We're scrambling over mossy rocks after descending into a lush kentia-filled valley dissected by a stream that flows to the heaving ocean beyond. We've been walking for hours, slowed by the fact we're stopping to photograph anything that takes our fancy (and believe me, there are plenty of distractions), but thankfully nobody's complaining.
You see, we're photographers, albeit a mixed bunch. There are couples, a mother and daughter, solo photographers, our three competent guides and myself, travelling with my then eight-year-old daughter, Ella. Our group ranges in age from those in their 30s to some incredible fit looking 60-year-olds. It's day three of Pinetrees' walking and photography week on the World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island. After tucking into a packed lunch on a boulder with the fog shrouded Mount Lidgebird behind us, Ella and I call it a day and head back to the iconic guesthouse.
Sweaty, dirty and a little tired, we finally make it back to the road, dismayed to find our bikes are not where we'd agreed upon that morning when arrangements were made to ferry photographers across the island. Shrugging, we hoist our day packs on our shoulders and decide there's nothing to do but walk. Thankfully though as we trudge through a hilly paddock, a car pulls over to offer us a lift.
Normally, I would never accept a ride but this is Lord Howe Island, a place where locals leave their car keys in the ignition and nobody locks their doors. Locksmiths would go out of business here. We pile in and discover we're riding with Gower Wilson who's on his way to refuel the QantasLink plane that services the small island. Later, we discover Wilson is called on if anyone on the island has mechanical problems. When he goes away, the whole island holds its collective breath until his return.
Back at the historic guesthouse, we meet up with our fellow photographers, wine in hand, as our three guides – Pinetrees' director Luke Hanson, photographer Alex de Kiefte and local photographer Kenny Lees – judge the winning photo of the day. We're handed a brief each morning – topics range from water, tone, contrast to sense of scale – and head off, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch – on the quest for the winning shot. The winner receives a bottle of wine with dinner, usually shared among the group.
I'm travelling with a borrowed Olympus OMD 10 Mark II. The moment I'm home, I buy my own. The daily challenges stretch me, while the technical tutorials with de Kiefte, who first came as a photography-week participant some years ago, help me unlock the secrets of my camera. The one-on-one time with the guides is particularly helpful, while I love the camaraderie of the group. On one of the walks, Lees helps Ella (inspired by the competition) to photograph leaves and tree bark up close; other days we learn about composition, balance and exposure. Seeing everyone's photographs at the end of the day sparks ideas. Ella becomes the subject of many of my photos, albeit at times reluctantly. Particularly fun was the day the subject was drama; heading off into the bush and pretending she was lost.
But undoubtedly the best thing about the tour is Lord Howe Island itself. "It's a dramatically beautiful place", says Hanson. "The pristine lagoon, vibrant coral, big mountains, subtropical forests and untouched beaches make it ideal for landscape photography. Add to the landscape two daily sessions of soft morning light and saturated evening light, and you have the criteria for some exceptional photographs."
There are opportunities for expansive panoramas, more than 200 species of birds (which end up in countless photographs), rare flora and rich detail, too: the texture of sand, the tonal contrast of rocks and frothing waves, palm trees juxtaposed against a moody sky. Participant Gina Woodward said taking the time to get the shot, supported by knowledgeable guides, and seriously passionate photographers, was way more fun than she imagined. "It's a smorgasbord of magnificent colours and photo opportunities, with subject matter on offer for everyone to enjoy and dig deeper into." And with great food and hospitality on tap at Pinetrees, I found it was easy to focus on what we were there for: getting that perfect shot.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Pinetrees.
QantasLink flies to Lord Howe Island year-round from Sydney and Brisbane; seasonally from Port Macquarie. See qantas.com.au
Pinetrees, with smart en suite rooms and cottages set among towering Norfolk pines, offers two walking and photography weeks annually; the next is scheduled for November. Prices start from $2916 (twin share): food inclusive. See pinetrees.com.au/rates-packages/walking-and-photography-week