A lesson in preparedness

Mist in the canyon… or was it?

Here’s the learning: Be prepared for unforeseen opportunity.

It started when we were at Aspley Falls camp, on the edge of the spectacular canyon. My hopes of photographing the waterfall had been dashed by the severe drought the tablelands are currently experiencing and have been experiencing for some years. What in wetter times is a ribbon of water cascading into the gorge far below was nothing at all. No water, no falls. Nonetheless, we did the walk along the canyon rim.

It was mid-afternoon when my partner drew my attention to what she said was a mist coming into the gorge. Come look, she said. Taking my camera, I went over. Yes, there was what appeared to be a mist and it was making the canyon look like those old Chinese or Japanese paintings of mist-enshrouded crags. I started taking photos although no photo can do visual justice to the reality of this vertical shale-sided gorge in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park.

The wind picked up and was now blowing so strongly I was wary of branches snapping off the eucalypts where we were parked. The predicted outbreak of cold Antarctic air had arrived. With the already strong wind getting stronger, and with the cold it brought, it was time to rethink our intention of camping here in the bush. We decided to head into the campsite in the small highlands town of Walcha, about 35km from where we were at the falls.

A Landscape in tones of brown

Gusts rocked our minivan as we drove west along the Oxley Highway. Cresting a hill, I looked at a landscape coloured in shades and tones of brown. It was now that I realised that the mist that enshrouded Aspley Falls was no mist at all. It was dust. Dust, the topsoil being blown off farmer’s fields in great swirls and eddies whipped up by the winds.

The scene was eerie and apocolyptic, eerie enough to make me pull over. Across the road swirls of dust rose from a treeless paddock and blew away rapidly. A mob of sheep sought shelter in a gully. Images of the drought-stricken landscape here on the tablelands, images of past dust storms and knowing that soil erosion is a major land management issue on Australian farmland rushed through my head. This I have to make some stills and video images of, I realised. And this is where the lesson about being prepared comes in.

Encountering dust, the topsoil of farms, blowing off paddocks in the strong wind produced an eerie feeling that I had to stop to photogrtaph.

I made some still images with my Sony a6300, thinking that I made the right choice some years back in buying a camera which was weather and dust-sealed. Now for some video to show the dust clouds blowing from the land.

Taking my iPhone from the car I check the battery label. 35 percent. I neglected to recharge the thing from the minivans auxiliary battery this morning. I top-up the phone battery when I can, keeping it above 75 percent for contingencies, like this, when I might have to shoot video.

My microphone with its wind filter? Where did I put it? We reorganised the minivan a few days earlier, Now I realised the bag with my little Rode mic was with other photographic equipment in the storage under the vehicle’s footwell. Inaccessible without shuffling stuff around in the minivan, and that was something I didn’t want to do in this wind.

I shot several segments of video knowing the wind crashing into the mic would be very noticeable in the video unless I cut it. Better something than nothing at all, though.

That night at the campsite in Walcha I edited the segments into a minute and six seconds of video. Introduced by a title, the video stood by itself. I thought about editing in some appropriate music or having no sound at all. In the end I thought the crash of wind in the microphone reinforced the vision, so I left it. It wasn’t too intrusive.

The result was no film arts production. It was an act of reportage. If needed, I could later record a commentary over the vision to context it in the ongoing drought and how farmers were so badly affected by it they were now selling their stock.

In the end I published the video with a story which provided the text and encased the story in a travel format not dissimilar to how this article starts.

The lessons

What are the lessons from this?

First, ensure your camera or mobile phone battery is fully charged. Have at least one spare, fully charged camera battery.

Keep your microphone and camera bracket within easy reach. Ensure your mic is equipped with a wind filter. Remember where you put it, especially if touring in a vehicle where space is limited but things still find a way of being misplaced or stored inaccessibly.

Consider whether still or video images would be the most appropriate medium for what you want to record.

How will you present the images? Will you use them to illustrate a written story?

Observe and question. Would the subject fit in with what you publish on your website or blog? Would it be of potential interest to the people who frequent your blog?

Question why what you shoot happens. What larger phenomenon or trends is it linked to? Research the stories behind the event. Link the local to the bigger picture in your commentary or interviews.

So, this is less the story of a dust storm and more that of being prepared for unexpected events.

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.

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