Early bird gets the sunrise

By AG STAFF 7 November 2013
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This breathtaking image of the jungles of Borneo is proof that Chris Bray loves a challenge.

THE JUNGLES OF BORNEO are challenging places to photograph. It is so humid your lens steams up as soon as it’s out of the bag. Your clothes drip with sweat. Everywhere is muddy and filled with leeches and other crawling critters.

Making matters worse, beneath the jungle canopy it’s so dark that it can be a challenge to get enough light to focus, let alone a fast enough shutter speed to hand-hold a telephoto lens when shooting wildlife.

Of course, this is what makes it fun. The month I spent in Borneo on assignment for Australian Geographic Outdoor was incredible. This shot of the sunrise bursting across the lush Danum Valley jungle is one of my favourites.

Photographing the Bornean jungle

To capture the expansive majesty of the jungle, I needed to find a way to climb above it. Waking one morning at 4:30am, my friends at the Borneo Conservation Trust and I tumbled into our 4WD and bounced along the access track to a huge radio-tower in the heart of the Danum Valley.

In darkness, we scaled the multitude of rickety ladders that lead high into the swaying structure. At last we reached a platform wide enough to spread a tripod, just as the fog set in.

I connected my 16-35mm wide-angle lens, zoomed out to 16mm to give me a nice wide vista, and waited. The sky gradually got lighter, and the pre-dawn chorus of birds and monkeys drifted up to us. Waves of fog allowed only fleeting glimpses down.

I wanted to capture the moment dawn cracked, creating a sun-induced star-burst using a large f-number (small aperture). Frustratingly though, this small aperture forces long, slow shutter speeds, by which time the leaves shifted and blurred from the wind, and our whole tower swayed.

I knew I’d have at best a couple of seconds to get the shot. To keep the camera steady I was also using the in-built two-second delay timer to avoid a bump in the camera when I pressed the button. Even in those two seconds the light would be brighter, so I underexposed a touch to compensate.

The sun was almost up when we were engulfed by another bank of fog obscuring everything. I was sure I’d lost my chance, but then a brief clear patch blew in just as the sun crested the distant hills and I squeezed out this 1/60th sec shot. By the time I got a second shot in, the moment had passed, and the fog closed back in.

Hoping for success, I pressed the ‘review’ button on the back of the camera and smiled. I love moments like that.

Take Chris Bray’s one-day Australian Geographic photography workshop, in cities across Australia.