Dorset Landscape Photography Locations, Old Harry Rocks
Updated: Jun 6
Quite possibly one of my absolute favourite locations (Aren't they all !) in Dorset for a spot of landscape photography, Old Harry Rocks is renowned the world over and is much loved by all who visit it.
In this guide I will tell you where the best shots are, how to get there and where to park, best times of the year etc, in fact everything you need to know in order to visit Old Harry Rocks and get your best shots ever !
So to give you a little background on Old Harry rocks, or the area itself which is known as Handfast Point, Old Harry Rocks are actually just the two rock stumps at the furthest point, or as some people refer to them as Old Harry & his wife, His original wife collapsed into the sea in 1896, apparently the divorce was amicable ?
Old Harry rocks gets its name according to urban legend after a pirate called Harry Paye who used to frequent these parts or if you listen to other legends it was an area named after the devil who was known as Old Harry, I prefer the pirate version personally.
The area has changed plenty over the 65 million years it has been standing and work is currently underway to preserve the remaining stumps.
The stumps were actually used in World War 2 for target practice and swarms of Spitfires & Hurricanes hurled bombs and bullets at them, so it's amazing they are still standing.
The area is part of Ballard Down which runs between Swanage and Studland and is full of amazing chalk cliffs with structures carved out by the sea over millions of years, everything from individual rock stacks to thin platforms extending out into the water..
As its a chalk down it gives perfect conditions for a wealth of different flowers to grow on the lush green grass and on the edges of the cliffs bringing a real splash of colour and interest and these can flower throughout the year but the best blooms are in late spring & early summer.
Old Harry rocks is traditionally known as a sunrise venue but its possible to get great shots at Sunset too as the sun sets to the side of it making golden light bounce off the cliff edges and it can be a beautiful experience to witness.
It is however, busy, Really busy in the evenings ! As one of Dorsets premiere landmarks you can imagine it sees its fair share of visitors many of whole won't just be passing through, they will instead spend long periods of time nestled in the area so you need to have a bit of patience to shoot the evenings.
Sunrise will see less tourists but of course more photographers, arriving early to secure a spot is well advised as there are really only three main areas to shoot the "money" shots, but if you care to get a little creative then there are far more areas and opportunities to explore.
While it is possible to shoot Old Harry Rocks from the shore line on certain very low tides it is VERY DANGEROUS so I won't be recommending in this article, instead sticking to the safer cliffs of Handfast Point.
Please do note that there is only ever 2 or 3 times a year where the tide is low enough to walk round for sunrise and many people have been cut off and become victim of this tide so I would highly recommend not trying it, not to mention the fact its incredibly slippery due to vast amounts of kelp and seaweed so chances are you will probably take a tumble or two along the way.
Parking for Old Harry rocks is best done at the National Trust car park located in the grounds of the Bankes Arms pub which can be found on the sat nav with postcode BH19 3AU.
This car park is a charged one but between the hours of 10pm to 8am its actually free so a spring sunrise will mean you can be back at the car before the fee is due and have a free morning ! (Correct at time of writing but please check the machine to be sure)
From here you walk out of the pub car park onto the road (Right turn) and go down the hill a few hundred yards until it curves round to the right and on your left hand side you will see a public toilet and a gravel/muddy wide path (Private for cars so please don't attempt to drive up it) Walk up this path and respect the fact there are some houses here so please keep noise to a minimum.
As you walk down the tree lined path for around a 1/4 of a mile it will open out and you will have the coast on your left hand side and hedged fields on your right, Continue walking straight ahead in an open ground area followed by a very short woodland area which is all on the same path and you will come to Handfast Point and Old Harry Rocks, total journey is around a mile and a 1/4 and can be done in between 10 minutes if your a strong walker or up to 20-25 if you take your time.
As you arrive your first shot is on your immediate left. (Shot 1)
There are three arms that extend out from the cliff edge and each one provides a different angle and view of Old Harry Rocks but for me the middle one is by far the best in terms of composition as it's often lined along the edge with wild flowers.
Worth noting that the arm nearest Old Harry Rocks itself is VERY thin and I really wouldn't recommend trying to go out on it to shoot as certain death is highly likely !
Arms 2 and 3 both give spectacular views of the main part of Old Harry Rocks for sunrise but two is generally the better choice as if you're on arm 3 and someone else goes onto arm 2 then you are stuck with a person in frame, and believe me they will go out on it regardless of having someone there with a camera.
This shot is great at sunrise but its also possible to shoot at sunset but with light on the subject rather than behind it and the chalk looks amazing as it basks in late evening sunshine with the chalk taking on amazing hues from the setting sun, If you want to include the flowers though you will have to wait to slightly later when the sun has moved round to avoid any shadows being cast over them from you and your tripod. (See best times below)
Getting low is the key here if you want to incorporate the wild flowers into the shot and careful choice of aperture. If you wish to get it all in focus then you will need to be at around F16 to do this and possibly a higher ISO if there is any wind movement on the flowers.
Alternatively you can focus stack using a wider aperture which may well give you a cleaner result.
You will get the best shot with a wide angle lens here, I suggest somewhere between 14 mm to 24 mm depending how much of the first arm you wish to have in shot.
alternatively if you're not including the flowers and wish to take a more intimate photo of Old Harry rocks itself then a focal length from around 24 mm to 100 mm is ideal.
