The seascape is one of the most difficult subjects. It is constantly moving and requires a lot of thought into how you want it to be presented. Some days, the sea tells you how to photograph it, such as on this excursion to the most southern bay of the Tasmanian mainland.
I had some discussions with my good friend, Chris, about where we should go for the night ahead. He was first to suggest South East Cape Bay and Lion Rock. I love that bay, but am often left bereft of excitement when considering Lion Rock.
We discussed a few other options, with no great success. It was going to be sunny and calm - no good for landscapes. In fact, the only place we would see decent waves was down south. A 4m swell was forecast, with a gentle breeze. Further investigation showed that the sun and moon would set where I could capture them sinking into the sea beside Lion Rock. And there was an Aurora Australis projected to hit a level 5, with clear skies forecast.
The plan was set. All we could do was watch the various forecasts and hope that everything lined up for us.
There are two sets of gear I need to consider for these trips: camping and photography. I've also been thinking about video possibilities, and need to include a set of equipment for that.
Camping is easy. Every trip requires tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove, food, drinks.
Camera gear requires some thought. For this trip I would need my regular lens (24-70mm), a wide lens for the astro (15-30mm) and a long lens for the setting sun and big wave shots. Also a tripod, shutter release, extra batteries and filter kit. I have two camera bodies so I don't need to constantly change lenses. The first time I was there, it was windy and I ended up with all sorts of debris on the sensor, which required a professional clean.
Video is all new to me, but I have some gear already: DJI Osmo Pocket, Nikon J5, Audio recorder and small tripod. Thankfully, Chris could carry the Nikon on a strap mount.
The full weight of my pack was 22kg.
The walk in
The walk is a short one. Just two hours from the Cockle Creek car park to the Lion Rock camp site. It starts off through typical Tasmanian dry sclerophyll forest, but then opens up into Blowhole Valley, which is a large plain of native shrubs, bordered by eucalypt forests. This area can be quite boggy, so the track is a series of boardwalks connecting elevated rocky areas.
The sun was out in full force: hats and sunblock a must.
Right before we reached the bay, there was a climb through some coastal bush, which blocked most of the sound from the waves.
Without fail, the surprise and awe felt and seeing the bay and the rolling waves spread out before us from the top of the cliff was inspiring. The sheer noise of these massive waves hit us like a jet engine. The waves were massive and the spray from them rose higher still.
Lion Rock sat at the opposite end of the beach, shrouded in sea spray. Around to the east (left), the waves cashed against the cliffs and steep banks of South East Cape. The cliff we stood upon is made up of coal and shale, fragile, yet surprisingly withstanding the battering of waves over the millennia.
After gaping for what seemed like hours, and taking a multitude of photographs, we made our way down the rocky stairs to the beach below. The sound of the surf made it impossible to talk at normal levels, so we mostly just shut our mouths and took it all in.
We made camp at the official campsite, which we had to ourselves! Thankfully, most of the walkers on the South Coast Track skip this last site, although, there were two others setting up camp when we arrived in another, less official spot. Later, another walker arrived and set up in a popular eating spot.
By this time, it was around 4pm, so we dumped some gear at the main eating area, right beside the beach, and went on to explore around Lion Rock itself.
I'm not entirely sure why it's called Lion Rock, but it doesn't look anything like a lion - from any angle. To me, it's more like an elephant. To call it a rock is a typical Australian understatement. Lion Rock is an impressive land mass. It's 322m long and approximately 15-17m high. Up close, it is awe-inspiring. Covered in vegetation, with rock exposed on the steeper sections, it is home to a multitude of Pacific Gulls which use it as a base for spying sea-life below.
I've always found Lion Rock to be uninspiring, photographically speaking. There are only so many viewpoints which, depending on the conditions, can be utterly dull. Because of its dominance of the landscape, Lion Rock is photographed by everyone that visits the area, but I really don't think there's a particularly good composition to be had. Up close, it is difficult to fit in-frame, and from a distance it sits within the surrounding landscape which makes it difficult to separate. I have seen some wonderful photographs that include it, but as a subject in and of itself, it leaves me cold.
On this day, with all the sea spray around, there was clear separation from the surrounding scenery, allowing the monolith to stand on its own. As we walked up to the northern end of the rock, the camera shutter worked hard with big waves and wide vistas. For the first time I felt the urge to capture Lion Rock, standing up to the battering surf as the waves smashed against the rocks and the water ran down the sides.
