Travel Photography Guide – Uluru and Kata Tjuta – A Traveler’s Tale
I was lucky enough one recent winter to be able to take a short break to the Red Centre. Why lucky? Well. previous trips have involved driving. Once in 1991, in a Suzuki Vitara with my Wife, and again in 2001 with our two small children – and indeed the Good Lady Wife(!). It was four days driving up and four days driving back both times. You do the maths, that isn’t a short break! With a short break this time though comes extra cost, though, hence me saying ‘lucky’. Add up the cost of flights (so I needed my travel tripod due to baggage weight) , not-cheap accommodation, the need for a rental car, and food priced accruing to the distance it has traveled, and it all adds up.
And there’s a catch. You can’t actually take photos of everything. And to Make Big Money (oh, if only I did) you need to get a permit. I could soap-box here at length, Ken Duncan has, and good on him I say. Someone has to. The ‘Uluru Rules’ are one long joke, but no-one is laughing at the non-punch-line at the end. Well, not the tourists anyhow. Especially those with DSLRs.
Let’s move on, dear reader, and let me share some experiences you may not be so aware of.
The monoliths are magnificent, Truly majestic, and they do indeed change colour throughout the day. And sometimes very quickly. You will be surprised, and probably delighted, with your initial results as your camera and particularly phone will amplify the colour changes. (Please read this for more details on my use of filters)
The ‘new’ sunrise viewing area at Uluru is a no-go. It’s almost due south of Uluru, so for many months of the year the early rays of the sun will not actually light the monolith, rather you get a sort of side-on halo effect with the sun’s rays striking the left-hand side of the rock.
However, with a little ingenuity you can still get those fabulous ‘red glow’ shots at sunrise from the East, if you find the old sunrise viewing area. It’s now roped off with a low chain as are all the roadside areas, and very difficult to find in the dark, but there are none of the dreaded ‘No Stopping Anytime’ signs near it. Please note – I am NOT advocating stopping in the ‘No Stopping Anytime’ areas, however, not all the ring road is ‘No Stopping Anytime’. Be sensible and pull right off the road onto the hard shoulder and you will be OK.
Don’t step on the plants and, like seriously, just don’t leave footprints in the red sand – they spoil it for others.
Silhouette sunrises are great, just go to the Sunset car park at dawn, and share it with maybe no-one else… A quick look-see at Photopills will give you an idea of where the sun will rise. Drive a little further south from the Sunset car park in winter, to get a tight composition with the sun rising quite near the rock.
The new sunrise area could also be great for silhouette sunsets – I didn’t try it. It is lovely and quiet during the day, just to ‘be’.
In conclusion Uluru is probably the best place in the whole of Australia for Australian Landscape Photography. Yep, Number one!
The light changes quickly, I hear you say? Ooooh yes. At dawn, I would estimate there is around 15 minutes of ‘good light’ after the sun has risen, and within that 15 minutes of ‘good light’ there is maybe less than 5 minutes of ‘great light’ with screaming deep orange/reds. Dusk is better, as the light is warmer, so you may have up to one hour before sunset of really usable light with again a sweet spot of just 5-10 minutes for the ultimate landscape photography look. Dusk is, or course, warmer overall. And you will of course be using a tripod – read here for all those reasons why.
There are no really ‘good’ sunrise spots for Kata Tjuta – i.e. none positioned generally to the east of the rocks to get the warm first glow. Ken Duncan took his Kata Tjuta sunrise photos of the then-called ‘Olgas’ sunrise in the 1980’s when there was a 4WD access road to the east of the Olgas before the new sealed loop-road went in.
Is it bad? I’m not sure, but recent rains have encouraged a lot of bush to grow. A lot of postcard-style images you see will have been taken with tall tripods firmly attached to the top of tall 4WDs to get over the unwanted foreground. There’s a reason the hire car companies note ‘no standing on the roof!’.
