Nervous sheep in New Plymouth

2859 Nervous sheep in New Plymouth, 8.48pm, 26 October 2015

Although urban and sophisticated, it appears these sheep were only used to the glare of the neighbouring polytech hostel, and not moonlight paparazzi. The venue is an open space tucked away behind the city cemetery, and between WITT and Te Henui walkway, in the vale below. Small Maori pa abound in this vicinity and their reserve status contributes to having this unfrequented, pastoral scene in the city. Here night-time photographers can pursue their craft with a pleasant sense of calm and solitude, despite the incidental noise from the hostel. The clouds reflect city lights; the light beam is wastage leaping the boundary fence, offstage left. How very different this looks by day! 

85mm, ISO 500; 8 secs at f2.8

No moon, no worries

No moon, no worries

2860-61. No moon, no worries, 8.49-8.50pm, 26 October 2015

The city by evening can have plenty of light for night photography, either diffused from street lights or reflected by low cloud. So if your moon disappears from view, look for other possibilities. In this case, an unusual streak of light came from student quarters just over the fence, while the cloud is coloured by sodium street lighting. The pasture adjoins a historic reserve (an old pa site to the right) above Te Henui Stream and borders the city cemetery on the left. This evening I had the place all to myself – except for the sheep. Two telephoto images make up this panorama; double click on the scene for a larger view.

85mm; ISO 500 / 1000. 30 seconds @ f5.6 and f8.

A pastoral pocket, at night

2866. Urban pastorale, at night

2866. A pastoral pocket, at night. 8.59pm, 26 October 2015

By twilight I checked out this pastoral slope above the valley of the Henui, within New Plymouth city. A good length of pasture stretches from the river reserve up and over one old pa site to another well preserved one, next to WITT. This part of the paddock is bordered by a student hostel (whose lights streak the grass) and the town cemetery (behind the macrocarpas). I was in luck with some sheep to people the landscape; they were watchful and a little nervous, but not enough to flee the scene – a telephoto lens kept me at a suitable distance. Low cloud reflected city lights, but regrettably the full moon had just risen into the cloud.

85mm; ISO 500. 30 seconds @ f5.6


Moonlit margin, Taranaki

Moonlit panorama, Taranaki

Moonlit margin, Taranaki. 27 August 2015, 9.50 – 9.51pm

In Taranaki a calm, clear night with a waxing moon is not to be ignored – but rather than drive around, I sometimes prefer to walk out and see what turns up, as pastoral peace on the city margins is not too far away. This two-frame panorama of contented cattle sums up my evening, although my cold, wet feet also made themselves felt by this point. My new photo book on Mt Taranaki will feature day and night photography, but only in standard frame images – no scope for panoramas! Double click on the image for a larger view.

50mm, ISO 250. 30 secs at f4 for each.

260. Moonlit gums, Cambridge

Moonlit gums, Leamington, Cambridge.  9.36 pm, 31 August 2012

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?  –  Mary Oliver

85mm; ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f6.3

251. Moonlight in May, Cheviot

Moonlight in May, Cheviot, North Canterbury. 9.03 – 9.06 pm, 2 May 2012

There is no such thing as the pursuit of happiness, but there is the discovery of joy.  –  Joyce Grenfell

28mm; ISO 2000. 192 seconds (over 3 mins) at f11

226. Many ways to be free

Many ways to be free. 6.18 pm, 17 May 2012

There are many ways to be free. One of them is to transcend reality by imagination, as I try to do. – Anaïs Nin

50mm; ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f8. Incandescent light balance


203. Faux twilight at Paturau

Faux twilight at Paturau. 9.27 pm, 10 December 2011

All living creatures are making a great endeavour, struggling, to attain real everlasting happiness.  –  Srila Narayana Maharaja

Happiness through illusion? This actually is twilight, but stirred with the flash for foreground and then thoroughly shaken in post-pro. The original sky is very blue because I was trying a tungsten light balance. However I wanted something more upbeat and striking, since achieved by applying desaturation, dodging and hue manipulation to the RAW image .

