This is part 3 of a 4-part series sharing the photos from my trip to Australia, in October 2017. I split the wildlife posts between Kangaroos and Wombats, and I've split the landscape photography between classic landscapes (here), and trees. This one's a slightly different style to the others. As well as showing my favourite landscape photos from the trip, it also will contain plenty of advice and recommendations for anyone else looking for landscape photography locations in the Blue Mountains area. Hopefully it should be a useful reference point for those photographers who were in the position I was in this time last year.
First of all, I should point any photographers in the direction of Gary P Hayes' website, which contains a fabulously detailed and rich write-up of the various viewpoints in the Blue Mountains. I found this very useful when I was researching. However, it's so detailed, and so sprawling, it can be hard navigate if you're not familiar with the area. So I'm pitching this post at people who are new to the Blue Mountains, and would like more of an overview.
I'm going to start with a map, below, which shows the main locations I researched or visited. The basic Geography of the area is you have Sydney on the South East coast of Australia, and then a ridge of land winding West from there, along which are the towns of Glenbrook, Springwood, Lawson, Wentworth Falls, Leura, Katoomba, and Blackheath. And either side of that ridgeline, the land falls away leaving hundreds of square miles of subtropical rainforest below. The further West you go, the higher the altitude. So generally speaking, the views get better and it's cooler in temperature. The locations in this post are also ordered from East to West.
Glenbrook is a nice little town, with a fantastic walk/clamber alongside a river, through a steep-sided gorge. You can find the route here. Parking is easy, but it costs a couple of dollars. It's a fantastic walk, and one of the highlights of my trip. It was the most Australian-looking place I went to. And by that I mean it was like off of Crocodile Dundee. But I didn't find it very productive for photography. Light is low in the gorge unless the sun is high in the sky, at which point you get very harsh highlights and shadows. We had a few moments where the sun went behind the clouds, and that classic soft-box effect was enough to render the light usable. I got this photo of a Eucalyptus tree which I really like, but it doesn't show anything of what the gorge is really like. You'll just have to visit for yourself. And let's face it, most of the photography locations are best for sunrise or sunset, so you need activities like this to fill the daytime. Along the way, keep an eye out for wildlife. We saw dozens of lizards, a green tree snake, and an Eastern Water Dragon. Best weather for this location would be misty / overcast.
After your walk, if you're a fan of hipster cafes and tea rooms (as I am) pop into the 2773 Cafe for a mason jar of iced coffee, or a basket of waffle fries.
(2) Lincolns Rock
Or "Flat Rock", as it's also known, just outside the town of Wentworth Falls, looking West over the Jamison Valley. Since it faces West, it's best for sunset. However, I found the light here very harsh. Filters and HDR ahoy. The sky is very bright, and the ground is very dark. It's a great viewpoint. Just difficult to photograph. It's also very much in need of a good foreground. There's a tiny cave there, but it's a bit of a dodgy climb to get to, and the view isn't any better than from the top of the rock. I wasted a lot of time with a wide-angle lens here, when really I think a medium telephoto is more suitable. My favourite photo from here was a telephoto shot of the layers at blue hour, once the contrast was reduced. This, to me, says "Blue Mountains".
One thing to note about Lincolns Rock is that although it's less developed for tourists (no metal railings, no facilities) it's very popular with commercial photographers and millennial Instagrammers. I visited three times (as the location was convenient for me), and encountered wedding and engagement shoots each time. It's not that they're a problem, but I prefer to enjoy my photography somewhere quieter. Overall, the location has a lot of potential, but it wasn't one of my favourites, and I probably wouldn't go back.
(3) Wentworth Falls
As you get closer to Katoomba, things start to feel a little more touristy, and you start to notice it here. But that said, I think Wentworth Falls still strikes a good balance between catering for tourists, and providing enjoyable hikes and trails. There's a nice big car park, with a handful of viewpoints nearby, and some good hiking trails down into the valley. Of the viewpoints, I think I prefer the higher ones (nearer the car park), but none really grabbed my attention. I think you need some interesting weather, like mist or a cloud inversion, to really make a noteworthy image here. We saw a couple of lyrebirds though, which are the icon of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Leura is lovely. Nice independent shops and tea rooms. I don't know the name of the place I got an Iced Chocolate and a slice of cheesecake from, but the memory will stay with me for the rest of time. The best views I found here were through the town, and looking out from the southern tip, from Olympian Rock and Elysian Rock. They're joined by the longer Prince Henry Cliff Walk, which looks like a great route to hike further along. There are lots of viewpoints along that track which I doubt many photographers use, due to the abundance of more easily-accessed lookouts around.
