition we hired a personal locator beacon to request help in an emergency should the unthinkable happen.  We finally arranged the necessary boat transport to and from the track and informed the local Department of Conservation (DOC) office of our intentions.

Our backpacks were bulging with cooking equipment, sleeping bags, food, first aid provisions, a complete change of warm clothing and rain jackets yet I still had to make room for my camera equipment, I had no other option than to keep my gear to a bare minimum, opting to carry only my Canon Eos 5D body, 24 – 105 L Image Stabilising lens, polarizing filter, cable release, 3 spare batteries, assorted compact flash cards and my Manfrotto tripod.  I was slightly concerned at the prospect of my gear getting wet while wading through backwaters and rivers and so I also carried a couple of dry bags to store the gear in if required.

The start of the track was a good introduction to the ‘Dusky’, within less than ten minutes we were scouting around fallen trees, scrambling along tree routes and up to our knees in mud! This was the recurring theme for the duration of the first day as we headed from the track head near Manapouri through ribbonwoood and beech forest to the Upper Spey hut.  The first evening was spent in front of a wood burner resting our aching muscles in preparation for the following day.

From the Upper Spey the track began to ascend through pristine New Zealand forest and we found ourselves in a position where we had to literally climb through the bush (it was now becoming painfully apparent why just 7km for this whole day had been estimated as a total of 6 -8 hours hiking time!), using tree routes as makeshift ladders until we reached open tussock land and our first view of the Centre Pass.   Our track crossed the 1051 metre pass with magnificent views of Fiordland before descending even more extremely than the ascent.  A generous dose of mud, combined with the unrelenting arduous terrain, made the final stretch of the second day a slightly un-nerving experience.  We were both absolutely exhausted when we finally reached Kintail Hut.

The next day had a distinct mud feel!  Lynette found herself thigh deep and whilst I may have mocked her, I quickly got what I deserved when I also sank to well above my knees on another stretch.  The suction of the mud was so great that combined with the heavy backpacks it made getting out physically demanding, not to mention the unpleasant aromas that accompanied the final squelch of freeing your body from such large expanses of essentially stagnant mud and water – arguably a laugh or cry situation!  Thankfully the weather to this stage had been on our side and although there had been some rainfall, we completed this section, which is prone to major flooding, without any major incidents and the need to wade through any water.

New Zealand, Southland, Fiordland National Park. Autumn mist rising from Loch Maree along the Dusky Track.

We spent the next day at the Loch Maree hut, where I took the opportunity to capture the play of breaking light on the mountains surrounding the mist enshrouded loch. After this well deserved lazy day, our route took a detour to the tracks very namesake – The Dusky Sound. The following eight hours were an enjoyable hike along a valley floor engulfed by temperate rainforest.  Although this hike was for us relatively easy, this is most definitely not always the case and the guide leaflet published by the Department of Conservation warns that ‘After heavy rain low-lying parts of this section can become flooded and you may have to swim across small backwaters’! We had finally reached the Dusky but would our return be as simple?

The next day we were greeted by rain, which continued until the early hours of the next day. We had already planned a lazy day to enjoy the sound, but we decided to sit out the next day as well to (hopefully) let any flooded backwaters return to normal levels. Ironically, the next day was dry but started to rain in the evening. Unfortunately we could not allow any more time along this stage of the track, so we packed our backpacks and vowed for an early start in the morning. We need not have worried though as the return leg to the Maree hut went a lot smoother than expected. Luckily, none of the creeks and rivers had flooded excessively although the moss-covered boulders along the track that had been difficult in the dry weather had become extremely treacherous during rain. We reached the Loch Maree hut just before nightfall. We were now halfway through the Dusky and had only one remaining area prone to flooding to pass.

Typically the rain continued for the next stage of the track, which began with us crossing a 3-wire bridge over the Seaforth River. This bridge is located some 5 metres above the level of the river but can still become impassable and engulfed by the river after heavy and extended periods of rain! However, we crossed the river without any problems and congratulated ourselves on competing the notorious sections of the track. Our route now climber sharply for the last alpine pass of the hike. The track continued in the typical Dusky style taking the most direct and muddy route to the pass and the promised peaks of the appropriately named Pleasant Range.