At least the sheep are genuine; the hill profile is beyond the ridgeline by some distance. I like this as a simple but interesting composition, suitable for all ages.

85mm, ISO 2000. 1/2 sec at f5. Flash


198. Moonrise with alpacas

Moonrise with alpacas. 9.20 pm, 8 February 2012

The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not our circumstances.  –  Martha Washington, American First Lady.

85mm, ISO 320. 5 secs @ f5.6. Col balance 8330 deg K


186. First draft, night for day

First draft, night for day. 11.28pm, 7 January 2012

If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.  –  Regina Brett, at 90

85mm, ISO 2000. 10 secs at f1.4

184. Start every day with a smile

Start every day with a smile. 9.29pm, 7 January 2012

Start every day with a smile and get it over with.  –  W.C. Field

85mm, ISO 2000. 1/13th sec at f7.1. Flash, 10000 deg K


183. Swans unseen, before midnight

Swans unseen, before midnight. 11.20pm, 9 January 2012

 When we are unable to find tranquillity within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.  –  de La Rochefoucauld

85mm, ISO 2000. 4 secs at f2. 5000 deg K

181. Twilight gathering, North Head

Twilight gathering, North Head, Golden Bay. 9.31pm, 7 January 2012

Do not dwell on the past; do not dream of the future.

Concentrate the mind on the present moment.  –  Buddha

85mm ISO 2000. 1/10th sec at f5.6. Flash at 10,000 deg K

180. Moonlight pastorale

Moonlight pastorale. 10.28 pm, 8 December 2011

The real difference between people is energy. –  Thomas Fuller

85mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f7.1

137. Moonlit lagoon, winter

Moonlit lagoon, winter. 11.02 pm, 16 June 2011

It is only with the heart that one can see properly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. –  Antoine de St Exupery

Although my heart is in this place, in this case I saw by ear, as the swans weren’t visible by moonlight. However they were very audible, and other wetland birdlife also supplied lively night sounds. My initial 30 second exposures showed only smudges or the barest of swan-forms, so I resorted to much shorter shutter speeds, using the camera flash.

At this distance – say 40 m – flashlight has an advantage in that its rapid fall-off gives only a weak illumination, one close to moonlight. The short shutter speeds also enable more frames to be taken, in the hope that at least one frame will find “the moment”. While using flash means faster battery run-down, the night photographer should always carry reserve power, and it’s not often that I exhaust both my batteries in one evening.

Levels here have been dropped in post-production to give a better night-time feel and to bring out the contrast of natural background moonlight with the flash-fill, a difference of roughly 1.5 stops. Obnoxious pylon wires on the skyline have been retouched.

The location is Rotokare, a natural lagoon backed by bush at Barrett Domain, on the edge of New Plymouth. Upmarket housing and street lighting now impinge on the western lake fringe. A wooden platform provides the only real viewpoint here and also some good working surfaces for the night photographer.

Only one evening this first winter month has been suitable for moonlight photography; all other possibilities have fallen victim to bad weather, the dreaded lurgy or social obligations: the usual suspects, in other words, in the suppression of moonlight opportunities. At least I gave this pleasant evening seven hours, and in turn I got good exercise in walking up there.

No birds were harmed in the taking of this photograph.

85mm, ISO 2000. 5 seconds at f2.8. Vivid picture control.

69. Three wary birds, one wet night

Three wary birds, one wet night. 11.10pm, 20 December 2010

This is something of a burlesque on the cliched tranquil-lake-and-pier scene, examples of which somehow still win in photo competitions. I’m a fan of chocolate boxes myself but there’s no tranquillity here, with unforgiving lakeside lighting adding to some uncommon elements: cloud streaks lit by a town, a boat moving on its anchor, three unsettled ducks (unharmed in this production), and a little spotlighting with a brilliant LED penlight.

