Home Features Kissing the Opera House: The best-laid plan that went agley

Kissing the Opera House: The best-laid plan that went agley

This Might Actually Line Up

Robbie Burns famously wrote, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. So it was when I carefully set myself up for the one shot at precisely the decisive moment.

Late in December 2017, I travelled from Darwin to Sydney to catch up with a university friend who was visiting Australia as part of The Ashes Test Match pilgrimage. I arrived at my hotel in the early evening and wandered down to Circular Quay to soak up the atmosphere and take a few shots of the Opera House and surroundings.

Circular Quay at night
Circular Quay at night

I tried an 8 sec exposure to capture the receding light in the sky and was pleased with the gentle blur of the people enjoying a drink. If you look at the bottom right of the image you can see one person remains sharp, it looks like they are asleep.

Location scouting

The next morning I got up early and had scouted a location close to the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to take photos of the Opera House as the sun started to rise. I was in place forty minutes before sunrise and conditions looked good.

A touch of cloud cover, a few lights around the Opera House. The sun would be rising just behind the Opera House.

Then, as the light improved, I noticed a large shape heading towards Circular Quay. At first, given the size, I thought it was a container ship heading for Glebe. Then I realised it was a huge cruise palace coming straight into Circular Quay right next to where I was standing.

My perfect sunrise was ruined, or so I thought. But as the ship continued to turn towards the passenger terminal, I realised the bow of the ship might match up with the profile of the Opera House. I took seven frames as it approached and couldn’t believe my luck when the sixth frame lined up perfectly.

Looking at the photos when I got back to Darwin, I noticed the two figures on the bow of the ship and the two figures on the third “sail” of the Opera House roof. I was tempted to clone the two roof figures onto the first sail but left it as shot.


Opera house shot potentially ruined
Three image stitch required to get it all in
Sunrise as planned
Sunrise as planned
Climbers on the roof.
Climbers on the roof.

With the sunrise bathing the sky in orange light, I switched from the 23mm f/2 to the 55-135mm zoom on my Leica TL and took two more shots of the figures on the Opera House roof silhouetted against the warmth of the morning light. As it was two days before New Years’ Eve I am guessing they were installing lights or fireworks for the huge party held every year on the harbour.

Close up of figures on the roof.
Close up of figures on the roof.

So, the next time you set your alarm for 4 am and have second thoughts about getting up when it goes off, don’t just roll over and go back to sleep. Think of those industrious mice. Get out there and wait for the light, you may also capture something quite unexpected.

My planned shot in TPE, ironically with cruise ship in position
My planned shot in TPE, ironically with cruise ship in position

While preparing this article I went back to the TPE app (The Photographer’s Ephemeris) to illustrate how I planned the shot.  The red pin shows where I planned to set up my tripod close to the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylon. The orange line shows the direction of the sunrise behind the last building in the Opera House complex. Just to the south of where I planned to set up is the Circular Quay passenger terminal and, ironically, the satellite image even includes a cruise ship at berth.

Read more from Tom Brennan

More articles featuring Australian locations


  1. Admire your meticulous preparation, your skill with the camera and your seizing of the moment when presented with the unexpected. What a good story and a brilliant image.
    Your other images of the Opera House are excellent too. I have a fair few of this wonderful building myself but, having seen your images I will leave mine to mature on my hard drive. Unfortunately they won’t improve in the manner of wine!
    Enjoyable article, Tom.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I have lots of less than pleasing images of the Opera House as well. The difference this time around was all to do with the light, I just happened to be there at the right time.

  2. Thank you great way to end the week. I don’t know why but I like last photo best. Glad you didn’t try to get these this week after reading John S all the smoke from wildfires.

    • John the last image is probably my favourite as well, but I couldn’t resist how cheesy the image is of the cruise ship and the Opera House curves complementing each other.

  3. Thanks Tom. Really good images of an iconic building. So different from the standard tourist shots.
    And just as good is your write up of the thought process behind them

    John S keeps on extolling at me (sic) the special images to be caught in the early morning predawn light. My response …. “Aaaarrrggghhh”.

