This is a companion piece to a video on YouTube, linked at the end of the article.
I have long been enamoured by Button Grass plains in Tasmania.
Native grasses, in Tassie, have a golden hue (some might call it brown) when hit with direct sunlight. In fact, Button Grass is not actually grass, rather it is a sedge. It’s much more special than just having golden tones though: it grows in tussocks and is identified by long stalks with small spheres on the end. These spheres are the “buttons” which are, in fact, flowers.
They only flower for a few weeks in a year and I haven’t yet nailed the right time to see them in their full glory. I did see a field full of them after New Year’s Day last year, which I ignored because I’m a fool. So this Summer, I brought forward the timing by a week in the hope that I could catch it.
There really isn’t a great deal known about button grass, with just a handful of scientific papers available. What we do know is this:
- It grows in nutrient poor soil, which is mostly boggy
- The roots are edible
- It typically grows where waterways begin, and is largely responsible for those waterways thanks to its water-holding properties
- It can be found in most altitudes and covers roughly one eighth of the state
- There is an almost symbiotic relationship with a small, land-based crayfish
- In some areas, it is a breeding ground for the Orange-Bellied Parrot (a critically endangered species)
It was Boxing Day 2023. I gathered up my things and my partner for a full day of exploration. Because we weren’t walking far, I could load up the car with a large portion of gear - a variety of high quality lenses and two cameras.
With all the storms on the bigger island to the north, I was hoping for a little action down here. This was not to be, with clear skies, and a hot sun, with temperatures pushing 30°C at sea level. Thankfully, we were in the highlands, but the direct sun is always hot here.
We did have an ulterior motive as well, which involved Laura’s artwork, which is not my story to tell.
This was also to be my second YouTube video.
The first shot…
…is always the hardest and I was keen to get one in the can. I always go for a wide, establishing shot first, which required a 15-30mm lens.
My plan from the outset was to fill most of the scene with the Button Grass. It was to be the hero of the shot. But without a subject to draw in the eye, it wouldn’t be very interesting. I found a gap in the distant dead trees which led the eye up to the mountain behind, so I had a subject without distractions.
It was a decent shot, but I think the extreme foreground let me down a bit. Once I got that out of the way, the compositions got better and I felt myself relaxing more, taking it all in. The last thing I wanted to do was rush a shoot after a 2.5 hour drive.
The next shot, a little wider, taking in the whole visible mountain range was much better and lived up to my vision.
Getting in closer
Once I got my establishing shot, I swapped out my wide lens for a telephoto, 150-450.
I used the same scenario, but closer (at 150mm) and lower to make the grass shine. The composition required a slightly wider angle, but I didn’t have my 70-200mm with me.
After I tinkered with that for a while, I turned 90° towards an inconspicuous mountain poking out from behind the larger bank of three and found what I believe was the best shot of the series, using the button grass stalks as an extreme, bokeh foreground rising above the subject to balance the shot.
On the way up the ridgeline, I had spotted a mountain range, way off in the distance, with the centrepiece being the stunning Frenchman’s Cap, 1443m. The mountain is in the shape of a dome, but with half of it ripped out, leaving a huge precipice with a famous climb of 380m for the adventurous.
The mountain is made up of quartzite, which reflects the sun, glowing like a beacon of the west. It is barely visible from the road and usually covered in cloud.
On this day, there was not a single cloud near the range, which begged for a photograph.
Given the favourable conditions, this was actually a very difficult shot. The mountain was 24km away, pushing the limits of my lens, at 450mm. The heat was also a huge factor, giving off waves that made focusing difficult. Ordinarily, a longer exposure would help smooth out the heat refraction, but there was also the breeze that pushed the camera just enough to add blur if the shutter wasn’t fast enough (which would then allow the heat shimmer to come through).
With the aid of some clever post-processing, I was able to eek out a nice shot, although I doubt I will never be able to print it in a large format.
Where are the flowers?
By this stage, I’d come to the realisation that we had missed the flowering season by mere days. The “buttons” were either dried up husks, or freshly shed of petals leaving a cluster of fruit swaying in the breeze.
Believe it, or not, there was a single flower that we found, and it was right beside the car!
Whilst not an entire field of Button Grass flowers, I was going to take it as a win. I swapped out my lens for the macro and got up as close as I dared. I really love the two shots I got, as they show the beauty of the flower’s simplistic-looking complexity.
While a sea of flowers would have lifted the scenes considerably, I was not disappointed at all. And I will be returning for the next season a little earlier and with more frequency that just once - even with the five hour return trip.
The parking bay was a hive of activity for the whole time we were there, with caravans and motor homes stopping for a break on their Boxing Day journeys. So we up and left after the last shot. It was literally just 200m down the road where we stopped again (I really wanted some good macro shots in the grasses).
On one side of the road, I found a small pond full of tadpoles and damselflies.
And on the other side of the road were some really lovely, small flowers.
For both of these scenarios, I kept the macro lens on and got as close as I could. All I could do was focus on a spot where I hoped it would land (it had done so already) and wait. The short distance gave a reasonably shallow depth of field. Any movement would scare the damselfly away.
The damselfly flitted around, landing on my focus point a number of times. While it didn’t land exactly side-on, I did get a few really clear shots where the tail pushed into bokeh territory.