Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Flat Earth photography: big sky country

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Flat Earth photography: big sky country
18 Jun
Flat and level landscapes might not have much to offer in terms of dynamism and impact, but there’s a lot to unearth if you know how to look

 Of course, the Earth isn’t flat but there are some places where it is possible to stand and gaze upon a 360-degree sweep of the horizon without so much as a termite mound to interrupt the view. One such place is the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia. It is the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock and occupies an area of about 200,000 square kilometres. At its widest point, this arid expanse of treeless scrubland stretches about 1,100km from east to west across the border between South Australia and Western Australia. 

With the Great Victoria Desert to the north and the vast seas of the Great Australian Bight to the south, it is one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, as well as one of the flattest. So flat in fact that the Indian-Pacific railway line that crosses the Australian continent from Perth to Sydney, traverses the Nullarbor at one stretch for 478km without a bend – the longest straight section of railway in the world. Standing here with your camera, it would be fair to conclude that the Nullabor is ‘flatter than a pancake’.

That said, it is the American state of Kansas that was saddled with this popular claim in 2003 when scientists from Texas State University gathered topographical data about Kansas from the US Geological Survey and then examined a pancake for comparison. Their findings were published in the Annals of Improbable Research. Improbable indeed, because there are flatter, lower lying landscapes than Kansas, particularly along some of the world’s densely populated coastlines.


Many of the world’s major cities are situated on flat expanses of land close to sea level, established centuries ago for their proximity to natural harbours needed for shipping and global trade. However, as ocean levels rise due to warming temperatures and melting inland glaciers and ice caps, many cities are having to develop strategies for keeping the sea out of their streets.

The Indonesian capital of Jakarta, home to a sprawling population of ten million, is a prime example of a city that is being consumed by its surroundings. Jakarta is sinking irretrievably into the sea, up to 25 centimetres a year in some parts. So serious is the situation that in April this year, President Joko Widodo proclaimed that it was necessary for Indonesia to establish a new capital city. Although relocation is not a new idea, scientists believe Jakarta’s watery oblivion is inevitable as subsidence from groundwater extraction and rising sea levels from climate change combine to consign greater areas of the metropolis beneath the waterline of every tidal surge. 


Combating rising sea levels is a looming challenge for many of the world’s major cities, particularly those occupying areas of land reclaimed from the sea and protected from the ocean’s advance by dykes, sea walls and canals. In Western Europe, the Netherlands is the best-known example of a flat, low-lying country with millions of people living below sea level. In cities like Amsterdam, this fact isn’t immediately apparent as there are plenty of other landmarks and features to catch the eye of the photographer. Even those established signature images of the Dutch landscape – the narrow canals and old wooden windmills – make striking enough subjects for the camera without reference to the context of their original purpose, namely to drain the water and keep the sea at bay. 


Other notable areas of Europe below sea level include parts of Flanders in Belgium, the Camargue in southern France and The Fens in England. These are sparsely populated areas, flat and broad and criss-crossed by drains, canals and other waterways to keep the land arable and dry. The Fens of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk are home to some of the most fertile farming land in Britain. At this time of year, the broad terrain of green vegetable crops and vibrant yellow canola and rapeseed stretches for miles, broken only by an odd hedgerow or line of white bladed wind turbines.

Without the obvious grandeur of a mountain peak or line of hills to break the horizon, some landscape photographers regard this part of Britain as topographically dull and not worth setting up the tripod. But it would be a mistake to make such a rash dismissal because this part of Britain is also known as ‘big sky country’, famed for its wide views of unbroken horizon over land and sea. The broad beaches of north Norfolk and ploughed fens of Cambridgeshire mean the expanse of sky overhead becomes a more significant part of the composition. On a bright day in May or June it is hard to resist making numerous images featuring a yellow field of rapeseed at the bottom half of the frame with a large bright area of blue sky above and tumbling white cumulus cloud filling the rest of the picture. 


These types of landscapes become studies in natural colour, shape and form. The result may not be as immediately spectacular as a Scottish highland view, but by working with fewer features and details, compositional changes become more critical to the result. Photographing a scene with so few details and little depth, asks for greater thought and more precision when framing, so changing the focal length or turning the camera 90 degrees for a vertical orientation can make profound difference to the compositional balance of the image. 

On the coast, farmers’ fields are replaced by sweeping beaches filling the foreground but it is still the tall skies, this time hanging above the North Sea, that are the prevailing feature to frame and photograph. Sometimes the horizon becomes less distinct as the distant grey water merges with a misty sky, but on a summer’s day the changing light and rolling clouds provide an evolving dynamic to the scene.


In such a setting, it is worth observing the changes that unfold, not just to light levels, but also to transitory elements that may enter the frame, such as a chugging fishing boat or billowing yacht. Mounting your camera on a tripod will certainly help you to scrutinise the scene through the viewfinder more meticulously and allow more deft changes to framing, whether by moving the camera slightly to one side, or changing the focal length of your lens. And of course, the tripod makes it easier to ensure that the horizon remains parallel straight across your frame.


The rich soils of the Fens were created by centuries of sediment deposits from the slow-moving rivers winding their way north to the shallow bay known as The Wash. These soils and the proximity of both fresh and brackish water mean there is also a profusion of marshland plants to photograph. Summer is the ideal time to focus on the plants and flowers that thrive in pockets of wetland, notably marsh marigold, yellow water lily, devil’s-bit scabious and common fleabane. In addition, are the insects that depend upon these plants for their survival: butterflies such as the marsh fritillary and swallowtail, and numerous dragonflies and damselflies.

