A sombre but peaceful scene; the composition may be formalist but with the help of flash it rescues a somewhat flat summer moonrise. These pines at Waireka are at least alive, more than can be said for the 50 victims of the month’s most tragic event or – on a more immediately personal level – for a good friend whose death at the equinox came so prematurely and unexpectedly.
Technically, the depth of focus here at f5 tells you immediately that this was not taken with my favourite 85mm lens, as the background with such a telephoto could only be sharp with a small aperture. The twilight at this time was reasonably balanced with the moonrise but I used flash to highlight the pale trunks.
SEPTEMBER in my 2019 calendar! Lake Mahinapua is the first stop after Hokitika as you head south down the South Island’s West Coast. Surrounded by native forest, the lake’s a total gem left to us by the last glacial retreat ten thousand years ago. On a weekday morning in April there are few camper vans visiting and even fewer watercraft about, although perhaps a fizzboat and a Nordic waterskier could have added some visual tension here.
As a basically monochromatic study, the textures and horizons neatly summarise the special appeal of the celebrated West Coast landscape. Except in early summer when the flax and rata are in flower, it is not an especially colourful landscape, although it is certainly a green and pleasant one.
The scene has been exposed for its highlights; a high dynamic range image would give a quite different effect. It would show the correct colour for the reeds and distant forest, but without artistry or any emotional appeal. The very literalness of HDR photography Ieaves me cold, seen at worst when a landscape under broad daylight is absurdly combined with a vivid, overarching sunset. Really, which planet do these photographers live on?
A roadside view from a calendar tour of the South Island, made over autumn with my wife Al. This early morning scene explained the chilly temperature in our camper van overnight. We then drove a little way up the summit road before the snow and slush made it clear that the rest of the way would be on foot.
This telephoto view is from above the main highway, not far from Mitchell’s Cottage. I like the long shadows here, and the interest added by the derelict woolshed and the sheep. The scale of the scene does not come across though, the full grandeur of the range being obscured by cloud. Fortunately this cleared during our long trudge to the tops.
This twilit tableau was the runner-up in my series of St Joseph with a vase of faux flowers. It ranks as “runner-up” only because it’s entirely moon-less, the crescent moon (the object of the whole exercise) being too high in the sky to be included in a horizontal composition. However as a simple set-up, this seems a more compelling image to me. I like the good range of colour and how the flash balances with the background lighting. It also has some artistic black space on the lower right, suitable for a quote (or headline), and I have supplied an anonymous, satirical example of such below.
In comparing the impact of this standard horizontal image with the earlier vertical frame, isn’t it an odd truth that the old 35mm format of 2:3 works much better for horizontals? The 2:3 format seems too long and narrow for most vertical applications, where 4:3 is often a better fit. That aside, good vertical compositions are generally harder to achieve than horizontal ones, yet verticals are so much to the fore these days – thanks of course to the demands of Instagram, Pinterest and smartphones.
Once again I post a pic that I’m not completely satisfied with. Teachable moments I believe they are called. Coming down from the Neudorf Saddle in the rain we saw a large gaggle of geese, an uncommon sight in our region. Unsurprisingly, they wandered away from me as I struggled at the fenceline, crouching without cover, poking the lens through the wire netting and hoping no raindrops plopped directly on to my telephoto.
I like the pastoral backdrop, quite typically Nelson (geese aside). The trees are a mix of native and introduced species. The horses add interest, but the elements of this composition do not quite tally. Another horse (or two) is needed at the right, and one more to the left of the central tree would be even better! In many ways, a successful composition has predictable components. Although this one does have something close to a red barn in it, the eye needs a few more points to linger on for this to be (say) a good calendar image – even without a golden retriever in sight.
Speaking of calendar images, we now have two quite different 2019 calendars perfectly formed and ready for release in a few weeks. They will be announced shortly. However, already available is a retrospective Creative Evenings 2019 calendar, which you can access as a printable pdf file on the free downloads page. This free calendar is printer-ready – it’s a selection of the best from my earlier publications, made available for those more recently interested in long exposure photography. We tested it at a commercial printer – it worked fine!