Any photographers who have visited the Lake District or Scottish Highlands will fully appreciate the scene that greeted us at the top of the pass. In between the swirling clouds of mist and fog, we followed our often-disappearing markers as they led us over a landscape reminiscent of the north of the British Isles. After some two hours of playing ‘spot the marker’ we reached the Lake Roe hut, where we spent another lazy day resting our feet whilst waiting for the sun to appear. When the mist did finally clear it revealed a landscape that once again justified our intrepid trip along the Dusky Track. The next two days walking out of the track were all downhill and relatively free of mud and although we were both totally exhausted by the time we were collected by the water taxi, we both knew that we would be returning to Fiordland as soon as possible.

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Why It’s Good to Have Photography Heroes and Heroines

I always give a little chuckle when someone describes themself as a ‘self-made’ man or woman. The first thought that goes through my head is that it’s nice of them to take the blame. You see, no-one is ‘self-made’. We all grow up being influenced by people, from family to school friends and, perhaps most importantly, teachers. These influences continue on into adulthood, though arguably more subtly. 

Winter sunset over the Cheviots Hills in north Northumberland
(Aperture: f/13, shutter speed: 0.4 seconds, ISO 100, stitched panoramic)

Of course people we never meet can have an influence too. The authors of the books we read are a good example. As are the photographers whose work we see, whether in a book or magazine or online. I know I’ve been influenced by a huge range of photographers, only a handful of whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting. (Some photographers I’ll sadly never meet because they’ve passed on to that great darkroom in the sky.)

Animal skeleton on display in the Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne
(Aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/8, ISO 800, 100mm lens)

One of the ways we can grow as photographers is to look at the work of others. Not, I should add, to slavishly copy the work of those photographers. (Though copying is a way of learning, as long as we don’t try to pass that work off as original afterwards.) The aim should be to absorb visual ideas and to synthesise those ideas to create something unique and personal.

Now is the ideal time to be doing this. Partly because, well you know… Lockdown.  But also because the interconnected modern world makes it easy to search for and find the work of pretty much any photographer you can name. 

Looking at the great pyramid on the Giza plateau near Cairo in Egypt
(Exposure details unrecorded, Holga medium format film camera)

Who to search for though? Well, my particular interest is landscape photography so the obvious choice for me are other landscape photographers. Your interests may well be different. So that’s settled then? We look for photographers working in a similar field to our own. Well, yes… and no. (Though not necessarily in that order.) It’s also a good idea to look at the work of photographers working in different genres. I own (far too many) books about landscape photography. But I also have books on documentary, wedding, portrait and (weirdly) fashion photography. This is partially because I appreciate all types of photography, but also because it’s all visual stimulation, and it helps me think in different ways about my own photography.

For me, the most exciting photographers are those whose work has a magical quality. You can look and look at their photos and can only end up shaking your head sadly, unable to figure out how they ‘saw’ and shot those photos. It’s a wonderful intellectual challenge to pick apart their photos to try and understand how they were shot. What lenses do they use most often – wide-angles, standard or telephoto? What lighting do they typically prefer – natural or artificial, hard or soft? Those sort of things. Fortunately, some photographers are generous in the information they provide, and give you exposure and lens details. It’s fun though to try and figure out the same for photos shot in the pre-digital era. 

Glen Nevis below low cloud, Lochaber, Scottish Highlands
(Aperture: f/11, shutter speed: 1/140, ISO 200, 55mm lens – 83mm full-frame equivalent)

Anyway, you may – or may not be – wondering who has been the greatest influence on me as a photographer? Thank you, I’m glad you asked. Here are five of my photographers heroes and heroines. I’d heartily recommend you look them up. (And as a small challenge, once you’ve looked them up, which of the five listed below was an influence on which photograph on this page?)

Martin Parr. Very definitely not a landscape photographer, but a mordant commentator on the modern world. It’s the humour in Parr’s work that particularly appeals. 

