How to Photograph the Australian Bush (Part 1)

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Messy. Chaotic. Dark.

If you were to ask someone on the street to describe the Australian bush, chances are those words would come up. (And not without reason.)

The bush is well known for its inflexible nature. Monotonous expanses of brush stretching to the horizon. The dry leaf litter crunches underfoot. And gum tree after gum tree after gum tree.

However, when you venture a little further and spend time immersed in the landscape, there is another aspect waiting to be appreciated and documented through photography.

A side rich in stories. Which transforms from brittle to burnt to beyond beautiful. It’s brimming with variety, dispelling the myth of monotony that misleads many first impressions of the bush.

Because when you look beyond the first glance, there’s so much more waiting to be seen. And as photographers, it’s up to us to notice, capture and share that beauty for others to experience as well. Here’s how you can do just that.

Last light in the Grampians. Keeping the angle of the setting sun in mind, I waited until the hill in the background was in shadow, which helped isolate the striking rock formations in the middle of the terrain. Sony A7R III, 100-400mm f/5-6.3 lens at 187mm. 1/40s @ f13, ISO 500.

From distraction to attraction

For a long time I did not photograph the bush. In fact, I was actively avoiding it. Growing up on the coast, I became attached to seascapes. I would center each scene around sunrise, where the clouds were the main attraction, making or destroying the scene.

At best, the bush contained other remarkable features like a striking waterfall, lush river, or scenic view.

At worst, it was a nuisance, crowding around and distracting from otherwise serene scenes. It was a hurdle to jump on my way to a better vantage point.

Yet after moving to Victoria four years ago, my bias against the bush began to fade. With fewer world-class seascapes on my doorstep, I looked for photographic inspiration elsewhere. Eager to explore the natural landscapes around me, I was drawn to the expanses of mountain ash that dominate the Yarra Ranges. Then the lush forests of the Otways. And the exposed granite peaks of the Grampians.

Flowering grasses after severe fires in the Blue Mountains.  Not only did the mist help simplify the scene, it also brought in a cool color cast tied to the vibrant greens and soft yellows of the flowers.  Sony A7R III, 24-70mm f/2.8 31mm lens.  1/15s @ f4, ISO 160.
Flowering grasses after severe fires in the Blue Mountains. Not only did the mist help simplify the scene, it also brought in a cool color cast tied to the vibrant greens and soft yellows of the flowers. Sony A7R III, 24-70mm f/2.8 31mm lens. 1/15s @ f4, ISO 160.

Addicted to the beauty of the bush, I wanted more. So I undertook hikes just to explore it. Not as an obstacle to overcome, but as a destination in itself. These hikes opened my eyes to the wide variety of scenes on offer. They shattered my assumptions about what “the bush” was and could be.

Where to start? What to photograph?

So you want to give the bush a chance. You have chosen a hike. But what should you be looking for and pointing your camera at? Here’s my advice: when you walk into a scene but find it too distracting, focus on the details. The wider bush might be too busy. Dead branches. Distracting elements. Or a lack of balance.

So start by simply exploring the smallest elements. And approach the scene with an inquisitive mind. You might ask yourself:

  • Are there patterns in the gnarled trunks? Swirls, lines and textures?
  • Is the bark flaking off in strips or revealing fresh colors underneath?
  • Are there wildflowers around or ferns with fresh growth?
  • Could a shallow depth of field help isolate these elements?
  • Can you alter your elevation to pull up and down on growth patterns?
  • Stepping back, could you switch to a telephoto lens and use tree trunks as window frames, bringing order to the more chaotic scene inside?

Often the bush can be overwhelming at first sight. But as landscape photographers, that’s the challenge we face every time we go out to shoot new, complex scenes. This is the problem we need to solve to capture art – not just snapshots.

It’s worth pointing out that if you focus on capturing detail, not all images will be wallet-worthy.

The goal is not to produce perfection in every frame. But to experiment. To try new angles and new details. To see what works and what doesn’t. And then refine that particular composition until it’s as good as it gets. Not all hikes will result in epic shots. But if you dismiss the scene with a critical eye before you even start, you’re not going to capture anything at all.

Mid-morning on a fire trail in the Yarra Ranges.  The relatively sharp foreground of tree ferns grounded the composition and brought order to this bustling scene.  Sony A7R III, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 52mm.  1/25s @ f8, ISO 320
Mid-morning on a fire trail in the Yarra Ranges. The relatively sharp foreground of tree ferns grounded the composition and brought order to this bustling scene. Sony A7R III, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 52mm. 1/25s @ f8, ISO 320

Good time, good light

Once you’ve started developing your eye for what scenes work, it’s time to start all over again. To come back at 6am. Or hike again in late spring when the wildflowers come out of their slumber. Because you will rarely switch to a new place and take the best picture possible.

Instead, give yourself time to navigate the different trails and angles. And then step back into the pre-dawn glow or once the fog has settled in, helping to clean up background elements and better direct attention to your subject.

A calm and quiet morning in the Black Spur, Victoria.  After following the recent rains and cool mornings, I headed to the Yarra Ranges in search of fog.  The shifting fog helped clean up the background trunks while the side light added depth and layers across the scene.  Sony A7R III, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens at 102mm.  1/8s @ f16, ISO 200.
A calm and quiet morning in the Black Spur, Victoria. After following the recent rains and cool mornings, I headed to the Yarra Ranges in search of fog. The shifting fog helped clean up the background trunks while the side light added depth and layers across the scene. Sony A7R III, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens at 102mm. 1/8s @ f16, ISO 200.

And depending on the type of bush you’re in, surrounding light can be as variable as other, more exposed landscapes.

Sometimes direct sunlight can reflect and scatter off a nearby rocky shelf. Or a sky full of wispy clouds can produce softer sidelight. Or an exposed hill could be ablaze with a red glow for a few fleeting minutes after daybreak.

Once you find the perfect tree, come back again and again. And invest the time to create the best image possible to showcase the scene in all its glory.

About the Author: Mitch Green is a Melbourne-based travel and landscape photographer. He can be found via his website, via Instagram, or on the beach at 5 a.m. waiting for the sunrise.


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