Strong, beautiful, vigorous – these words best describe the Ficus or fig family of trees, shrubs and vines. Of the 850 species on Earth, the Ficus I am most interested to “light paint” is the Moreton Bay Fig, an Australian native that grows between North Queensland and the South Coast of New South Wales.
Working on location, I use light painting techniques to accentuate the shape of these remarkable trees and to showcase their external root systems. With a powerful torch (flashlight) and a medium format film camera set on time exposure, I move into each scene highlighting form and texture up close. I wear dark clothing and constantly move so the camera cannot “see” me. I shoot 120 Fuji colour transparency stock because film provides the best result during my time exposures (sometimes as long as ten minutes).
This magnificent fig tree sprawls across farmland near Wauchope, on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. A number of its lower limbs are so heavy that they dip to touch the ground. I recced the location one week before the shoot, then agonised over the best position for the camera. This angle emphasises the size of the lichen-covered limbs and the wondrous buttress system that supports the tree.
My mission is to capture the majesty of these trees: their arching limbs; their amazing buttress roots; the way their aerial roots become strong props for their massive branches. I have researched and found Moreton Bay Figs in cow paddocks, harbourside parks, growing along sandstone walls, and pushing up through the rusted roof of an abandoned car. I have also found fig trees that strangle other trees in an effort to gain height (and more sunshine).
Some figs, like this Strangler Fig, begin life as a seed left by a bird high in the branches of a different (“host”) tree. The seed sprouts and grows until its own roots reach the earth below. Over years, the fig encases the host tree using it as a support while it grows up towards the forest canopy. Eventually the fig strangles the host tree. By then the fig is able to support itself.
I have been fascinated by buttress roots since my father explained them to me as a child. To me, buttress roots had been about mysteries and secret hidey-holes. In biological terms, these raised surface roots not only provide support for a fig tree but also help the tree extract nutrients from the upper soil where most nutrients are found. This fine example grows in Sydney’s Inner West in the grounds of Callan Park.
I literally stopped in my tracks when I first walked past this twisted mass of fig trees roots near Tambourine Bay in Sydney. I love the way the roots have encircled the rock. I used a small torch (a Surefire flashlight) during this three-minute exposure because it enabled me to carefully trace and accentuate the features of each and every root.
Like an alien hand this buttress root creeps across the earth. Fig trees and Sydney sandstone walls tend to go together. This specimen grows within metres of Sydney Harbour and directly opposite the Sydney Opera House.
The root systems of fig trees are vigorous and tenacious. Home-owners and plumbers hate them! Above are two fantastic examples of this vigour, in a Sydney harbour-side park. In the second light painting I wonder which came first — the iron pipe, or the fig tree?
Light painting landscapes at dusk is my specialty and my passion. It gets me out of the studio and into the natural world. The experience can be meditative or frenetic: depending on whether I am patiently waiting after sunset for the correct exposure of the fading dusk sky; or working against the clock to selectively “paint” the elements in a scene with a moving torchlight. I can research and plan all I like, but on location during dusk I have a fifteen-minute window of opportunity to produce a light painting – just one set-up and one torch.
In the Bellinger Valley, on the North Coast of New South Wales, there grows a Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophilla) of enormous proportions. In 2011 the tree was measured — its circumference was 18 metres (59 feet), its height was 50 metres (164 feet). These dimensions are hard to show with the objectivity of a camera lens. I don’t usually include people in my light paintings but on this occasion I asked my father to step in, to provide some sense of scale in the shot. During an eight-minute time exposure, I slowly panned my Mag-Lite torch up and down the trunk (and my patient father). An incredible tree in a wonderful part of the world!
The other aspect of fig trees that fascinates me is the way some trees grow aerial roots from their branches. Initially these aerial roots are short and spindly but once they reach the ground they take root and fatten up to the extent that they provide both nutrient and support to the tree’s heavy limbs. In some cases the aerial roots are dense, like a curtain. This beautiful example grows in my local area. During the five-minute exposure I walked into shot and used a small torch to trace every single root in view. I like the sense of pattern and repetition.
Vanguard Tree Guard
I’ve seen a desperate gardener driving a tall palm tree home with the palm fronds sticking up through the car’s open sun roof. The example above has taken 40 years to develop beside a bush road in Northern New South Wales. The car’s chassis rests on the ground and the roof has rusted out. Two trees are growing through the open roof — a fig on the left, a maple on the right. It was such an unusual sight that I just had to stop and light paint the scene.
Most of my light paintings are available as limited edition, archival prints (see the menu heading — Prints). My watermark does not appear on purchased prints.