Photographing the Vivid Sydney Festival

I suppose we all develop a unique attachment to the place where we were born, raised or have otherwise spent a significant portion of our lives. In my case, that’s Sydney, Australia. I’ve travelled extensively through the USA, Europe, the Caribbean and South East Asia. Along the way there have been trips to wonderfully visual cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Mumbai, Kolkata, London and others. Still, every place has its own unique style, colour, culture, and architecture. The quality of the air, light, sounds, scents and mix of people in each location also creates an ambience which dwells in the memory long after returning home. Being a photographer, I think, gives us an impetus to notice aspects of our environment and details which otherwise might be overlooked, or considered banal. Photography heightens your visual acuity.

I decided on writing this article to focus mainly on the Vivid festival, held this year between May 24 and June 15, during the evening hours 6pm-11pm. During the festival, important landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge are illuminated with graphic displays of laser lighting. There are also music concerts, seminars, and film festivals. In collating some of the images I wanted to use in the article, I realized that Sydney – and especially Sydney Harbour and the surrounding suburbs like Manly – are visually spectacular in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I suppose the eye-watering cost of Sydney real estate is evidence enough of that. Most of the images here concentrate on the Vivid festival, particularly areas of Sydney close to Sydney Harbour. I think of Sydney Harbour as a crown and the Opera House as the jewel. It’s the masterpiece created by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. When the Opera House was declared a world heritage site in 2007, Utzon was only the second person to be recognized in this way during his life.

Contingent on that thought, I’ve included some additional images in an attempt to convey some of my visual impressions of parts of Sydney that I’m familiar with. Some of the images are of Darling Harbour; some are of the Manly area where I live. Sydney as a city is bound by and defined by water, by the clarity and vibrancy of the light, by vivid colour, beaches and large tracts of national parks and the stunning valleys and escarpments of the Blue Mountains, around a 2 hour drive from the CBD. Sydney presents a bounty of visual opportunities for photographers, from the natural landmarks to the theatrical events and concerts I photograph professionally.

I’m an event photographer specializing in photographing stage performance under theatrical lighting while an audience is in attendance. I just bought a Nikon Z6 because it will allow me to be more inconspicuous. The shutter of a Nikon D4 on high speed continuous is not something desirable during a serious dramatic performance with the audience a few feet away. I think although photography and digital imaging is ubiquitous, to explore the visual medium and try to create meaningful and lasting work is incredibly challenging and requires a great deal of effort and commitment.

People may equate your professional activity with their own (how many people turn up with cameras when you’re photographing a wedding) yet the technical expertise and equipment required to reliably produce high level work involves using complex lighting, creative composition, sophisticated communication and software post production skills – skills which easily rival the demands of my former career in computer programming.

I rarely go anywhere without at least having a camera in the car; one of my favourite recreations is taking long exposures of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. During the Vivid festival, many photographers are attracted to the sight of complex animations projected onto the various focal points of the harbour. Of course, there are also many thousands of people using mobile phones to capture the scene, although most photographers will almost certainly know that without a tripod, decent camera, lens, and remote shutter release, it can be very challenging to get a decent image.

In my case, I pack a range of lenses, my Nikon D810, shutter release, and a Manfrotto 190 tripod with a geared three-way head. It’s a little heavy, but very stable, and the head allows me a very precise foundation for my camera. As a local, I can usually avoid the expensive parking in the Sydney CBD by parking some distance away and walking to my preferred location. One of those locations is the walkway which traverses the Harbour bridge from Kirribilli on the north side to Circular Quay, which has a large ferry terminal. It’s a spectacular, amphitheatre view of the harbour and Opera House from an elevated location. If you have deep pockets, there are guided tours to the top of the bridge archway, although cameras are not permitted.

The bridge walkway has its own set of challenges as a location for long exposure photography. For example, most of the length of the bridge is subject to the vibrations of passing traffic. The one stable location is a viewing area below the southern pylon – where a lot of photographers congregate during Vivid. This platform is surrounded by metal fencing, which makes it difficult to position a tripod. Nonetheless, it’s an especially great view of the harbour and Opera House from an elevated location.

At the far end of the walkway across Sydney Harbour, there are usually thousands of people milling around Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the walkway along Bennelong Point to the Opera House. It can be challenging to set up a tripod, but seasoned photographers will know instinctively that establishing a good location to take your images is a very crucial aspect of photography.

Another popular location for night photography is the roof of the Circular Quay railway station. There is an elevator to the eastern end, which leads to a great viewing platform with plenty of space to set up a tripod and a spectacular view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I’ve found a focal length of 24mm to be ideal for this location, and a number of the images here were taken with the Sigma 24mm Art, using long exposure to capture the ferry and boat trails coming in and out of the Circular Quay wharves.

Another great location for night photography during Vivid is the overseas passenger terminal nearby. The beauty of this location is that you can get a great side on view of the Opera House and usually some space to set up a tripod, despite a lot of people milling around.

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