Firstly excuses for not posting more often, I suppose the ‘doing’ often takes precedent over the talking or teaching about. For this post I thought I would cover more about the pre-planning or visualisation and then at the other end of the spectrum, thinking on your feet when on a ‘time limited’ shoot. Firstly though to set the scene, one of my shots from Mungo National Park a few weeks ago using my trusty Canon 5D3 and even trustier 17mm TSE lens.
This was my 3rd trip to the area, the other two being in 2007. The first trip I only had time to go in the daytime, which is lesson one with this amazing area, avoid midday light altogether, you have to do the golden hours. My second trip I did the right thing and stayed a couple of nights camping. But it was mid summer, extremely hot and conditions were just not right – very few clouds and uncomfortable to be in the exposed areas, even at night – combined with limited supplies, water and food ran out quickly. Oh and the flies! So I had decided it had to be early winter or late autumn (post easter in Australia), stay at least 3 nights and make sure I had enough supplies. Firstly some background. Mungo Lake is part of Mungo National Park which is itself part of the Willandra Lakes system, a series of interconnecting, dry ancient lake beds that contain a lot of ancient history and strange timeless formations. This website (Visit Mungo) has a good deal of information and I quote:
You have arrived at one of the world’s very special places. Aboriginal people have walked here at Mungo in the footsteps of their ancestors since the Dreamtime. Scientists have discovered artefacts of this ancient culture dating back over 50,000 years across the expanses of the last ice age. This makes Mungo one of the oldest places outside of Africa to have been occupied by modern humans since ancient times. Here you can explore the remarkable story of how a culture was able to stay strong and care for Country in the face of extreme climate change, change that dried up the lakes that were the lifeblood of the region.
Walking around by yourself or with a friend in the early dawn hours or very late just after sundown you can sense this ‘dreamtimeness’. The sort of desolation I get in Death Valley areas in the US or in the deserts of Kazakstan, but here you can almost feel the ghosts of 50 000 year old ancient people wandering the sands and the Lunettes (the name given to the large crescent shaped formations left by the receding waters). To be honest, in the middle of the day and from a distance (more on that later) it can appear to the uninitiated as a kind of building site, a bit like Zabriske Point in Death Valley, mounds of grey sandy stuff, uninviting and without form. You need to get up close and personal, and if like many you cannot get onto the rocks of the Wall of China (see maps on website link) you can still take fantastic images on the open areas such as on the eastern shore near to the campsite – the below example taken at dawn for example. A low camera angle, long exposure with GND soft 3 stop on the top.
A quick overview about how to get to the area. All times I have been here en-route to somewhere else. This last time Mungo was a great half way (almost) stopover on the way to Adelaide from the Blue Mountains. It is about a 12 hour drive from Sydney, so careful planning required in winter as you don’t want to drive the last 2 hours on 4WD dirt roads in the dark. The dirt roads are not too bad and a good modern non 4WD will be fine, but the real danger is animals running out or simply having a mechanical failure. I sadly hit an Emu who darted out from my left on this trip but it was close to the visitor centre area, but beware. The facilities at the main visitor centre of the park are sparse, so unless you are staying in the lodge or near a water source, you need to bring everything with you. The information centre is OK and staffed in the day, but you are on your own at night. Costs are low, $14 for a car to say in the area and $5 each person to camp. The lodges are between $60-$300 a night.
Having been here before I knew what I wanted. A fantastic, cloudy sunset and lots of angles on the main rocks at the Wall of China and to have a sense of a timeless ‘event’ – by that I mean something that feels primeval, prehistoric, could have been taken a million years ago. OK this time round there were also meteor showers at night and I found some open dried lake channels in other areas, but the lunettes on the ‘Walls’ and an amazing sky was to be my goal and focus. Arriving late on the first afternoon, we camped and then bolted down to the Walls lookout. I was shocked though, you were not allowed on the rocks anymore!
A sign said stay on the walkway or only with a guide (or tour company). The viewing platform was about 100m from the rocks, which just looked liked bumps in the hillside from this distance. I knew I should have sorted something out earlier. So a night of ‘ah well’ was followed by a morning of how to fix this, especially as I had checked the weather conditions for this particular day and knew something special, sunset and cloud wise, was in the air.
I had read that permission can be granted if you specifically ask for it from the parks office. So I strolled into the visitor centre and confidently said ‘I would like permission to go on the Walls of China for sunset this evening, from 5pm to 7pm. Thanks’. Not quite as easy as this though. I was asked to call someone at head office, who would then send a permission email to the centre, who would then have to escort me onto the rocks at said time. So. Quick call, on the only pay phone in the area, I mentioned I share a lot of my images on the NSW Parks Facebook page and really came all this way to take sunset images. He said he would call the rangers. A few moments later the lovely lady Tanya (the centre was run by Aboriginal ladies) said she would see me at 5pm. Sorted. But I felt sorry for all the other photographers who must travel there and be very disappointed? Or do they all ask?
