September has been a great month for taking photographs around the Sunshine Coast in south-eastern Queensland. It's an area loaded with picturesque coastal and hinterland vistas, and the frequent crystal-clear mornings of the last month or two have produced some beautiful sunrises and made it a pleasure just to be out and about. The early starts aren't quite as chilly as they were a few months back, but they're getting earlier as the days get longer. Sunrise time has dropped back before 5:30am now, and I usually like to get to a location at least half an hour before that.

There are a few benefits to such an early start: firstly it gives you time to get your bearings, particularly if you don't know an area very well, and search around by torchlight for potential views and interesting shapes and textures in the landscape. There is usually enough of a glow in the sky to work out exactly where the sun will rise and so make some mental notes as to possible compositions. It's a smart move to have a few ideas in mind because light conditions and colours can change very quickly as sunrise gets into full swing - the premium light may only last a few minutes and you want to make the most of it. 

The other big benefit in arriving when it's still dark is the creative options it opens up by allowing you to make very long exposures. In combination with the soft, blue light of pre-dawn, a long exposure can produce some unusual, ethereal effects if there is any movement of clouds or water in the frame. The ebb and flow of waves on a beach or against rocks can produce some really interesting effects when captured in a long exposure. Neutral density filters allow you to use long exposures even when light levels are high, but they can't reproduce the special conditions you get before sunrise and after sunset.

So with that in mind, here is a short tour through my photographic month along with some of the new images captured along the way.

Noosa National Park

Noosa isn't a place I visit very often - the beaches and rocky headlands of the National Park coastal walk are spectacularly beautiful, but the area has become so popular that just getting there and finding a place to park a car usually tests my patience. Of course, this opinion should be read in light of my preference for visiting remote places where camping, hiking and photographing are mostly solo experiences - if you're visiting Noosa, or most of the Sunshine Coast for that matter, you're likely to be sharing your space with quite a few others.

The coastal walk past Tea Tree Bay and Granite Bay to Hell's Gate is a cracker.....lots of great views down to the rugged coastline and secluded beaches, and plenty of tracks to take you down to water level. I headed first to Dolphin Point to capture the sunrise - the access is easy down a short track and there are quite a few rocky vantage points offering views up and down the coast. From Dolphin Point, the rising sun pops up over the next rocky point to the east. There were only a few low clouds around, but as sunrise approached these were fringed with pink and then golden light, creating a great backdrop to the rocky foreground. Solid waves were crashing into the rocks below my feet, so I searched around for compositions that made the most of the sunrise, clouds, rocks and waves.

I captured quite a few images as the sun began to rise, but the one below is probably my favourite. I took some wider shots at 17mm that included more of the foreground rocks, and then zoomed to 35mm for this image - it has all of the elements I wanted to include and is a good repesentation of the moment. The 1/10th second shutterspeed retains some detail in the whitewater but still gives a strong impression of motion.

The lighting back to the west and away from the rising sun is always much more subdued - there was a soft pink band just above the horizon that complemented the aqua-green water beautifully.

A little further along from Dolphin Point, the track down to Granite Bay brings you out alongside some beautifully polished boulders that were catching the golden colours of the rising sun. I only just made it down to the beach in time to avoid the flare of direct sunlight over the next hill - as it was, the camera couldn't cope with the extreme contrast of the scene and the image below was created from several bracketed exposures, manually blended in Photoshop.

Point Cartwright

Point Cartwright at Mooloolaba is well known for the Beacon lighthouse perched on the rocky headland and I've taken quite a few photographs of it in the past. So on this morning, my mission was to capture some scenes of the rocky shores around the Point, minus the lighthouse. Nothing wrong with pictures of a lighthouse, but there's so much more to this area than a white column of metal and concrete!

The first image below was captured 15 minutes before sunrise, at f11, 15 seconds, ISO200. It's obviously still pretty dark at that time, but the darkness can simplify a scene and help you pick out a couple of features to focus this case, the elements that caught my eye were the burnt-orange pre-dawn glow and its reflection in the rock pool, and the little patches of texture in the rock and sand. To the naked eye, the scene was capped off by a crescent moon, but this has been reduced to a pin-prick of light by the wide angle lens.....still visible but barely recognisable.

A few minutes later, I found this rocky composition down in the wave zone (below). The almost-risen sun was creating a lot of reflection off the rocks and I wasn't sure how the image would turn out, but I think the high contrast has created an interesting effect. I waited until a wave pushed right up to my feet and then opened the shutter for 4 seconds to create a soft-swirling look in the water.

