An Evening in the Rocks

Intro Note: Well, this must be my slowest post from initial creation to actually getting it finished for publishing. I started in early April and then life sort of got in the way. It’s now mid-June as I finish it off. The opening sentence below seems a bit dated now!

After travelling to Sydney in early February with my new to me 10-17mm fisheye zoom (see Fun with a Fisheye), I was back in Sydney a few weeks later for four days of business related meetings and conferences. One evening I loaded up the camera gear and set off for a walk past Circular Quay, under the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and then back down the other of the Harbour Bridge expressway to my target destination for the evening, Observatory Hill.

The area I walked through is known as The Rocks and is a significant heritage area with most of the properties there dating from the mid to late 19th century. After a short walk from my hotel, I arrived at Circular Quay. This is a very well known spot on the edge of Sydney Harbour where all of the Sydney ferries arrive and depart from the central business district. The Sydney Opera House is on one side and the Overseas Passenger Terminal on the other.

February/March is peak season for cruise liners to be visiting Sydney and I’m up in Sydney for the same week at the beginning of March each year. Typically one of the Cunard ‘Queens’ calls into Sydney during that week. This year it was the Queen Victoria. Previously I’ve seen the Queen Mary II and the now retired Queen Elizabeth II. As yet, I don’t think I’ve yet laid eyes on the new Queen Elizabeth. What I like about the Queens is that they more or less preserve the classic lines of the trans-Atlantic liners. They might just be ships, but the lines are graceful and sweeping. The design language is cohesive and everything is in proportion. Whereas the look of some of the modern cruise ships just leaves me cold. Ugly and sometimes kitsch are two descriptors that spring to mind. So, I’ll start this post with a few Queen Victoria shots, but I promise this is not a ship only post and I will be moving onto other subjects.

Queen Victoria, Circular Quay, Sydney

Queen Victoria under a dull and somewhat threatening grey sky.  On this evening the rain held off.  By way of contrast, two years earlier I photographed the Queen Mary II on her March visit, also in the early evening.  Just after finishing those shots, it started to rain. And rain, and rain. It stopped the next day at noon after 4½ inches had fallen.

Queen Victoria, Circular Quay, Sydney

Front on from one of the floating ferry wharves. The dull flat light just killed the colours, so a switch to black and white processing. I’ve come to loath mid-level cloud blankets. They’re terrible for colour photography – a cold light, absolutely no ‘pop’ in images, and none of the atmospheric effects that a proper rain cloud can offer. The one saving grace is that it can work well for black and white if you choose to change your mindset away from colour imagery.

Queen Victoria is the smallest of the three Cunard liners but she still towers over the four storey Overseas Passenger terminal building.

Queen Victoria, Circular Quay, Sydney

And a look at Queen Victoria’s stern quarter. With this image, I’ll also point out that the circular open metal structure on the corner of the passenger terminal has an observation area on Level 4 and is one of the best spots in Sydney for night photos of the bridge and the Opera House. And the other end of the upper level of the Terminal is excellent for photos of Circular Quay and the CBD. The lower levels of the structure contain parts of the Quay and Doyles restaurants. Neither are  cheap, but offer excellent food and fabulous night time views of Sydney (there’s still a good view of the Bridge even when cruise ships are blocking views of the Opera House and the city buildings).

And I’ll move on now from the Queen Victoria, but finish off with a bit of Cunard Queen trivia. All three of the current Queens were initially registered at the port of Southhampton, England, following 171 years of Cunard line practice. To the consternation of traditionalists, their port of registration was changed in 2011 to Hamilton, Bermuda. Why? To allow them to offer weddings at sea, a practice not recognised under British maritime law. Try that one out when you next host a quiz night!

Moving on from the passenger terminal, I then passed Campbell Storehouses – a set of harborside warehouses constructed around 1838 from local sandstone. Today they house a series of popular restaurants. The steelwork structure in the upper right of the photo is a section of the elevated roadway leading to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Campbell Storehouses, The Rocks, Sydney

From the prior trip to Sydney, I posted a rather technicoloured rhino that I had spotted over at Bondi Junction. These rhino statutes are scattered all over Sydney but each one is handpainted to different designs. This golden baby rhino was out in front of the Campbell Storehouses.

Baby Rhino, The Rocks

Moving around a little further, I spied a family out for a walk, with mum doing the classic perspective distortion trick for her photographer kids, to make it appear as though she is holding the Opera House in her hands.

An Evening in the Rocks, Sydney

After passing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a fair collection of some of the early Rocks housing can still be found.  The Rocks area was built upon soon after the establishment of the colony of New South Wales in 1788. It quickly developed a reputation as an unsavory part of Sydney occupied by rum runners, gangs and prostitutes. Sounds like what Kings Cross is today! By the late 19th century, the area quite run down, and the whole of the Rocks district was eventually earmarked for demolition following an outbreak of bubonic plague. While some demolition works were carried out, much of it was twice delayed by the outbreak of the World Wars, and by the time it was again proposed in the 1970’s, community pressure led to the abandonment of the demolition works. Today, the Rocks is a valuable tourism and heritage precinct.

