Capturing our coast: Interview with photographer Rohan Kelly

Posted on 28 January 2022

Born in Western Australia, but now living locally, Rohan Kelly is a well-known and successful photographer and the judge of this year’s Love to Coast Photo competition.

We spoke to Rohan about his journey into photography, his prestigious World Press Photo Award and got some top tips on how to capture winning photographs on the coastline.


Why did you choose to become a photographer?

It took a while to find photography, first as a hobby and then a career. It is something that just clicked and worked when I first used a camera properly on a holiday in Africa. This gave me the confidence to take that skill and study at TAFE and then work in the press industry. I grew up getting the West Australian Newspaper delivered every day and used to marvel at the stories the staff photographers told with pictures. I never realised at the time that could be a career for me. When I started taking pictures more seriously, with a bit of thought, it was that memory that triggered the idea again to be a newspaper shooter.

Looking back to your first days as a photographer, what is the one thing you wish you knew before you started taking photos?

Always, if you ever have a thought or an idea... just act. Don't second guess yourself. Sometimes if you hesitate or delay acting on something you have seen or thought about, the moment will pass, and you will miss your opportunity.

How can photography contribute to storytelling and connection to place?

Pictures can give you the whole scene in one frame, like a storm approaching on a beach. The viewers can then decide for themselves what happens next…. Does it hit and clear the beach, or does it pass by?

Photos also help us remember our own experiences, such as what it was like when we were at the beach and a storm passed through. Shots of ANZAC Day or New Year’s Day sunrise all trigger a feeling, and we can know what it would be like to be there, by looking at the picture. More recently images of a kid’s playground completely wrapped up and taped off, due to the pandemic, helped  convey the seriousness of what was going on.


Pictures taken between 6: and 7:45 in the evening at Bondi Beach. People at Bondi Beach escaping the hot weather. 2016. Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph

Picture of people at Bondi Beach taken between 6-7:45pm escaping the hot weather (2016) Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph


How do you feel about using a smartphone for photography?

I love phone photography, because it’s a great opportunity for all the citizen journalists to record everything happening in Sydney. With a little bit of care and consideration, you can capture moments so easily, the quality is excellent, and it can be shared instantly. You can record many moments in our lives that in the past would be long forgotten. The challenge now is to manage and archive these memories, in order to be able to view the huge volume of photos we have.

You were born is Western Australia, and have worked all over the country and internationally. Why do you think people love photographing the beaches and parks around the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney so much?

Sydney’s Eastern beaches are all different and each one has its own character. The headlands break up each individual beach into its own location. With tall cliffs, white sandy beaches, rockpools and ocean baths, there is a limitless amount of choice: sunrise over the ocean, wild surf that can sometimes reach the clifftops; beaches deserted on a winter’s day or jam packed on a scorching summer’s day. Shooting using a drone, wide and telephoto lenses are all options, and there’s many different events, such as Festival of the Winds or Bowlarama, for endless film and editorial shoots.


People got an early surf at sunrise before the beach reopened at 7am. Bondi Beach reopened to the public for surfing and swimming. The beach had been shut due to large crowds gathering on the beach during the cover-19 banning of large gatherings period. Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph

Photo taken on the cusp of State-wide Covid-19 restrictions in 2021, where locals get an early surf at sunrise before the beach opens at 7am. This followed the closure of the beach to restrict large crowds gathering during the pandemic. Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph


In 2016 you won the prestigious World Press Photo Award for a dramatic shot of a storm rolling into Bondi Beach. Can you describe that day? How did the photo come to be?

That day was pretty similar to the summer we are having this year. Hot cloudy days with a build up to an afternoon storm.

I was at Bondi shooting a movie festival preview pic of  Abby Earl dressed as Marilyn Monroe on a red carpet on the beach, and a storm passed during the shoot. After I had filed, I was heading off to the next job. I had actually left the carpark and was driving down Campbell Parade when I saw, over my shoulder, this cloud front out over the ocean. I drove back and parked again, and watched as the cloud moved across in front of the beach.

The photo that led to the award-winning photo: Abby Earl as Marilyn Monroe on Bondi Beach as part of Flickerfest (2016) Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph


Classic Australians, no one on the beach seemed worried at all, which gave me the option of getting people in the foreground. Once the cloud was in the perfect spot and in the right shape, it was a mad dash to get the right subject in the foreground.  When I spotted the sunbaker, I knew that was the frame that would work best. It was a summer of lots of storms but up until then I had never been in the right place at the right time, so I made the most of this opportunity. The only real decision I made was to take a 24-70mm lens, so as not to shoot too wide, which I do sometimes.

Once the photo was filed and published, I never thought too much about it. It was the Online Picture Editor, Nicholas Eagar, who kept mentioning how much he liked the frame and said I should do something with it. I had never entered World Press before and when I checked, I figured the Nature category  would be a good fit, with global warming and the environment as big talking points that year


Sunbather oblivious to the ominous shelf cloud approaching - on Bondi beach. A massive “cloud tsunami†looms over Sydney in a spectacular weather event seen only a few times a year.  The enormous shelf cloud rolled in from the sea, turning the sky almost black and bringing violent thunderstorms in its wake. Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph

Kelly's WorLd Press award winning photo: Sunbather oblivious to the ominous shelf cloud approaching - on Bondi beach. A massive cloud tsunami looms over Sydney in a spectacular weather event seen only a few times a year. The enormous shelf cloud rolled in from the sea, turning the sky almost black and bringing violent thunderstorms in its wake. Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph


Our Love the Coast photography competition is about celebrating the beauty of the natural coastal environment and people’s connection to it. Can you give us five tips for capturing an ‘award winning’ image?

  1. Keep it simple try eliminating everything from the frame except the things you want to be in the photo, just one person running along the beach. Or focus on the one surfer.
  2. Never set out trying to shoot an award-winning image. If you have an idea for a picture, follow that lead, or go to a location that you know would lend itself to the picture you are after
  3. Try to find the best time of day, and the best time of year for the shot you are after. Bondi faces in a different direction to most Sydney beaches. In summer, the sun sets at what is known as the southern end of the beach. This means you can get some nice sunset shots and silhouettes at the end of a hot day. It's all about the light to start with....
  4. Try to put something in the foreground of the scene. Being a newspaper photographer, this is usually people. It helps to give a bit of depth to the picture and also helps to provide some perspective.\
  5. If you want a high-quality print for the lounge room wall, use a tripod, aperture of about f/8 to f/16 and with the lowest ISO on the camera. Cable release your shot because the shutter speed will be pretty slow... even up to 1-2 minutes if you are shooting a storm in the evening or a scene after sunset. You will get some nice colours in the sky by doing this.


Lightning storm passes over the Sydney CBD. Pictured from Iron Cove Bay in Five Dock. 2016 Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph

This photo was taken with a 1-2 minute exposure. Lightning storm passes over the Sydney CBD. Pictured from Iron Cove Bay in Five Dock. 2016 Picture Rohan Kelly/The Daily Telegraph


Waverley Council's Love the Coast photo competition is open until the 21 January. Photos will be judged by acclaimed World Press photographer Rohan Kelly. The winner will receive a $300 cash prize and a 1 hour session with Rohan. The best 20 photos will be showcased at an online opening exhibition on the 6 February 2022. 

Content slider image: Rohan Kelly / The Daily Telegraph


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