Much like a wandering trail in Strickland Forest, I will wander through this blog and share some stories on the way. The message, the moral of this tale is find your thing, whatever it may be, and love it like your life depends on it.
Passion is more than a hobby. You learn and study. You invest and create. At some point in life, you’ve likely been told to follow your passion.
Here’s a disclaimer. Your passion should not hurt or harm others including the wild world around you. You still need to bathe, clean the house, and feed the cat. Healthy passions are what I encourage.
Do you have those nights where you lie in bed, unable to sleep? Your mind keeps racing. Maybe you want to do more for homeless people in your community. Perhaps you want to set foot in every country in the world and write a blog. Or maybe you want to redefine how people experience Asian cuisine. These are passions, the great loves that define who you are.
Before I go on about me, let's turn to you. Think back to when you where five… or fifteen. What would it be if you decided to follow your passion unabashedly and audaciously?
A Passion Project
Strickland – An Online Photographic Exhibition is exactly that. An online photographic exhibition about Strickland State Forest. Accessed via my website, it contains three galleries – The Trails, The Creeks and Wild Things.
Over the past 10 years, I have taken 1000s of photos of Strickland. I whittled them down to about 60 images and reworked them into a collection. The exhibition is unique in that the pictures are digitally etched onto gallery walls to give you a feel of being in a gallery without leaving your house.
It opened on 14 October 2021 in the week NSW was released from lockdown, but no one wanted to go out.
A Little Bit of History
Now bordered by the M1 and Mangrove Mountain Road with Narara in the south, Strickland States Forest on Darkinjung Country was marked on maps from the time Ourimbah was known as the Parish of Ourinbah.
1917 was the year that the NSW Governor, Sir Gerald Strickland opened a Forestry School. The site was picked because of the experimental trees already growing on the track now known as the Arboretum trail. The Forestry School never took off and the idea was shelved around 1925.
Sadly, the site was in a deplorable state, burnt and cut to the ground. It is nothing like you see today. Over 100 years, the forest grew back. Not in its original state.
We won’t ever know what we lost.
A very interesting book about the area is Peter Fisher’s Tales from the Rainforest: History and Heritage on the NSW Central Coast.
In the 1920s, experimental plantings included Hoop Pines, Red Cedar and an exotic species Pinus Roxburghii. The huge Tallowwoods and Red Cedars did not escape the timber-getter’s axe and, often, you will only see the stumps showing the marks of their felling.
Two tallowwoods on the Strickland Falls trail are two of my favourite trees in the forest. I have others… like the ancient water gum. She is really hard to get to, though.
I arrived on the Central Coast in 2003. My brother said to me, “You have to go to Strickland.”
I don’t remember the exact date, but a soccer game had been washed out. With nothing else to do, I jumped in my car and took the seven-minute drive. Magical is the only memory I have of that day. I strolled about, not another soul in sight, took the short Strickland Falls walk, listened to the surrounding symphony of birds and the wind in huge trees… and was hooked. That was around 2008.
Before that, I’d walked around and photographed Katandra, Somersby Falls, and Caves Beach. Avoca Beach with the sandstone formations was another go to place.
I walked for the paths of Strickland for years before I took my first proper series of pictures there.
Walking and exploring without a camera helps you open your eyes to the environment and have greater experiences. We have all seen the people who drive to a look out in a national park or destination, get out take a photo and look through their phone or camera, post it on Instagram or Facebook, wait for a like and leave.
They sacrifice the wonderful experiences just for a photo and a like. It means missing the deeper picture, the deeper experience, the wild life. And it comes through on the image. It is just an image of a mountain, or a fern, or a rock, or a group of people.
But let’s go back one step. Is anyone thinking, she’s walking around by herself in all these locations?
When I was five, I liked nothing more than to set off with Heidi the dog into the Excelsior Bushland, Bidjigal country, which backed onto our place in Baulkham Hills. I think mum came with me. I was in my own little world and had names and stories for all the places along the track. Walking by myself was an early passion.
When I was 15, it was music. I was surrounded by singing, composing, art. I was one of those lucky kids whose schooling was peppered with bullying. Walking, music, and art was a refuge. The music was an important part of my online gallery. I curated a soundtrack which is available on Spotify.
Dad gave me my first camera, a Pentax point and shoot film camera in my early 20s. That camera unlocked my passion for capturing musicians and performers in time, place, and context.
