The story of a picture - Sydney Harbour Bridge

It doesn’t often happen that you are sitting in your office on a dull, wet London morning and your boss walks in and asks whether you'd like an all expenses paid trip to Australia. 'Oh by the way, because we want you to arrive refreshed and ready to work, we'll send you business class!' One week later I checked in at Heathrow Airport and was on my way.

The job was ‘imaging Jim, but not as we know it’: A 3D laser scan survey of Sydney Harbour Bridge (so not just a peach of a trip but a peach of a job too!). A laser scanner is somewhat like a laser rangefinder but it measures X,Y,Z co-ordinates at the rate of  six thousand a second. A full 360-degree scan takes about four and a half minutes and produces a ‘point cloud’ of about six million points. These can be used to produce a CAD plan or a full 3D model. Surprisingly, there is a lack of detailed information about Sydney Harbour Bridge and this technology offers a good way to provide it.

Image courtesy of Mike Annear
The team on the upper cord of Sydney Harbour Bridge with the laser scanner

A laser scanner, while portable in name, is quite heavy and valuable so I had been provided with an advance to pay for the excess baggage and a temporary export license. Arriving at Heathrow towing something that looked like a small thermo-nuclear device, I walked up to the vacant First Class desk to ask for advice. Next thing I knew I was checked in, with a porter escorting me to the customs desk, all with no excess baggage fees. I sent a text to my boss asking if I could keep the money and she replied: 'No, just drink the Champagne!' I then settled into a nice comfortable seat for the long haul to Australia.

The team for the survey consisted of myself, Nigel McDonald and Mike Annear who has enjoyed a colorful career. Once a professional diver, Mike had also worked as a photographer before getting interested in 3D modeling and paragliding. I don’t think he dives any more but he still does the rest and you should have a look at his website. He is not the tallest person in the world but immensely strong and a delightful bloke to work with. In addition to setting up the laser scanner, we had to pick up a few bits and pieces that I had not brought with me; steel toe-cap boots, head torches for working hands-free at night, and of course a big floppy hat!

The first day, we worked our way round the South shore. Individual laser scans can be linked together or ‘registered’ to create a large scene. On that first day, we recorded about twenty scans. The finished model was over two hundred. The second day we did the same on the North shore. The following day was a Sunday and we spent that working our way northwards along the railway (there was no train service that day) and then back along the pedestrian walkway on the seaward side. This  left the main arch for the final day of the survey.

We didn’t start too early on the final day: It was going to be a long session and in any event, we were not going to be allowed full access to the bridge until after the final ‘bridge climb’ tourists had gone. The bridge's main steel arch is comprised of both upper (on which tourists are allowed to climb) and lower chords connected by girders. 

We started on the lower chord and worked our way from the south east pier over the arch until the scanner was in range of the north east pier then crossed over a narrow companion way and worked our way back on the other side. Nigel and I looked after the laptop, batteries and tripod whilst Mike took charge of the scanner. Despite its weight, he never seemed tired.

We could not ascend the upper chord until the last bridge climbers had finished so we grabbed a bite to eat and watched the sun go down. By eleven o’clock it was time to go and we made our way back up onto the bridge. We followed the same pattern as with the lower chord and the view was stunning. The lights of Sydney were ablaze together with the car headlights streaming across the bridge.

If you do the bridge climb as a tourist, you are not allowed to carry anything that can be dropped. Since we were working on the bridge we had the luxury of carrying cameras. Unfortunately, we were only able to carry a single tripod, which of course had the scanner on it. Nevertheless, there was plenty of nice rigid steelwork on which to rest a camera. One of my pictures won the Institute of Highways and Transportation photographic competition the following year but my personal favorite is the one you see below. It was shot with a D100 (quite modern at the time) and an 18-70mm Nikkor lens. For some reason, the Exif data didn’t record the shutter speed but it was probably half a second or so. It was shot as a JPEG because, although a D100 could shoot RAW, the length of time it took to write to the card was a real nuisance.

Image courtesy of TRL Ltd
Although another picture shot on the same night won the Institute of Highways
and Transportation photographic competition this one is Geoff's favorite. It was
shot with a Nikon D100 and 18-70mm Nikkor lens at 20mm, F2.8 and ISO 200.

