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"Would you like Belinda naked tomorrow?" Nick asked while we were sitting around our bush lunch table. "It's not in the program but she's fine with the idea."
After some discussion, we decided against it on the basis that it would be out of context. Belinda Roedl is an international fashion model who had been flown from Germany to WA to serve as our photographic subject in the spectacular Kimberley scenery. Over the next few days she'd be in bush attire at a cattle muster, in a swimsuit in Emma Gorge swimming hole and rather inappropriately in a tutu by a roadside boab tree.
We were at Home Valley Station, at the Kununurra end of the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley on a five-day Leica Cameras' photographic workshop led by Leica ambassador Nick Rains. Nick is one of Australia's most highly-regarded landscape photographers and an exceptional photographic teacher. The tour was to expand our knowledge and to see the world differently.
For me, the conjunction of spectacular Kimberley scenery and legendary Leica lenses seems inevitable. I last stayed at Home Valley Station in the late 1980's when I was writing the Australian Geographic Book of the Kimberley. By chance, my photographer then, Robbi Newman, used Leica cameras – as had Nick Rains when he provided the cover image for a later edition of the book.
The tour had just seven participants plus a lot of expertise. Besides Nick, Darren Centofanti an Australian photographer based in India, had come to teach us about photographing people and Colin Perkovic was representing Leica Australia and had a four-wheel-drive filled with a mouth-watering array of very expensive cameras and lenses.
While Belinda was an excellent model, the Kimberley landscape of Home Valley Station was the highlight of the trip. On my first visit, I'd been impressed by the ramparts of the Cockburn Ranges, rising beyond the homestead and lit as if from within at sunset. The red rock and soil of the Kimberley and the crocs on the riverbank show that this really is a place where the outback meets the sea.
But, beyond the sandstone and the hospitality of our hosts, the station left few memories from the early visit. By contrast, this time we visited local gorges and waterholes, boabs and viewpoints – and took a helicopter flight along the nearby Pentecost River. I rediscovered the reward of staying in one place and digging deep, rather than skimming across all the highlights of a whole region.
I love photography, not so much the ever-changing technical world, but using training and emotion to capture a moment so that anyone who looks at my image experiences the same feeling I had when I pressed the shutter. There's also a lot to be said of a job where work is measured in thousands of a second. My whole working life as a photographer wouldn't add up to 15 minutes.
How does a dedicated photographic trip work? In many ways it's like a regular tour but, um, focused on coming home with the best possible images and a different way of seeing things. So that means if a fence would ruin the shot, you either cross the fence or go somewhere else. It's often said that you shouldn't see your entire holiday through a lens. But if that's your passion, it will be a holiday with long-term rewards.
The hours are both the drawback and delight of landscape photography. The best outdoor photography is created in the warm light of dawn and dusk, so it's not a career for party animals and it's useful if you can nap in the middle of the day. If you wish to take advantage of the clear night air to do some star photography, then you'll be sleep-deprived.
To be in position at first light, we would be up very early to drive or walk to the chosen location in the dark. In the middle of the day we'd have lectures that gave us remarkable insight into how a professional photographer works with Photoshop and Lightroom.
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of camera talk over meals. While it was a Leica tour, there was no issue if you wished to use another make of camera. However, the images captured by the Leica cameras and those remarkable Leica lenses were annoyingly superior. And I learned how Leica created the 35mm film camera in 1914 by turning cinema film sideways and thus significantly increasing the size of the negative image.
It was obvious that Nick had fully reconnoitred Home Valley Station (often referred to as HV8, its cattle brand) in advance. Even the initial selection of Home Valley itself was a good choice as this is a working cattle station owned by the indigenous Land Corporation on behalf of the Balanggarra people of the East Kimberley. The tourism sides of the operation are managed by Voyages, which also operates Ayers Rock Resort. So the accommodation and tours are well planned, yet we were staying on an active station with daily cattle movement.