THINKING ON YOUR FEET
I met Tanya (the head ranger) at the walkway and as she started to take me through the gate a few other photographers hanging around said ‘can we come too’ – sure she said. Bugger. OK now I had 6 plus other togs to shoot ‘around’ and keep out of my shots. The 2nd time I came here midweek and in summer, I had the place to myself. This would be another challenge. For now, you have 90 minutes or so, a thousand different angles, a hundred rocks and channels, one main direction to shoot, but away from the sun also some shots also look amazing as the lunettes start to glow red. Oh and then there are the textures which as you can see above look fantastic in Black and White. It felt like one of those time precious events which, a photographer has to shoot quickly, you have one go, no repeats, bit like a wedding, a news event such as a protest march (I did some photo journalism in my days in London), you have to switch into a ‘controlled desperation’ mode, just shoot quickly and confidently, making sure all the technical issues are background and pre-sorted.
So. I went handheld, no time for quick tripod shooting. This meant floating around with my 17mm TSE to get wide angle coverage with my Wonderpana system holder on complete with a 3 stop soft grad on the top. Every shot would include sky and need controlling. Also I would annoyingly, as off tripod, have to up my ISO. I can live with 640 or 800, a little noise but I have no option if I was to use decent f8-16 apertures, oh and as my lens is manual focus, every shot would be quickly re-focused, hyperfocally. Right ready. The first part of the sunset was as usual bright and relatively cloud less looking away from the sun. But it gave me time to move away from the small fragmenting group of togs and into the farther lunettes, check out some viewpoints and channels for later, basically a 30-40 minute reccy. Shooting with the sun on my back most of the time as the pinnacles gradually warmed up, but all the time making a mental note of the reverse shots. I would effectively reverse my route as the sun got into position. Some of these early shots came out OK.
Then something amazing happened. The sun dropped and the sky just ‘went off’. I mean really went off – the rangers I spoke to later said that is probably the best sunset they had seen in years! I knew something special was happening when I turned at the end of one of the channels I was exploring and saw these amazing formations evolving on the horizon. This shot shows the clouds forming as the sun was about to set. Oh and spot the photographer in shot!
I positioned the sun behind monoliths at first as I knew the dynamic range was way too much for my set=up and the direct sun would be blown out. But things got even better and I was able in the last 45 minutes to find all the spots I had been making mental notes of. This pathway and gully for instance I knew would look great with a lovely sunset swirl behind.
At the time I was looking out for footprints and glad there were relatively few on the ground – one of the few benefits of making access limited now, the wind has time to cover up a few tracks. On my first walk around I was carefully not leaving foot marks (even went barefoot on a few occasions) by keeping to the edges and not the soft sand – sadly a couple of photographers followed me and just walked straight down the middle of some of the channels, you can see their footprints here.
Notice how the sky on the 170 degree view goes from the Blues/Pinks on the left to the Yellow/Oranges on the right – a tricky blend. All the time I am still thinking of my goal of that ‘event from a time before time’ and kept shooting, almost on auto pilot, framing in the eyepiece vs the live view on the LCD screen (which is my preferred option on tripod of course). These next two shots below, capture a few key elements all coming together at once, the ‘lost in a channel’, a dramatic event sky and those wonderful textures frozen in time.
I was very lucky. Things came together and the sunset was spectacular. I had plenty of other images of star fields and some great dawn images from different parts of the stay here, but this was a one off event. Things could not have worked out better. I took over 300 images in that short time on the Walls and I am still finding great compositions when I browse through Lightroom, my catalogue and increasingly my main processing software. I suspect I will go back sometime in the near future and explore some more distant areas of the Walls if I can as the area near the walkway is well photographed, but I did well.
Also visit my Flickr album of this shoot here
Not many photographers get these conditions and I feel blessed that it worked out. A mix of persistence to get access and then responding to the conditions, there was not a lot more I could have done. Perhaps a few long exposure tripod shots, but that would have eaten into the process I was in at that moment. I think my next trip will be a lot less rushed with permission sought way in advance, but then of course the sky and light may not work out. This is what makes photography exciting but also something that requires real dedication – perhaps even a willingness, a law of attraction, willing things to happen and they often do.
APPENDIX: Since this post I have been back to Mungo a couple of times. The last time I got permission from NPWS to do an aerial shoot over a sunset and sunrise in Feb 2019, a rare opportunity. Here is the result…