The cemetery at Mokau (in the southwest Waikato) occupies a hilltop terrace and gives good views in all directions. The house far across the valley seems relatively close with the compressed perspective of a long telephoto. Depth of focus here is enhanced by the tiny aperture, only available at the far end of the zoom. f40 is actually a ratio of the size of aperture over the length of the lens – thus the “wide open” f1.4 on my 85mm lens requires big, fat specs to obtain such a ratio: 1/1.4.
In post-processing certain areas of my images are typically worked over with spot-saturation, although I resist the urge to have them “pop”, as you see in so many sparkling real estate photos. Here the lichens were startling enough, and have been left untouched, apart from a +25 increase in overall vibrancy. In composition terms, the top right corner is occupied by only a gate and fence, and a horse or cow would have made this more interesting. Still better if the house owner had come out and stood on her verandah for a minute, but my yodel would never have gone the distance.
“Memento mori” is the Latin phrase reminding us of our inevitable mortality. Some say that we live on in the hearts of others – that’s the “loving memory” part. With the passing of the generations that memory is eventually eclipsed. The love is passed on though, to nurture and sustain later generations (best case).
I have not seen three of these lovely birds together before, but one of them obliged me by holding its pose mid-reflection. Although this was an obvious job for a good telephoto, my long lens was unfortunately out of commission. A photo of this nature – a rapidly rising moon, feeding birds – usually requires any number of frames before a satisfying shot is achieved. However let’s not forget that trigger-happy fingers mean “any number of frames” all have to be carefully evaluated later on your monitor, back home.
The blue hour of twilight is strongly featured here but its effect can be dampened by changing the colour temperature setting in-camera, by drastically increasing the degrees Kelvin. The simple composition has enabled an easy crop to the laptop screen ratio of 16:9, a panoramic format more suited to a “scene for screens”. Of course it is also a good fit for this type of composition: wide horizontals with the main interest small and central.
Kotuku to the Maori, our white heron is the “eastern great egret” to the rest of the world. Although well distributed across Asia and Australia, the egret’s only breeding site in New Zealand is at Okarito Lagoon, in South Westland. The estuary shown above is the extensive one which occupies Waimea Inlet; the bridge at left connects to Rabbit Island. This useful vantage point for any moonrise over Nelson’s eastern hills is found via the public reserve at the very end of Hoddy Rd – a narrow, oddly curvy road still waiting to be discovered by movie location scouts.
The Whakatu marae sits on 10 hectares of reclaimed estuary next to Founders Park, in the city. It is hub to six iwi: Ngati Koata, Ngati Kuia, Te Runanga o Toarangatira, Ngati Rarua, Ngati Tama and Te Atiawa. I took this scene because the entrance-way nicely mirrored the meeting house profile; the roofline vents also added interest. The light within the wharenui (Kaakati) was very dim, but that was just what was needed to balance with the moonlight.
In moonlight photography, and particularly in colour work, shadows are a special hazard (pictorially speaking; in safety terms shadows can be trouble too, but that’s another story). The more your frame is dominated by shadow, the more care is required for an effective composition. Here some detail is still visible in the battens of the entrance-way, but beyond, in the middle ground, there is nothing – although as a central mass the deep shadow offsets that of the wharenui quite well. Probably a better image would have been achieved an hour later, when the moon was higher in the sky.
The tripod was propped up against a wire-netting security gate, with the lens poked through. Long exposure photos are a bit like a duck swimming, in that all the effort to get somewhere is unseen; then again, shooting for a full night effect is hit-or-miss because of the variations in screen and monitor illumination – even the angle of view on a laptop makes such a difference to the effect.
Odd neighbours at Greymouth. 6.37pm, 10 April 2018
The neighbourhood of New Zealand cemeteries can be quite quirky, especially in the larger cities, but even in Greymouth a cross can have an industrial background. Land bordering cemeteries is less desired for housing, so perhaps becomes more affordable for industry, or other purposes. The cross is strongly associated with Catholic graves, and it is easy to forget that our cemeteries have traditionally been segregated along religious lines, into Catholic, Protestant and Jewish sections (where the cross is understandably absent).