One of the best things about a rocky shore is watching the power of the waves crashing into rocks, but there are a few things to think about if you want to capture and convey that feeling in a photograph. First, you have to press the shutter at the right moment - it's quite easy to anticipate when a wave is going to hit the rocks, but it pays to spend a little time just watching how successive waves react and interact with each other. Once you have a feeling for the timing and size of wave that will give you a good result, it's then worthwhile taking some duplicate images so you can choose the best image later. Every wave behaves differently, and no matter how well you anticipate its timing, you can't be sure exactly how it will respond when it hits the shore.

The other big part of the equation is the shutter speed you choose. A slow shutterspeed, say several seconds, will give the water a very soft, silky appearance (as in the previous image) which might not be the best way to convey the power of the wave. A fast shutterspeed, say 1/30th second or faster, will freeze the motion of the water and show individual drops of spray, but to me that approach again removes the dynamism of the scene. In a lot of cases, my preference is for a shutterspeed of around 1/4 to 1/10th second to retain some texture in the froth and spray of a breaking wave but also give a strong impression of movement. The image below was captured at 1/8th second.

Moffat Head

These images are from the northern end of Shelly Beach, Caloundra, in a thick, morning mist. It was a gloomy and damp way to start the day, but the mist cleared pretty quickly after the sun came up. When I arrived at 5am, I was a little disappointed there weren't likely to be any colours at sunrise, but by torchlight I could pick out lots of great looking rock shapes and textures. The horizon was hidden in a grey, foggy soup, making a great contrast to the striking, detailed patterns in the rocks. The pointy rock sticking out of the water in the image below was a real point of interest and I composed a number if images around it. This one, taken when it was still quite dark, is my favourite - a 25 second shutterspeed has given the incoming waves a soft, misty look which I think suits the gloomy atmosphere. 

I also spent a lot of time focussing on these great natural pavements - the intricate patterns look like they might have been laid by pre-historic stone masons, but they are all the more amazing to me because they weren't. The natural action of wind and water creates some incredible designs to fire our imaginations - I'm inspired by what I find just about every time I venture outdoors, with or without a camera.


A little further up the coast, the long expanse of Mudjimba Beach is broken by only a few rocky outcrops half-buried in the sand. These rocks create obvious foreground interest for photographs, while the strong shape of Mudjimba Island just offshore adds interest, and maybe a bit of mystery, to the background. The first image below, taken 10 minutes before sunrise, combines a slow shutterspeed (20 seconds) with some beautiful pre-dawn light to produce a slightly 'unreal' looking image. At that shutterspeed, the waves have retained enough detail to be recognisable as waves, while most of the surface texture of the water has been smoothed out.

Just after sunrise (below), the cloud bank out to sea created some dramatic light effects and helped cast a deep orange colour over the seascape. I captured this image wiith my zoom lens set at 145mm to get a fairly tight composition including the gold-lined clouds, the island, a breaking wave and a little space in the foreground to pick up the colourful reflection. I took several duplicates of this scene to try and capture the breaking wave at just the right moment. Aperture was set at f11 to keep the foreground and background in focus, and a shutterspeed of 1/50 second has pretty much frozen the wave movement.

Caloundra Head

Back down at Caloundra Head, I found some interesting low tide rocks coated in algae and marine animals. The first image below was taken at 5:27am, 11 minutes before sunrise, looking back towards the west and the business centre of Caloundra. The 10 second exposure has again flattened most of the waves and softened the texture of the water surface.

I sometimes start a morning session with the ISO at around 200-400 to allow a slightly faster shutterspeed in the darker conditions before sunrise. As soon as the light levels rise a little, I set the ISO back down to 100 to get the cleanest, most noise-free image possible. That might seem a little pendantic, but even with the great quality images that digital cameras produce these days, it's still good practice to keep the ISO as low as possible to minimise noise. Small files like the ones on this page might not show much noise resulting from higher ISOs, but it will become increasingly noticeable as you enlarge the image. Noise reduction software can do a good job of cleaning up an image, but it's extra work and it will also degrade the quality to some extent. My tip is to use a low ISO setting whenever possible.

The panorama below is a composite of three images stitched togeter in PTGui. This is software designed specifically for stitching multiple images and it does a very good job. Photoshop and Elements also have stitching functions and they often also do a great job, but sometimes they seem to get confused for no obvious reason...not obvious to me anyway. PTGui seems to be that little bit better at figuring out tricky stitches, and it has a big range of options to control how the stitching is carried out.

Pincushion Island

Earlier in September I visited Pincushion Island at the mouth of the Maroochy River. It's a 15 minute walk along the beach from the car park on the North Shore, and then an easy scramble up onto the rocks that provide great views up and down the coast. The island does become cut off from land at times, but in recent years it has been easily accessible on foot. I spent some time framing portions of the rocky shore against the rising sun to the east, but it was these two views up and down the coast just before sunrise that were the highlight of the morning - the soft colours in the sky and whitewater of the breaking waves made an appealing combination.

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