Removing background crowds from photos

Taking photos in popular public locations is complicated by that very thing – popularity. There are a lot of other people there to walk into my shot, or stand right in front of my raised camera to take their selfie. Every year I look forward to the stunning Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Bondi, it is a photographer’s paradise, beautiful art in front of beautiful views. Plus forty thousand other people on the path at the same time as me. Many of them with children who will look great in front of, or on, every sculpture for a photo.

To make it look like I’m the only person there takes a lot of patience. I line up what I want and wait for 5, 10, 15 minutes for that split second break in the crowd. I look for vantage points, get low, get close, get high, get a long telephoto, crop in, wait, wait, wait. Or I incorporate them into the photo, if it adds to the composition.

So today I am celebrating the crowds, with these photos of what the Sculpture Walk really looks like, with all these marvellous people  getting out in the sun and enjoying the very same art as me.

Stunning Sculpture by the Sea in Bondi

The annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition is on again

This is one of my favourite times of the year, as spring is turning into summer and the Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk hosts over one hundred stunning sculptures. With a backdrop of beautiful beaches, and ocean all the way to the horizon, it’s no surprise that hundreds of thousands of people visit it over 18 days each year in late October/early November. You should too.

Gallery of the sculptures.

Relaxing on Rabbit Island, Cambodia

Cambodia does not have to be only about the heat (and hectic exploring of all those glorious temples) of Siem Reap, or the chaos and nightlife of Phnom Penh. When it’s time for a bit of back-to-basics relaxation, Rabbit Island is the place to go.

Known locally as Koh Tonsay, Rabbit Island is offshore from Kep, on the southwestern coast of Cambodia. To get to the island, head to the Kep port pier before 9am to catch one of the boats for a 20-30 minute (5 km) ride out to Rabbit Island. The island itself is two square km in size. Remember the number of your boat, as you have paid for the return trip and you need to catch the same one back in the afternoon, or you’ll be hit up for another fare.

For me, a big part of the attraction of Rabbit island is how undeveloped it is. It’s as loved by locals as by tourists. There’s a long golden sand strip shaded by towering palms. A few sun-loungers and low bamboo platforms are spread along the sand, all free to use. The water (in April anyway) is body temperature, as tranquil as a lagoon, no waves here. And being saltwater, it aided our buoyancy as we floated around happily for hours, only emerging occasionally to top up our sunscreen. There’s an open air tent for soothing massages, a couple of basic-but-good open air restaurants with cold water and beers, and a public long-drop toilet just out behind the trees. And thats all. A perfect place to relax with a few friends. Let’s hope it stays undeveloped for a while longer.

And if you want to stay overnight, there are a handful of nice little cabins that can be rented, I think I might need to try those next time.

Where have you found your ideal relaxation island?


Kangaroos and Vineyards

Kangaroos and Vineyards in Hunter Valley, Australia

Being a Sydney urbanite, I rarely see kangaroos in Australia, so I still get very excited every time that I do. Sometimes we may give the impression that in Australia there will be kangaroos bounding down major streets in the CBD and dodging street-side cafe tables in trendy suburbs, but sadly there is no truth to this. It is possible in small towns or in bush suburbs on the outskirts of the city, but not in Bondi Beach.

I was happy to discover that the vineyards of Hunter Valley at dusk are a great kangaroo spotting location, and of course the vineyard landscapes themselves are pretty nice as well.

Sculpture Garden in the Hunter Valley

Sculpture garden and wine-tasting in the Hunter Valley

It’s a no-brainer to visit a vineyard cellar door for some wine tasting. It becomes much more unique when it is surrounded by a sculpture garden, and also has a art gallery in its wine tasting area. Mistletoe Winery on Hermitage Rd is all of that, and is proudly local, boutique, and family run as well. A stroll through the outdoor sculpture garden on a sunny day is a great refresher in the middle of vineyard visits.

Where have you found surprising art or sculpture in your travels?

Eat Drink Hunter Valley

Top six tips for eating and drinking well in the Hunter Valley.

Mmmm, wine and food. Always gets my attention. The Hunter Valley is about a two and a half hour drive from Sydney and is a well known vineyard area, although historically not one of my favourite ones (I’m not a fan of the region’s most famous wine, Semillon, and I find the average Hunter shiraz a bit green, but that’s just me). Australia is blessed with many amazing wine making areas (and wine makers), enough for everyone to have their own favourites. One advantage the Hunter Valley does have is that it is the closest winemaking area to Sydney, and is a popular day-trip or weekender destination.