The cross is not perfectly placed, but close enough, given my frustrations with setting the tripod in a confined situation. The foreground is flash-lit, but the small aperture has subdued the usual effect, while enhancing depth of focus (thus the reasonably sharp background). No skein of cloud was available for the top left corner but the space is well balanced by a similar empty space at bottom right. In composition, empty spaces can be offset by other blank spaces in the frame. Colour-wise, the golden lichens on the cross have their counterpoint in the lingering sunset reflected in the windows.
Memento mori: Succinct Latin remembrance that we all die, each in our time.
As a magnificent blot on the landscape the steel mill at Waiuku, south of Auckland, is very impressive. In this shot its dreariness is stylised by layering, using the line of pines it is seen through. Another example of a “look-through” composition, this is one I was definitely searching for. Here the main feature seems almost an afterthought, but one nicely offsetting the dark verticals. The scene is also an example of limited palette (colour range), being close to monochromatic. However I saw during set-up the small smudge of green plant life at bottom centre, and the brown building below the belching chimneys.
I took a second shot with the mill in a more central position, yet this was less interesting. The scene above is underexposed of course, to saturate the highlights, and a smaller aperture can be another gain in doing this – and increased depth of field, no small matter with a telephoto lens such as the 85mm. Using f16 has insured sharpness throughout, with the luxury of a low ISO and a hand-held capture, to boot.
The phrase “Dark satanic mill” comes from an eschatological poem by William Blake, whose text also forms the lyrics to the well known hymn Jerusalem. This contrasts the forthcoming heaven-on-earth of the title with the hellish blight of many hundreds of mills, which scarred the country as it became the first to industrialise.
This moonlit scene in Garden Valley Rd, near Brightwater, demonstrates a work in progress in night photography. It does not meet my own standards for a successful image, but it has some teaching points, so I publish it for that reason.
A good composition can offer a “look-through” sense of depth, when the elements are so assembled. Here the look-through is supplied by the fence netting (always for deer, in New Zealand), while the foreground stalks contribute scale and perspective. All very simple in theory, but (as usual) practice shows otherwise.
Three challenges here were to get the best focus (sharp foreground preferred), exposure (balancing flash with moonlight) and capture (despite the movement of the sheep). Even arranging willing people for a long exposure presents its problems, but the sheep were obviously unaware of their possible place in internet immortality, and moved away as I jostled camera and tripod for position. They were probably unimpressed by the flash as well, so much better results are likely in this situation if you get everything right at first attempt. As we say in English: “Fat chance!”
This is work-in-progress because of the problems referred to. Moonlight photography is challenging: the work is hard and the hours long – and you don’t even have evenings off. Of course these are all First World problems, and exactly what makes a great exposure – when you get there – all the more satisfying .
Amongst the leaves, Te Henui Cemetery. 3.06 pm, 2 April 2018
A supplicant cherub amongst fallen leaves – these being a common metaphor for poignant memory and les temps perdus. This simple image again makes use of contrasting blank spaces, as I have resisted the urge to crop it at top and left. The limited palette adds considerably to the effect, assisted by the flat light of an overcast day.
The 85mm lens at close range has little inherent focal depth, but stopping down to a self-timed f16 has maximised the depth of field. Any gain here will sharpen focus for a short distance in front of the focal point – in this case the tiny leaf directly in front of the figure – while increasing it over a much larger zone behind the object. The self-timer was set to the shortest time (2 secs) and I often use this aid with the 85mm, both for hand-held shots and with tripod.
Te Henui is the first of New Plymouth’s two main cemeteries; situated above the valley of the Te Henui Stream in rolling country typical of Taranaki, it was originally on the edge of town. The lower slopes are wooded, making the older sections of this cemetery notably rustic. However, interesting cameos such as the above were sparse. My time was not all spent on photography, as I was surprised to discover (quite by accident) the final resting places of two people who appear in the family history I am at work on.
