In late September this year, I travelled to Cairns for a week for a research project I am coordinating on community responses to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef (you can read more about this project here). While the days were filled with interviews with marine tourism operators and environmental organisations, I also took the opportunity to explore the coast and hinterland during the early mornings and evenings with my camera! Below is a quick rundown on my photography experiences and tips on where and how to shoot some of the stunning scenery in this part of the world.
As I knew time would be very tight and I would have limited opportunities for photography, I put a fair bit of effort beforehand into researching potential locations. In addition to searching photo websites for location guides and inspiration, I also did some detailed scanning of GoogleMaps and PhotoPills to get an idea of what locations might be best at sunrise and sunset during the dates I would be there. In the week leading up to the trip I also reviewed detailed weather forecasts for rain and cloud projections as I was keen to shoot some of the numerous waterfalls and also hopefully get some nice skies for sunrise and sunset shots.
I arrived in Cairns on a warm Sunday afternoon and picked up a hire car from the airport. As I knew the cloud forecast was promising for that evening, I’d already scoped out a possible seascape location an hour’s drive north of Cairns on the Captain Cook Highway which according to GoogleMaps’ satellite view promised a rocky headland with a north-westerly vista (ideal for sunset). I got to the beach location a good 90 minutes before sunset, changed into shorts and my trusty Bedrock sandals and was soon out exploring some of the amazing rock formations on a low but rising tide. Unfortunately, the burning sunset I’d hoped for failed to truly materialise, however there was a vibrant pink glow in the air which magnified the colour of the dragon-scale rocks on the headland.
During the week, I was lucky to catch several early morning sunrises where the sky really lit up. One of the first of these was a very early rise where I drove north from Cairns again to Palm Cove – a very well-heeled seaside village. Arriving in the pre-dawn light, the horizon was already glowing and I quickly composed and shot a series of images around the famed Palm Cove Jetty. As the sun emerged over the horizon, I moved down to the Palm Tree Tunnel and found a perfect symmetry of palm trees to frame the rising sun in an almost clichéd tropical vista!
As the week progressed, I also took the opportunity to set the alarm very early and walk the Cairns Esplanade in the dark, hunting for interesting sunrise compositions. One shot I’d planned before arriving in Cairns was inspired by another photographer who’d used a large fig tree to frame a view of a park bench and the Cairns harbour in the background. I found what looked to be a very similar perspective one morning although it was not an easy shot to perfect. Luckily the image stabilisation of my OM-1 camera came to the fore as I held the camera high above my head while leaning hard into the tree for balance and shooting off a series of exposure bracketed and focus bracketed images. There was a bit of post-processing magic involved in bringing this all together, but I’m pretty happy with the final result.
“Sunrise by the Harbour”,📷 OM-1, M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/6.3 1.6sec ISO640 (handheld)
Beyond the tricky technical shots, there was also some amazing colour to be had at sunrise and sunset on both sides of Cairns Harbour over the week of my stay. As was the case for much of the week, I relied heavily on my OM-1 camera and M.Zuiko 7-14 PRO wide-angle lens. I tend to exposure bracket shots and shoot mostly handheld (including sometimes using the handheld hi-res option). The tripod is only used in very low light or long exposures past a few seconds.
Sunset from Yarrabah looking west to Cairns, 📷 OM-1, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/7.1 1/125sec ISO200
Of course, the key focus of our trip was the famed Great Barrier Reef itself. While we spent most of the week talking to community stakeholders about coral bleaching and responses to it, we also had planned a lay-day to travel up to Port Douglas and do a snorkelling trip out on the Reef proper. Unfortunately, this failed to eventuate due to high winds and seas. However, I’ve included some shots from an earlier reef trip below. These were shot on my old GoPro camera (I’m looking forward to trying this again in the future with the new Olympus TG-6!)
Opal Reef, 📷 GoPro Hero 3+ f/2.8 1/350sec ISO100
With the Reef trip cancelled, I decided to do some waterfall hunting in the nearby Crystal Cascades as well further afield on the Atherton Tablelands. The Crystal Cascades are a short drive from Cairns proper and provide a marvellous rainforest retreat from the heat of the tropical sun. Lots of locals were enjoying a cooling dip in the creek when I visited and as the sun faded, I found some interesting compositions of complex root patterns from the numerous fig trees and falling water.
“Alien Jungle”,📷 OM-1, M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/8 1/40sec ISO200
On my final day before flying home, I took a hire car south to the famous Atherton Tablelands and indulged in some serious waterfall hunting. This included the well-known waterfalls at Malanda, Millaa Millaa, Zillee and Ellinjaa. As it was a sunny, hot day, the falls were crowded with visiting tourists, however I managed to find some compositions away from people and went off track to find more interesting, intimate compositions of trees and epiphytes.
A warning though – one thing to watch out for in the bush here is the notorious Gympie Gympie tree (a stinging plant with reputedly one of the most painful stings in the world)! I’d never heard of this plant before, but as I climbed down a steep bank I reached out and grabbed an innocent-looking sapling for balance and immediately felt my right hand stung by a million hornets! Yes, I’d grabbed a Gympie Gympie and the reaction was immediate burning pain through my right hand and rather scarily an intense cough that continued for a good 10 minutes (anaphylactic reaction?). Not knowing what it was I plunged my hand into the cool creek water (which just intensified the pain) – after 20 minutes it began to subside somewhat, but my hand was sore for the next several weeks and even today, months later, I can still sense the pain in my right index finger particularly when I touch cold water or ice. I hate to think what would happen if you had the misfortune to get stung across the face or abdomen!
As I drove back to the airport on that last afternoon, I took a final detour and found an interesting vista to the pyramidlike mountain I’d spied earlier in the week. This was the famed Walsh’s Pyramid.
“Pyramid View”: 📷 OM-D E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/5.6 1/640sec ISO200
Flying home that evening, it had been a very productive week workwise, but I’d also managed to cram in some interesting photography during the early mornings, evenings and lay-days. While we didn’t manage to visit the Reef itself, the coastline and rainforests around Cairns provided plenty of new vistas to explore. I’m looking forward to returning again in the future to explore even more of this amazing landscape.
You can check out more of my photos from north Queensland and other locations on my website here.