Photographing the Night Skies of the Outback

Taking a trip to Australia will provide no end of variety when it comes to natural wonders. One week you might be driving the lonely outback routes through thousands of kilometres of dusty desert, and the next could see you overlooking the calm blue-green waters of the Great Barrier Reef from the forested hills of North Queensland. Having recently spent a year working and travelling around the entire country, it certainly seemed that, if you looked hard enough, any landscape imaginable would reveal itself in some far-flung corner.

Australia is also rich in another form of scenery which, more often than not, remains hidden from those who aren't specifically looking for it. In a world of increasing urbanisation and exponential population growth, it's managed to retain an entire continent's worth of a scarce and valuable resource - darkness. The sheer lack of towns, roads and people in Australia's empty interior means that the Southern Hemisphere's night skies will show themselves in sparkling splendour, time after time. If you're prepared to hop in a car and travel a few hundred kilometres outside the large coastal cities, you'll be rewarded with serene and majestic views which, until now, you may only have thought possible in heavily edited photographs. So, what exactly can you see once the sun goes down, and where should you go for the best views of the stars?

If you're planning your visit around the urban centres of the east coast, such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, you may have to organise a weekend camping trip to see the full glory of what the nocturnal skies have to offer. If, however, you're driving along the west coast, or taking a roadtrip through the 'Red Centre' via Alice Springs, or crossing the Nullarbor from Adelaide, all you'll have to do is go outside at night and look up. Campsites, motels and roadhouses along these less-travelled routes are already so far from any form of civilisation that light pollution is totally non-existent.

When you first turn your eyes to a truly dark sky, it can be quite an overwhelming experience. The Milky Way's glowing curtain of light will likely dominate, possibly tracing a mottled path from one horizon all the way over to the other. There will also be thousands of individual starry pinpoints; some bright and individual, others clustered together in more subdued patterns. If you look closely, you might be able to pick out different colours in the stars. The more intense ones may appear to have a blue tinge, while others will look slightly yellow or even deep red.

If, like me, you've lived all your life in the Northern Hemisphere, you'll find yourself coming up blank when you start to look for constellations. Some familiar mainstays at home such as the Great Bear, Cassiopeia, and Leo, the Lion, will barely peek above the horizon. Other obvious patterns like Orion will appear totally upside-down, and you'll see prominent but unfamiliar arrangements of stars which must be called something, but have no meaning to you as a fresh-faced space tourist. In fact, the only new constellation I could even name when I first landed Down Under was Crux - the Southern Cross - which appears on Australia's flag (and many more unexpected places once you start to notice it)!

Taking photos of the southern stars requires the same sort of kit you'd use at home. I travelled with my trusted Canon 1100D DSLR camera, and used my cheap-and-cheerful 18-55mm lens to get my night shots. I didn't pack my bulky tripod; instead I just propped my camera up on the bare ground or balanced it on top of my car using books, clothes, and even a bunch of bananas! Anything will do - just get it pointing in the right direction.

All of my photos were taken with the aperture as wide as it would go, and the ISO set to the higher sensitivities of 1600, 3200 or 6400. A 20 to 30 second shot was enough to capture the detail and magnificence of the Milky Way in wide field. These starry vistas can look fabulous by themselves, but I much prefer to give the photos a bit of character by placing a small sliver of scenery in the foreground. Framing the Southern Cross against some orange autumn leaves really bridges the connection between Earth and Sky, and placing a swaying palm tree or the branches of a towering eucalyptus in the corner helps each image to convey a stronger memory of place.

I spent most of my year in Australia based around the west coast capital of Perth. Of course you won't see many stars from the bright and busy centre, but the city's isolation meant that unadulterated night skies were only on the doorstep. I first glimpsed the Magellanic Clouds from the beautiful expanses of farmland in the 'Great Southern' region, and I remember spotting brightly-studded patches of sky from outside my tent while camping in the Dwellingup Forest, just a few hours away. The popular tourist stop at Wave Rock was also a fantastic place to see large and open sections of sky with little on the horizon to block the view.

When I travelled further afield, the captivating loveliness of the stars became almost routine. I was treated to beautiful weather and nightly displays on the road between Perth and Darwin, even when I stopped in at the comparatively crowded tourist magnets of Shark Bay and Exmouth. In fact, the long, gently curving beach at Monkey Mia was a perfect place to spend evenings outside after watching the local dolphins in the water at dusk. I also have fun memories of camping at a cattle station near the Ningaloo Reef where I watched the stars by night, and was woken up by kangaroos huddling around my tent the next morning!

If you're going to find yourself Down Under any time soon, and you're wondering if it's a good idea to venture into the wilderness with a tent and a blow-up bed just to see the stars, I can tell you that it's entirely worth the trip. Not only will it be a real treat for yourself, but I personally got a lot of pleasure out of sharing the sights with other travellers.

I remember convincing someone I'd only known for fifteen minutes to hop in the car with me and walk down a south coast beach in complete darkness, just to take in the clear skies while the waves rolled ashore in the background. It was great fun to share my amateurish photos as well, and on more than one occasion I ended up loading people into my car, driving to the nearest beach and teaching them how to do the same with their cameras. So, whether you're a local city dweller, a backpacker from halfway across the world or you'll only be in Aussie Land for a few weeks, get out there, turn off the lights and add an extra dimension to your experience.