Memento mori (“Remember, we all must die”) presents a series of cameos from New Zealand cemeteries, illustrating memorable scenes or detail. Of course they have their melancholy aspect, but cemeteries retain a strong human interest and convey an impressive sense of time’s long passage. Often (but not always) these aspects are matched with a park-like atmosphere of peace and calm.
Sadly missed, Picton cemetery. 11.59 a.m, 14 April 2018
A striking cameo, illustrating colour composition. The two elements of the composition have been widely spaced, but there is just enough line and texture to hold the frame together. The simplicity of the image owes everything to the uncommon colour of the plastic flowers. As for the succinct inscription, those two short words are an effective final statement. I did not see them used elsewhere here.
A short telephoto lens works well for this type of assignment. However a slower shutter speed using the self-timer would give better depth of focus for the inscription. I don’t always think through optimal manual settings – and here I was wary of camera shake, which 85mm exaggerates. My main object was good definition on the key feature.
The drainage built into the site is proof that this cemetery is perched terrace by terrace on a steep hillside. This is not at all unexpected in Picton, a ferry town surrounded by high hills, where flat land is at a premium. The Latin tag “Memento mori” is a shorthand reference to the inevitable mortality we each face.
A Good Friday illumination, though not an epiphany, from an unexpected source. A subdivision being so close to where I was staying, it was a simple matter to put on gumboots and shoulder tripod for the short walk to the hilltop, where a house was under construction. As building sites are prone to pilfering I didn’t want my intentions mis-interpreted, so when vehicle headlights suddenly appeared in my frame I did not know what I was in for. However I was set up on the less public side, and whatever the purpose of the lingering lights and long-running engine, my presence was apparently undetected.
I wear a warm, high-vis vest (thanks Narumon) on all my evening outings, for safety’s sake. Generally I avoid using flash in residential areas (discretion vs valour) and have rarely been challenged by suspicious onlookers. On moonlit excursions I mostly stick to public spaces or to holiday places on farms; looking back on work from the last few years, I see my trespassing has been confined to college farms, new subdivisions and golf courses.
Diagonals and limited focus are not common elements in my compositions, and I would have liked a more distinctive shape for the tree, but serendipity should not be denied – namely the headlit timbers – and I am obviously susceptible to a good, unclouded mountain. Mt Taranaki is an immediate anchor for any former resident returning to the region.
This is the very first frame from a simple composition, one that I was subsequently unable to improve on. It is taken from Arthurstown, on the opposite side of the river, where protection works give an unobstructed viewpoint. Cumulus clouds by the full moon are appealing but are not that common; the main problem in photographing them is to stop them from blurring in the exposure required – that is, one which retains an adequate ISO and a sharp aperture setting. The three reflections and street lights are what made the scene worth recording, but the interesting thing is that the lights of the town aren’t reflected under the clouds, meaning they were higher and further north of Hokitika than this viewpoint suggests.
The further west or south you go in December, the longer the day (and the twilight), especially if you’re heading down the South Island before the solstice. We noticed this on our way to the Catlins (South Otago), via the West Coast. Although summer solstice marks the longest day, not many people know the earliest sunrise precedes the solstice, while the latest sunset follows it, by some days.
We began our trip with a full moon approaching, but sad to say, neither our travel arrangements nor the weather were conducive to moonlight photography. However, we had pleasant digs at Arthurstown, right by the Hokitika River, and this view back towards the town was a short walk from there. I had hoped to feature the distant dairy factory more prominently by moonlight, without knowing that at night the place would be brightly illuminated, swamping anything that moonlight could offer. Moonlight is so feeble that it generally competes only with distant artificial lighting.
Balancing the flash at close range with the ambient twilight can be troublesome, especially if depth of field is also important for your composition. I used f16 on my standard lens here, overlooking the optimal f22. Extra lighting is essential for this type of photo; although it doesn’t need to be by flash, I find it highly convenient.
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!