The sun rises in this spot from March 1st to June 1st, and again from August 1st to October 1st and optimal time to catch it right by the end of Old Harry Rocks is late April or late August.
For sunset shots to catch the last of the side light hitting Old Harry rocks you have a larger window of the 1st of March to October 1st and no real optimum time as the chalk will always catch any available light although I would avoid School holiday dates if possible as it will be packed ! The plus side with photographing it in the evening is chances are you won't be competing for places with other landscape photographers as most people tend to only shoot it in the mornings but they are missing out !
Shot two is just a short walk away (30 seconds !) as you arrive at the best known shot for Old Harry Rocks and with good reason, its a belter !
From here you can see Old Harrys wife hiding behind her man and you have a simply fantastic chalk ledge that arcs round in front of you giving a perfect lead line, its really a perfect view for a landscape photographer.
Wide angle is the way to go here and a focal length of 15 mm on a full frame camera will see you able to include the sweeping lines of the cliff.
If you don't have a lens with that focal length then there is the option of putting your camera on a portrait orientation and shooting a sweeping panorama to capture it all and I have done this many times here, a very handy method to have in the arsenal.
This shot lends itself very well to hard graduated filters as the horizon is visible throughout the entire scene without any interruptions so a nice smooth transition is there for the taking.
To be fair there really is only one real composition from this spot although you can vary the angle slightly or incorporate different seasonal flowers depending on time of year but essentially the shot you see is the "money shot".
In terms of sunrise it comes up in front of Old Harry rocks from around May 1st to August 1st with the tail end of June being optimal time for it to line up, There is however the option of side light at sunrise and this is a shorter widow of December 1st to the end of January and the shot is less dramatic BUT you will find far less landscape photographers down here at that time so there is a distinct advantage plus you don't have to be up quite so early ! Winning !
Sunset can be shot all year round but it is harder in the winter months as the sun is directly behind you causing shadows, but as it moves round to its summer position it adds side light but that will just kiss the grass areas of the cliff rather than the chalk stacks themselves at this time of the year so its probably the least desired time.
Sunsets shouldn't be under estimated here, while the sun is well out if frame it can give beautiful hues reflecting off the clouds.
Shot Three couldn't be more easy, Simply turn around from Shot 2 and you're there ! Welcome to the Pinnacles !
Here you have two fantastic rock structures that have been eroded away over time and have left amazing shapes behind.
The first rock stack is fairly flat and round but the second has an amazing spike formation to it and it really does look wonderful, best part is both of them can be captured in the same frame !
In terms of lenses here I highly recommend a telephoto with a focal length around 24-105 mm (Based on a full frame camera) to give you the most options for this shot, detailed shots of the pinnacles can look exceptional in the right light but equally using the foreground flowers can give you a very pleasing result too so its good to have all bases covered, A wide angle can be handy for this but in reality a 24-105 mm will cope with the foreground heavy shots as there is quite a distance to the rock stacks.
The two rock stacks in pictures look like they are right next to each other but in reality the spiky one is much further back, its just bigger !
You can be quite limited in terms of composition from here as if you move too far left or right then one stack will cover the other so the key is to get them both in frame with separation between the two and the cliff edge.
I have seen several lovely images of this shot where conditions have been perfect but one stack is behind another and it has in my opinion ruined the shot so do pay careful attention here.
I constantly debate the amount of cliff edge I include in this shot and I still haven't settled on a specific one yet, the focal point is the pinnacles so it seems wrong to include too much cliff edge, but at the same time it looks nice an balanced with some in there and gives scale to the pinnacles so its an artistic choice I will leave up to you.
Portrait orientation works really well here as well as landscape but the subject matter generally remains the same, You can walk further up the cliff edge and catch each of the stacks as a separate picture but I find them best when both featured personally.
In terms of time of the shot I by far prefer sunrise for the pinnacles, the sun doesn't ever come up behind them, the most you can hope for is good side light in winter and let from directly behind you in summer but this shot is all about the light and if you get some pretty colour above it when the clouds catch its a real bonus.
I rarely go with the sole aim of getting just this shot, more often than not its a reaction to the conditions or an option after you have bagged the money shot of Old Harry rocks themselves by simply turning round and getting it.
You can get a sunrise shot around may by walking much further up Ballard down to the spiky rock stack looking back towards the stumpy one, I haven't personally nailed this shot yet but its a work in progress so hopefully I might get a result this year.
Sunset doesn't really work for this shot as the light comes from the right hand side and the cliffs are higher than the rock stacks so they are in the shadow but of course it can still light up the foreground for you so a shot is still possible I just don't think it will be quite as dramatic.
For me though this shot is all about light on the chalk flanks of the cliff and stacks.
There are usually plenty of wild flowers at Old Harry rocks and these can be used to good effect for foreground subjects, again a focus stack blend would be the best way to capture them and keep the pinnacles in frame.
I hope this has given you a decent insight into Old Harry Rocks and will help you get some really great pictures, it really is a beautiful area and well worth a visit.
I have included a video at the bottom of the page from one of my shoots there, it contains a fair bit of drone footage that will help you get a better idea of the area.
Some other locations that are close by to Old Harry Rocks and well worth shooting are....
Corfe Castle - Read my guide by clicking HERE
Lulworth Cove - Read my guide by clicking HERE
Durdle Door - Read my guide by clicking HERE
Kimmeridge Bay - Read my guide by clicking HERE