The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area covers more than ten thousand square kilometres, most of which is designated wilderness.
Twisters, Newnes Plateau. Small tumbling waterfalls are littered around the Blue Mountains. Even the smallest one can become your next photographic masterpiece.
There is so much to see and explore. The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is more than ten thousand square kilometres, most of which is designated wilderness due to its isolation, biodiversity and, surprisingly, relatively untouched by the damaging hand of humanity. It varies from rainforest, wet and dry sclerophyll, and mallee heathland through to swamps and canyons. It’s a visual delight and a smorgasbord of variety.
I was born in the Blue Mountains so I am biased. For me it’s my favourite shooting location. Perhaps it’s because I know it like the back of my hand; it makes me relax and feel like I am coming home. I am most in love with its beauty.
On a technical level it’s the light that inspires my personal passion. When the light is right, it is fantastic; soft and gentle, beautiful and moody. But that’s only a small part of it. The beautiful walks, majestic waterfalls and green rainforests provide a wonderful contrast to the vast, dryer gum forests. The Blue Mountains has it all if you dare to search it out.
The three sisters at Katoomba is Australia’s most visited natural landmark, yet the hords of tourists visit just for a day and miss so much of its beauty. You need to stay longer, explore and discover, get to know it, let it get into you. Stay a couple of days, or a week is even better, and for the full experience you need to stay a lifetime.
The Blue Mountains is a landscape photographer’s paradise. It suits lovers of trees, ferns, waterfalls and cliffs. The sandstone dominates the landscape and the vegetation soaks up the rain water and keeps it, so that it seeps out consistently, keeping the waterfalls flowing and the green moss glowing.
Where is it?
The Blue Mountains is 100 kilometres west of Sydney, Australia. It is divided by a main road and a railway line that both run east/west. Along the main road and railway line the towns are sprinkled one after the other. Superb photo locations can be found both north and south of the towns.
How to get there and get around when there?
The Blue Mountains is easily accessible by car up via the Great Western Highway and alternatively, I love the two hour train ride from Sydney Central to Katoomba.
Most of the accommodation is in Katoomba and Leura. Here you will find everything from five star hotels, boutique luxury rooms in smaller guest houses, through to multiple backpacker hostels and camping grounds. There are plenty of beautiful places to camp and many homely holiday houses to rent.
The easiest to get to and most photogenic locations are between Wentworth Falls and Mount Victoria. If you have access to a vehicle then you can go further afield, but if you train it up I recommend you stay in Katoomba.
The train line is the most reliable public transport up and down the mountains. A tourist bus does a circuit to many fantastic shooting locations between Katoomba and Wentworth Falls. It’s one of those hop on and hop off services. Once you’re there, walking is the best transport ““ there are many stunning walking tracks with varying levels of difficulty.
When to visit?
With my love of soft light I recommend visiting in the cooler/wetter months – March through to September. Winter is the most visited time of the year as it’s popular with Sydney-siders to head up for a weekend, hoping for a glimpse of snow. They tend not to go out too much so the walking tracks are still relatively quiet.
Summer is for the more adventurous types who would like to photograph the amazing slot canyons. The best time to visit them is in February as the water in them is warmest at that time of year, although even then the water is very cold.
What gear to take?
Photographing in the mist is an acquired taste, and is easier with the right clothing. Outdoor clothing that dries quickly and remains warm when wet is essential, as is waterproof outer-ware such as a rain coat and over pants. I like wearing a hat to keep the rain off my face.
I use an umbrella and a tripod so that it’s easier to keep shooting in the drips of moisture and fog. Using the tripod under an umbrella frees a hand to operate the camera.
Always carry warm clothes with you, adequate water and snacks. A map and a guide book are indispensable, as are a camera back pack. The further you walk into places the better the photographs will be.
Bushwalkers are encouraged to take with them Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) that are available free of charge from a number of locations in the Blue Mountains.
As far as camera gear goes I recommend bring your favourite equipment; there is something for everyone. If you’re into panoramic wide angles you will find them, macro delights abound, and there is plenty of wildlife for your longer telephoto lenses. I always prefer my standard prime lens, but lens choice is a personal thing.
I pack my lenses into clip lock plastic bags so that when out in the rain I can still open the camera bag knowing that if a little water gets in, my lenses will be fine.
Specific places to visit?
A good place to start your photography is the board walk in the rainforest at Katoomba’s Scenic World. Despite the amount of people who visit, it’s well worth a look. If you’re there early enough you can walk around to Katoomba Falls and photograph the views before the steepest railway in the world opens. Chances are the valley will be flooded in mist and without all the tourists you will find some amazing shots. Walk to the east and look for the waterfalls.
The jewel of the mountains for waterfalls is the Valley of the Waters at Wentworth Falls. Empress Falls starts an amazing series of waterfalls that deliver stunning photographs every time I visit. It’s a spot worth visiting in the early morning. Allow yourself at least three hours to walk in and enjoy photographing there. The sun spills in by 10am, signalling your move to the coffee shop at the conservation hut where you started; the food here is worth staying for and enjoying.