The scene was recorded one unquiet, drizzly night when there was a brisk northerly under persistent cloud, which hid the full moon from a frustrated photographer. The location is Acacia Bay, Lake Taupo; the town is Taupo too. This tight composition does not have the usual top layer, while the perspective receives some assistance from the stepped pier. The ducks were all too wary of me, understandably, as it was much too damp an evening to show my “Vee for vegetarian” T shirt – an umbrella hovered above the tripod and camera for much of time.

The 28mm lens was set at f11 for good depth of focus, and shutter for 30 seconds. It was chance whether the birds obliged by not moving (much), but I knew the boat would bump about on the lake swell. ISO was 2000, and tungsten was selected to offset the orange sodium lighting. On assessing the high contrast, I chose the Neutral picture control for the first time. This is the least contrasty of the three picture controls offered on the Nikon D700, the Standard setting being in the middle. .

The penlight was very bright and I flashed it on for just a few seconds, wanting to open up the shadows. The main benefit has been to illuminate the white duck. Torchlight is a useful adjunct to night photography but to get it to balance with the ambient light the trick generally is to give the scene less highlighting than you think it probably needs.

57. At Swim Three Birds, Lake Taupo

At swim three birds, Lake Taupo. 11.24pm, 20 December 2010

Frustrated by endless murk and rain over several nights at the last full moon, I set out anyway to prop up the tripod at some new locations around New Zealand’s largest lake, in the central North Island. I added an umbrella to the kit and spent a lot of time under it, trying to keep the drizzle off my lenses. The bag kept dry directly under the tripod. Fortunately Acacia Bay was a sheltered spot, without much wind.

The image above combines an initial instant of flash with a 30 second shutter time (using f8 at ISO 2000), through a 28mm lens. Slightly cropped from full frame, the shot shows something distinctly unusual – duck trails. I have previously found that a moving line of geese at twilight will turn into a sinuous snowy blur with extended exposure, but I was still surprised to see the brown smudge that each duck left as it paddled away from my camera.

These three had been disturbed from the pier by my intrusion, and returned to roost there whenever I moved off. The blue duck is really a white one, but she demonstrates the effect of flash when the tungsten setting is used – a case of mixing light sources of different colour temperatures. I chose tungsten to counteract the powerful cast of the sodium lighting nearby but this worked only partially – sodium has a much lower colour temperature than tungsten (think: household filament bulbs). While tungsten is around 3100 degress Kelvin, flash is 5500.

As it turns out, the sodium only shows in the movement trails, not counting the reflections from other shoreline lights. The flash has supplied the unexpected mosaic on the lake surface –  the lake bottom is not that regular – although I can’t be certain that these effects are not from flash on the rain itself. It is these uncertainties plus the unpredictablility of your moving subject matter that give night photography such creative scope.

22. Te Mata moonrise, Hawkes Bay

Te Mata moonrise, Hawkes Bay. 6.05pm, 22 September 2010

Blame celestial mechanics for the fact that the full moon always rises at or close to sunset, a million moony paste-ins high over well-lit landscapes to the contrary. (If I was really grumpy I’d add how quickly “moonlight fatigue” sets in when half that multitude describe their fakes as “moonlight”).

This is not moonlight; it’s a real moon photographed in dwindling daylight with an 85mm lens on a Nikon D700. Even at ISO 2000, f16 at 500th sec indicates daylight, here underexposed for effect. f16 gives good depth of focus, covering both the trees and the distant cattle. The cows were grazing the slopes of Te Mata, an outstanding rib of rock forming an interesting, driveable backdrop to Hastings and Havelock North on the plain nearby.

