Finding Down Under

A test portrait in front of the Sydney Opera House in July of 2009.

This month started well for me - on vacation.

I have spent a lot of summer months over the last decade a lot of places doing everything but vacationing.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been enjoying myself. Much of what I do for “work” I also consider to be pleasure. My vocation and avocation are frequently in alignment.

One of my favorite non-vacation summer trips was in July 2009 when Bill and I went to the mythical surfing paradise of my childhood dreams - Australia. We were set to be there for three weeks, traveling north, south, east and west - all over down under - for an advertising campaign for the soon-to-be-released Nikon D3s.

We had 20 days to portray 52 camera functions, including video function, which - at the time - was still new to flagship DSLR cameras.

Australia was a place I had always wanted to visit but never imagined I actually would. It’s hard to get to a place so far away. Still, I grew up watching the Tasmanian Devil on Cartoon Network, Crocodile Dundee in the theater and countless Australian surfing videos on the couch with my brother. Everything about Australia seemed cooler than it did at home. It was a place where summer was winter and north was south; like a bizzaro world with big waves and warm sun.

I remember flying over Sydney Harbor the first time. It is a truly beautiful city from the sky. White boats and blue water; green trees and yellow beaches. Sydney itself, however, was not the Australia I imagined.

Sydney is a big city. A very nice city, but similar to many other big cities around the world. Even though sunrise at Bondi Beach was everything I hoped it would be - cold and beautiful - it wasn’t the Australia of my childhood dreams.

The pre-dawn glow at Bondi Beach.

We had a day and half in Sydney to meet with our Japanese counterparts from the advertising agency, Gen and Toshiaki (who went by Mr. Blue), and learn the camera we would spend the next several weeks demonstrating.

The first frame I took with the Nikon D3s is still one of my favorites. It’s a simple image, but most of my favorites are - the Sydney Opera House framed by three seagulls and a ferry boat.

My first frame with the Nikon D3s of Sydney Harbor.

After walking off the jet-lag that a 24 hour travel day brings, we boarded a 5am flight to Hobart, Tasmania, where our Australian adventure began. If there is one thing I've learned in my travels, it's that if you want to see a country, go to the country.

I knew very little about Tasmania before getting on the flight. I knew it was an island; I knew it was the southern most point in the eastern hemisphere; I knew it was the home of the Tasmanian Devil (though not the one I was thinking of).

If I thought flying into Sydney was beautiful, I was in for a treat. We began our descent into Hobart just as the sun began to rise. I woke up as the plane began to shake, moving from one dream to another. Outside my window was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Thick fog hovered over an arctic blue water. Green mountaintops peeked above the clouds, kissing golden rays of sun. I felt like Peter Pan flying into Neverland.

When we landed we were met by David Callow, an old friend of Bill’s who was helping with production.

We quickly loaded up a couple vans and hit the road. Our destination was Queenstown, a small mining town four hours northwest of Hobart, with an Australian Rules football team we were set to photograph.

It didn’t take long to get out of Hobart. It’s the biggest city in Tasmania but has a population of less than 50,000 people. From there it was all forest and country. We passed through various small towns, but mostly it was just us and the landscape.

As the sun set, a dark figure darted in front of our van.

“Did you see that,” Callow asked excitedly? “That was a Tasmanian Devil!”

Turns out the Tasmanian Devil is a real creature. Unfortunately the real animal looks nothing like a walking dog who runs in tornado form - as the cartoon would have you believe. The true-to-life Tasmanian Devil instead looks like a cross between a miniature black lab and an opossum (which felt anticlimactic).

We got to Queenstown in time to photograph their evening practice. The timing worked well since capturing low-light situations was one of our top priorities for the shoot.

Me at evening practice. Intellectually I knew that July in Australia would be winter, but below freezing temperatures were still a shock.

The Nikon D3s was one of the first cameras to truly break the barriers of low light image capture. It could reproduce sharp, color accurate images at 12,800 ISO. Cameras today - like the Nikon D5 - can do that and more, but in 2009 that number was mind blowing in the photography world.

I still remember Bill’s laugh when he took his first few frames, then looked at the back of the camera to see well-rendered, sharp images. The camera could almost see better in the dark than we could.

Evening practice with the team and our first test of the 12,800 ISO on the Nikon D3s.

We spent several days in Queenstown. We shot practice and the surrounding area. But our true purpose was their Saturday game against another small-town team.

Part of what made Queenstown appealing to us was the fact that they played Aussie Rules Football - a game with no helmets or pads - on a gravel pitch. No grass; not even dirt. Gravel.

We interviewed a few of the players during warmups, asking what it felt like to get tackled on rocks.

“It softens the other team up nicely,” one told me with a wink.

“That’s a bloody oath,” another yelled in emphatic agreement!

The game was hard to follow at first. If you’re used to watching American football - or gridiron, as they call it in Australia - Aussie Rules seems incredibly chaotic and disjointed. There will be bodies smashing into each other, followed by high kicks and a spurt of action, then more bodies smashing into each other. It’s a brutal game to watch on grass, much more so on gravel.

As seems to be my modus operandi in most of the places we visit, I was quickly befriended by a few of the town children. As I was shooting video, trying desperately to follow a game I didn’t understand, three blonde-haired boys walked up to me, each with a different colored lolli pop.

My Australian buddies, trying (poorly) to pose for a photo.

“What are you doing,” the oldest asked, in an adorable Australian accent?

“I’m trying to make a video of your football team,” I answered.

The boys sat next to me, on me, and leaned over my shoulder to look at the camera, giggling all the while, drooling sticky saliva on my shoulder.

“Would you like a lolli,” the youngest asked from my side, handing up his half eaten lolli pop.

“Maybe later,” I told him.

Just then there was an audible hit on the pitch in front of us. One of the Queenstown players had collided with an opposing player, skidding several feet across the pitch. The Queenstown player came up quickly with the ball, kicking it on to loud cheers from the crowd. The opposing player got up slowly, half of his face raw with blood and dirt, clearly dazed.

“You’re just a bunch of [insert highly inappropriate expletive],” yelled the third boy who was maybe 5 years old.

I burst out laughing from the shock of such an adult word coming out of such a cherubim face, but that’s the kind of town Queenstown was. It certainly wasn’t a town full of [insert highly inappropriate expletive].

My reaction to the unexpected comment.

After the game we packed back into our vans and out of Queenstown. We were set to be in Melbourne the next morning.

Halfway back to Hobart, Callow and Bill stopped the vans. There was no moon that night, and we were driving through a national forest. The closest town was an hour in any direction. When I looked up I saw the clearest Milky Way I have still ever seen, shining bright under an impossibly dark sky.

I don’t know much about constellations. In the northern night sky I can find the Big Dipper and the Northern Star, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge. But looking up into the night sky of the southern hemisphere made me feel lost, like I was on another planet. I was directionless.

As the five of us stood shivering on a cold Tasmanian winter night, Callow pointed out the Southern Cross, the smallest but most easily visible of the southern constellations. From there, our journey continued with a little more direction than it began.