One of Australia’s top emerging travel photographers, James Vodicka, gives his tips on how to capture the perfect quokka photo.
The first time I visited Rottnest Island with Rottnest Express, I wasn’t planning on taking a single quokka photo. I was determined to capture another side to the island - the natural landscape and underwater beauty that wasn’t as often shared on social media. This was until my sunset shoot at the remote Stark Bay was rudely interrupted by one of the island’s furry little natives. He was very inquisitive and stuck by my side for an hour as I watched the sun set over the ocean from a rocky headland. Naturally, I couldn’t help but take a few shots.
One month and two Rottnest Island trips later, the three quokka photos I have since posted on Instagram have become my three most liked photographs, ever. Reaching the top post on #SeeAustralia, featured by @Australia a few weeks later, and receiving over 150,000 likes, 5000 saves and a reach of 1.2million, the sunset quokka on Stark Bay headland has rapidly ascended to my most successful social media post ever. Returning to Rottnest Island, I set out to uncover what you need to know to take the perfect quokka photo.
There’s so much beauty to photograph on Rottnest Island, from the white sand beaches and crystal blue water right down to the cheeky quokkas. It’s a destination I’ve been to multiple times and will absolutely come back to – always with camera in hand.
Rottnest Island sits just a 30-minute Rottnest Express ferry ride from Perth. Turquoise water, white sand beaches and adorably cute quokkas roaming the island – what more could you ask for?
You’ll find quokkas everywhere on the island – in particular around the settlement. The ideal photo would be a quokka on the beach, or somewhere with water views, but this is extremely rare. Some spots that I have spotted quokkas on the coast are The Basin, Stark Bay headland, Bickley Bay dunes, Parker Point boardwalk and Salmon Point. If it’s bushland or an inland backdrop that you’re after, the scrub around Bathurst Tennis Courts and towards Pinky’s Beach is always a popular spot.
Once you find a quokka to photograph, you’ll need a camera to capture the shot. If you’re like most visitors to the island hunting for a selfie, an iPhone or GoPro is really all you need. If you’re like me however, you’ll prefer to stay on the other side of the camera. Depending on the look that you’re going for, there are a few options for lenses and focal lengths:
- Wide Angle – Looking to get up close and really exaggerate the curious smirking expression of the quokka? You’ll need a wide angle lens, anything from about 10-24mm, and will want to be shooting as close as your lens allows before reaching its minimum focusing distance.
- Standard – Anything from about 30-60mm will appear the most ‘normal’, as it is closest to the focal length of the human eye and what most phones tend to shoot at.
- Telephoto – This is a length I haven’t really experimented with for shooting quokkas, and for one simple reason, you don’t need to. You can get very close to quokkas without much effort , so why not shoot from up close?
In terms of camera settings, these are the best to adjust for the quokka’s movements and to maximise your chances of getting the perfect photo:
- Continuous Auto-Focus – Quokkas move quickly, and their smiles don’t last long. You don’t want to nail the perfect shot only to find that it’s out of focus.
- High Burst Rate – Despite the abundance of photos floating around social media, a quokka’s smile is a fleeting moment and hard to capture. When it happens, a high burst rate will give you plenty of photos to choose from.
- High Shutter Speed (1/2000s or quicker) – Like any subject in motion, a high shutter speed will help eliminate any motion blur and result in a perfectly sharp photograph.
There are a few small factors that people rarely consider when photographing quokkas, but they might make that little difference that bumps your photograph toward the realm of perfection.
- Lighting – It’s no secret to photographers that the golden hours of the day (one hour before or after sunrise and sunset) are the best times to photograph. The light is less harsh and the subject is illuminated by a glow that can make anyone look like a supermodel.
- The Smile – When framing the shot, focus on the smile. This is the money maker and the aspect of a quokka photo that makes people go crazy with cuteness-overload.
- Get Close – The closer you get to the quokka, the more immersive the photo will feel to the viewer. If the photo makes people want to reach in and cuddle the little guy, you’ve nailed it.
- The Backdrop – It’s important that the backdrop doesn’t distract from the subject of the photo. Try to go for clean backgrounds, muted colours, a lack of people and buildings, and if possible, the ocean.
The star of the show and most critical aspect to any successful quokka photo is the quokka itself. It is worth getting to know how they behave and interact with people in order to maximise your chances of capturing a powerful photograph.
- They are naturally inquisitive – You do not need to approach quokkas, corner them or offer them food to get close enough for a photograph. Stay a respectful distance, get down to their level and wait for them to come to you.
- Do not touch them – Once a quokka approaches you it can be easy to get caught up in the moment and forget that these are wild animals. For both your safety, and the quokka’s safety, try not to touch or interact on a physical level. Touching quokkas is illegal and you can be fined.
- Capture the smile – A quokka’s smile becomes visible when they look up and toward the camera, stretch their neck out inquisitively, or are mid-meal. Wait for these moments to capture your photographs - it’s well worth it.
- Focus on the funny – Quokkas do strange things, look hilarious and are adorably cute 75% of the time. Look out for quirky moments and gestures that could be paired with a funny caption. As an example, check out my photograph of ‘Quokky Balboa’ – a complete fluke of a shot, but I was able to recognise the potential and pair it with a caption that received enough attention to be reposted by @Australia.
- Hand-pick your quokka – Not all quokkas are perfectly groomed and ready for their photoshoot. Many will have tufts of hair missing, wet fur after rain, food scraps around their mouths and dirty or dusty paws. There are enough quokkas on the island that you can be selective. It’s not prejudice, would you want your photo taken after a full day of scavenging in the dirt?
If you follow most of these tips, you’ll be well on your way to scoring the perfect quokka photo with ease. So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip right now – head over to Rottnest Express to book ferries, bike hire or tours, Discovery Parks to book a luxury glamping accommodation and my contact form to invite me to come over with you! I’ll see you there…