Up close, even though I did attempt to fit the rock into a scene, the best pictures were those that did not show the full land mass. On the western side of Lion Rock, the waves were far more intense as the tide came in. Off in the distance, past Coal Bluff towards South East Cape Rivulet, the waves broke on themselves, then foaming in towards the shore.
We stayed until the incoming tide felt uncomfortably close, then headed back for some dinner and a glass of something nice.
Dinner was relaxing after our walk along the beach. We still had a couple of hours before the sun was due to set, with no need to rush.
The plan all along had been to photograph waves in front of the setting sun and moon. I had already planned where I would take my photos from, thanks to PhotoPills. When I located the exact position, there was a small cairn already erected as if it was always supposed to be. Satisfied with the location, I headed back to the "dinner table" and set up the long lens there for some big wave action. The light was fantastic, the skies still clear and no sign of the waves abating. I sat with my thumb on the shutter release which I hit every time an impressive wave hit. This never got boring.
As the sun sank lower, we moved to my preset location. I had the same set up: the long lens set at 450mm pointed at the very end of Lion Rock; the shutter release in-hand and the other camera on-hand for anything that looked interesting. The air turned golden, then red as the sun came down. Shafts of light filtered through the stone columns and the birds circled above the waves. Nothing could be more perfect.
After the sun set, it became clear that the moon-set was not going to work. It just wasn't big enough to backlight the waves and would require longer exposure time meaning the waves would be less distinct. After the incredible show with the sun, I was not concerned at all. I did manage a nice shot with the crescent moon above Lion Rock.
A funny thing about landscape and seascape photography, but particularly with aurorae: it doesn't matter how hard you plan, the weather will determine everything. Even with all the elements in place, the aurora itself might be a fizzer. A forecast of 4 or 6 does not mean that's what will come. There are so many variable factors in an aurora event, you could have an incredible display for ten minutes or a full night of faint glow.
What we had was better than anything I had ever seen. Chris had no idea what was coming.
We'd moved back to the beach right near the path to the campsite. We had to sit on the stones, as the waves were reaching all the way up the sand. Even then, Chris was a little nervous about our location, so we moved back even further - this was a good thing! I set up the tripod and swapped the regular lens with the wide one. Once levelled correctly, I mounted the camera with the shutter release for a photo every now and then as we sipped whiskey and ate chocolate.
It started with a bit of a glow on the southern horizon, but quickly moved higher and higher into the sky. Chris got out his iPhone and set it to night mode, using his knees as a tripod for 10 second exposures. The beams reached high into the sky (about 60º) and were visible to the naked eye. What we mistook for clouds near the horizon was actually the underside of the "curtain," something I'd never seen before. All the colours were there: green, yellow, red and blue.
As the aurora gained height, I put the camera into interval mode for bursts of 50, which I repeated a few times. Between shots, I sometimes swivelled the camera on the tripod to take in more of Lion Rock or South East Cape (where the Milky Way hung).
We packed up around 12:30am, even though the display went on through the night.
The next day
By the following morning, the swell had dropped and the air was still. So still that the spray from the waves hung in the air as a mist, which made regular photography difficult. As an experiment, I brought out my infrared filter. This was a fairly recent purchase, and was still largely an experimental tool for me.
This time, I set up my medium, regular lens (24-70mm) with the IR filter. Because of the nature of infrared light, you cannot rely on autofocus, as the wavelength is much longer. It's also impossible to see through the viewfinder, because the filter, by definition, blocks out almost all visible light. Using the live display, it is possible to manually focus by amping up the exposure temporarily. Once set, it's a matter of finding the correct exposure settings. I tend to push ISO up to 6400 and keep the exposure time as low as possible.
Once I was happy with my settings, I started the Interval Shooting for a couple of self-portraits. I let it go for a while, so I could choose the best shots when I got home. There was no way of telling what would work or not on the back of camera.
Even before I got home, I knew there were some really great shots. It was an incredible experience that kept on giving as I processed each photograph. With the waves' roar that met us on the cliffs, to the massive waves crashing around Lion Rock and the sunset followed by an incredible aurora, this is an experience I will never forget.