Did I take lots of pictures? No, not really. I could have happily spent all night up there shooting away but I still had a job to do. Yet I will remember that night for the rest of my life and how the picture that  graces the home page of my website came to be created.

Geoff Helliwell spent over thirty years working as an industrial photographer for the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in the United Kingdom. He now works freelance and his website can be found at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 29
Geoff Helliwell
By Geoff Helliwell (Sep 27, 2011)

Carrying out professional photography in public places in many major city centres/places of interest very often requires a licence and fees to be paid if a crew/props/models/interuption to free movement by others etc are involved. Walking around with a camera round your neck (as a rule) does not. It would be completely un-enforcable as hundreds of thousands of tourists do it all the time. For the same reason, I can't see how anyone could claim copyright on a location. (JimBob has got it right, I think)

By terence_boylen (Oct 4, 2011)

Australian pro here. In Australia, copyright is enforceable for this particular location. It is qualified under the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority Regulations 1999 Legislation. It restricts commercial photography unless sanctioned by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. It applies to the use of a camera in a public area.

By terence_boylen (Oct 4, 2011)

Should qualify - this 'general' location. I agree with Jimbob. However, I remember reading at some stage that the public presentation of a building may be copyrighted. Haven't ever come across an instance though.

Jimbob Productions
By Jimbob Productions (Oct 5, 2011)

Copyright would apply to a building. However, section 66 of the copyright act specifically excludes photograhy from breaching that copyright.

"The copyright in a building or a model of a building is not infringed by the making of a painting, drawing, engraving or photograph of the building or model or by the inclusion of the building or model in a cinematograph film or in a television broadcast."

By DannyFracture (Sep 27, 2011)

Another Enjoyable read & awesome photo's :)

By DannyFracture (Sep 27, 2011)

Another Enjoyable read & awesome photo's :)

By ParxyinOz (Sep 15, 2011)

Just wanted to bring people’s attention to the fees expected if you intend to shoot ANYWHERE around Sydney Harbour for commercial purposes. I.E if you intend to publish the images.

These fees a crippling to most photographers. And when I mention it to my clients. They just think I must be an absolute rip off merchant. When I show them the rules, the project goes right out the door.

Unfortunately many other areas in this “ Lucky Country “ have taken up the same approach. All our national parks for instance. Here’s the link to the official Government site on the fees issue.

Do us Aussie photographers a favor and e-mail the Australian Tourism Authority and tells them this is why you have decided not to come. We might be able to force a change.

Jimbob Productions
By Jimbob Productions (Sep 19, 2011)

Sorry this information is not not correct. You've cited the wrong authority. The authority that handles the harbor foreshore is Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. You can happily photograph for commercial purposes around the foreshore without charge (unless you have more than 10 crew with you).

There is a separate issue with the Opera House. The Opera House Trust actively prevent commercial photography of the Opera House although they have no basis in law for doing so. Again, there is no charge to photograph the Opera House.

The authority you quote ONLY administers a few national trust sites around Sydney and they charge because they have to allocate security to you when you shoot commercially. They are only recovering costs. This is the same situation as our national parks.

The good news is a tourist coming in on a tourist visa is not allowed to take commercial photographs anyway. So by all means come to Australia, enjoy yourselves and take lots of photos to show your friends.

Doug F
By Doug F (Sep 20, 2011)

Hi Folks -

Well, it's interesting that you talk about the rules for shooting in Australia and Sydney.

I will be visiting there next month, MEL, SYD, and CNS.

What do I need to know about for shooting down there.
I have quality equipment, and I may even walk around with a tripod at times.

Is there anything to worry about?

I've read stories about the UK photography/terrorist laws, and it's crazy.

So what is Oz like and what do I need to consider?



Jimbob Productions
By Jimbob Productions (Sep 27, 2011)

If you want to shoot at a particular site - wildlife park, historical site etc, then it's best to check their website to see what type of photography they allow. Some wildlife parks don't allow SLR's. Some historical buildings don't allow tripod use (because they get in the way). Most sites have a website for you to check.

BTW - bring a polariser - and maybe an ND grad - things are bright here.