Ansel Adams. Adams had to be on this list. Every landscape photographer has to be aware of Adams, even if it’s just a case of name recognition. He also promoted the idea of national parks, to which we should all be eternally grateful. 

Joe Cornish. Arguably Britain’s best known and most influential landscape photographer. I spent several years wrestling with 5×4 cameras – sometimes successfully, more often not – because of Joe’s influence on my photography.

Andris Apse. It’s Apse’s use of space and light in his landscape photography that particularly appeals to me. Working mainly in New Zealand, his work just makes me want to get on a plane and make the long journey there.

Rosamund Purcell. Purcell’s photography isn’t going to be everyone’s taste. But I think it’s wonderful. She collaborated with another hero of mine, Stephen Jay Gould, to produce two thought provoking books about museums and their collections.

Those are mine. Now, who are your influences. Let the world know in the comment box below…

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Portfolio: The Legacy Project

It has been seven years since founder, Jason Friend, embarked on a trip to photograph the prehistoric landscape of the Orkney Islands located off the northern tip of Scotland. This eventful trip was to be the first every shoot for the Legacy Project, a fascinating not-for-profit endeavour to capture the mystifying stone remains of prehistoric sites scattered across the British Isles.

Moving beyond a mere appreciation of the aesthetic, the aim of The Legacy Project is not simply to record the physical structure of these stone circles, but to instil a complete emotional experience which conveys the ethereal nature of these megalithic sites. Through this photographic journey, Jason wants the ancient spirit of the landscape to wash over you – for you to think, to feel, to imagine what once took place where the stones remain.

In order to capture the stark and dramatic tone of these mystical landscapes, the project is being shot entirely in black and white using a mixture of infrared film, and infrared converted digital cameras.

The Legacy Project continues to lead Jason along a fascinating path of discovery across the British Isles in search of the remnants of Neolithic Britain.

You can view more of the images from the project at the website:

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Patagonia Musings

Every single step forward felt like a huge achievement. Gale force winds were being channeled through the sheer valleys walls of the Fitzroy range, and with every particularly large gust we were being blown three steps back from our destination, a small ridge of the summit of the glacier moraine. Our quest to view the azure colored glacial lake was going to be somewhat of a struggle. However this was to be expected in Patagonia, a place where nothing is easy. A land where struggle is an essential part of everyday life.

Spanning the southern tip of the continent of South America, Patagonia is a landscape of extremes divided by a backbone comprised of the magnificent Andean mountain range. Tierra del Fuego in the deep south is host to Cape Horn, the southernmost point of the continent and in fact not a true cape but actually part of the island archipelago that, alongside the main island, forms the region of Tierra del Fuego. Heading north from the icy expanse of Antarctica, this group of islands are the first glimpse of the Andes as they rise dramatically from the Southern ocean to form this great continent.

Tierra del Fuego gained its colorful name from the first european explorer to visit the archipelago. So named the ‘Island of fires’ by Ferdinand Magellen in 1520 as a result of the numerous fires visible on the main island whilst he navigated the region, which he believed were an attempt by the native american indians to lure his crew to the land and to subsequently ambush his party when they entered the dense forests. Little did he know that the Yamana indians actually relied upon the primeval fire to provide them with warmth in these sub-antarctic lands, and that they would even carry a lighted fire abroad their canoes when they were hunting and fishing, as they often wore very little or no clothing.

Chile, Southern Patagonia, Torres Del Paine National Park. Panoramic view of the Grey Glacier.

Vast glaciers and dense, highland forests thankfully still cover this jagged, mountainous landscape and offer numerous opportunities for the modern day explorer to get off the beaten track. Some of the more accessible hikes begin near Ushuaia, the self proclaimed southernmost city in the world and the international gateway for Antarctica expeditions. My own experiences of hiking in the great Lenga forests of the nearby Tierra Del Fuego National Park were to empower me with a huge respect for the Patagonian wildlife.