I have an early photo of my friend, Chris Hunt, at university in the 1990s. I have photographed him over recent years in the Symphony Central Coast orchestra. I had my camera with me when I saw him at the beach seventeen years ago years ago with his babies. Now, I have shot his grown-up daughters who are also involved in local performing arts.
I have a few timelines like that with different people starting with that little Pentax. Strickland shares another timeline and I have been shooting her since 2012.
Strickland Forest is a difficult place to shoot.
Light and Shade, Body and Lens
Photography is a lot about light and shade and character. When I shoot people, the best photos are where the light and shade combine to create drama and interest. It’s why I love shooting theatre and live performance. The lighting, set, costumes… these all combine to create fantastic scenes. My job is to get the technical aspects right – shutter speed, aperture, exposure – and timing – and composition. It is very, very fast shooting.
Strickland is mostly dark and it’s a jungle mess. Her character in the rainforest sections is muddy and wet; think leeches and creepy crawlies and brown creeks with sandy and rocky beds. Wet ferns and slippery paths. Up on the ridge she is much brighter with Terrigal sandstone soils.
Where the light hits, it is very bright compared to the dark. When you look at the scene with your eyes, your brain is doing a lot of filling in details and adjustments. My first camera was a D50 Nikon with the kit lens. It was an introductory camera that still cost $1,500 – around $2,000 today. We’re talking a slow lens on a grainy, slow body. Photos came out very flat.
From those first photos to today, there has been a long progressive learning curve about lenses, bodies, balancing all the exposure settings, light, shade, tripods, and position of the sun. It has also been learning about the forest and her personalities. Each part has different light and shade, and colours. From rich reds to very intense greens.
I bought a Nikon D7000 in 2011 with a Sigma 18-200mm f3.5-6.3lens. Over the years, I can see my images become better composed, better focused, more considerate of lighting conditions. I am learning, refining, and going back to shoot the same thing repeatedly. Thinking about it. Looking at the results. Reshooting.
I upgraded to a Nikon D500 in 2020. I thought I would start getting some different results with the new body. I got slightly better results but mostly just larger file sizes.
Frustrated that I wasn’t getting the results I was looking for, I wrote all my lenses down on a piece of paper. You see, the body is one thing, but the lens makes an incredible difference. Back in 2020, I had three lenses. The Sigma 18mm-200mm f3.5-6.3, Nikon 18mm-300mm f3.5-6.3, and a Nikon 70-300mm F4.5-5.6. Basically, the same lens. I kept buying the same lens repeatedly!
Above: Image on the right is D7000 with Sigma 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 shot at f22 5sec exposure ISO-2000 at 18mm. Image on the left is the same location with a D500 Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 shot with focus stack in camera ISO-100.
You see, the body is one thing, but the lens makes an incredible difference.
I have massively enhanced the collection with a lot of research. Tokina 11-16mm f2.8, Nikon 50mm f1.4, Sigma 85mm f1.4, Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 with a teleconverter to throw it up to about an 800mm. Those little f numbers mean I can let more light into the lens and get a different depth of field.
The 50 and 85 are for portrait photography but I would like to use them on my plant shoots. The 24-70mm I use for theatre photography because it is fast, and I have a bit of zoom capability. The Tokina is for those awesome stretched foregrounds.
I've used the 50mm Nikon just recently in the forest. I’ve used the Nikon 24-70mm on another walk and, with cropping, I was pleased.
When I get the images home, I will run them through Camera Raw or Lightroom and Photoshop. This is often to add back in what I saw with my eyes. Dropping in light, bringing out the shadows, making the bark or rocks quite textural.
I first used Photoshop in 1992 and take an artistic approach to images much like a painter. A painter will look at the light and shadow enhancing to make a pleasing image. The initial scene, the light and how it illuminates its environment and juxtaposes with shadow is the initial inspiration. The scene makes you go, oh wow.
The artist then captures the scene and creates a memory that can be hung on the wall. When we see that scene over the years, we remember. It takes us back. It becomes a touchpoint.
I would say my major influence is the Dutch painter, Rembrandt and the style of the time of Rembrandt, 17th Century Baroque. I will often look at the light and say, "Very Dutch light," even though I’ve never been to the Netherlands. It’s when the light is quite yellow golden, not the usual orange red golden or bright white blue of Australia. Rembrandt uses light and shadow quite dramatically. This includes his portraits.