And this is funny… on sunset, if you park in the ‘official’ sunset viewing area, there is a small chain to border the parking area. People are soooo wonderful here, there is not a single footprint on the ‘other’ side of the chain. Everyone does the Right Thing.
If – however, you decide to drive a little further south and park beside the road to get a slightly different view, strange things happen. And there is no chain. We arrived well before sundown, and I tried to find a good tree and assess the best ‘different’ compositions I could find. As the minutes went by, more people parked up, and also wandered off a small way into the bush to find a good spot.
So what happened next? The next wave of people walked into the bush, past the first wave to also find ‘a good spot’ and of course were then standing in everyone else’s frame, including mine. You can guess what happened next.
Right on sunset, an absolute horde of cars arrived, there were people shouting at each other to get out of the way, and to wlak back to the edge of the road, it was absolute pandemonium!
In conclusion, if you want a quiet experience, you won’t find one. Well behaved and packed, at the official area. Spread out and unruly everywhere else. And I know this was worse because of school holidays.
If you do wish to take a punt and seek dawn colour in the sky, you need to be at the park entry gate slap on opening times, and yes there is a barrier gate on the road to the park. The opening times change throughout the year to actually minimise the time each day the park is open.
Let’s work this out in a bit more detail. There is a rush-hour style queue to get in – maybe 10 minutes of traffic at opening hours in peak times. That’s over 100m or so of car park queue. When I was there Sunrise was at 7:30, gates open at 6:30. The sky normally colours, let us say, 30-10 minutes before sunrise. So, oh wait, hang on, you just got actually through the gate 45 minutes before sunrise, there is already a little colour in the sky, and you still have a 20 minute drive to Uluru and around a 45 minute drive to Kata Tjuta!!!
Astro is pretty much a no-go. You cannot be the park when it is properly dark. I have seen some semi-composite shots recently starting to appear on social media. Also I know Astro specialty tours are now available with extended park access (at a price), but in general it’s not easy. Also I actually don’t know if the rangers come along and kick you out of the park at closing time. A long long time ago I bent one of the rules and a ranger quickly sprung me (for walking off track). [Edit – I am now seeing more astro images but I am unsure if there are taken at just-on closing time]
In addition, you must drive and walk exactly where they want you to. Nowhere else. No off road driving across the bush (fair enough) but also no off track walking. Think about it – there’s a lot of park you just might be able to find a different composition from. National Parks say no. There are not too many roads in the park, either.
The detailed story of the above first-light image can be found here
I am reading this back, and never intended this to be a negative review. It is however, really important to have proper expectations to avoid personal disappointment. I had an absolute blast. I froze my fingers off each morning but that was OK.
It is also a good place – due to terrain – to consider taking a few more panorama format images than you might usually do – for an intro to some do’s and don’ts of panorama ratios for Landscape Photography please read here.
I’ll finish with the most important point… Don’t you just love Blue Skies when you are on hols? This is the clincher. It’s going to be 90 – 95% Blue when you are there. There is a strong likelihood you will end up with photos that really do look just the same as every other ‘tog 🙂 It’s sad but true … I have been three separate times over the years, that’s around 12 sunrises and sunsets overall that I have shot. From all those visits I have one sunrise ‘colour’ shot in my portfolio. I have no real good reverse sunsets. So you will need to really open your eyes and be creative of you want something that hasn’t been taken – and seen – a thousand times before.
Thanks for reading this far
The Uluru Photographer
And an Edit – added after my Visit October 2019
So – I went back. I couldn’t not go really. They were about to shut the rock, and for a whole heap of personal and family reasons I needed to revisit. It was at absolute peak time due to the shutting of the climb, so based upon the experience in winter school hols, I was really wondering what i would let myself in for.
It had indeed changed in those two years. Sooo many more ‘No Stopping Any Time’ times, and.. to make it worse ‘Do not Pull off to the side of the road’ signs – so in many areas you cannot even pull off into gravel areas at the side of the road, that are plenty big enough to park on.
(To be continued – work in progress)