So when I am invited along on a long weekend with friends who happen to have great taste in food and wine, I answer with a very quick & resounding “Yes”. After three days and nights of sampling some of the best of the Hunter, here are my tips:

  1. What goes really well with wine? Cheese! The Smelly Cheese Shop at 188 Broke Rd, Pokolbin is a ‘must visit’.  Not just for your cheese supplies, it also has a large and tempting range of other delicatessen items, an amazing range of gelato flavours, and a barista making you a fresh cup of coffee. Stock up for a picnic lunch or a dinner at your accommodation. This comes in particularly handy if you are planning to cook dinner in, and the entire neighbourhood has a power cut from 6:30pm for about 3 hours – with an endless supply of wine and good cheeses, plus a roaring fireplace, this becomes a positive, not a negative. (yep, that really happened).
  2. Brokenwood Vineyard is a Hunter Valley icon, with a very friendly and professional cellar door.  They are also a stand out exception to my “shiraz is too green” rule for the Hunter – Brokenwood make a wonderful range of sophisticated, well balanced shiraz, including their flagship Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz (94 points Robert Parker for the enthusiasts out there). If there is a group of you, and you want to taste some of their top end wines, phone ahead and book into the private tasting room and get the special treatment. One new tip I picked up there was that in winter, the staff liked to drink the Tawny (can’t call it port any more) warmed up – 20 seconds in the microwave in a small glass will do it, perfect when there is a frost settling in overnight. Oh, and Brokenwood is just across the road and about 20 metres down from the Smelly Cheese shop – very convenient.
  3. I don’t know if he is there all the time but there was a man with a market garden stall outside the petrol station on the outskirts of Cessnock (on Wine Country Drive), we stocked up on boxes of fantastic in-season mandarins, tomatoes, and apples. (Good for the one token healthy thing for the weekend).
  4. On the way into Cessnock is a garden centre called Simply D’vine, with a sign boasting “best coffee in the Hunter Valley”. This is not an idle boast, and you don’t need to take my word for it, as every local we talked to agreed strongly with this hypothesis. The garden centre is fun to visit and has a variety of market stalls and shops inside as well, but the real gem is the cafe, also called Simply D’vine. Open for breakfast and lunch, the quality of the food is outstanding. Between us we sampled a plate of Parfait Liver on brioche toast with a beetroot relish, and the creamiest mushrooms on toast with soft boiled eggs – the aroma had us salivating for many minutes before the dish arrived. Spoiler alert – get into this place soon, it can only be a matter of time before this chef opens his own restaurant and does dinner service as well, but for right now we know where to find him.
  5. It’s a frosty Sunday morning, with clear blue skies and a warm middle of the day. What to do? How about a 40 minute stroll in the sun down the backroads to Beltree Restaurnat for a long, lovely lunch, and then another 40 minute stroll home again. Yep, that’s a good plan. Beltree Restaurant (Hermitage Rd) bills itself as rustic italian (couple Jess and Guy, the front of house and chef respectively, previously lived in Positano where Guy trained under a Michelin starred chef). The adobe building used to be a cellar door, with a de rigour cosy fireplace. The food is rich but not too heavy . How about  King Mushrooms, truffled potato mayonnaise & soft egg? Or a roast pork share platter of various cuts of suckling pig & belly, pork sausage, apples and prune? Or maybe balsamic duck with beets, chard, chilli, almonds and grapes? Or maybe go all out, share all of them and wash it down with some Otago pinot noir and big Tuscan reds. For a few hours. Yes, a good plan indeed. A good thing we were walking home afterward, although we probably were staying a bit too close for it to really help.
  6. And in case all of that is not quite self indulgent enough, try staying at the Thistle Hill cottage. It strikes me that the word ‘cottage’ may be a bit of an understatement for a luxurious building with two large bedrooms and private ensuites, at either end of a large dining/lounge area (with a splendid wood burner fireplace of course). The breakfast is deservedly quite famous here, but I won’t reveal their secrets, you’ll have to go try it for yourself.

I’ve definitely warmed to the Hunter Valley after this trip. We just scratched the surface, it would take a couple of weeks to try all the food and wine options, but it was a pretty good start. So give me some tips for next time – which places did you enjoy when you went to the Hunter?