Framing is important in the final artwork. Decoding how portrait and landscape photographer charge helps you understand what you are buying. In my live presentation, I show you some examples of framing and why there are different costs from cheap but not forever to quite expensive but forever.
Lockdown in NSW 2021
When lockdown number two came along, I used that time earnestly. I had agreed to take many theatre photos and I really wanted to level up my knowledge and break free of some of my past results. Move the needle.
Quite a few online courses later and I thought I would start levelling up by revisiting my Strickland catalogue and rescuing some earlier photos. This eventually led to an idea to create an online gallery.
Good framing costs a lot. Therefore, the attraction of digitally framing everything. Sadly, some of my photos are not printable. The technical quality isn’t good enough, but they look good in a digital gallery.
This is why mobile phone photos look good on social media, but when you try to print them they often look poor. The mobile phone camera is specifically built for social sharing, not long term memories.
Before I swing down that path of telling you more about the gallery, let’s take this side track so I can show you an example of rescuing an earlier photo.
Image 1: Shot Tuesday 29 March 2016 with NIKON D7000, Nikon 18-300mm lens at 18mm, aperture f/16, shutter 1.3 sec, ISO-450, and a polarizer which was a big mistake. To get this shot, you must walk about 3km up a very difficult creek lugging a tripod. It is a stunning view. Many of you won’t ever get to see it for yourselves. It is magical and is the same general area where I took the signature Strickland image. The composition is good, but the colour! The grain is OK but to really bring the story out, I need to do some work. We take this image. It is brown thanks to the polarizer. I’ve already cropped and straightened it.
Image 2: First, we take a lot of the yellow temperature out. Bring up the exposure, tone down the highlights and bring up the shadows, and bring up the whites and take back the blacks.
Image 3: We reduce the grain and give it a creamier look, especially for that water. Then I wanted to bring out these foreground rocks and boost that texture. We have a juxtaposition of the creamy water with the rough rocks. In real life, that water is browner. But no one wants to look at brown water. When we see pictures of water, deep inside we want to know that it is safe. Clear, white water is safer than brown murky water. It is quite dark here, and very, very green. Quiet, too. Peaceful. Challenging as those rocks are slippery. I wear very good boots and gloves with grip to climb over all the rocks. It isn’t called Stoney Creek for nothing!
Image 4: Once I got to here in my rescue work, I thought two things – I wonder what it would look like framed and how can I share this?
I began to build a narrative to influence people to care for and respect and love the forest as much as I.
The State Forestry Corporation lets people walk their dogs in all NSW State Forests, and Strickland is no exception. During the lockdowns, the traffic increased in the forest incredibly. The dog numbers swelled. People let them off their leash to jump through the bush.
Tracks where tiny ferns would brush your ankles with dew as you walked became highways of mud and poo. People trampled over everything and tried to take silly pictures standing between the Tallowwoods on the trunks for Instagram. I had to stop walking there because I would shudder in horror at people’s behaviour. Plants started going missing, like the rock orchids. One time, a group of forty turned up and their loud, inane conversations could be heard across the valley. It was insane.
Pre-lockdown, I had often walked in the forest for 3-hours and seen one or two others or, best of all, no one. Now, there were people and dogs everywhere. Even the leeches couldn’t keep them away.
Building the gallery brought back my love and good memories of the forest, but I also still feared going back to what I would find.
Thankfully, when I visited the previous two weekends past, the people have gone, the creeks are up, the leeches are abundant, the paths are healing. The birds are in song. I saw one dog on a lead. Back to the old days.
The gallery is very simply built in Wix. The base pictures are from Unsplash and I etched in my pictures over the top. I wanted to give people a real feeling of a gallery, not a slide show, and I curated a song list to play as people clicked through.
But this next chapter is for you to experience. Watch the video, play the song list and experience the gallery appreciating the work and passion. Let it be an inspiration for your own passion.
My art practice through photography is more that just some nice pictures. It speaks to my deeper passions of conservation and memory, of joy and wisdom. Of documenting the moments and places I fear others may miss.
Let’s go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this journey.
What would it be if you unabashedly and audaciously follow your passion?
What has happened to your passion after you left childhood?
Is there still space for your passion in your life?
The moral of this tale is, “find your thing, whatever it may be, and love it like your life depends on it.”
When you healthily and respectfully follow your passion, you will impact the world around you in ways you do not expect.