Vivid Night at the Opera

Sydney opera House lit up during the Vivid festival. Picture: Chris Mannolini

Sydney opera House lit up during the Vivid festival. Picture: Chris Mannolini

As if Sydney wasn’t photogenic enough, the harbour city puts on a festival of light, music and ideas each year called Vivid. The highlight for many is the light show beamed on to the sails of the Sydney Opera House each night of the festival, held from late May to early June. But I wanted to know how best to capture that spectacle, especially the shot of the Opera House lit up at night, viewed from across the water. Fortunately, Canon Australia, through the #CanonCollective, runs photo walks during the festival from their Vivid base at Circular Quay. I managed to secure a place, the last one-hour walk late on a Sunday night. These walks sell out fast, so you have to be quick. As well, Vivid attracts big crowds so as a photographer it is best to go quite late, to avoid the worst of the people traffic. For $40 during Vivid 2015, the #CanonCollective walk included the use of a Canon EOS 70D for those who did not have a camera or want to use their own (I took my Canon 5D, with the 24-105mm lens), an 8GB SD memory card, an A3 print of your favourite image taken during the walk plus various discounts to photoPico and Irista, if you wish to take these up. And you get the photography advice from a couple of #CanonCollective photographers. It’s no wonder these walks sell out quickly.

Harbour traffic light trails in front of the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Chris Mannolini

Harbour traffic light trails in front of the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Chris Mannolini

With the eight walk participants assembled, Canon jackets donned, off we trekked from the Canon temporary base at the Museum of Contemporary Art building, cameras and tripods at hand. Led by two Canon leaders, we headed to the Passenger Terminal building across from the Opera House, where we were taken up one level, away from the crowds, and set up our tripods on the balcony. Vivid beams moving images on to the buildings around Circular Quay and elsewhere in Sydney. So to capture an image, you can’t just leave your shutter open for 20 or 30 seconds. You need a fast shutter speed to capture the one image. So how do you do this? Greg of the #CanonCollective told us to ramp up the ISO to about 6400, open the aperture fairly wide, to about f/4, and have a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second to capture an image on the Opera House without it being blurred. That ensures enough light hits the sensor for the camera to be able to capture one image from the Vivid light show kaleidoscope.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge during Vivid - a zoom experiment. Picture: Chris Mannolini

The Sydney Harbour Bridge during Vivid – a zoom experiment. Picture: Chris Mannolini

The other way to capture the lights and feel of Vivid is to keep the shutter open for about 30 seconds, capturing the light trails of the moving harbour traffic of ferries and other boats, many often lit up during Vivid. For this, Greg suggests, put the ISO back down to 100 to ensure a high-quality image, narrow the aperture to about f/11 and set the shutter at 30 seconds. The light show on the Opera House’s “sails” becomes a coloured blur – perhaps white, or pink or green, whatever is showing as part of the show at that time – while the movement on the harbour leaves a trail of light through the image, similar to the light trails of cars on a highway at night. Once we’ve all played around and got various shots of the Opera House, we head back down to ground level and move further around the quay to take in the Sydney Harbour Bridge, looking beautiful under the added Vivid lights. Here, leaving the shutter open for 30 seconds and keeping the aperture at f/11 results in a starlight effect from the lights on the bridge. We also play around with a zoom effect, whereby we zoom in and/or out while the shutter is open. The result is an acquired taste and I don’t like what is produced at first, but it grows on me later when looking through the images on my PC. It’s all about capturing the “feel” of an event, and Vivid is all about being almost overwhelmed by light.

The MCA building at Circular Quay provides a highlight of the Sydney Vivid festival. Picture: Chris Mannolini

The MCA building at Circular Quay provides a highlight of the Sydney Vivid festival. Picture: Chris Mannolini

We have time to play around with the zoom effect again when we assemble in front of the MCA building, on which another light show is being beamed. Here you get the added bonus of children and a few not-so-young dancing in front of the lights, which work as nice silhouettes. Here we play with various ISOs and shutter speeds, from 200 to 800 ISO and 1/4 to 1 second. While the Opera House sails across the water are a perfect screen, the MCA building looks wonderful under the lights and is another highlight. If you’re a photographer looking for a good time to visit Sydney, late May is perfect as you get cool and generally fine weather and you have Vivid to add some colour and pizzazz to your Sydney Harbour photographs. Just remember to pack your tripod and look to book a #CanonCollective walk early. You can see more of my Vivid Sydney photographs on my Flickr site here. Have you been on a #CanonCollective photo walk during Vivid? Did you find it useful? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

A psychedelic Sydney Opera House during Vivid. Picture: Chris Mannolini

A psychedelic Sydney Opera House during Vivid. Picture: Chris Mannolini

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