VividSydney 2014 -10 tips for photographing the Festival of Light

The official start of the Vivid Sydney Festival is now just SIX days away, and I’m getting excited. VERY excited. I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is that I love so much about it, but there’s no question this is a highlight of the year for me. And it appears I’m not the only one. Only 6 years in existence, from 200,000 visitors in 2009, it has grown to 800,000 visitors in 2013.

Last year I spent a number of nights at the festival taking photos. Photos of lights? Yes, there were some of those; but many more photos of people bewitched by lights.

So, I thought I’d put together some of my own tips for getting your photo on at Vivid.

1. Leave your tripod at home

Use the opportunity to practice hand-holding in low-light. I’m not anti-tripod (in fact I loooove my tripod) but with the power of a digi camera the below photos show it is very possible to make images without one. I’ve noted camera settings under each image.

A couple of things I learned last year:

– Get comfy working at higher ISOs and bump it up as you need

– Work out what shutter speed you can hand-hold without any bracing (for me it’s about 1/60th, I have shaky hands).

– Always look things you can lean against to help you brace, or that you can rest your camera on. Seriously, have a go – you will be surprised at what you can get away with.

– Check out this site and this site for some most excellent bracing techniques.

– EmBRACE the feeling that you look like a dick as you’re sitting on the ground in prayer position with a camera. Whatever it takes peeps.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Fun for all ages” ISO 3200 f/1.8, 1/90s, 50mm (nifty fifty)


2. Go early

As in, go early in the first weeks rather than the last. And unless you like the feeling of being a sardine, avoid the June long weekend at all costs.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Room to breathe” ISO 4000, f/4, 1/20s, 18mm

3. Mid-week magic

Where possible, go mid-week. Friday and Saturday are the busiest nights. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it more if you have room to breathe. I had to go one of the last weekend nights and, as I walked towards the Quay, by the time I got to Wynyard I was nearly in complete meltdown because of the crowds. It was absolute bedlam and I had to escape. I chucked a hard left and made my way up to Observatory Hill and chilled out a bit. Doesn’t the bridge look so pretty all multicoloured?

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Taking some time out on the hill” ISO 800, f/38, 30sec, 55mm

(Note this one is the odd one out in terms of technique, it’s long exposure so that I could get the light shapes. Camera is resting on cement)

4. People watch

Be amazed at how enthralled people are by the simplicity of … light. To me it feels quite primal – like sitting round a campfire in the depth of winter, being mesmerised by the flickering flame.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“where there’s smoke there’s fire” ISO 4000, f/4.5, 1/15s, 42mm

5. Fringedwellers

One of the final nights I went, I started in Pyrmont, got the ferry to under the Harbour Bridge and then the ferry back to Walsh bay, thus avoiding the crowds at the ever popular MCA/Opera House strip.  North Sydney is going to have a couple more installations this year (and the ‘lighting the bridge’ is back) so it’s a good option if you want something a little lower key.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Waiting for the ferry” ISO 5000, f/4.5, 1/60s, 18mm


6. To wait or to chase, that is the question

The answer? Both.

Sometimes you’ll wait …

I took 26 photos in the same location to get this shot (this one was shot #25 of 26!). The initial scene was good, so I explored some settings as people milled through the scene. But then, this man stopped right in front of me while everyone else kept moving. Bingo. Be patient. Wait for the photo to come to you. It doesn’t always happen (see tip#10), but sometimes it does.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Where did my friends go?” ISO 2500, f/5.6, 1/6s, 18.0mm

and sometimes you’ll chase:

Sometimes you’ll see it and if you don’t move you WILL miss it. This one is definitely borderline with the blur. I wasn’t quite organised, I had to chase up the escalator and quickly shoot. If I’d had a smidge more time I would have opened up aperture a little more to give me a little more breathing room in shutter speed.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Late night for little feet” ISO 6400, f/10, 1/4s, 25mm


 7. The dark of light

One of the great things about all these amazing bright lights is the opportunity for silhouettes. There’s all sorts of shapes you can achieve – people, hats, photographers, objects.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“alien child” ISO 1250, f1.8, 1/500s, 50mm (nifty fifty)

8. Photos of people taking photos

This is one of my favourite things. I love seeing how and what other people are documenting. All kinds of people – not just photographers – iphones as well. It’s like magic to me watching the different scenes come to life through someone else’s eyes.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Trio of photographers at North Sydney pool” ISO 5000, f/4.5, 1/60s, 36mm

 9. Make a backup plan

Now, having your ‘photographer’ hat on at something like this can make you a REALLY annoying person to hang out with if you’re with non-photo-fanatics. My suggestion is go on your own or find some like-souled minds to enjoy it with. If you do take your camera AND go with family, make sure you make a backup plan to meet. I guarantee you’ll lose yourself at one point or another – you don’t want to lose your family as well!

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Jaffles at the Opera House” ISO 2500, f/1.8, 1/180s, 50mm (nifty fifty)

Meet you at the Jaffle stand!

10. Accept that you’ll take a lot of crap photos

Over the five nights I went, I took 1311 photos. I culled that to 46 that I thought were decent. That’s 3%! Accept that you’ll get a lot that are rubbish – the key is to work that digi beast and work it hard:

– Review what you’re shooting. What’s working? What’s not – and why not?

– Look at the settings, then think out loud (I’m often found muttering ISOs, f-stops and shutterspeeds to myself like rain man)

– Remember the exposure triangle relationship of ISO Aperture and Shutter speed. This is a one of the better visualisations of it that I have seen.

Rachael Willis The Bowerbird Girl VIVID Festival 2013

“Angels of George Street” ISO6400, f/4.5, 1/30s, 18mm

I don’t even really like this photo. While technically it may not be completely crap, for me it’s pure frustration in a photo. I tried SO HARD (like, verging on stalking) to get a decent shot of these lovely angels walking amongst the crowds … but as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t quite get it to happen how I wanted it to. Sometimes you just have to accept it and move on.

I hope that this might strike a light of inspiration for you to get out there over the next few weeks. Let me know how you go – send me a link if you have some show and tell, I’d really love to see.

Vivid Sydney is on from 23 May – 9 June.


10 thoughts on “VividSydney 2014 -10 tips for photographing the Festival of Light

  1. Wow – the festival sounds amazing! I love how you have explained each shot, my favourite being the last – the streetscene with the angel wings and the blur and pop of the street lights. Magical.

    • Yes, it really is fabulous:) It’s not just lights – they have a music and creative arm as well – so it just ticks boxes all round. The Angel chase. So interesting you like that one most, I so nearly didn’t include it. Sometimes it’s so hard to remove your own personal investment (whether that’s time or emotion) and be objective.

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