Early Townhouse, The Rocks

An early set of townhouses, complete with some lovely wrought ironwork.

Harbour View Hotel, The Rocks

The Harbour View Hotel is an example of the demolition and rebuild of the Rocks. The construction of the hotel in 1924 was a joint venture between the Government, which has assumed the land and demolished the previous buildings, and local brewery, Tooth & Co., who provided the capital for the hotel’s construction. By 1927 it had become a convenient watering hole for the thirsty workers constructing the Harbour Bridge.  This image is a little soft – the light was getting quite low by this stage of the evening and I should have really popped the tripod up rather than go for a handheld shot.

Eventually I found Observatory Hill, just as the sun was setting. Good timing as my primary objective was to capture blue hour images of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from a less commonly seen perspective. But first, the sun had to finish setting, which it did in a rather spectacular way.

Sunset over Balmain, Sydney

Fire over Balmain

The Time Ball, Sydney Observatory

The Time Ball, Sydney Observatory

What I like most about doing this blog is what I learn from the research I end up doing to accurately describe the subjects of my images.  Ok, so the image above has a weather vane.  But when I went looking for more information after inserting the image into this post, I discovered this mast is in fact a time piece.

Before the Observatory was built in the late 1850’s, there was no accurate time standard in Sydney. The time ball on the Observatory tower signalled the time to ships in Sydney Harbor and to the post office in Martin Place. The time ball is raised to the top of its post and dropped at exactly 1pm every day. Originally, there was also a cannon blast fired to accompany the dropping of the time ball to provide a sound as well as a visual notification that it was 1pm. Correct time was vitally important to a ship’s navigator. Without it, accurate calculation of longitude was impossible and without that you didn’t really know where you were. The same time signalling approach is still used today on start boats for yacht races with three balls dropped at one minute intervals to indicate the count down to the starting gun. On a photographic note, I really like the rich colours the Pentax FA77 Limited lens brought to this image.

Ok, so after all the lead up, onto the money shots…

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Sydney Harbor Bridge at Night

And looking across the harbour to North Sydney.

North Sydney at Night

I took several images of North Sydney at different exposures to ensure at least one was hopefully ok. The one below was the best for exposure but contained a rather obvious blemish, making it unusable. Had me stumped for some time as to the cause, but eventually I worked out what produced the white line. I’ll leave you for a moment to draw your own conclusion. I’ll post the answer down at the bottom of this post.

North Sydney at Night, with blemish

And as I finished up and headed off, I spotted this convict built set of stairs that led down to a cottage adjacent to the Observatory. So out came the camera and tripod again.

Convict Stairs, Sydney

And my total doh! moment of the evening? On leaving the Observatory gardens, I discovered my hotel was only 500 metres away. A lot less than the 2½ km walk I’d made via Circular Quay and the Rocks. At least it’s good to know the Observatory is nearby as there’s still lots of good subject matter to justify another visit.

And the blemish? Sydney has a couple of America’s Cup yachts (the Spirit and the Kookaburra) that do twilight cruises of the harbor.  The ‘blemish’ I believe is one of them returning to its mooring at the end of the evening’s cruise.  The white line is the masthead light moving from right to left across the scene during the 25 second long exposure. The red light on the water below the left hand end of the white light would be the yacht’s red port side navigation light. It was the red light that made the penny drop as to what was going on. Just goes to show it pays to take more than one image of what you hope will be your best images.


Camera Gear

Pentax K-3 with my usual Tamron 17-50mm F2.8 for the images up to and including “Fire over Balmain”. I then swapped to a Pentax FA77 Limited prime lens for the after dark shots. Oh, and a tripod for “Fire over Balmain” and later images.

To Learn More

Sydney Observatory has a website at


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3 thoughts on “An Evening in the Rocks

  1. Sheba

    Wonderful to see historic Sydney through eyes other than mine own and to learn new facts about it, eg. why those old cruising ‘queens’ were re-registered in Bermuda. Tsk, tsk! Wedding gold shines bright for everyone, doesn’t it? All around Observatory Hill and the harbourside one can still see (in the 21st century!) brides realising their ‘fairy tale princess’ dreams, for the day at least. Your pictures are a treat -those convict-built stairs and the pretty cottage, the storehouses and balcony rails of yesteryear, twilight skies, the lighted bridge, everything!. I too visit Sydney every year (an early-retirement perk!). Thanks for your posts!

  2. Pingback: Queen Mary 2 | Photo Morsels

  3. Pingback: A post about a post… | Photo Morsels

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