In order to evaluate the relationship between the apparent complexity of hillslope soil moisture and the emergent patterns of catchment hydrological behaviour and water quality, we need fine-resolution catchment-wide data on soil moisture characteristics. This study proposes a methodology whereby vegetation patterns obtained from high-resolution orthorectified aerial photographs are used as an indicator of soil moisture characteristics. This enables us to examine a set of hypotheses regarding what drives the spatial patterns of soil moisture at the catchment scale (material properties or topography). We find that the pattern of Juncus effusus vegetation is controlled largely by topography and mediated by the catchment's material properties. Characterizing topography using the topographic index adds value to the soil moisture predictions relative to slope or upslope contributing area (UCA). However, these predictions depart from the observed soil moisture patterns at very steep slopes or low UCAs. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.