Vivid

is an annual ritual for our family. The kids rug up in their warmest clothes, we make pizza and pack it into a big tub, and we bus it into the city to join throngs of people as we're shuffled around the most dazzling parts of Sydney Harbour.

This year we're taking the night a bit more seriously - and having a lot more fun. Instead of queuing with the masses for vantage points and capturing the art installations on our iPhones, I feel like we're enjoying an elite experience.

We're on a roomy, covered platform high up on the side of the Overseas Passengers Terminal. Right below us, bright neon swings rock gleeful children back and forth at Campbell Cove. To our left is the Harbour Bridge in all it's multi-coloured glory, straight ahead are the radiant sails of the Opera House and in between, ferries, cruisers and a tall ship glide past proudly, just waiting to be captured on camera.

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We're being looked after by the Canon Collective team, who has not only secured us our own box seat, but is offering valuable tips on night-time photography (always my downfall).

They also have cameras and tripods for hire. I fall into the embarrassing category of someone who owns a DSLR and tripod and can take a half-decent photo but who often resorts to automatic settings for convenience and speed. For me, this experience is perfect.

My eight-year-old daughter Emmeline is also enthusiastic because she has a new digital device to play with. But I think she feels a little perplexed by this line of adults and their tripods, quietly watching and waiting, passionately discussing ISOs and shutter speeds.

A colorful display is projected onto the Museum of Contemporary Art during a preview of Vivid. Photo / AP
A colorful display is projected onto the Museum of Contemporary Art during a preview of Vivid. Photo / AP

There are a few other children here, too. And they're being encouraged to look into their frames, zoom in on the lights and minimise the amount of distractions around their borders.

The adults are getting more precise guidance, which is needed, because many of us are unsure how to capture these lights properly.

"Shooting at night is one of the trickiest things in photography," says Jenn Cooper, a Canon Collective ambassador. She suggests we set our cameras to TV mode so we can adjust the shutter speed (both fast and slow create different effects at night-time) and then set the ISO to auto, so it doesn't matter if we're pointing the camera at a dark or light area; the camera will automatically make the adjustments.

A tripod is essential, of course. "When we set the camera up on a tripod, it allows us to slow that shutter speed right down to 30 seconds. This means we can do a wonderful long exposure and get all the light trails coming in and out of the ferry terminal. I think that's one of the money shots for Vivid."

Nico Locane, co-creator of
Nico Locane, co-creator of "Parallax," stands under the installation of 492 extrusions of 11 different lengths that go through a series of illumination over 8 to 10 minutes. Photo / AP

She urges against the use of iPhones and iPads at Vivid. "They just don't perform well in low light," she says.

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I have a play with the neon lights on the boats floating in and out of the quay, slowing my shutter speed to create light trails. Behind them, the Opera House is showing off sails dotted with what looks like tiny, bright-coloured Easter eggs. My girls ask for chocolate.

But I'm distracted by the harbour's resident tall ship as it glides elegantly in front of the bridge. I press down on my camera and wait 30 seconds for it to perform its magic. I'm so happy with the picture it captures, that of a red ghost ship hovering in front of the bridge lit up in stark blue. Plenty of other lights around the frame's border indicate just how busy Vivid is.

It reflects both the chaos on the harbourside and the serenity on the water.

We wander back to Canon's headquarters at the MCA where the team prints off large A1 prints of my best shots. They look fantastic and I feel stocked with my efforts, and determined to head out into the night to try out my new skills unassisted.

There's more focus on children at Vivid this year. Highlights for my girls include a a glowing rocking horse outside the MCA, the Music Orchard near the OPT (where spheres hang like electric fruit, glowing and emitting music sounds when they sense someone near) and the neon swings up at Campbell Cove next to the Park Hyatt.

Freedom of Movement, a moving installation of swings spinning through the air with colorful lights and the Harbour Bridge as a backdrop. Photo / AP
Freedom of Movement, a moving installation of swings spinning through the air with colorful lights and the Harbour Bridge as a backdrop. Photo / AP

While we wait in the queue for the swings, the crowd is cleared and the six pieces of apparatus start to spin and dance, their light flickering in time with the music. I scoop my three year old Brooke up into my arms and she's mesmerised. I realise she would never have seen anything like this before.

My head, meanwhile, is full of advice on shutter speeds. I imagine the spectacular light trails these swings would produce if I had my tripod set up.

The girls are jubilant as we wander back to Circular Quay, stopping to watch buskers on the way.The crowds at ground-level leave me feeling grateful for my intimate experience up high with photography experts. And I have two wonderful prints to show for it.

TIPS FROM THE CANON COLLECTIVE ON TAKING PHOTOS AT VIVID

KEEP YOUR CAMERA STEADY

This is crucial when taking low-light photos.

USE MANUAL MODE

You need total control over your camera settings to capture the light shows.

ADJUST YOUR APERTURE

Narrow down your aperture to ensure you have a suitable depth of field to ensure you capture enough detail. A narrow depth of field--somewhere between f/11 and f/22--will accentuate detail and help create a starburst effect.

People stand in front of Crystallise, a lighting-mural landscape. Photo / AP
People stand in front of Crystallise, a lighting-mural landscape. Photo / AP

SET TOUR SHUTTER SPEED

Vivid's light projections move at the speed of light, so use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and get sharp images. Start with a shutter speed of 1/30th or 1/15th of a second. If you'd like to get creative with blurred photos of the lights and people, or create those magical light trails, try slowing your shutter speed right down to 10, 20 or 30 seconds.

TUNE IN YOUR ISO

Keep your ISO nice and low. This will minimise the amount of light entering your camera's sensor and allows you to slow down your shutter speed without risk of over-exposing your images.

CONSIDER COMPOSITION

Remember to allow space for elements surrounding the main subject, such as sky above fireworks and water for light reflections.

TAME YOUR TRIGGER FINGER

Many photographers shoot continuously without monitoring the results, which can affect the quality of photographs. Vivid light projections are played on a loop, which allows you the chance to get familiar with each scene and better plan and frame your shots.

BE SPONTANEOUS

Photography is supposed to be fun so try and capture the light show from your own unique perspective. Don't be afraid to play around with your camera settings. And seek out unique vantage points.

IF YOU GO

Vivid Sydney 2017 walking photography tours are led by Canon Collective Ambassadors, and will run from May 26 to June 14. Groups are small to allow maximum interaction with your guides. Sessions include hands-on low-light, composition and long exposure photography training--they're essentially walking workshops. Suitable for all skill-levels.

Tours include the use of a Canon EOS 80D DSLR camera or a Mirrorless EOS M5 - which you'll be briefed how to use - and a SD Card that you can fill with photos and take home. From A$99 ($103).

Vivid runs until Saturday June 17.

- AAP