The Gardens of Stone

Sylph Sia hadn't shot in the Blue Mountains before and was keen for some adventure so I had a think about where to go. The trouble with living in a place like the Blueys is you forget what's around you, and many great locations become kind of mundane through sheer familiarity. A grass is greener kind of thing.

I had completed a shoot recently at a local waterfall and wasn't too thrilled with the results. This was due to the choice of location, nothing else. Even when I was doing a lot of landscape photography I did very little in the Blueys, preferring to go to desert or coastal regions. The colours of Blue Mountains bush are quite dull and the bush is very irregular and complex making for tricky compositions. Light also, is often tricky. Of course, these are only my opinions as seen through my own creative lens.

It took me a while to actually start thinking about slot canyons. Not sure why, maybe because nearly all of them require abseiling down waterfalls and swimming through freezing dark caverns. But there are a couple, including one, which is a dry canyon - no freezing creek flowing through it. Other than that it has all the great aspects of a classic Blue Mountains slot canyon. It's dark and constricted - with beautifully sculpted sandstone walls, which are at times only a couple of metres apart; letting in thin streams of light which enter the canyon from high up and then proceed to bounce around inside the walls of the canyon. So you get this beautiful soft reflected light, some direct harsh light plus deep shadows. And colour! From bright orange sandstone through to soft green moss and lichen.

OK so I had a particular canyon in mind which is located in the Gardens of Stone National Park, but my memory had of course diminished the time it takes to drive there plus the time (and effort) required to walk in from the car.

The three of us (Gina, Sylph and I) packed up early in the morning and headed off by 7:30. We arrived about 9:40 - the drive including 40km or so of pretty rough dirt road - obviously the graders haven't been out there in a while and the logging trucks have made a bit of a mess.

 I never really know what people think about the remoteness of some places as I'm so used to going to these kind of areas - as a result I probably ask people too many times to check that they're OK with it.

After only a few minutes of walking my worries vanished as Sylph began to see plenty of amazing formations for posing. We explored a small side valley of large pagoda formations and found some spots for photos when I realised I'd left the camera back where we dumped the packs. I headed back to grab the camera and when I returned couldn't see Sylph anywhere until I looked upward to the summit of one of the tallest pagodas and there she was standing casually on the top. Not a hard climb up there but not for the feint of heart nor the unfit.

We grabbed a couple of shots on the summit and decided to keep going to the canyon proper.

Another 15 minutes or so of walking, which included climbing down a small rocky cliff/gully thing, brought us to the canyon floor which winds through ancient tree ferns and forest leading eventually into the first canyon constriction.

One of the early edits from the shoot. This was taken in the first canyon constriction. A perfect pose for the spot by Sylph.

Again, we started getting excited to the possibilities - I saw the light I was looking for and that magic grey/orange sculpted sandstone. We slowly worked our way down the canyon, stopping in three separate places and shooting plenty of images.

I had packed the digital camera of course and also 2 medium format film cameras (the Mamiya 7 plus 2 lenses and the Pentax and the magic 105). But it was just too dark in the canyon for film. I was using at times, ISO 2500 on the digital camera and even then some exposures were quite slow requiring Sylph to be very still, which is a tall ask when the model is posing in an uncomfortable position.

To finish off we shot a styled set on film just outside the entrance to the canyon. Gina was happy as she now had something to do! The spot we chose for this was great - harsh light bouncing everywhere amidst ancient tall tree ferns and fallen logs. Perfect for the wide dynamic range of film.

The walk out to the car was pretty hot but at least not too far or too steep. After the drive home we were all pretty buggered and the standard Thai takeaway and some wine capped off a great day out.

PS: I have to comment on how great it was working with Sylph on this shoot. She could not have worked harder. I know that when I'm in the 'zone', I keep shooting and that can be tiring on a model. We shot for the best part of 4 hours and it was at times physically strenuous and demanding - I regularly checked with Sylph for signs of her being tired etc. but she was fine and committed to getting the best images - coming up with her own ideas as well - which is a quality that the best models bring to the table - they understand photography.