Location Guide – Hat Head National Park (Northern NSW)

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014 in Location Guides | 0 comments

Location Guide – Hat Head National Park (Northern NSW)

With long sweeping beaches and rocky headlands, Hat Head National Park is an area of natural beauty that is bound to excite any photographer. The park is situated halfway between Brisbane and Sydney (about 6 hours travel from either), near the town of Kempsey. On a trip to this area recently I was amazed at the photography opportunities that abounded within the park and nearby areas. During my time there I was only able to take scratch the surface of the opportunities this park presents but this was enough for me to be enticed back for return visits.

One of the central features within the park is the Smoky Cape Lighthouse built in 1891. Both the lighthouse and its associated keepers cottages are situated on a narrow headland with dramatic views possible both to the north and south of the headland. From a photographers point of view, a short steep climb just before the lighthouse gives you a change to dramatically place the building against the sky. Standing further back near the car park, you are able to capture both the lighthouse and the attendant cottages nestled against the headland. Landscape images at this location would work equally well for both sunrise and sunset, key suggestion here is to consider days with a good mixture of clouds, this helps to ensure a bit of drama with the photo.


Smoky Cape Lighthouse by Ken Dickson 1/30sec @ f10 Canon 7D with 10-20mm lens

Standing on the headland near the lighthouse, you quickly realise that another big attraction for this park is the combination of rocky coastline in the northern areas and long sweeping beaches in the southern areas. I was able to catch some very dramatic sunsets in the northern area of the park, around Little Bay. On the evening in question, I spend a fair bit of time rock hopping around the headland looking for the right combination of rocks and wave movement to put in the foreground to balance some wonderfully dramatic clouds. To effectively portray a sense of the long sandy beach areas, I chose the high perspective from the headland and captured a large portion of the beach area but tried to retain a human element in the foreground to show that sense of scale.


Stormy Day on the rocks by Ken Dickson 2.5 sec @ f16 Canon 7d with Sigma 10-20mm

Hat Head national park abounds with opportunities to capture wildlife images in addition to the land and seascapes. Spring time (Sep/Oct) offers the chance to see and even photograph whales from the shoreline. Following a sunrise shoot over the Cape Smoky lighthouse, I was privileged to see at least 3 pods of whales (about 10 whales in total) swim passed the headland in a 2 hour period. The youngest whale decided that he needed a stretch during the travels south, and promptly put on a show of breaching, tail slapping and fin waving. From the headland, I was just able to capture the animals with the 300mm zoom. A longer zoom would have been more useful so if you have one take it along.


Jump! by Ken Dickson 1/4000 sec @ f5 Canon 7D with Sigma 100-300mm

Kangaroos are a regular attraction to the park and are in evidence all year round, the best time of day to capture these animals is early morning and late afternoon. The park has a number of warning signs providing guidelines about your interaction with the Kangaroos, I recommend reading and following those signs carefully an angry Kangaroo does not make a good playmate.


Taking a rest by Ken Dickson 1/1000 sec @ f5 Canon 7d with Sigma 100-300mm lens


Surrounding Areas

The Hat Head National Park is situated in a beautiful location on the Northern NSW coast. The nearby town of South West Rocks will not only provide additional photography opportunities but you will also find plenty for the non-photography family members to do. Trial Bay Goal normally the first stop for people visiting this town, the goal officially opened in 1886 and the current ruins provide a powerful insight into the life of the prisoners of the time. We undertook a twilight tour of the ruins and were thoroughly entertained by the tour guide.


Grim outlook by Ken Dickson 1/60 sec @ f9 Canon 7d with Sigma 10-20mm lens

Wonderful sandy beaches suitable for kids of all age dominate this area as well. The crystal clear water was very tempting during our visit to the area.

Nearby towns such as South West Rocks, Kempsey, Smithtown, Hat Head and Crescent Head all provide a wonderful feel for the typical small Australian town. In some ways it feels like you are stepping back in time, friendly people and good service was often the order of the day in these locations. Do not forget to take your camera along if visiting these town, help document a way of life that seems to slipping away.

Equipment Recommendations

– Camera/Memory card and batteries

– Lens – usually the range between wide angle (10-20mm) and medium zoom (70-200mm) will be all that is required. A longer zoom 300mm+ can be advantagous for those whale pictures or animal portraits.

– Tripod – essential if you are going to try some sunrise or sunset images.

Techniques to Try

– Dramatic sunrise or sunset images. Looking for a strong piece of foreground and use a wider angle lens to show that as part of the wider environment

– Try and capture an engaging portrait image of a Kangaroo, look for interesting activity like feeding or fighting or a mother with its joey



Nearby Accommodation:

South West rocks offers the greatest diversity in accommodation offerings. You can choose from camping in a caravan park all the way up to self contained houses.
One amazing place I found and will be high on my list for next visit is the lighthouse keepers cottages at Smoky Cape Lighthouse – What a place to stay! on top of the headland overlooking this wonderful park in all its glory. Check out this link for more information on that location – Smoky Cape Lighthouse Accommodation

If you would like to learn more about photography through courses or workshops – do not forget to checkout our upcoming events at Ozlight Photo Adventures






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