The view is a very wide one, South over the Jamison Valley to Mount Solitary, and the two smaller valleys either side. To the right, you can see the arse-end of the Three Sisters (see Katoomba). The sun rises on the left, and sets to the right. Neither sunrise nor sunset are ideal, due to the mountains each side blocking the first and last light, but I prefer sunrise. However, both are usable, and the view is one of my favourites. Like a lot of the lookouts, it's very hard to find a usable foreground, which is a shame.
These lookouts are very easy and accessible (which is always handy for a sunrise). Parking is free (park on Olympian Parade road), and you're at the lookout within a minute.
I was fortunate to get a cloud inversion on my sunrise visit, which was amazing. I'm not particularly happy with the photos I got that morning, which is a shame, but I've shared these two to give an idea of the potential.
Katoomba is the main tourist hub in the Blue Mountains, and it's by far the busiest town. It has several lookout points, so I'll summarise a few of the notable ones here...
(5) Echo Point (Three Sisters)
This is the main view of the Blue Mountains which all the tourists and coach trips visit. It's a nice view, but in no way better than any other view point, and thus is best avoided, due to it's popularity. Parking costs, and it's not cheap either. The Three Sisters, which are the icon of the National Park, are nothing noteworthy, and it's well documented that they were picked out by the tourism board in an attempt to find a focal point for the area. Let's face it, there are cliffs and rocks everywhere, so why shoot these ones.
(6) Cliff View Lookout
I liked this one, and I just stumbled on it myself. Park in Maple View Car Park (free, and has some lovely trees around there). Then walk South for approximately 10 minutes, down a signposted path. You'll get good views of the valley layers there at sunrise. I wasn't able to visit during the best light, but this panorama gives you a sense of the views available.
(7) Eagle Hawk Lookout
Of the Katoomba lookouts, this was my favourite. It's a nice view which features the Three Sisters, without relying on them for interest. You can get a eucalyptus tree foreground if you really work for it. Parking is free, but there's only space for a couple of cars in a lay-by on a slightly dodgy bend. But still, once you're parked you're 10 seconds from the viewpoint. It's the same enormous Jamison Valley you're looking into from Leura, Wentworth Falls, and Lincolns Rock, which all take a different angle on it. In fact, this lookout faces Lincolns Rock, which is somewhere in the far distance, theoretically. I definitely prefer this one at sunrise, and wouldn't bother with sunset (too much is in shadow). Ideally, you'll have a little mist in the valley too. This photo really shows why they called them the Blue Mountains. The phenomenon comes from the oil in the eucalyptus trees, which mixes with sunlight, dust, and water vapour on a humid day, and creates this blue glow.
Narrowneck Plateau Trail
Plenty of good views for a sunrise here, looking left/East towards Katoomba, Mount Solitary, and the Jamison Valley, as you walk South down this trail. Also views to the right/West over the fantastically named Megalong Valley. Whoever got that name rubber-stamped is my kind of guy. I found the views Westwards a little humanised for my taste though, with fields and buildings in view. It lacked the timeless / prehistoric feel of the views elsewhere. You can't drive very far down this trail, so it's a case of parking up and walking the majority of the route. That's fine for a good morning's walk, but not ideal for sunrise, which is when I think this is best photographed. Just a note, but the volume of the cicadas here was quite astounding. There must have been tens of thousands of them there, generating something akin to the volume of a busy dual-carriageway. That will be another lasting experience from this trip.
(8) Cahill's Lookout
In my mind, this is named after Tim Cahill, though I suspect that's not the case. Like Tim Cahill, it's nice enough but it's not really world class. Worth a stop if you're looking around the area, but very little to warrant taking the camera out.
