Photographing the Outback (Part 1)

By Paula Heelan | March 1, 2022

Photojournalist Paula Heelan has been photographing the Australian outback for more than two decades. Her work captures the daily lives of people living and working in remote cities and train stations; the grandeur and unforgiving nature of landscapes and weather, and wild and farm animals.

Here are their tips to help you make the most of your next outback adventure.

With international travel severely curtailed by the arrival of COVID-19, the outback has been at an all-time high for Australian photographers.

And while you can travel tens of thousands of miles to explore the outback, you never have to travel too far to discover a kaleidoscope of colour, texture and light, spectacular views, unique wildlife and wonderfully photogenic local characters.

Muster at Gamarren Station, Widgeegoara QLD.

1) Plan your trip

While it’s important to plan your trip around the destinations and events you plan to visit, make sure you allow enough time for unexpected photo opportunities. If you pass a cattle march, an approaching storm, or a particularly photogenic abandoned farmhouse – your itinerary should allow enough flexibility to stop and take photos. Or return the next day.

Make sure the roads are open, dry, and safe by checking websites listing road conditions and closures — or by making a few calls. The landscapes vary significantly between the dry and rainy seasons.

This passing storm was coming from behind a cyclone and knowing it was going to be dramatic light and sky I walked down a long dirt track and took the dog to add some extra appeal to the shot.  Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm.  1/200s @ f4, ISO 125.
This passing storm was coming from behind a cyclone and knowing it was going to be dramatic light and sky I walked down a long dirt track and took the dog to add some extra appeal to the shot. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm. 1/200s @ f4, ISO 125.

When the wet hits, the dusty, parched land turns a rich emerald green and the outback springs to life. Gangs of birds return screeching and screeching, and there are explosions of insects and wildlife. Dams, streams, waterholes and rivers spill over and the dust settles.

You might want to book a station or farm for easy access to everything that’s going on at a property.

2) Local events

Time your visit with a festival, camp draft, rodeo, country race or agricultural show and your pictures will be better for it. Check tourism websites and social media to see what’s going on in transit. Most events take place in the cooler, drier months, so this is generally the best time to visit.

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

The local show is usually a big event for the town and surrounding communities. Proud of their well-trained animals, home-grown produce, handmade crafts and bush lifestyle, most people are only too happy to pose for a photograph. Look for interesting environmental portraits and action shots from some bush sporting events.

land race
land race
bearing designs

Men, women and children from remote cattle stations follow the Winter Campdraft Circuit and compete against each other as often as they can. Again, the best images can be captured early in the morning (the competition starts at 6am) or late in the afternoon – perfect for that great mix of dust, fading sun and cowboy action. Ask a camp artist how the sport works and a whole new world will be revealed.

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

Country Race Day has become the new B&S meeting point for many young people. It’s a rare opportunity to dress up and mingle. With a great mix of colour, characters and action, the photo opportunities range from fun and fashion in the field, horses hurtling across dusty tracks, trainers preparing their horses in rustic stables and jockeys hanging around between races.

Ask permission to enter the jockeys’ sanctuary – they generally enjoy the attention and are happy to be photographed. Look for unusual shooting angles around the racetrack and try something different for each race – find a high spot or lie flat near the finish line to catch horses crossing the finish line.

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

Full of color and action, rodeos are amazing places to explore with a camera. Chat with attendees and ask permission to take behind-the-scenes photos. Ask them to explain the skills and rules of the sport, where you stand for safety, and what action shots to watch out for.

A shutter speed of 1/1000s or faster should freeze the image without blur and capture flying debris sharply. A photo of a rider being thrown off a horse may excite your social media audience, but rodeo fans and riders are looking for pictures of experienced riders controlling their rides.

Cockatoos in pink, afternoon light - a common sight in the outback.  Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Ex lens at 200mm.  1/320s @f4, ISO 400.
Cockatoos in pink, afternoon light – a common sight in the outback. Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Ex lens at 200mm. 1/320s @f4, ISO 400.

Capture quiet moments in the courtyards, portraits of cowboys, rodeo clowns, close-ups of saddles, chaps, spurs, belts, reins and boots – the possibilities are endless. With practice, you’ll find your preferred speed for action shots. Many rodeos last into the night, so you’ll need to increase the ISO to keep the shutter speed high.

3) people and portraits

Photographing people in the outback is my favorite type of photography. Wherever you go, you will almost certainly encounter warm, friendly characters. Take the time to chat and you’ll find that most people love to be photographed. I find that offering to email them a photo later is a great way to build trust.

Another fantastic outback character is Steve Beetson who is part of the Uluru Camel Tours team.  His red shirt and fabulous smile that caught the eye made for a fail-safe portrait.  Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX lens at 112mm.  1/50s at f2.8, ISO 125.
Another fantastic Outback character is Steve Beetson, who is part of the Uluru Camel Tours team. His red shirt and fabulous smile that caught the eye made for a fail-safe portrait. Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX lens at 112mm. 1/50s at f2.8, ISO 125.

Some shoots can be planned, but I find most are random and unexpected. Make sure the lighting is even and frame the image to avoid distractions. Simple backgrounds often work best, but sometimes you can shift the subject or yourself in ways that allow you to incorporate background elements that tell you more about who the subject is and what they’re doing.

Don’t always shoot straight, a three-quarter angle can be more interesting. Try to keep things relaxed and simple as much as possible.

Keep an eye out for part two next week.

About the author: Photojournalist and author Paula Heelan lives on a small farm in South East Queensland where she focuses on life in rural and remote Australia. Visit paulaheelan.com for more information.

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