Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, protects Uluru (the monolith formerly called Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (rock domes formerly called the Olgas).
“I love to see the way people respond when they first lay eyes on Uluru,” says Ewen Bell. “No matter how many photos you’ve seen of it, the vision of this huge red rock rising a thousand feet out of the flat desert is incredibly powerful.”
For the past 15 years, the Melbourne-based photographer has been leading photography trips to the defining feature of Australia’s Red Centre (as Central Australia’s outback is known). He’s learned a thing or two about how to frame the grandeur and mystery of the ancient monolith, formerly known as Ayers Rock.
“With tight restrictions on where and how you can photograph the site, you have to get creative,” says Bell. In accordance with the wishes of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s traditional Aboriginal owners, the Anangu people, climbing Uluru will be prohibited starting in October 2019. Bell recommends beginning a visit by making the six-mile hike around the base of Uluru—or driving the ring road that encircles it—before checking out the nearby Culture Centre’s excellent exhibits on the park’s natural environment and cultural history.
“This gives you a chance to familiarize yourself with the subject and appreciate its significance” before starting to photograph, he says, adding that it can take much longer to bank a portfolio of great images than the two or three days most people spend on a visit.
“While it’s just one rock, people underestimate how many different ways there are to capture it,” says Bell. “On the plus side, you don’t need special gear—a 24mm lens will get you almost every shot.”
Here are Bell’s top tips for making the ultimate picture of Uluru.
Be mindful of cultural protocols
“Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta [formerly the Olgas] have deep spiritual significance to Anangu people, and as a result there are a number of culturally sensitive sites at each location where photography is banned,” says Bell. “Check out the Parks Australia website before you arrive to get a read on the angles you can respectfully shoot from, and keep in mind that a permit from the Northern Territory tourism board is required for all commercial photography inside the national park.”
“One of the easiest ways to avoid revealing sacred sites is to shoot for silhouettes,” says Bell. “Most visitors to Uluru follow the crowds to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku sunrise viewing area to get the classic shot of the rising sun lighting up the rock in the morning, but I like to head there at sunset when you get the place to yourself, and the opportunity to capture the beautiful silhouette effect looking back towards Kata Tjuta. Likewise, shooting back into the light from the viewing area at sunrise opens a world of creative opportunities.”
“With drones banned in the national park, a helicopter ride offers an incredible perspective, and there’s no additional cost for flying with the doors off,” says Bell. “I prefer dawn flights, when the skies are generally clearer and the rising sun lights up the ripples of the sand dunes. While there’s a height limitation for aircraft inside the park, you can go down to 500 feet outside the boundary, which is one of the best angles to shoot from.”
Work the foreground
“Bringing the Red Centre’s unique natural environment—from the rust-colored sand to the spiky spinifex grass—into your shot gives it a real sense of place,” says Bell. “If you go for a walk around the sunset viewing area you’ll find small trees and other flora that you can use to frame your shot. The Uluru birds app gives you a heads up on what species are around (and where to find them) at different times of the year, and if you’re lucky, you might spot kangaroos or a wild camel.”
Rent a car
“With Uluru famous for [seemingly] changing color throughout the day, it pays to visit key viewing spots at different times around the clock,” says Bell. “If you head to the sunset viewing area at about 3 p.m., for example, you can shoot the foreground without the long shadows that make this impossible at sunset.”
The catch? “With Ayers Rock Resort shuttles only ferrying people to the main viewing areas at sunrise and sunset, having your own wheels (which you can rent at Ayers Rock Airport) gives you much more freedom,” says Bell. “Just remember not to pull over where there are yellow lines marked on the road, and be sure to leave the park before it closes, about an hour after sunset.”