Photographing the Blue Mountains (Part two) – Australian Photography

By Yan Zhang | 21 March 2022

This is part two of a two part series on photographing the Blue Mountains. You can see part one, from last week, here. 

Rocky Walls

The Blue Mountains and the Great Dividing Range were formed about 50 million years ago when the area was uplifted. More recently, volcanic flows covered large areas of the mountains in basalt. Today, this Basalt has largely worn away, leaving only occasional outcrops on the high peaks.

These sheer rock walls form the spectacular landscape of the Blue Mountains. I camped on the cliff edge for a night in December 2020. It was a cloudy morning, but when the sun was rising higher, it broke from the thick layer of clouds, shining light on the valley.
Hanging Rock. These sheer rock walls form the spectacular landscape of the Blue Mountains. I camped on the cliff edge for a night in December 2020. It was a cloudy morning, but when the sun was rising higher, it broke from the thick layer of clouds, shining light on the valley.

This unique geology has created valleys and surrounding rocky walls across the entire Blue Mountains region. And, as it happens, these areas are fantastic for photography. The following photos were taken during several overnight backpacking trips.

It was a windy, full moon night when I camped at this very tight spot near the cliff edge. I woke at 3am and observed that the full moon was just high enough in the sky. The moonlight shone on one side of this giant rock wall, where the stars and clouds were interwoven together. I got out of my tent, set up my camera and took a shot of this beautiful scene. Hanging Rock. It was a windy, full moon night when I camped at this very tight spot near the cliff edge. I woke at 3am and observed that the full moon was just high enough in the sky. The moonlight shone on one side of this giant rock wall, where the stars and clouds were interwoven together. I got out of my tent, set up my camera and took a shot of this beautiful scene.

During a bushwalk with my friend Mike, we discovered this tiny rock cave on a cliff. I sensed that this would be an ideal spot for shooting a night scene of the Blue Mountains. After patiently waiting for almost three months, on a perfect clear night, we returned to this cave again, and captured this amazing Milky Way night sky over the valley.
Lincoln’s Rock. During a bushwalk with my friend Mike, we discovered this tiny rock cave on a cliff. I sensed that this would be an ideal spot for shooting a night scene of the Blue Mountains. After patiently waiting for almost three months, on a perfect clear night, we returned to this cave again, and captured this amazing Milky Way night sky over the valley.
I discovered this rocky gate during one of my many walks and immediately realised this would be a rare place in the Blue Mountains with a west-facing vantage viewpoint, which would be a perfect shooting location for a Milky Way arch. I calculated a precise time for this Milky Way position and camped one night in order to make the shot. From a technical aspect, this image consisted of 12 shots during a period between 10:30pm – 11:30pm.
Mount Hay. I discovered this rocky gate during one of my many walks and immediately realised this would be a rare place in the Blue Mountains with a west-facing vantage viewpoint, which would be a perfect shooting location for a Milky Way arch. I calculated a precise time for this Milky Way position and camped one night in order to make the shot. From a technical aspect, this image consisted of 12 shots during a period between 10:30pm – 11:30pm.

Canyons

So what do you do when you’ve seen everything above ground the Blue Mountains has to offer? You go below. In the Blue Mountains, there are two types of canyons: dry canyons and wet canyons. It is relatively simple to explore a dry canyon – it is more or less like a normal bush walk except in a very narrow space. Exploring and photographing wet canyons, on the other hand, can be very tricky.  

Grand Canyon, Blackheath. Photographing canyons is quite different compared to photographing other subjects. Here, light extremely influences the effect and process of photography. In an open segment of the canyon, noon sunlight in summertime comes directly inside the canyon, which can make the rocky walls reveal their colourful layers and textures.
Grand Canyon, Blackheath. Photographing canyons is quite different compared to photographing other subjects. Here, light extremely influences the effect and process of photography. In an open segment of the canyon, noon sunlight in summertime comes directly inside the canyon, which can make the rocky walls reveal their colourful layers and textures.

Firstly, accessing wet canyons is usually difficult. This is because many wet canyons are located in remote mountain areas and you would usually have to hike a long distance to just reach the entrance of the canyon. Many times, you would also need to swim to cross various deep-water pools inside a canyon, and abseiling is a very common way to enter, navigate, and exit the canyon. Water in a canyon can be extremely cold, so wearing a wetsuit is always recommended for wet canyon explorations.

Secondly, wet canyons can be very dangerous places. Without any marked signs, it’s easy to get lost inside a wet canyon and the risks are very real. 

In December 2020, a group of canyoners entered the Blue Mountains Wollangambe canyon – a relatively easy wet canyon. But recent rain had caused a series of unexpected underwater currents, and during a water pool crossing, two participants lost their lives. It is strongly recommended that safety training, clothing and equipment preparation and wet canyon research be undertaken prior to exploring these environments.       

For all my canyoning trips I travelled with Eagle Rock Adventures, based in Katoomba.

This elegant two-layer waterfall is in a deep-water segment inside the Grand Canyon in the Blue Mountains. When I took photographs at this spot, all of my gear, including my Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and Singh Ray CPL filter became very wet. Luckily, I captured a couple of clean shots in this challenging environment.
This elegant two-layer waterfall is in a deep-water segment inside the Grand Canyon in the Blue Mountains. When I took photographs at this spot, all of my gear, including my Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and Singh Ray CPL filter became very wet. Luckily, I captured a couple of clean shots in this challenging environment.

Finally, once inside a wet canyon, keeping cameras and lenses from soaking is not simple. Almost all so-called water-proof bags do not really work when fully submerged in water. I have found that the best equipment for protecting cameras and lenses is a Pelican Case.

Although bully, these are watertight, temperature controlled protective cases that are extremely strong. A Pelican Case will not only protect cameras and lenses from water, but also protects these items from crashing against the hard rocky walls and surfaces inside the canyon.

Yileen Canyon is a section of Yileen Gully on the south side of Bells Line of Road. To access it, you'll need to abseil, wear a wetsuit, and swim in a few canyon channels. It is not the hardest canyon in the Blue Mountains, but carrying all my equipment, it still took us 7hrs from the trailhead to reach this spot. After this, there was a long abseil over 50 meters high. It took us almost 11 hours to complete the whole trip, but this photo was the best reward.
Yileen Canyon is a section of Yileen Gully on the south side of Bells Line of Road. To access it, you’ll need to abseil, wear a wetsuit, and swim in a few canyon channels. It is not the hardest canyon in the Blue Mountains, but carrying all my equipment, it still took us 7hrs from the trailhead to reach this spot. After this, there was a long abseil over 50 meters high. It took us almost 11 hours to complete the whole trip, but this photo was the best reward.

About the author: Yan Zhang is a Sydney based passionate landscape photographer and an outdoor and mountaineering enthusiast. Yan’s photographs have been published in professional photography, geographic and travel magazines such as Practical Photography, Popular Photography (Chinese), Landscape Photography Magazine, New Zealand Geographic and ColoursYan is also an editor and regular contributor to the e-Magazine of 1x.com – the world’s largest curated online photography gallery. See more of his work at yanzhangphotography.com.

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