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If you enjoy long exposure or night photography, you will be in your element at Vivid Sydney. This spectacular light festival elevates Sydney’s magnificent beauty to the next level. Given that the installations change annually, you can return each year for something new!
After being inspired by Lauren Bath’s gorgeous Vivid Sydney photography on Instagram, I began plotting how to attend in 2018. Vivid Sydney is an ingenious way to attract people to downtown for three weeks during late May to mid June.
My Vivid Sydney photography tips are based on my extensive research, a photo workshop and 20+ local photographers’ insights.
TIP: Don’t make the rookie mistake I did and try to do sunrise. Given that you’ll likely be shooting during “lights on” from 6-11 PM each night, getting up for sunrise is rough. I bailed four times as I was too exhausted after rolling in at 12:30 AM.
Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair = great sunset viewpoint
Since sun sets around 4:45 PM in the winter, plan your afternoon accordingly. To capture the iconic Sydney Opera House, Harbor Bridge and skyline, walk 25 minutes from Circular Quay to Mrs. Macquarie’s chair. Hopefully, puffy clouds will add flair to your image.
Vivid Sydney lights come on at 6 PM. I recommend staying until at least 7 PM to capture some great long exposure imagery. Starting at 6:30, Vivid boats fill the harbor, resulting in interesting light trails. I opted for tighter shots with my 70-200mm lens and then switched between my 50mm and 12-28mm.
This image below resulted from a boat that went by with a purple mast. The way it bounced and moved during the long exposure makes it appear as if a dance floor is floating in the harbor.
Moving from the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden gate along the wall and then to a higher viewpoint will allow you to vary both perspective and Opera House positioning.
TIP: It’s worth shooting here at least twice as the cloud conditions varied substantially the three times I shot from the viewpoint. Be aware that the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens pathway leading back to the Opera House closes at 5pm, so you will need to walk the long way around to get back to Circular Quay – a 45 minute walk.
Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens
The Royal Botanic Gardens includes a number of cool displays. We enjoyed exploring the sea fans, spider webs, wave, lit pathway and enchanted garden.
TIP: To streamline crowd movement, this path is one way starting from the Opera House in Circular Quay.
Kirribilli – your iconic bridge reflection spot on a rainy night
If it is raining, make sure to head to Kirribilli to capture the iconic bridge reflection during Vivid Sydney – plus boat light trails are an added bonus.
While I attempted to shoot from this location three times, I only succeeded once. It can be popular with photographers, so be prepared to wait. I also learned that some locals bring a bucket to enlarge the puddle to their liking – genius! Make sure to take the ferry or train to Milson’s Point (not Kirribilli as I made the mistake of doing).
TIP: Place your camera as low as possible – ideally directly on the ledge. Be sure to check tides as high tide can prevent you from standing on the steps and positioning your camera without potential damage, which happened to me on one occasion.
TIP: Since the pathway isn’t lit and the puddle can vary in size, I recommend scouting during the day to figure out where the reflection is and bringing a headlamp to use in the evening during Vivid Sydney.
After shooting the puddle, move to a higher viewpoint closer to the bridge that overlooks the pathway and capture ferry and car light trails with the skyline in the background.
TIP: Wait for buses to go by for the coolest trails.
Lavender Point – capture three icons in one shot during Vivid Sydney
Just before arriving in Sydney, I was enraptured by a Vivid Sydney image from another photographer that went viral from this viewpoint. Since it includes the Opera House, Harbor Bridge and Luna Park (with the Ferris wheel lit for the first time), I was fascinated by the perspective.
TIP: Make sure to bring a 70-200mm lens for this vantage point. And, time your long exposure shot with the Ferris wheel spinning and a boat passing by to get two complementary motion forms. I also waited for the Sydney Opera House projection to match the light trails as well, which is tricky!
Sydney Harbor Bridge – cool vantage point for light trails
After shooting at the aforementioned spots, walk back across the bridge so that you can capture Vivid Sydney ferry and boat trails, anchored by the Opera House. Be prepared for vibrations from this vantage point. If you walk straight through, it will take you 30 minutes from Milson’s Point to the Rocks.
TIP: Opt for 30 – 90 seconds and then layer images in Photoshop to maximize the light trails.
TIP: Another place to see boat light trails from above is from the Shangri-La hotel. Next time I attend, I might try to rent a room for an evening during Vivid Sydney to be able to capture that vantage point. Apparently, they cater to photographers and rent rooms for a four-hour time block during Vivid Sydney. Or, you can try to snag a window table at the Blu Bar on the 36th floor.
We loved having dinner at Café Sydney and getting a bird’s eye view of Circular Quay, the Harbor Bridge and Opera House.