Like some national flag, this somewhat humdrum scene has its quadrants, as well as enough eye-catching detail to make a composition. I can’t say it’s a favourite but it has been promoted up the ranks for selection by an enthusiastic supporter – so it must have something. What? Both colour highlights and silhouette are in there, along with natural texture and the blue wash of a calm Golden Bay (not always, of course – these rocks are foreshore defences). Above all, though, it has middle lines to divide – and unite – the composition. Both horizon and tree are in that “Avoid!” place, dead centre. Taking the place of the “third party” in composition terms are far-off lights, clouds and stars. Spending time at this quiet, far corner of the settlement made for an enchanted evening, despite no awesome photos resulting.
Re-framed to 16×10 for emphasis; 28mm, ISO 2000 30 seconds at f8
My 2017 calendar sold out last week, although some retail returns are expected. This image for June 2017 has been very popular. It was taken at the southern end of the inlet, where from sea level the road climbs steadily and steeply to the top of the limestone. Public roads with grass strips down the centre are not that common in New Zealand, but as this one serves just two farms it’s no real surprise to see it here. “Roads less travelled” lend themselves well to calendar imagery, and this one is in the “even less travelled” category, being off another, unsealed road to several farms which straggle down the coast. The trick is usually in getting sufficient elevation to please the eye with the path fully shown. A misty day helps, adding an uncommon atmosphere.
Abstract 1: Pukearuhe, north Taranaki. 1.46pm, 31 July 2015
I have photographed these cliffs before but only occasionally, as they are an hour north of New Plymouth on a side road, and access is strictly tidal. The beach changes from sand to rocks with the seasons, while recent rain makes a difference to the rockface patterns observed. Here we’re looking at a well-watered part of the cliff at about eye-level, with much reflected early afternoon sunlight. I selected a low ISO for maximum effect but also a high shutter speed, to avoid any risk of camera shake with a heavy telephoto.
0362 Yana by the Aorere, Golden Bay. 8.40pm, 4 March 2015
On a lovely late summer evening I took a break from the moonrise to ask Yana to pose as the highlight for this composition. Flash gives a solid block of colour, as expected. The river mouth is intentionally underexposed, while the fisherman is included to add some depth. My initial jpeg from the RAW file was disappointing and not at all faithful to the limpid tones of the original, so adjustments were made in post-processing. This scene was only a short walk from our accommodation at the Collingwood campground. The township is based on a sandspit but is more famous for its flammability.
The crowds have gone and the druids have left the rostrum. All the devotees who waited so patiently for immersion are now initiated, have packed their tents and left for the long return to their temples. Soon night will fall and the whole arena will be reclaimed by the hoolie-darkies and fogdogs… etc etc. Movie rights are still available.
3409 Bold sentry, Paritutu, New Plymouth. 11.34pm, 21 July 2013
I admit to some anxiety parading a mannequin in a public place late at night, being too old for the art student look, so I was relieved to have this popular venue to myself for the duration. The torso was a gift from my daughter, intended as offset to a female mannequin she admired in one of my old photos. The pot plant is 100% artificial too. Moonlight and port lighting (background) are supplemented with torchlight on my two props. The steps lead to a brutalist viewing platform below Paritutu, the steep volcanic remnant which dominates the local coastline. A cloudlet wandered over, to complete the composition. Not recommended for biscuit tins.
2727 Wet evening, Whangarei Harbour. 5.24pm, 25 May 2013
On a sodden summer’s day here in Taranaki I’ve been looking through my yearly folders for fitting material. This high-tide scene from Mcleod’s Bay, on the northern shores of Whangarei Harbour, takes in the blue of twilight and the clean, bright highlights of torchlight. I was aiming for some depth with the tree-studded islet offshore, but was surprised by the keen colour contrast. Umbrella photography has its payoffs, but also its price – a good torch tumbled out of my grasp, down the slope and (one part thereof) into the sea below.