City2Surf in Sydney, not just for runners

London marathon, New York marathon, Sydney’s City2Surf, fun runs in just about every major city in the world – these are iconic events which tens of thousands of people compete in every year, and which I have never, ever, aspired to do. Until this year!

I’m not a runner, and I don’t enjoy running – for me it’s all about walking and I currently walk around 40 kms a week. And I live in Bondi, which is where the 14 km City2Surf race finishes on the beach every August – it is billed as the world’s largest race and regularly has 80,000+ entrants. I’m a big fan of the sausage bbq on the beach at the end, which is just as much appreciated by the spectators as the participants. But this year, completely out of character, I decided I wanted to actually enter the City2Surf, and one of my friends , who has run it before, agreed to join me in the walkers group.

One of the great characteristics about the City2Surf is that it is both competitive and egalitarian (a good reflection of the national character perhaps). The 85,000 entrants this year included some of the worlds best runners at this distance, plenty of serious runners, lots of fun runners, a surprising number wearing superhero and animal costumes, and around 20,000 walkers as well. The start groups for the City2Surf are split by speed, starting with invitation-only seeded and preferred runner groups, followed by runners with previous race times under 70 minutes, runners with previous race times under 90 minutes, an open entry running group, an open entry jogging group, and finally an open entry “Back of the Pack” group for walking, using a wheelchair or pushing child strollers.

Yes, it was definitely the back of the pack group that attracted me, and because the race is so large, we snake along amongst a huge crowd for the whole 14 kms, which is quite awe-insipring every time we breach another hill and see the size of the crowd in front and behind. Of the 85,000 entrants this year, around 70,000 actually turn up on the day and finish the course. In addition, another 120,000 spectators plus dozens of bands and DJ’s line the entire course, and it is quite surreal (and awesome) being cheered on from the sidelines for the whole race. The sun is shining, the views are sparkling, the participants are all friendly and positive, it’s a real feel-good factor event. Now that I am a convert I would say that everyone should give it a go, at least once! We aimed to walk it at a fast pace, with a fair bit of ducking and diving to overtake through the crowds, and ended up finishing in 2 hrs 27 minutes, beating 11,000 other walkers and a fair few stray joggers who ran out of puff. The race winner did it in 41 minutes and the average runner took about 1 hr 30m so we’re very pleased with that. And then we retire to a bar overlooking the beach for a cold bevy and some yummy fried foods. I think I may just have to do it again next year – who’s going to join me?

Vivid Sydney

 Tips for the best views (and photographs) of Vivid Festival in Sydney:

  • a great starting point is on Hickson Rd on the western side of the Harbour Bridge – walk out on the finger wharf closest to the bridge, towards the end is a great position to get shots of the bridge with the lower north shore and Luna Park in the background.
  • follow Hickson Rd around under the bridge and walk along the front of Dawes Point Park – the lights being reflected off the opera house sails are actually projected from Dawes Point Park, from the top of a large covered scaffolding (with flouro pink V on it)- when you walk in front of this and look towards the opera house, you will be able to see and photograph the bright beams of light coming into the opera house – they won’t be visible from any other point.
  • keep walking around in front of the Park Royal and then in front of the row of tourist restaurants with their outdoor seating under big sun shades – take a right up the stairs at the end of ‘restaurant row’ and then a left up the street bridge to Quay restaurant. Go up the stairs just to the right of the door into Quay, and you’ll come out on the top balcony at the front of the Overseas Passenger Terminal, directly in front of the Opera house and far above the crowds.
  • come back out the same way down the stairs, on the road outside there is a great view of the Harbour Bridge and some of the Vivid artworks on your right, and lights on other old Rocks building to your left.
  • turn left again onto Hickson Rd and then George St, when you reach the MCA take the steps down onto the grass in front of the MCA. There are continuos projections onto its walls, and Vivid artworks in front of it as well.
  • cut through the train station at Circular Quay and cross over Alfred St (between wharves 2 and 3) for great views of the lights on the front of Customs House.
  • There’s also Vivid in Darling Harbour but I haven’t checked that out yet so I can’t give you any tips for there.

If you have them, this is the time to use a DSLR or any camera that allows you manual control of aperture (Av), shutter speed(Tv) and ISO, a tripod, and a remote shutter release.