Our first sunset was typical of our location shoots. We drove towards the Cockburn Range and then walked about a kilometre through the scrub to a lone boab tree framed against the background of the sunlit escarpment. As the sun was setting, the lighting became more dramatic every few seconds. We ended up staying well after dark, experimenting at "painting" boab photographs by flashlight and torch. The conversation over steaks at Home Valley's outdoor Dusty Bar & Grill that night was animated and ranged over technique and technology, cannily guided by our photographic leaders.
Pre-dawn we were walking to the Homestead Billabong to set up as the first line of light stained the eastern sky. Two of our number were keen fishermen and they provided great subjects in the early light. Nick moved among us, quietly suggesting a different perspective, a change of lens or perhaps some fill flash. After taking his advice the images were always better.
There were many memorable moments. A short helicopter flight over the Pentecost River with the doors off best captured the veins of the streams flowing into Cambridge Gulf. Stockmen rounding up cattle in the late afternoon provided iconic backlit outback images of red dust and action. Emma Gorge at nearby El Questro was the unlikely setting for a swimsuit shoot, while Aboriginal kids splashed nearby.
A jarring moment was photographing Belinda in an incongruous tulle tutu leaping in the air by a roadside boab while Darren supervised her and us. The technicalities were challenging as we had to synchronise a four-wheel-drive driving past to put some dust in the air – and she had to jump over and over again till it all came together. The photographers were unanimous that we wouldn't ever take a job as a fashion model in the very unlikely event that one was offered.
The seminar on the last day pulled together the group's best images and they were impressive. During our farewell dinner, I looked at the boisterous, animated group and thought of the friendships that had been forged over tripods and reflectors. Perhaps that is the most significant advantage of any photo tour: you may become friends with your photographic hero. Nick Rains had long been a byline I recognised (most recently for the cover of this month's Qantas magazine) but now he's a friend. That's quite a holiday souvenir.
How to choose a photo tour
- Pick a photographic leader whose style of work you wish to emulate or understand. You may love a photographer's work but it might be in a style you don't wish to do yourself. Their tours will reflect what they do so it might not develop your photography much. For example, Nick Rains in an expert in capturing a natural landscape while Peter Eastway is brilliant at working an image substantially in Photoshop. Some tours have several photographers to cover different aspects.
- If you want to improve your landscape photography don't pick a tour that will concentrate on "The Faces of Rajastan" for example. There's so much to learn in any given area of photography that the time is likely to be closely oriented to the topic, rather than photography in general.
- There's an advantage to taking a tour hosted by a camera brand that you use, or intend to use. While most pros have a working knowledge of most cameras, their understanding of the finer features will be for the cameras they use themselves. If it's a tour hosted by Leica, or Nikon or Canon, then it's likely you'll have the newest cameras, lenses and accessories to play with, too.
- Don't compromise: make the most of the chance to travel with your photographic hero. Go to his or her website and see if there's a link to future tours – there's probably will be. In the past few years I've travelled with Jonathan Scott (of Big Cat Diary fame), Freeman Patterson, Peter Eastway and Nick Rains, of course, and led a memorable Antarctic voyage with Art Wolfe, Frans Lanting, Tui du Roy and Daisy Gilardini all on board.
- Look beyond the photography and make sure you pick a tour to a destination you want to visit. Photographers travel a lot so you should be able to match the photographer and destination you want.
- Prepare to pay a premium for a photographic tour. The additional cost should not only cover the photographer's fee but any specific photo needs from early transfers to helicopter flights.
From Kununurra it's about a 90-minute drive to Home Valley Station along a partially dirt road.
Home Valley Station offers a range of accommodation, from suites to rooms, to tents, to camping facilities. The best accommodation costs from $320 per room, twin share, including breakfast while a camping site costs $17 per night per person. Phone (08) 9161 4322 or reservations (02) 8296 8010, see www.hvstation.com.au.
SEE + DO
HVS offers a wide range of tours and activities from fishing or horse riding, to walks, sunset tours and helicopter rides.
The writer was a guest of Leica Camera Australia and Voyages Indigenous Tourism.