85mm, ISO 100. 4 secs at f16. Tungsten light balance
Simple, graphic compositions such as this moonrise-with-flax-flowers can be varied in post-processing with the hue tool. In my tool kit this is handily located next to the saturation dial, and enables a surprising spectrum of bizarre and surreal imagery. I have put some variations up for contrast but am not able to format them with suitable elbow-room. If you want to appreciate an image without colour clash, single it out with a double-click. While the middle image looks almost normal, the blue has been preternaturally intensified. It is quite safe to try this at home.
8301 Winter roadside, moonlit mono. 10.32pm, 13 July 2014
I find myself more drawn to formalist compositions as I grow older. They are by no means easy to do, especially after dark. This one surprised me on a pleasant roadside. Intrigued by its depth, I used the last of my battery to highlight the foreground. In post-pro I have discarded the original colour elements, then chosen a brown and black duotone from a long list of possible combos. Digital duotone is “an imaging process that computes the highlights and middle tones in a black and white image, then allows the user to choose any color ink as the second color” (Wikipedia). In print, duotone (or tritone) is the best way to present half tone (B&W) fine art, and also historical photos.
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report. – Paul Simon (The Only Living Boy in New York)
Still lifes by moonlight are formidable propositions because of the problems in seeing what you have, particularly with close framing and the shallow depth of field of a mild telephoto. This scene was by our front door in Nelson. The background light is mainly moonlight, with some city fill. Persimmon trees loose their leaves with surprising speed – one windy night soon after did the trick! But now we are back in the North Island, in New Plymouth.
Peering through a suburban cabbage tree involved an awkward set-up on sloping ground; every slight adjustment of the tripod also changed the ponga ferns relative to the foreground. I was however nicely sheltered from a frigid gale.
I’ve used a conventional depth of field method known as f22, rather than split focus (see no. 170). This is the next aperture down from f16; not many lenses have it so I’m glad to see f22 on my 28mm and my new 50mm lens.
With moonlight this means a fairly long exposure (292.1 seconds) to compensate, but it does give star trails instead of hyphens or stutters.
Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance. – Samuel Johnson
Taranaki is so wet that ferns thrive even out on their own, as here on farmland close to town. The extra lighting is from a penlight, and far more subtle than in my previous post. Ambient lighting is a mix of moonlight and the distant city.
Torchlight is more selective than flash, but getting the desired coverage can take some doing, in terms of how long you run the beam over the various foreground elements. I would’ve liked the lily’s supporting role to have featured more strongly. The good depth of focus tells you the lens is a wide angle one.
On a mild spring evening a slip of a moon comes down the starry sky to a calm sea. What a marvellous programme! A bench seat was provided but there was no admission charge, applause or intermission – and no commercials. Truth be told though, I had to leave before the moon did, not wanting to inconvenience the patient souls sitting in my car…
A more consciously abstract image, the layered bands weren’t obvious on site. From below you see the cliff shadow, then the more distant Tasman Sea lit by the industrial shore, then a last lingering twilight below the stars.
Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper. – Francis Bacon
Contrary to Bacon, as a night photographer my hopes rise at supper. The new moon is not visible until the sky darkens, well after sunset. This moon always needs a supporting cast, to add both human scale and pictorial interest; here that cast is very simple.
This could never be natural light because the new moon after sunset is always in the western sky. You could only get silhouettes from the flax stalks from this angle – without fill-in flash. The location is my regular haunt at Paritutu Centennial Park, not the rock itself.
I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing. – William James
Ratapiko is a small hydro lake near the edge of the Taranaki ring plain, about 40 minutes northeast of New Plymouth, in a quiet country district. Quiet on a winter’s evening at least, as in season Ratapiko is popular for boating and water skiing, but this night our main concern was low cloud and whether the mountain was even in the frame.
The peak could not be discerned through the long Takumar telephoto on the Pentax Spotmatic F, as its maximum aperture is f4. Actually the mountain was hardly visible by eye, and this composition could only be made by referring to a 60-second trial shot on the Lumix LX3 – which does not have a telephoto capability. I then extrapolated a longer exposure (unrecorded) for better star trails and a smaller aperture, to get the best focal depth from the lakeside trees to the mountain.