The evening before full moon (especially) is great for setting the rising moon against the landscape, or cumulus clouds low in the sky, because the light values of each are roughly similar. Much earlier moons get too high in the sky for this purpose, although they are still useful for reflection off bright surfaces  Conversely, a big moon rising after dark is “only” good for landscape silhouette, if the moon itself is not to be blown out entirely. But the night before full – that’s brilliant.

In composition terms the image above illustrates my developing three-punch theory. According to this, the first punch delivers the scene, the second supplies the elements which give extra character or design, while the third punch is the further detail which adds real depth or intrigue, often only apparent on closer look – in this case the miniaturised cattle.

Alas, there are thousands of one-punchers in my collection – appealing scenes that are like nice stage sets at the theatre, all awaiting further “action”. I have so often forgotten to find a second punch for them. And the third punch is even harder to deliver.

17. A grove in early spring, and a moonlight metaphor

A grove in early spring, Hawkes Bay. 9.10pm, 22 September 2010

Chasing the full moon in Hawkes Bay recently, I saw this scene on the Waimarama road and circled back. A pretty stand of European trees is not such a common sight by New Zealand highways, and in their new leafage these looked promising. It took a while to spot the lone horse grazing within (and only later did I see the second). By moonlight the effect was striking and quite dreamy, but unfortunately the leggy girl with the long blonde hair must have had the night off…

Alas, how different my white stallion looked the following night when he came down to the fence; on this second stop we saw instead a small and somewhat scrawny pony – one of a number, it turned out. In a metaphorical mood, I remarked to Gerry that moonlight is to ponies what candlelight is to people. Where moonlight draws a veil, daylight reveals all. Such surprises showed up in other photos from that night – an unseen curve of tarseal here, an erosion feature there – but these are only minor bugbears for moonlight photography; a bigger issue is just getting the frame properly focussed.

Of my numerous shots here, only this one is halfway sharp. To minimise likely movement of the pony I used a large aperture (f2.8) for 5 seconds at ISO 2000, when a better hedge would be to counteract the shallow focus of the 85mm lens with a smaller f-stop (to deepen the field). Results with the manual setting were no better.

The 85mm is a great lens by daylight, but I need more care and experience with it by night.  This was only my second evening out with the new Nikon D700; after the frustrations of the Lumix LX3 it felt much more productive to be using shorter exposures enabled by higher ISOs, a faster prime lens (f1.4) and a viewfinder easy to compose through.

8. Rustic evening near Omata, Taranaki

Rustic evening near Omata, Taranaki. 10pm, 31 October 2009

Farm animals make good subjects for moonlight photography precisely because they won’t keep still. Sometimes they hold it remarkably well though, as this placid minute in a cow paddock shows. The two leading beasts twitched their heads, to prove the point that this is indeed a night photo – as if the stars weren’t evidence enough.  With the lens at widest zoom and f2, ISO 200 was the setting. The wide perspective has reduced the star stutter; conversely for maximum star trail effects, a telephoto is more appropriate. Unfortunately, for star effects one minute is neither dot nor trail, but some sort of middling dash.

I chose the slope for its simple ridgeline and because the cows would be nicely placed along it. Often some elevation is needed to give a scene that extra sense of depth and here the rising ground served that purpose. The shadow of the trees behind was steadily dropping as the moon rose, but I wanted this in the frame to make a compositional third; the grass seemed a bit blank otherwise. The water trough was not visible at the time and shows too much in other frames. I liked seeing the stock uncrowded, strip-grazing being so common on Taranaki dairy farms. This photo comes without the incredible sound-track of cattle lowing, blowing, peeing and huffing; a sonic performance that as a townie I would never have imagined.

Featured as NOVEMBER in my Moonlight Calendar for 2011, this shot is taken at the fenceline of a no exit road. I’m not against getting closer but our spontaneous wander down it meant we did not have any landowner’s permission. Country people are suspicious enough of vehicles on their quiet roadsides; staying close to your car allows an immediate explanation. Whatever, a no exit road should reduce the chance of disturbance.