Australia presents some serious challenges for landscape photographers, like lighting. For most of the day, the Australian landscape is bathed in a very harsh, bright light, which amps up contrast and washes out colors.
Then there’s oppressive heat, biting cold, massive storms, and torrential rain to contend with (often in one day), and a long history of natural disasters such as floods, drought, and bushfires. If you had to describe Australian nature in two words, “rugged” and “resilient” would not be far from the mark.
So, if you are a landscape photographer based in Australia – like Melissa Stewart – learning to work with nature to capture the true beauty of the country is a lifelong challenge, and potentially very rewarding journey.
Capturing the Australian Aesthetic
Melissa Stewart has spent most of her life living in and photographing the Macedon Ranges in the center of Victoria, a state in the southeast corner of the Australian mainland.
“My family moved to the area in my early teens,” Stewart says. “I have always loved the outdoors and the countryside, and I have loved photography from a very early age.”
While her father worked as a pharmacist, Stewart took film to his pharmacy and printed her photos. From there, she progressed to developing and printing her own photographs at home before transitioning to digital.
While camera technology has advanced significantly during Stewart’s time, she says she keeps her photography simple.
“I’m a basic photographer. Most of my life I’ve worked with film, focusing on seeing nature through the viewfinder.”
“To me, photography is an extension of who I am. My camera is part of me, an extra sense.”
Stewart says she prefers to use basic gear, and her go-to camera is a Nikon D810 with a 24-200mm lens and a tripod.
Rather than focusing on the latest and greatest camera equipment, Stewart says her photography is about slowing down and being part of moments that will never happen again.
“Photography to me is about connection and experience, creativity, and expression,” she explains.
“It’s about letting a scene present itself to me. I immerse myself in the scene and become part of it, part of the land. When I do this, I can capture a fleeting glimpse of the natural world before it suddenly disappears again.”
Stewart does minimal processing of her photos, save for some very gentle editing in Lightroom. Instead, she wants to let nature speak for itself through her art.
“With digital, there is so much post production we can do, but I don’t alter landscapes or manipulate images to drop in animals or people. I don’t enhance color either. I want to capture the natural aesthetic of Australia.”
“Australia’s landscape is hard to work with,” Stewart says. “We get very intense, hard light during the day.”
But nature can put on quite the show in the early morning, which Stewart says has led to some of her most memorable shots.
“We sometimes get a lot of fog and mist in the mornings. I love to capture that lighting, which most people don’t even get up early enough to see.
One misty morning I discovered a paddock with horses. I sat down watching them, and it was such a beautiful scene.
I took my time before getting the camera out. Eventually, the horses came right up to me, and I captured some of my best photos ever. It felt like I was part of their herd .”
Country and Climate
Stewart says she feels a deep connection to and fascination with the natural world.
“When I delve deeper as to why this is, I realize through my experiences in my life that nature has shown me resilience through adversity.
I found my connection and respect for the Australian landscape through my experience of the Ash Wednesday bushfires.”
The 1983 wildfires were the most deadly to hit Australia at the time, with 75 lives lost and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land burned in a single day.
Stewart says that following the disaster, she witnessed the incredible resilience of nature.
“I learned through nature that it can withstand any disaster. It can survive without us.”
With such a sense of connection to nature, it’s not surprising that Stewart is passionate about protecting the land and our planet.
“Spending time in the country makes me feel so happy, but it also hurts me to witness the vanishing of landscapes, climate grief, fear for the future,” she says on her website, MelissaStewart.photography.
“I hope my photography can help raise awareness around the climate crisis. We need to remind people to think about how they live their lives and the impact their actions have on nature.”
Recently, one of Stewart’s pictures was featured in a photo exhibition and visual petition about climate change.
“This fabulous woman – Hilary Wardhaugh – started a visual climate crisis petition called #everydayclimatecrisis, and she took it to Canberra (the Australian capital),” Stewart explains.
Wardhaugh reached out to Australian female and non-binary photographers to submit photos about the climate crisis, with contributions exhibited at the CLIMARTE gallery in Richmond, Victoria, in mid-2022.
Stewart says her work – Climate Emotions – was featured in the exhibition, and was included among 1,248 printed images delivered to the Australian Federal Parliament. This served as a visual reminder of the global climate crisis and the everyday impacts to Australia.
Sharing Her Work
Recently, Stewart published her website – MelissaStewart.photography – where she shares her portfolio of work, as well as an impressive history of awards and exhibitions.
“I never had a website before,” Stewart says. “I’d thought about having a website for a long time, but I put it off as it seemed like a lot of work and it’s not really within my skill set.”
“Then, during the Covid lockdowns, I finally gave it a go.”
Stewart hired a web designer to help put together the site, but she picked the web address herself.
“Looking at different website names, I had a lot of options,” she explains.
“Then a suggestion came up for my name with a .photography suffix – MelissaStewart.photography – and it just made sense.”
“It sounded perfect,” she says. “It’s a short and easy-to-remember name, and it shows the world exactly who I am.”
Just one less challenge for an Australian landscape photographer.
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Image credits: All photos by Melissa Stewart