TIP: Request a window seat inside or an outdoor patio seat. Assuming it’s not raining, their heat lamps will keep you warm. Make sure to book well in advance as reservations fill up quickly, especially during Vivid Sydney.
The Rocks – explore the laneways in this historical area
After capturing your desired imagery from the bridge, head to the Rocks, grab a snack and explore the laneways. This year provided photogenic kites, cranes, a dinosaur and pufferfish.
The Vivid Sydney app will not only help you identify installations of interest, but also assist you with routing your evening.
TIP: Stop at the historic Glenmore hotel for a drink. This pub, built in 1921, has a rooftop view.
Hickson Road Reserve – interesting leading lines and framing
By shooting sunset here, you can figure out your optimal framing for the Sydney Opera house through the open hole that exists in the fence extending around the area. Arrive 20 – 30 minutes before sunset to scout, shoot through sunset and then wait for the Vivid Sydney lights to come on.
TIP: Set your tripod up with two legs on the stone wall and one leg on the ground to maximize stability. And, make sure to turn around and photograph the bridge at this hour as it’s an interesting perspective. A 24-70mm full frame equivalent is ideal for this viewpoint. I found that my 12-28mm was a bit too wide here.
TIP: Return to this spot for sunrise since the sun rises behind the Opera House. While I attempted sunrise three times, I found myself too exhausted from late Vivid Sydney nights, so I’ll shoot at this point during a future visit.
Overseas Passenger Terminal – three interesting Vivid Sydney view points
After capturing some images framing the iconic Sydney Opera House, walk eight minutes to the Overseas Passenger terminal for three interesting vantage points.
From the second level, you can clearly see the lasers lighting up the Sydney Opera House, which is a cool angle from which to view the action.
Then, move to the circular upper level and wait for ferries to arrive to create an interesting image with intersecting vanishing lines.
Turn around, and photograph the bridge and ferries. Capturing trails from the train and or traffic results in cool leading lines across the bridge.
The Cahill Expressway – five unique Vivid Sydney vantage points
During a NiSi filters workshop, I discovered a number of unique Vivid Sydney gems from this higher, centrally located vantage point.
TIP: To reach here, walk past the ferry terminals in Circular Quay and take the elevator up to the Expressway.
Looking down upon Circular Quay, use a wide-angle lens to capture the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Sydney Opera House and light trails from the ferries.
TIP: The Manly ferry comes every 30 minutes at night. Given its size, it leads to some really cool light trails.
By turning around and facing the highway, you can also photograph some interesting movement from the passing cars.
After capturing both of these, make your way along the walkway and be on the lookout for polished granite. Bend down and you will see the Sydney Harbor Bridge reflected in the granite. Given my love of reflections, this is one of my favorite vantage points.
Moving further along, you can photograph the lights reflecting in the water below. In hindsight, I wished I had used a zoom lens here rather than a wide angle to vary the perspective. Switch out to a 70-200mm lens to capture close-ups of the Sydney Opera House in all its projection glory.
As you move along the Expressway towards the steps that will take you into the Rocks, pause to capture the Rocks from above leading to the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
TIP: Since this road is closed until Vivid Sydney lights turn off promptly at 11 PM, you can return after that and capture car light trails as crews come into clean.
Head down the steps towards the Rocks and you can admire and photograph the Opera House, with the laser lights accenting it from beneath.
Darling Harbor Fireworks
If you are interested in seeing fireworks, head over to Darling Harbor. The fireworks display is at 8 PM each night and complements the installation. Given my love of scuba diving, I really enjoyed the jellyfish on display this year.
Some other TIPS to maximize your Vivid Sydney visit:
• Attend Vivid Sydney at least three nights, ideally five, in the event of rain. Monday – Thursday is ideal to minimize crowds.
• Use a variety of lenses to change your perspective. I brought a 12-28mm, 50mm, and 70-200mm and used them all.
• If you have them, bring rain pants/waterproof jacket/rain cover. Then, you can venture out when rains keep crowds away and capture cool reflections.
• Bring a tripod, remote release and extra batteries. The cold temperatures, long exposure photography and live view will drain your batteries quickly.
• Pack snacks and water to stay hydrated and keep hunger at bay. Since I was shooting from 4 PM – 11 PM each night and didn’t really want to stop to eat, both of these proved invaluable.
• Bring layers! I had on a down jacket, gloves and hat some nights as it gets chilly standing in one place.
• Buy an Opal card to use for the train and ferries. Fill it during the day to avoid the long lines at night.
• Attend a NiSi filter workshop one evening early during your stay to learn about vantage points and try out the NiSi Natural Night filter. It removes the yellow cast in nightscape images as well as light pollution, which makes a HUGE difference.