After a hard day of exploring the varied landscape of the park on foot, we had pitched our tent in a suitable patch of woodland near the Beagle channel. As the day light quickly began to fade and the transition to dusk began, I noticed a pair of eyes staring at our campsite from deep within the woodland. As the creature began to approach us, I caught my first sighting of a Patagonian Grey fox wearing a fur coat so dense that it almost made it look like the size of a wolf. This majestic wild animal took a few minutes to confirm if we were a threat (or a potential food source) before finally deciding to walk away in the opposite direction. We were privileged to have been accepted into the creatures domain although we were probably never trusted.

The ownership of Tierra del Fuego is divided between two countries – Argentina and Chile. This is a pattern that is repeated along the length of the Patagonia region, with the imposing peaks of the Andes forming the natural boundary between the two. The climate of the region changes dramatically with the rain shadow effect of the worlds longest mountain range. Southern Chile to the west has a wet, temperate weather system which has led to a lush green environment not unlike New Zealand which also formed part of the ancient subcontinent Gondwanaland. However, the majority of the Patagonia region is located within Argentina and is a sun drenched, inhospitable landscape.

Chile, Southern Patagonia, Torres Del Paine National Park. Storm clouds retreat to reveal the dramatic mountain peaks of the Torres Del Paine National Park viewed from the ‘Circuit’ track.

There is a significant exception to the typically encountered land-forms to be found within Southern Patagonia. Straddling and engulfing the lofty peaks of the Andes with only the occasional peaks breaking through the blanket of ice, the Southern Patagonia Ice-field is the largest region of glaciers to be found, outside of Antarctica, within the southern hemisphere. Covering an amazing 13,000 square kilometers (5,020 square miles) it actually once covered an area nearly 40 times bigger. The legacy of this retreating sheet of ice has been the scouring of the landscape, forming the majestic fjords to be found along the coast of Chile. As the ice cap continues to retreat, it in turns reveals a fresh landscape that has not witnessed the light of day for over 10,000 years.

However, it is not just the patagonian ice field that has made its mark on the landscapes of southern Patagonia. The effects of glaciation, combined with the subduction of the Nazca plate underneath the South American plate has resulted in an uplift that has created what has to be considered some of the most dramatic mountain scenery to be found anywhere in the world. Without a doubt, one of the best ways to experience these land-forms is on foot. It was whilst I was hiking the circuit track of the Torres del Painne National Park in Chile that I got to view both of these unique landscapes in close proximity. After a particularly arduous climb over a mountain pass encountered mid way through the eight day hike circling the national park, battling yet again with the infamous Patagonian wind, I finally managed to reach the summit of the pass and was immediately rewarded with a birds eye view of the Southern Patagonia Ice-field – an immense sea of ice blanketing the landscape for as far as the eye could see.

The hike continued for nearly two days alongside this relatively small stretch of the ice-field offering an vantage point that was essential to realize the full extent of its size. Briefly after the route began to leave the glacier and started to head inland, I was yet again to see a landscape that left me speechless. The convoluted, granite horns of the Cuernos del Paine dominated the gently, undulating land-mass that surrounded the mountain range. Far in the distance I could briefly make out the towering pillars of the Torres piercing the clouds that seemed to eternally shroud the peaks.

Argentina, Patagonia, Los Glaciares National Park. Storm clouds clear from the peak of the Fitz Roy and surrounding mountains.

In Argentina, the pillars of the Fitzroy range are strikingly similar to the Torres del Paine. Located within the northern boundary of the Los Glaciers National Park it is not surprising that this offers good hiking opportunities. However here the weather is particularly fickle even by Patagonia standards, which in the past led to Mount Fitzroy being considered the most difficult mountain to climb in the world. The reality of visiting the region is that unless you are very lucky you will be greeted by rain and winds. If you are fortunate, the weather may clear just long enough for you to see the infamous peak.