Al de Wet
By Al de Wet (Sep 15, 2011)

Very unique oppurtunity tot go there with a camera. Thanks for shearing it with us via your photo.

Greg Short
By Greg Short (Sep 15, 2011)

I love the shot it shows the value of being in the right place at the right time, either by luck or design. The slight tilt adds to the surreal feeling it gives off.
Good on you Geoff.......
Regards Greg Short

Roman Stedronsky
By Roman Stedronsky (Sep 14, 2011)

I admire courage of the author (I feel dizzy on the fifth floor) I understand the difficulties of such conditions but the photo itself... well I don't feel it is outstanding. And falling horizon is rather disturbing.

By bigdaddave (Sep 14, 2011)

Yes the end result hardly justifies the cost

Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Sep 14, 2011)

Some pedant's going to come along and say that it should be tilted about two degrees clockwise. I'm not going to be that man.

1 upvote
By rambarra (Sep 14, 2011)

some other would say that CA + noise are pretty annoying but I'm not going to be that man!

anyway sure is was ISO200?

inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Sep 14, 2011)

some guys one of those beeing me will say they dont like wideangle landscape shots that are tilted in every possible axis.

but i like those kind of articles very much.

also no one knows what his/hers picture would look like, because no one else was there, ergo: i will shut up now :)

By Yourdigitaleye (Sep 14, 2011)

The view from the Pylons is pretty good but of course to get on top of the Arch and shoot a huge pano would be fantastic! This is what I managed to shoot from the Pylons:

At night from near the Opera House:

Near the same spot in daylight:

From Kirribilli:

Explore around as these are all pretty large files and enjoy! Such a great Bridge in a great city!

Tim Ashton
By Tim Ashton (Sep 14, 2011)

Lucky guy
The great unwashed like myself and the rest of you are not permitted to carry anything (especially a camera) up onto the bridge in case it falls and on top of everything he scores a special lens. My 18-70 doesnt do better than 3.5 :(

Tom Caldwell
By Tom Caldwell (Sep 14, 2011)

Hate to niggle but Geoff knew it was Sydney Harbour Bridge in his article but did it need to be 'translated" for the headline? Harbors are fine in the USA and everyone can use the proper local spelling without any angst, but Australia still (mostly) uses English-English Spelling.

Geoff Helliwell
By Geoff Helliwell (Sep 14, 2011)

Hi Tom. Yes, fully agree. I wrote the article in UK English but it was 'translated' for publication!

David J Barber
By David J Barber (Sep 14, 2011)

Translated why? It's Sydney Harbour bridge, plain and simple. (I know it's not you Geoff)
Why on earth would the American English spelling be preferred for an Australian landmark?
I don't want to get into which English is "real", but America is extracting enough urine with their Hollywood version of world history. More people speak/learn British English than any other. One problem is that MS Word and web-spellcheckers default to US English.

By xlynx9 (Sep 14, 2011)

regardless of which is more common, it's a name, so it shouldn't be translated.

inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Sep 14, 2011)

you dont have to argue which english is the real one, when one of the countries is around 200years old ^^
the house i live in is older hehe

Simon Joinson
By Simon Joinson (Sep 14, 2011)


Mike Fewster
By Mike Fewster (Sep 14, 2011)

Great shot. I had planned to try something similar but, like others, was frustrated to find I couldn't take a camera up on the walk.

By netgarden (Sep 14, 2011)

Incredible photo!

By dcdigitalphoto (Sep 14, 2011)

Great story. I have done the bridge climb a couple of times and so wish I could have taken my DSLR up there. The next closest thing is climbing one of teh pylons when they are open, and you can take a camera up there.

By tinternaut (Sep 14, 2011)

An Interesting viewpoint. The best views of the city proper are probably from the Pylon Lookout but those views don't really capture the bridge (though North Shore + Bridge are interesting in good daylight from that spot). My first thought was about the horizon and perspective but this is one of those photos that just works in spite of any flaws we might find. It's a pity you couldn't have taken the photo in blue hour (when Sydney shines no matter the angle) but I didn't realise the bridge climb ended so late!

As always, caveat IMHO applies when I comment on a photo.

Total comments: 29