Mountain Light: Australia's Snowy Mountains

The Snowy Mountains, like no other landscape I have photographed has a magnetic draw that keeps on pulling me back. Why? It is simple; there are very few words that can convey the feeling of standing alone on top of a remote mountains waiting for the light to morph the landscape from silver to gold. If photography is my ideal escapism, then the Snowy Mountains are my ideal canvas.

Like no other landscape I have photographed in Australia, the Snowy Mountains seem to have a personality of their own - a personality akin to that of a typical Australian larrikin; understated in their grandeur but overstated in their character.

The Snowy Mountains, affectionately known as “the Snowies” are the highest Australian mountain range stretching from the Australian Capital Territory through Southern New South Wales and into Northern Victoria. The Snowies contain Australia’s five highest mountains (all of which are over 2,100m above sea level) including the Australian mainland’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, which reaches a meager 2,228m above sea level.

The Snowies are mainland Australia’s only true Alpine region with significant annual snowfall. The shape of the Australian Alps is quite different to that of the more famous mountain ranges such as the European Alps, Andes or Himalayas. Those mountains contain many sharp peaks and deep glacial valleys. In contrast, the skyline of the Snowies is comparatively flat and rounded. While it may not have the grandeur and typical mountain vistas of its counterparts on other continents, the Snowies have unique photographic features that rank it among some of the most remarkable landscapes of Australia.


Geology

The Snowies are the legacy of an ancient ice age millions of years ago that saw glaciers carve valleys, glacial lakes and impressive granite forms. Much of the high country, such as the Kosciuszko Plateau in NSW and Mt Buffalo Victoria has distinct granite formations. These granite bodies erode slowly have formed plateaus and ridges with large boulders, tors, and granite outcrops. The granite tors of Mount Buffalo and the Rams Head Range would rank among the most photographic locations with stunning granite formations dotting the landscape like it was once a stone garden sculpted by giants.

Not all of the plateaus and high plains can lend themselves to glacial activity. Many of the high plains in Victoria such as Bogong and Dargo High Plains can lend their history to volcanoes that erupted episodically over much of the alpine region. The lava came out of small volcanoes and flowed across the landscape and down valleys, forming the rounded landscape of these high plains.

 In New South Wales most of the alpine area is one large tableland, while in Victoria erosion has proceeded further, producing many smaller plateaus separated by rugged valleys. These valleys have become a distinct photographic feature in their own right with alpine creeks and rivers carving many impressive rapids and waterfalls. 


Flora 

When one thinks of the flora of the Snowies, the iconic picture of a gnarled and twisted Snow Gum immediately springs to mind. The picturesque Snow Gum is a photographic draw card in their own right. As if painted in watercolour with pastel reds, blues and yellows and shaped by the harsh winds and heavy snows the Snow Gum is a truly remarkable and wonderfully photographic feature of the Snowy Mountains. Some of the best Snow Gum groves can be easily found from winter playgrounds of Thredbo, Charlotte Pass and Falls Creek. 


History 

The area was first explored by Europeans in 1835, and in 1840, Edmund Strzelecki was the first European to ascended Mount Kosciuszko and subsequently named it after a famed Polish patriot. High country stockmen soon followed who used the Snowy Mountains for pastoral grazing during the summer months. Banjo Paterson’s famous poem The Man From Snowy River recalls this era. The cattle graziers have left a legacy of mountain huts scattered across the area lending to the Snowies unique Australian character. 

The most well-known of these huts, Wallace’s Hut and Craig’s Hut both reside in Victoria. Wallace’s Hut, is Australia’s oldest standing cattleman’s hut built in 1889. Wallace’s Hut is situated in an extremely photographic Snow Gum grove on the Bogong High Plains. I have had the pleasure of shooting Wallaces Hut on a number of occasions, and it still sends a shiver up my spine. Surrounded by twisted and gnarled snow gums it’s easy to imagine the sound of the crack of a stock whip and the hooves of hardy mountain cattle and hardier mountain men. It’s a remarkable place that could tell a story or two over the years. 