Life and death are never very far apart for the inhabitants of Patagonia. As Guanacos graze on the hardy grasses and shrubs managing to cling for survival on the wind scoured Patagonian steppes, they maintain the vigil of keeping their senses aware to the possible presence of predators, in particularly the Puma or mountain lion. High in the sky, the enigmatic Andean Condor can often be seen waiting for its next meal to lose its fight for life in this unrelenting landscape. This vulture, alongside the other carrion eaters to be found in Patagonia, feeds entirely upon the dead of the land. There is no need for this majestic bird with a wingspan of over 2.5 meters to hunt – all that is required is patience.

As the Condor flies, the Andes heading north continue to craft and manipulate the landscape as they start to reach almost epic elevations. To the east of the range, travel by road through the Patagonian steppe is an arduous affair but perhaps the only true way to appreciate this land of vast, far horizons with little signs of human habitation apart from the occasional homestead. On the western side in Chile, the temperate rain-forest engulfs the foothills of the Andes and the almost perpetual rain continues to flood and wash away the basic road infrastructure. This is a landscape thriving with life, a complete contrast to the dry Patagonia of the west.

Then in an almost surreal transformation, a new world is reached. The barren steppe gives way to pockets of ancient woodland scattered between azure colored lakes. Dry, dusty soil is transformed into a fertile land perfect for farming and human habitation. Stereo typical Volcanoes start to pierce the Patagonian sky, dominating the landscape and constantly threatening to reclaim the land. As the lakes grow larger and the forests more dense with new and ancient growth, you are submerged in an environment so alive that you soon begin to forget the Patagonia of the south. These wild lands are far more conductive to the neutering of life.

Argentina, The Lake District, Parque Nacional Lanin. Lanin volcanoe, an ice-clad, cone-shaped stratovolcano on the border of Argentina and Chile.

The Lake District region of northern Patagonia combines these areas of Argentina and Chile to create a lush, fertile environment of semi wilderness that offers a number of delights to the visitor. With an influx of tourists, a new improved infra structure of travel is unveiled to allow easy exploration. Navagation between the two countries in possible entirely by regular boat sailings within the lakes. The brave explorer may even hike in the ancient woodlands between the two official entry points of the countries, proof that this landscape is so vast that even mankind has not felt the urge to tame it.

I have fond memories of bush camping within the Nahuel Huapi National Park in Argentina. Far from the madderning crowd, the bright constallitions of the southern night sky provided hours of natural entertainment. An added bonus was the appearance of a comet that dominated the vast and open skies for a number of nights, with only the call of the Great Horned Owl diverting our attention. Here, so far from civiliaisation, our thoughts ran wild with the possible viewing of Pumas hunting in their natural environment although we had to make do with a safer encounter with an Armadillo hiding in the dense bush. We spent a number of nights in this environment with no phones, radios or other trappings of day to day life.

Travel in Patagonia dictates that you are flexible with your plans and that you allow for the unexpected to happen. Perhaps the most overwhealming sensation for the traveller is that you are visiting a land at the mercy of the forces of nature. The harsh extremes of the fickle weather ensures that human habitation is limited to certain regions and that human passage over this wild land is confined to a handfull of routes. Snow and gale force winds are common even during the summer months, ensuring that preperation and foresight are an essential commodity for even the briefest of trips into the great wild open. The circling Condor high in the open sky is a constant reminder that death is never far away in Patagonia.

Despite the harshness of this region, Patagonia is undeniably a gem of the world. Yes, it does require determination on the part of the visitor to gain the most from the region and life is by no means easy for its habitants. But, when you do finally take the last step to the tip of the ridge and actually manage to look at the crystal clear waters of the azure coloured glacial lake you realise that the struggle to reach the top was esential to appreciate the wild grandeur of the place. Whilst struggle may be an essential part of everyday life in Patagonia, it is by no means a negative sensation. Indeed, it may be the very reason that Patagonia is so enduring in the fond memories of the visitor.

Chile, Southern Patagonia, Torres Del Paine National Park. Late afternoon light illuminates the peaks of the Cuernos del Paine.

This essay originally appeared in the English version of ‘Patagonia – Nature’s Last Frontier’, a book featuring the wonderful photography of Marcos Zimmerman. I was honoured to have been commissioned by the English publisher to write the forward based upon my own experiences.

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