This week, I returned to the place where I captured my first landscape photographs. It was more than eight years ago when I took some handheld snaps with a borrowed D-SLR of Australia’s most famous and distinctive peak, Cradle Mountain in Tasmania at sunset. The next morning, I drove to Dove Lake to watch the sunrise. The conditions were perfect and I was rewarded for my early start with a crystal clear reflection of the mountain and some cirrus clouds streaking across the sky.
The other notable part of the overnight stay was that there were three Japanese photographers also shooting sunset and sunrise. I was impressed that the trio seemed to know what they doing, all of their movements conveying a sense of purpose and confidence. And they seemed very professional in that all were using tripods. I was even more impressed by the fact that their tripod legs were sometimes submerged in the water.
Fast forward to 2009 and I found myself at the lake again, on this occasion timed to capture the autumn colours of the fagus (deciduous beech). It was the most beautiful of all the sunrises I had witnessed here, the low lying layer of mist, a completely still lake surface and some intensely pink clouds combining to produce a photograph which I still count among my favourites. I was completely satisfied by my version of this Australian icon and years passed without any desire to return to better this effort.
In recent years, photographing the night sky, especially those with phenomena such as the Milky Way, shooting stars and aurora have become very popular. Unfortunately many of these images merely document the sky without a compelling earth-bound subject. I’ve thought of a few possibilities which would juxtapose distinctive silhouettes against a galaxy-packed sky : Tre Cime in Italy, Cape Woolamai on Phillip Island, the Twelve Apostles and Cradle Mountain. Thus began a dream of photographing Cradle Mountain with the Milky Way and a coloured night sky.
I decided to dedicate myself a period of several months in Tasmania to realise this vision with the side project of exploring the northwest coast. Last weekend I made my first foray to the mountain. I had originally planned on a trip to shoot seascapes on the tip of the west coast but changed my mind at the last minute. The cloudless skies and windless conditions bode well for a starry night and good reflections in Dove Lake.
Without a single cloud in the sky, sunset was nothing spectacular, but I managed to put together a new and original view of Cradle Mountain. I was very pleased with this as it is the most photographed peak in the country. The blue hour period was very soothing; I was alone at the lake and enjoyed the solitude. The few frames made during this time, with the stars starting to appear, captured the mood well.
With no moon, the stars glittered to their full potential against the inky blackness of the sky. After a few 30 second frames for stationary stars, I commenced a startrail exposure aiming for 60-90 minutes. Yes I still do these old school – a single continuous exposure. Some people unfortunately turned up at the lake around midnight so I stopped it after half an hour before their torches ruined the shot. I returned to my SUV and watched the first half of Les Miserables on my laptop until everyone had cleared off from the lake.
I considered trying to get some sleep but I was also itching to get back out to try a longer star trail exposure. I shot several frames of 30 seconds for the stationary stars and the Milky Way before commencing a 64 minute exposure. Since I had engaged the in-camera noise reduction function on my Canon 5DMkIII, it was over two hours before I was able to download and check the RAW files. Once I brought the exposure levels up on the MacBook Air screen I was surprised to find Cradle Mountain backlit by a distinctively greenish canvas accompanied by some patches of red too. I looked back towards the lake and after several minutes could now make out a very faint green glow. Not aurora activity but a phenomenon known as airglow. After processing the images in the early hours of that morning, I realised that my vision had become reality. It’s a romantic notion but I liked that this mountain has been a dominant presence throughout my photographic journey thus far.