Conversely, Craig’s Hut is not an original cattleman’s hut as it was built as a set for the 1980 Australian movie The Man from Snowy River. Authenticity aside, Craig’s Hut is a photographic icon of the area. Nestled on a clear hill, aptly named “Clear Hills” near the cross-country ski resort of Mount Stirling, Craig’s Hut offers majestic views over the valleys of the Victorian High Country. It is not the hut itself that resonates with me, but what it represents. The pioneering spirit and deep resolve of those hardy cattleman that helped build Australia and formed part of our unique national identity. 


Photography in the Snow

  •  The warm golden light at dawn or dusk, combined with the cold blue tones of snow, give magical effects. Plus, the snow will be relatively untouched by footprints if you get up early. 
  • Dress warmly and wear waterproof clothes. This may sound obvious, but you'll be amazed by how quickly you lose body heat in the pre-dawn cold. A great tip is to buy photography mittens (fingerless gloves) they help keep your hands warm but still enables you to fully manage your camera settings. 
  • Weather plays an important role in mountain photography. If you get the opportunity to shoot a mountain, never put it off until the next day. With rapidly changing weather conditions special light in the mountains is fleeting. 


Technical Considerations 

  • When shooting when the sun is high in the sky, it is best to use a circular polarizing filter, which will cut through any unwanted glare reflected on the bright snow. This will enable you to capture more detail in the snow and will help manage the snow becoming a white mess. 
  • Colour temperature has a big impact on shooting a snow clad scene. Sky light produced cool blue tones in the snow, and in the middle of the day, the sky can be an inky black (particularly if using a polariser). Later in the day, the setting sun and the ‘alpine-light’ (the afterglow of the sun once it has set) can product beautiful oranges, pinks and magentas. 
  • Shooting in snow can often be difficult. The main issue is the brilliance of the snow can often play tricks on the camera’s light meter, resulting in snow that can looked washed out and grey rather than white. There are several techniques that can be used to avoid this problem including but not limited to;  
  1. Bracket your images by taking one image -1EV and one image +1EV from your base exposure. 
  2. If there is any mid-tone in the scene you are shooting (a grey rock, snow gum or cattleman’s hut for instance) take a meter reading off these as this will be the closest to 18% grey. You may have to compensate slightly (by -1/3EV to -2/3 EV) to ensure the snow is not blown out. 
  3. Use the histogram on the camera’s LCD screen to ensure the exposure is correct. 
      • Be mindful that the horizon is not straight, and thus using graduated neutral density filters can often be difficult. This can be easily overcome by using soft graduated neutral density filters as opposed to hard or simply bracket your images and spend time in post processing to blend the images together.
      • Don’t use a flash when it’s snowing as the flash will bounce off the falling snow and create distracting white overexposed blobs on your final image!
      • If you struggle to capture the image you have envisioned, don’t worry you’re not alone as famous mountain photographer and author of “Mountain Light” Galen Rowell once remarked “I find it some of the hardest photography and the most challenging photography I've ever done. It's a real challenge to work with the natural features and the natural light.”  


Get Creative

  • Be mindful that when you are impressed with the sheer size and grandeur of the mountains in front of you, it is tempting to go for the wide angle lens; however the majesty can be lost when shooting mountains with a wide focal length. A telephoto lens is often the best choice for photographing mountains; it allows you to focus on a section of the range that would often go unnoticed. 
  • There are plenty of opportunities with snow, from delicate close ups to snow clad Snow Gums to frozen expanses with crystal clear blue skies. Be mindful of your surroundings, you may come away with an image you never intended or planed on taking! 
  • Strong shadows and high contrast images can be very effective when shooting snow, particularly if you shoot in black and white. Shadows can be used to lead a viewer into the frame or as a point of focus – just ensure your own shadow is not visible! 
  • Complete white-outs are common during winter, don’t use this as an excuse to stay in the warmth of the lodge! Fog, mist, cloud and white-out can be used to create moody and atmospheric images – it enables you to add depth to the image or to be able to isolate a point of interest such as a rock or a snow gum. 
The Snowy Mountains are an incredible landscape. They may not have the sweeping vistas of the European Alps or the dizzying heights of the cliffs of Yosemite but what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in their unique charm. The Snowy Mountains offers a distinctly Australian landscape from the weathered groves of gnarled and twisted Snowy Gums, to the rugged granite tors of South Rams Head and the history of Wallace’s Hut, where if you listen closely enough you may just hear the ghosts of the Snowies past or the crack of a stock whip.