Australia's Great Ocean Road | Snapshot | Through My Lens

Friday, April 24, 2015

In 2014 I set out to shoot the entire Australian National MTB Series, without the support of clients, in a bid to gain experience and create contacts for my future work. The first round of the year was the hardest to get to - Eagle MTB Park, just outside of Adelaide - some 1600km from my home in Sydney. I can't say if it was the adventure or the bikes that drew me more, but I made the commitment to take the trip and that was it. I figured a road trip is a road trip, and I had better make the most of it.
On the return leg of the trip I decided to take the iconic drive between Warnambool and the surfing town of Torquay. I still made the trip from Adelaide to Sydney in two days, which made it a fairly tight schedule, however it was a good chance to get some unique photos, and tick something off the bucket list. 

At the time I was freshly inspired to shoot with High Dynamic Range (HDR) - which is the combination of multiple photos, exposed differently to show detail in shadow, without losing definition the brightest parts of the image. I'll explain a little more about that later.

Thunder Cave, one of the lesser known cave formations that make up Victoria's Limestone Coastline
The Great Ocean road can be done easily in a day, at a nice leisurely pace, allowing time to stop at each of the attractions such including Thunder Cave, The [fallen] Arch, London Bridge and of course the 12 Apostles. You could be mistaken for thinking the 12 Apostles were the only attractions to be found on the Great Ocean Road before you arrive, given how popular and advertised they are - but there is far more to be seen; the way the sea and wind shape the coast is pretty amazing.

Being a touristy area there is also plenty of places to stay and experience the coast without driving - from restaurants to scenic helicopter flights there is so much to see and do.

The Grotto - like a portal to the ocean - I wouldn't like to be down here on a day with rough seas
Of course while on my trip I saw what is left of the 12 Apostles - at the time just 7 were standing, which doesn't seem too unreasonable given that the entire coast erodes under the conditions - it's impressive that these massive pylons of limestone are standing at all.\

As I had just one day (one afternoon, actually) to shoot the Great Ocean Road, I had no choice of conditions or light. An overcast day meant that photographic interest would come not from light, but from composition of the image and representation of the location - by using HDR photography it was possible to highlight the textures in the rock, and save the sky from blowing out to a pure white. Overcast days lend themselves to moody photography, borne in texture and shadow.

HDR: What is it and how do I do it?

High-Dynamic-Range photography involves widening the tonal range (from shadows to highlights) within an image, by combining two or more exposures. I usually take 3 or 5. By doing so, the image can more successfully represent what we see with our own eyes - which is 3-4 times more than what a single exposure can - this is because when we look at a scene we appreciate features one at a time, whereas a camera sensor must capture the whole scene at once.

This is a pretty complex idea, though HDR essentially means that as a photographer I don't need to compromise on what detail is available in an image, and can produce shots that can reveal more detail, and allow the viewer (you) to experience the scene a little closer to how I did whilst taking it.

The way I shoot HDR is one of the simplest ways to do it, here's a quick guide:

1. Set up the shot as you would for any landscape, keeping in mind there's less need to worry about contrasting light. Take 3 exposures: one properly exposed and two, each 2 full stops lighter or darker than the first image respectively. Many cameras have built in exposure bracketing which does this.

2. For sunsets or when shooting into the sun, take another even darker image to capture the sky nicely - you'd be surprised how much contrast there can be between land and sky, or reflections of the sky.

3. Combine the images using software such as Photomatix. Both Photoshop & Lightroom (CC/LR6) have HDR composite options, though neither are as advanced or powerful as Photomatix. Trey Ratcliff ( has the best [free] HDR tutorials and support info on creating HDR that I've come across.

4. 'Finish' the image in Photoshop / Lightroom. I might come back to the shot several times before I deem it finished, or even start over if I envision a different mood to the shot. HDR photography is highly creative, and can create a really powerful scene - or totally ruin a shot.

There are several other ways to composite lighter and darker images of a scene to create a HDR photograph, using masks in photoshop and 'painting in' desired areas, it's really a question of personal taste and preference.

This is a HDR image of New Zealand's own limestone coastline - a place on the west coast of the South Island called Punakaiki or 'Pancake Rocks' where a group of blowholes make for a very nice walk out on the cliffs.

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