Off The Grid: Mark Lehn Heads to Australia’s Heron Island for Qantas Airlines

Feb 10, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

Pitches from clients can vary greatly, with some being intricate and detailed and others being broad and vague. Photography being a creative profession, many in the industry crave at least a modicum of creative freedom. Mark Lehn got that and then some for a recent gig with Qantas Airlines’ in-flight publication, “Travel Insider.” The Australian visited picturesque Heron Island, which sits just off the country’s east coast. Here’s a summation of the magazine’s pitch:  

This was a three-day shoot, and I had a lot of creative freedom. I think the art director said something like ‘just make people want to go there.’ 

Thanks Lindsay!

Even with an abundance of creative freedom — or perhaps because of it — Mark needed to buckle down and do his homework ahead of the excursion. Fortunately, the Aussie had three outlets for preparation, including content produced by the name most associated with nature documentaries.

I had heard quite a lot about Heron Island as it had been featured in a Sir David Attenborough show and he visited the island quite recently. It looked amazing, so I was excited to go. 

Cropped tear

The second way Mark prepped for the shoot was by reading the accompanying article drafted for the story. Since author Tracey Withers had already been to Heron Island by the time Mark got out there, he could use her musings as a point of reference upon arrival. In addition, Mark received more background info about the location through connecting with Heron’s PR firm.  

Tracey was up at Heron a few weeks before me. I read a draft of her article on the plane on my way up to the island. I was also working closely with the island’s PR company in the weeks before, getting permission to fly my drone and working on other logistics, as it’s a national park.

Mark also says he “talk[s] to as many people as he can to find out about what [he’s] shooting,” which is most likely what led to his getting the best image of the assignment.  

I was told by the staff on the island that if you get up early there are a lot of rays actually asleep under the jetty. Every morning at dawn, I would go swim under the jetty and photograph everything that was under there.

Another cropped tear

The craziest animal I photographed was the shovel-nosed ray. I hadn’t seen one before, so it was pretty cool to see one up close! 

And when you go to take pictures underwater at dawn, you have to see things up close or else you won’t see them at all. Like, the animal has to be fewer than 10 feet in front you, as Mark found out.

There was limited visibility because the sun had not come up yet, so I could only see what was right in front of me. A guy on the jetty actually yelled down to me at one point and said, ‘did you see that shark?’ He said it was about two meters long and just 10 feet in front of me. I hadn't seen it. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have still been in the water! 

Thankfully, Mark side-stepped what could’ve been a pretty terrifying experience and nailed the shoot, so much so that he actually did another assignment for Qantas not long after the Heron work had wrapped.  

The reaction was really positive, and I have since worked on a similar shoot with them, my third for the magazine, at a brand-new resort on Wilson Island. 

Wilson Island

At the beginning of the Heron Island story, Tracey states that humans visit the paradise to “connect with nature — and themselves.” It’s pretty easy to achieve the first part of that description when there isn’t a modern technological amenity in sight. Even on assignment, Mark soaked in the kind of experience that Qantas hopes more people will sign up for in the future.

Just getting off the grid was pretty cool. There’s no mobile reception or Wi-Fi, which isn’t really common anymore. Most of the time you’re snorkeling, diving, bird watching, or walking along the beach. It’s a great place to unplug and relax, even if it’s for work! 


Writer: Tracey Withers

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