    • I have numerous images of the Opera House taken during the day, and most of them look like standard tourist shots. I don’t usually do sunrise shots in capital cities for safety reasons, but as this was very close to the Hyatt Hotel I thought it would be OK. Its hard to beat the early morning light but you also have to expect a fews hum hah mornings when there is no cloud in the sky and the light stays flat and boring. Try it. Even if you don’t get great photos the stillness and feeling like you have the place to yourself is worth it.

  4. Excellent post which really captures the real world challenges of creatively making a satisfying image and the fascination we all have with the image – making process , without ( thank God! ) being sidelined with worries about pixels, sensors and other such distractions. Well done. Inspirational, Tom.
    Thank you for this and congratulations on the result with that TL zoom. That’s exactly the kind of shot I’d like to see Leica use to promote their products.

    • Thank you for your comments, much appreciated. The TL telephoto zoom is superb, the only thing missing is stabilisation which would probably give me a better hit rate handheld. These photos were taken with the benefit of a tripod.

  5. I really enjoyed your article and your process of getting the image was very informative. It is amazing how many people think that you just go out and luckily capture images like this. Usually it takes more effort than people realize. I find it hard to drag myself out for the dramatic early morning light but your photo demonstrates the reward of planning and getting out early. I really love the graphic nature of the final image and the people on the roof adds an important extra mystery to the image.

    I carry bear spray in my camera bag for protection in the woods and urban areas. We are not allowed to carry hand guns in Canada…only the criminals can.

    • Thanks for your comments Brian. As for bear spray, as Australia’s only “native” bear is the koala, there is no much demand for it here. Maybe I could carry some shark repellant.

  6. A nice write up and excellent images. The two last ones with the people on the roof stand out for me with the golden light. Thanks for sharing Tom

  7. Tom, nice images. I lived in Glebe for 10 years and I could see the Opera House from the end of my street and I used to drive across the Harbour Bridge to and from work every day for many years and yet I do not have a single photo of the Opera House. Familiarity really does breed contempt.
    Maybe I should move interstate and fly back to Sydney for a day or so and take my inspiration from your shots.

    • I lived in London until my mid 20’s and didn’t really have any photos of London until I returned as a tourist ….. I sometimes join photo tours in Perth and Fremantle just to force myself to look for something different around where I live.

  8. Lovely set of images Tom, things really seemed to have turned out well for you. We were in Australia last year to attend the Leica One Challenge in Melbourne and whilst there spent an extra couple of weeks in Tasmania. it’s a few years since we were last in Sydney, when we drove up the East Coast in a rented camper van. Australia is a great place. In Sydney we stayed with friends directly across the water from the Opera house; they have two places in Sydney which they rent out to be able to afford the place they’re living in now.

  9. Hi Tom,

    I love the images presented here, but I loved reading about the way you prepare for being in the right place, at the right time. I spend as much time considering shots, and scouting out ideas, venues, or just plaining camping out in certain spots waiting for the right image to compliment my vision – as I do actually taking them.

    I have a number of unpublished shots, some of which are humorously discussed in the family, where I have literally spent years on and off standing in certain places waiting for that magical moment, and just not getting an image that does my vision justice. I hold the view, that one day the image will present itself, I will capture and then, and only then will it be of value to use somewhere.

    I will look forward to reading more of your adventures and preparations.


    • Thanks Dave. In part I have to put down my approach to planning from reading David Noton’s regular articles in Practical Photography magazine (at least I think it was that one) a number of years ago. But also his book Waiting for the Light is excellent from that point of view. I have a number of photos planned in my head for architectural shots around Perth when sunrise or sunset would be perfectly aligned with the architectural layout. The trouble is you only get the opportunity twice a year for the perfect alignment and inevitably I remember the shot a week after the sun was in the perfect position.

  10. I learned this week that the cruise liner Ovation of the Seas in my photographs was the same ship involved in the terrible accident on White Island volcano a week ago.


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