I crouch in the shrubbery, attempting to keep the drips off the camera while getting a shot of a little waterfall. Water glistens on dark rocks, bright ferns contrast with the white spray and there are flashes of rusty reds in the sandstone cliffs towering over us.
The scenery is brilliant, so why is making a satisfying photo in the Blue Mountains so hard?
‘Have you noticed there are hardly any good paintings of the Blue Mountains either?’ observes my friend and walking companion Duncan.
He’s right. The great Australian landscape painters, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd, Albert Namatjira, Arthur Streeton, to name a few among many, usually choose as their subjects desert and open hillsides rather than clifftop views, dark gullies, deep forests and gushing waterfalls. Why should that be?
Is it because some scenes are too conventionally beautiful, so paintings of them become like cutesy Bob Ross motel room art? I think the problem is also that one angle and one single shot of the Blue Mountains can never tell the whole story. In the mountains, there’s too much going on at the same time.
Duncan and I, fortified by the excellent coffee from the Conservation Hut in the mountain town of Wentworth Falls, ease our doubtful knees down the steep stairs into Valley of the Waters.
There’s an impressive vista from the lookout, but any photo of it doesn’t include the harsh cries of the cockatoos overhead, or the bright red flashes of the mountain devil flowers in the scrub beside the track.
We reach Empress Falls. They’re certainly not Niagara, being maybe a hundred metres high in all, but because we’re pressed right up against them in the narrow gully, they won’t fit in the viewfinder.
Nor can I capture the whoops and yelled instructions of a party of canyoners in wetsuits and helmets tackling the abseil through the water cascading from above.
In the low light caused by the tree canopy, the sun catching the waterfall in places causes far too much contrast for my inadequate camera skills.
Instead, I settle for shots of the smaller lower section of the falls.
If I had a tripod I’d slow down the shutter speed and attempt to achieve that ‘soft water’ effect.
I don’t have a tripod with me. Backpack, camera and trekking poles are already enough to lug around and the walking isn’t all easy.
At the bottom of the falls we start out along the newly restored National Pass track. It’s impossible to shoot left and right at the same time.
To the left are the rugged sandstone cliffs, sweeping several hundred metres above us. To the right are views out over the Jamison Valley. Closer in are the twisting trunks and branches of angophora and mountain grey gum. Where are we supposed to look?
Rounding a bend, Wentworth Falls come into view. You probably need to click on the photo below to get the proper effect – otherwise it’s like trying to watch Baz Luhrman’s Australia on the screen in the back of the seat in a plane (well, at least it was included in the fare!)
At the bottom of the falls, we once again encounter the old ‘too big to fit in the frame’ problem.
It is seldom that so much water comes over the falls on a sunny day, so the contrast makes a total mess of the exposure settings too.
I’m most pleased with the shot which ignores the major spectacle and concentrates on the scene at the rocky bottom.
Despite our limited success with the camera, it’s been a great walk, on a lovely fine warm day, in arguably the most spectacular spot in the wonderful Blue Mountains.
If anyone has any tips about shooting around waterfalls (and there must be many thousands who know more about it than I do), Duncan and I would be delighted to hear them. Just leave us a comment, or a link to your successful shots, in the box below.
Getting there: Wentworth Falls is just under two hours by train or car from Central Sydney.
Our route: From Conservation Hut to Empress Falls, along National Pass to Wentworth Falls, return along Undercliff Track. Distance 8km, time 4 hours (including many photography stops). The track is well made and safe for those who stick to the path, though it includes some steep sections on staircases.
Guide: See wildwalks.com.au for basic maps and trip notes on walks in the Wentworth Falls area.