Is there any location more iconically Australian than the Outback? And is there any location in the Outback more iconic than Uluru?
It's a location which holds special resonance with me personally too. Not just because I visited it on a trip as a 6 month old baby - my memory is a little hazy of that trip - but because it's where my Father and I travelled to back in mid 2013. A trip which unearthed my current passion for photography, albeit with an iPhone at the time. Which, made me even more eager to return mid 2017, this time with a dedicated camera in hand.
I was keen to see how much my appreciation for lighting and composition had changed since then, and produce this guide for fellow photographers wishing to capture The Rock.
Before You Shoot
Uluru is almost smack bang in the middle of Australia and with that comes absolute remoteness. It’s a six hour drive from the nearest major town of Alice Springs. Luckily, the small community of Yulara just outside the national park is well equipped with a grocery store, petrol station, resort apartments and a camp ground. We spent three nights at the camp ground and while it’s nothing flash, it was more than fine for our needs.
To enter the National Park, you will need to purchase a permit at the gate on the drive in (valid for 72 hours). If you are carrying out commercial photography, be sure to obtain a permit (link here). While there is a shuttle bus service to take people around the park, I would highly recommend either driving yourself or hiring a car to allow for more flexibility on timings and locations.
You would do well to remember that Uluru remains an important cultural and spiritual location for the Indigenous people. Shooting Uluru from a distance is fine (just find a safe, legal place to pull over), however also be aware that as you walk around the base of the rock, there are marked culturally important areas where photography is prohibited.
Other than the obvious - a camera body - either a 16-35mm lens or a 24-70mm lens (or both) should suffice (I only used my telephoto lens once to capture the nearby formation of Kata Tjuta from a distance) as it is possible to drive right up to the base of the rock. I would also recommend bringing or hiring a fast lens (f/2.8 or lower) if you intend on shooting the stars over Uluru at night.
As always in landscape photography, a tripod is highly recommended to help bracket high dynamic range scenes on sunrise/sunset, or to help to help ensure close foreground elements remain crisp through focus stacking. Other accessories such as my ND filters, polarising filters and my remote shutter all stayed inside my bag the entire time.
Photography - and in particular, landscape photography - relies upon the understanding and manipulation of light on a scene or subject. The right light can transform a passing snapshot into a memorable photograph, and helps to create something unique from an iconic location time and time again.
The immediate variable which comes to mind here is the time of day. From a soft pre-dawn glow to the first rays of light bursting in over the flat horizon, the rock changes noticeably throughout the day. Harsh midday sun exaggerates the undulating surface, while soft moonlight seems to cause it to glow red even in the middle of the night (more on that later).
The key here is to visualise what particular shot you’re after. Is it a bold black silhouette of the rock against the rising sun? Or a vivid red rock illuminated by the last few rays of light of the day?
The other factor which, at first, may seem less obvious, is the time of year. We arrived in the midst of winter - a fresh -2°C at night - which meant the sun rose very much to the north east, and actually failed to shine directly onto the rock from the Sunrise Viewing Platform.
Time of year will impact astrophotography too. In particular, The Milky Way is best viewed over the rock in the winter months (May to August) and is hidden below the horizon through summer. Likewise, the moon cycle will influence the scene as well. A new (hidden) moon will produce a dark sky to best view The Milky Way, however it will not shine any light to illuminate either the foreground or Uluru.
Location + Composition
There may seem to be only a few ways to photograph a rock, but when you take into consideration the variable lighting, positioning and consideration of foreground elements, it’s still possible to walk away with photographs uniquely your own.
In terms of location, the two signposted sunset and sunrise viewing areas are the go-to locations for a reason - they’re located to face the rock as the low-lying sun illuminates it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still move around - I found the southern end of the Sunset area to provide an open, unobstructed view of Uluru, while right at the carpark of the sunrise viewing area was a well positioned dead tree framing the scene.
In terms of composition, the easy thing to do - along with all the other tourists - is to take a snapshot from within a 3m radius of where they park their car. However take the time to move around to find your ideal view of Uluru. Once satisfied with your view, look around the immediate area for foreground elements. There's continuing variety in the swaying grasses, gnarled sticks and the bold red dirt. Look to position yourself and the camera to best capture them too and tell the entire story of the scene within your photo.
If you have the time, take your camera with you on the circuit walk around the base of Uluru. Not only does the surface reveal intriguing textures and patterns, but the bold red sandstone acts as a dramatic backdrop against the grasses and trees growing around the base. Landscape photography - for the most part - focuses on sweeping grand vistas. Yet scenes up close (intimate landscapes) can capture the essence of scene just as well (if not better) than the all-encompassing wide angle shot.
Bonus: Astro + Aerial
While the best, or rather classic, light falls on the rock at sunrise and sunset, I urge you to capture the rock at night under the stars too. We visited in the depths of winter which meant the centre of The Milky Way (the cloudy looking part) rose directly over Uluru not long after nightfall from the sunset viewing area.
We also happened to arrive when the moon was at about ⅓ brightness. This meant there was enough ambient light in the night sky to illuminate the land, while still being dark enough not to overpower the stars above.
In terms of the technical side for astrophotography, I first scoped out and lined up my desired composition after sunset - cautious to keep the position of my tripod steady. About 50 minutes after sunset, I then took a series of photos (to focus stack from near to far) to capture the foreground illuminated by the last of the fading ambient light. My settings were f/2.5, ISO 2500 and 5 seconds (lucky for me, the daytime wind had died down at night, allowing for the long exposure of the grass reeds). Due to the wide aperture (and associated shallow depth of field) I captured 5 images of the same foreground composition, varying my focus point throughout the image, to focus stack later in post-processing. Once the sun had completely set, I took a second exposure for the night sky, with settings of f/2.5, ISO 3200 and 10 sec. As my tripod remained steady throughout the process, it was an easy blend in post-processing to then combine the exposures.
Another approach to photograph Uluru is from the air - via a scenic helicopter or plane flight. If you have the time and money, I'd advise you to choose the flight option which includes both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Our plane flight was with Ayers Rock Scenic Flights and cost $240pp - it’s no extra to fly at sunrise or sunset, which I'd highly recommend for the best light. We flew at sunrise (in the evening there's a chance of haze in the air after a hot day) and I had no issues with reflections shooting through the window when the sun was at my back.
Another factor to be mindful of from the air is the high speed of the moving plane - which means you will need a fast shutter speed to capture crisp shots of the land below. On sunrise, an aperture of f/4 and ISO 3200 allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of 1/800, and as the flight went on and the ambient light increased, I was able to bring down my ISO to a more reasonable 400 and an aperture of f/7.1.
Uluru is a uniquely Australian landmark, and its remoteness only adds to its grandiosity and imposing beauty. It's a pilgrimage I'd urge all Australians to make at some stage in their life and experience it for themselves.
While at first glance it may appear to be a simple well trodden image for photographers, there are undoubtedly opportunities to capture new and interesting images of the rock. The combinations in lighting, timing, location and composition all present an opportunity for fellow photographers to consider their own approach to each scene and hopefully walk away with an image just as unique as the rock itself.