Photographing the small and delicate forms of plants and insects requires a different approach to photography and a different type of lens: macro. A specialist macro lens enables very close focusing to record a life-size image on a camera’s image sensor. Macro lenses are mostly fixed focal length optics of 50mm, 60mm, 90mm, 100mm, even 200mm. Focusing to within a few centimetres of your subject for a life-size image offers a unique perspective, but the shallow depth of field, even with the lens stopped down to the minimum aperture of f/22 or f/32, means focusing needs to be very precise. For this reason, many photographers prefer to switch off the AF and focus the lens by hand.


Of course, stopping down the lens to its minimum aperture also extends the exposure time, so mounting your camera on a tripod for absolute stillness is advisable. Only when framing, focusing and exposure are finalised, should the shutter be released, but with macro photography this requires a ‘fingers off’ approach to the camera to avoid any vibration during a long exposure. A remote release is the preferred option, but using the camera’s self-timer can be a reliable substitute.  


A tripod becomes less of a necessity when photographing species further up the food chain, namely the small wading birds that frequent the marshy fringes of the Fens as well as the sandy shores of The Wash. Busy birds such as snipe, lapwing, avocet, common tern and redshank rarely stay still for long; even when perched or wading at the water’s edge, they flit and dart and quickly take flight with little or no warning. 

Photographing any bird in flight is one of the hardest challenges in photography as it usually requires handholding the camera with a long telephoto lens and keeping the bird within the frame as it flies across or towards you. With autofocus set to AF-continuous mode (AF-C), the camera will continually adjust focus on a moving target. The most sophisticated AF technology uses dozens of sensors to ensure the lens remains focused on the subject whatever the changes in speed and direction. Being able to rely on the AF performance in this way means the photographer can concentrate on keeping a steady hand while using the fastest possible exposure to achieve a sharply focused image.

Shooting a wader on the shore against a watery backdrop can be a tricky undertaking too, more so if backlit, so several shots at different exposures may be necessary to determine the ideal result. A polarising filter is a handy lens addition in this situation as it will help cut down any reflective glare. Whether pointing your lens skywards or low to the shore, a flat earth vantage provides an ideal base for a well-rounded perspective to your photography.

This was published in the June 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items


app boot

CLOTHING: Walking boots
Whether walking across a flat Fen, broad sandy beach or an arid desert plain, make sure your feet are well supported by comfortable and robust footwear. The Scarpa Ranger series is a firm favourite with experienced hikers and walkers. The popular Ranger II Active GTX (£150) includes a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex lining and a Hi-Flex midsole for striking the right balance of support to foot and ankle and overall walking comfort, especially over long distances and a variety of surfaces – whatever the weather.


app tripod
ACCESSORY: Low cost, lightweight tripod
Whether exploring an arid desert plain or flat fenland marsh, a lightweight tripod that you can set-up quickly is essential. Tripods greatly extend your shooting options for macro photography as well as long exposure landscapes. The MeFoto RoadTrip Air (£160) lives up to its name by weighing at just over a kilogram, and that’s including an Arca-compatible ball head. The five-section legs each lock with a single twist and stand 155cm high when fully extended. Even better, this beautifully compact tripod measures only 29cm long when packed. No excuse then for leaving it behind!    


app camera
CAMERA: Tilting screen SLR
Working close to the ground requires difficult shooting angles. This is where a tilt-screen monitor is useful, letting you frame the scene using the monitor instead of lying on your front. The Nikon D7500 (£1,500 body only) is remarkably light at just 640g. It’s also weather-sealed, so ideal if the conditions are looking changeable. 


• Pack a tripod. Whether photographing waders with a telephoto zoom or a damselfly on a marsh marigold with a macro lens, you will need a tripod to give yourself the best chance of crisply focused image.
• Check what plant and insect species are likely to be present in the marshes during the summer and the best locations to find them. Less time searching means more time for photography.
• Keep the horizon straight. Many cameras have a grid screen option in their viewfinder which helps you to align the horizon and keep it parallel to the top and bottom of the viewfinder.

• Just shoot from a standing position. A flat landscape may seem featureless at first, but by crouching or lying down, you can alter the angle and perspective quite dramatically, especially if the subject to lens distance is close.
• Get wet. This might sound impossible if shooting low and close to shore or on the fringes of a canal, but waterproof boots and clothing will take away the worry. A waterproof housing will protect your camera if it’s raining hard or wind blowing spray from the sea.
• Use autofocus when using a macro lens. Depth of field with these lenses is very shallow, so intricate adjustments to focusing are best done by hand and won’t move if your subject moves.

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


Since 2006, tiger habitats have shrunk by more than 40…


Advances in space-based lightning mapping have allowed scientists to measure…


The amount of energy used by the wealthy minority dwarfs…


Left denuded and depleted of wildlife following a decades-long civil…


Katie Burton explores the practicalities and ethics of geoengineering, the…


Though the pandemic has gripped the world's attention, lying just…


The IPCC embraced the notion of carbon offset schemes in…


The shortlist for the 2020 Wellcome Photography Prize has been…


Millions have been displaced due to severe floods in central…


A portable DNA assay could revolutionise the way border officials…


A handy gathering of facts about carbon emissions with graphs…


Researchers have revealed just how many polluting microfibres are released…


Increasing reports of seized jaguar fangs and skin suggest that…


Forced isolation has given many of us the chance to…


A fifth of the ocean floor has now been mapped,…


Four ex-circus lions discovered in France are due to be…


A roundup of some of the top discussions from the…


The agave plant, used to make Tequila, has proven itself…