(9) Six-Foot Track
This is a hiking route down Megalong Valley (still loving that name - rivalling Flat Rock for literalism). I didn't have time for this, but I'd have liked to walk it. The route takes you down to the valley, and through the eucalyptus forest. You pass a place called Nellies Glen along the way, which looks very photogenic. Unfortunately, it's a one-way path (unless you want a mega-long multi-day hike), so you have to turn around at some point, and come back up the route you went down.
Blackheath is the furthest West/North we visited, and marks the end of the main towns in the Blue Mountains area. The town itself is nice. To me, it's a more authentic focal point of the Blue Mountains than Katoomba. A little higher up the mountain, quieter, more traditional, and more appealing. I actually felt quite at home walking around here. Again, there are dozens of lookout points, so I'll split them into the ones I researched or was able to visit.
(10) Evans Lookout
My second favourite lookout. Looking North East, towards the Grose Valley. Best visited at Sunrise. I didn't manage to visit at sunrise, only around 3-4 hours later; still well before the harshest light, but well after the best. But the light was kind to me, and there was just enough cloud and haze around to get a couple of nice daylight shots.
(15) Hanging Rock / Baltzer Lookout
I didn't get chance to go here, but I'd like to. It looks great. Baltzer Lookout is the main viewpoint, and Hanging Rock is the foreground interest. Take a mate with you to jump out onto the rock itself, for some scale and human interest. Best for sunrise, but I reckon sunset would work too. It's a bit of a walk to get there; around 5km down a fire track from the nearest parking spot. Hence why it wasn't a convenient one for me to work in around other things.
(17) Blackheath Lookout, (18) Hourn Point, (19) Sunset Rock Lookout
I didn't get a chance to visit any of these three, but they look good. All West-facing, and best for sunset.
(16) Victoria Falls Lookout
I got this on good recommendation, but we didn't have the time to go. It's at the far West end of the Blue Mountains, so much further away than other locations. There's a good circular walk here, and good views of the valley and waterfall.
(14) Mount Banks
Over the valley from Pulpit Rock and Perry's Lookdown. There's a marked hiking trail up to the top, which would be a great walk, and would give very good (and not often photographed) views, especially for sunset. Alas, I simply didn't have enough time to give this a go. If you manage to get there, go ahead a share your photos in the comments below, I'd like to see them.
(10) Grand Canyon
I can't help but feel that name has already been taken. But still, they seem to be sticking with it. This circular walk starts and ends at Evans Lookout, and takes you down the mountainside, into the valley rainforest, and back up again. We chose this one instead of the Six Foot Track (above), as they both take you down into the forest, but this one's a circular route. It was a good walk, with interesting views; quite different from the cliff-top view points. You're well within the rainforest here, which is genuinely prehistoric, with it's ferns, gum trees, and waterfalls. It's also good for sunny days, as the trees shade you from the sun, and maintain a balanced light for photos. We hiked the loop at a casual pace in 2.5 hours, with a stop for lunch halfway round. Photographically, I struggled, as the forest is so dense (and 'messy'). But for photographers who are good at working those kinds of environments, this is a treasure trove. It would be great on a misty day.
(13) Perry's Lookdown Campground
Nice place to wander around, or camp, but I found the photography potential quite limited.
(12) Pulpit Rock
We walked here, along the trail from Govett's Leap. It was a good walk, but the views from Pulpit Rock weren't great for photos. There's no foreground possible at all, due to the metal railings and sheer drop of the cliff. Certainly in the light I had there, it wasn't inspiring. Access is easy enough though; if you don't fancy the walk, there's a car park close to the lookout. There's an interesting wind-erroded cave nearby too, which is also fun to look around, but again not photo-worthy.
(11) Govett's Leap
Last but not least, this was my favourite photography location. Govett's Leap is a reasonably large viewpoint, with parking, varied hiking trails, and a nice little visitor's centre. The view knocks you back when you first get out of the car, and you really get a sense of the vast scale of the rocky mountains and unending forest.
I visited Govett's Leap during the day first time around, with family, before we walked to Pulpit Rock. But in broad daylight it's tough to find a pleasing photo.
I then went back for sunrise another day, and was excited to find a bit of mist. Unfortunately, the mist was so thick, there was absolutely no view at all. Basically, I was in the cloud. I waited it out, hanging around taking misty tree photos (see the next blog post for those) from 6am until midday, but still the cloud didn't budge. When midday arrived, I decided to leave, knowing I'd probably missed my chance to see Govett's Leap at sunrise.