While you’re in Wentworth Falls consider Charles Darwin Walk along Jamison Creek. The end near Wentworth Falls is the best. Walk up to weeping rock and photograph down to the main falls. Late afternoon can be amazing with golden sunset light bouncing off orange walls into the water ““ it’s well worth searching for. My favourite long walk here is called National Pass, where part of the track goes up and down a huge amount of stairs – for photographers allow four hours or more. There is so much to photograph on this walk; you could spend the whole day on it.
Before leaving the waterfalls, I recommend Leura Cascades as it’s a very easy walk and yields a surprising amount of great photographs. Walk out onto the old swimming pool when your at the car park and you can photograph some fantastic king ferns from this location. Wander down past all of the cascades to the end.
Blackheath is full of very special locations. The waterfalls are easily visited by vehicle and short strolls at Goverts Leap. The cliff-top walk from here is fantastic, with huge vistas out over the valleys below. I think these are often best in the late afternoon light. Eventually the sun will light up the cliffs opposite and make them glow golden. Pulpit Rock is another favourite lookout. It’s accessible by car, and you get a 270 degree view from what feels like a birds nest high above the valley bellow. It’s stunning at sunset, but take a torch so you can get back to your car.
Bridal Vale Falls just north of Goverts Leap at Blackheath is well worth the gentle walk from the car park. After prolonged rain this waterfall is huge. On wet days the greens glow so beautifully and it is well worth waiting for the mist to part to capture shots like this one.
My favourite walk at Blackheath is much longer and takes in the Grand Canyon. With a camera I like to give myself two thirds of a day to do it, so take lunch and plenty of water and snacks. This walk is not for the unfit person as it is more than ten kilometres, but the rewards are worth every step. The walk takes you through some amazing locations, winding down an amazing glen and through the canyon.
The slot canyons of the Blue Mountains are world famous, full of glow worms and ferns, 50 metres deep and only a metre wide. It’s amazing to think they have been carved by water in the cracks in the sandstone. If you don’t want to do the whole Grand Canyon walk, I recommend the walk into the canyon from Evans Lookout. The greens in Greaves Creek are stunning. If you do make it down to the river then make sure you wander upstream for a couple of kilometres so you can visit the end of the Grand Canyon proper.
For those who visit the Blue Mountains with a car, I recommend taking the long dirt road drive out to the Glow Worm tunnel on Newnes Plateau. If it has been raining all week this road gets very muddy so leave it to a dryer visit. The Stone National Park gardens that you drive through are full of visually amazing sandstone pagodas. Once you get to the glow worm tunnel, take the two kilometre walk down to it with a torch and walk through the tunnel. The best photographic spot is at the other end. Allow an hour or two just to photograph this beautiful spot as it is full of majestic king ferns.
The last spot I recommend is a drive along Mount Hay road from Leura. It’s not for the faint of heart or low slung sports cars. Stop at Flat Top and the three Pinnacles on the way and at the very end walk out to Butter Box Point, a short walk of about one kilometre. The view from here is stunning. You look down hundred metre cliffs into the Gross Valley. I like it out there in the mornings but I have found interesting photographs throughout the day.
About Lenard Metcalf
Leonard Metcalf has been obsessively photographing the Blue Mountains for the past fifteen years, and has a well-deserved reputation for photographic knowledge of the area. He is a master photographic educator with many years experience. His clients return year after year to be inspired by him.
Len founded Len’s School in 2000 and has developed a number of innovative courses and workshops. His photography tours are gentle, small group luxury tours that are supportive, encouraging and educational. Tours are run in Tasmania, Central Australia, and the Blue Mountains as well as to other more exotic locations. One popular course is the annual landscape workshop in Blackheath, where he mixes tuition and classroom sessions with morning and evening shoots to make a fantastic learning experience.
The Three Sisters in the mist from Eagle Hawk Lookout at Katoomba – after fifteen years of living in the Blue Mountains this is the first shot of the Three Sisters that I was happy with enough to publish.
Empress Canyon can clearly be seen in this photograph which is the most visited canyon in the Blue Mountains. At various times of the day you will see canyoneers abseil down this waterfall as they finish this beautiful canyon. The local guiding companies run daily tours through this canyon. This shot is taken from the Valley of the Waters in Wentworth Falls.
Iron barks in the mountain’s mist, rise above Jenolan River, near Jenolan Caves which is a long drive from the upper mountains but is well worth an overnight visit at Caves House. Do a cave tour while you’re there.
King Fern at the Glow Worm Tunnel Canyon on the other side of the tunnel. The stand of ferns here are a visual delight. This location works well in the mornings or late afternoons.
See additional images in Photo Review Mag app March 2014 issue, where this article was first published.