I was able to make one last visit for sunset at the end of my last day in Australia. The sunset was nice, but it was behind me, and I wasn't that stuck by the light on the rocks ahead. I'd have ultimately been better off going to one of the locations which I knew was good for sunset, rather than trying to force a sunrise location to work at sunset. And that was it; time to pack my suitcase and get ready for a 24 hour flight home. I had to be at the airport for 10am the next morning.
But actually, that left just one definitely last, final chance to visit at sunrise. If I could get there for 6am and leave by 7:30, I could get to the airport for 10am. So I took a chance, and I was finally rewarded with a great sunrise.
This is the view down the Grose Valley, which I think is the most grand and spectacular of the valleys I was able to see in the Blue Mountains.
There are a few different lookout points at Govett's Leap, and the highest ones aren't necessarily the best. I preferred the one to the left of the main lookout, just a couple of meters lower. This provides the opportunity to use the foreground gum trees as a frame for the view.
As the sun came up, and the light grew stronger, I started to play around with underexposing, to keep the highlights in gamut, and to make the most of the rays which were highlighting different areas of the scene.
I took the small path from the left of the main lookout, which leads around to the side, and down the front of the cliff face. A little way down, I was able to find a vantage point with a view back across the cliff, and over towards the Bridal Veil Fall. There was quite a small amount of water flowing during my visit, as there had been so little rain over the last few months. But the strength of this fall fluctuates with the seasons. What struck me most about this view point was the vast wall of moss which covered an enormous area of rock face. The scale doesn't really come across well here, but we're talking several football pitches in size. So it must be a tremendously humid environment, no doubt aided by the spray from the falls.
Following the path further down the front of the cliff, I found this tiny lookout, which again allowed me to frame the view with the iconic Australian eucalyptus trees.
All I needed here was a koala in a cork hat on one of those trees, as this would be the ultimate marketing image for Tourism Australia.
When I got back up to the top again, the blue sky of the morning was creeping in, despite the strong rays of the low sun. I took two more photos, one landscape and one portrait.
Reflections on the Blue Mountains
I loved the Blue Mountains. I could happily photograph it every sunrise and sunset for a month without getting bored. It's hugely impressive in its scale, and for someone who likes trees as much as me, it's really a paradise. It's also attractive due to its convenience; having so many lookout points right beside a lay-by or car park. Yet you're not restricted to just those viewpoints. For those looking for something more original and unique, there are lots of hiking trails and quieter locations.
Foregrounds are a problem at a lot of the look-out locations, where the ground drops away steeply. This makes it hard to compose a photo with a foreground, without relying on the distortion of an ultra wide-angle lens - which then reduces the impact of the cliffs and forest in the middle-distance. In addition to that, most of the lookouts are lined with metal rail fencing - the blight of many a tourist spot. That restricts your options even further, as you don't want the railings in your shot. Lincolns Rock was good in that respect, as there were no railings there, and I think someone more skilled with a wide-angle lens than me would be able to find a nice set of wide shots there. But I'm more at home with medium telephoto ranges, which means that the fencing and lack of foreground aren't such a big deal - but it's a shame not to really get anything wider. My photos are a little less varied than they might have otherwise been.
Before I visited The Blue Mountains, I thought a lot of the photos I'd seen of it were a little OTT in the colour department. Coming from the UK, we have a trend for relatively moderate saturation in our landscape photos. It's quite jarring when you see photos from other places, and the colours are turned up to 11. But I discovered in Australia that that's actually what it looks like there. It genuinely is a land of green and gold. And I struggled with the post processing of these photos for a long time, trying to get them to look more 'realistic' to my eye. There was just too much colour there, and when I turned the saturation down, they didn't look right. So despite having taken these photos, they still appear a bit alien to me. They don't really sit well with my back catalogue of muted tones from the UK, Iceland, and Scandinavia. They stand alone, which is why they work better together in a blog post like this, than mingled in with the rest of my landscape photographs.
If you've never been to the Blue Mountains, I heartily recommend it. If you're a photographer, I hope you found this useful. Feel free to get in touch or leave a comment if you have any questions about any of these locations. If you're not a photographer, and you just enjoyed the photos that's great :-)