As often, Mt Taranaki looms above low cloud at 2518 m (8260 ft), in a common composition of vertical and horizontal thirds. The striking red shift is mostly reciprocity failure from such a long exposure on colour negative film (used here in desperation), but looking again at my digital trial shot suggests there is also some light scatter from the nearest towns, Stratford and Inglewood.
The early evening was really dark as the waning moon only rose at bedtime – a good opportunity for star trails, although I expected to see more. Next time I will use a shorter lens, frame this as a vertical and have the trails reflected on the lake, even at some sacrifice of the peak’s prominence in the frame.
Speaking of reflection, the quote from the American philospher is apt for the pause that l-o-n-g exposures enable. Working with two cameras, however, generally means less reflection and instead for me the satisfaction of more activity.
I say have patience, and shuffle the cards. – Miguel de Cervantes, 1615
From the 153 m (502 ft) summit of Paritutu, the volcanic landmark backing Port Taranaki, the coastal outlook to Oakura is affected nightly by industrial lighting. Here we look down on Beach Road, leading to a well-lit tank farm but with little traffic after dark and no street lighting.
The Incandescent balance, exposure and frame were decided on in anticipation of the next approaching motor… then I waited. Trying out other ideas would mean a busy camera when the opportunity arrived – either in taking or dark-framing an image, a matter of at least a minute – so I didn’t. Much.
Two cars are shown, one going each way. The light balance has turned the surf blue while giving better colour to the roadside. Without full moonlight Back Beach would hardly be visible, and here’s the trap in that event: opening up a few more stops would wash out the car lights. Yet extending the shutter (instead) would work because the headlights would only be in half the exposure – the time it took for the cars to pass by. Oh how photography makes you think!
Light trails work best when their background is underexposed by at least 2 stops, but it depends on the setting – snow and surf of course add brighter contrasts. The lack of a sky makes this image more abstract, and increases the impact. A good elevation and a telephoto lens are both useful for this.
I had climbed the rock before sunset, as the last section is a steep scramble despite the safety chain; other people came up even after dark. It was a great evening for moonlight photography; my descent four hours later was no great problem. My tripod was zipped up in a shoulder bag while the strong glow of the port lights would be enough to see by even on a moonless night.
85mm, ISO 2500. 30 seconds at f11. Vivid picture control
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view; While all the women came and went, their foot-servants too. – Bob Dylan
The surreal song lyric [misquoted on the web] fits this enigmatic view from the waterfront pavement at Kaikoura, in the South Island. The scale is ambiguous and the light unusual, but at least more sense can be made of it than of Dylan’s allusion to the Book of Isaiah (thanks, Bob). The rock looms out of the deepening dusk as the street light over my shoulder gradually takes command; meanwhile the sun sinks further below the horizon.
Around inhabited places twilight is an excellent time to be out with your camera, because of changes in relative light levels. Always at some point the artificial lighting is at par with ambient twilight; soon after the twilight fades further, to appear like a backdrop. With digital cameras this transition is easy to capture, not that it is hard to see at the time, but the change at every twilight means that over a few short minutes opportunities are rich indeed.
This composition has some classic elements, including a “third punch” with the two smaller rocks. They have the same companionable role as the supporting characters in a Disney movie, where the leading characters often have two sidekicks. Other minor details embroider the frame – the boat in the swell, an emerging breaker and the headline cloud. To tone down the orange cast of the lamp I used Incandescent on the Nikon D700 light balance.
The smallest aperture on the telephoto was needed for good sharpness overall; a fuzzy background would mean less impact, remembering that the focus fall-off is marked on telephotos of even the most modest length. This is the case for setting up with a tripod before sunset, minimalists take note: it enables the best aperture selection without camera shake worries.
Tomorrow we shall set out once more upon the vast sea. – Horace
Moonrises after dark indicate the moon is past full, and these moonrises, especially, need a frame of reference. They benefit from foreground interest, in this case from outcrops alongside the wharf at Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island. It’s a variation on the theme of no. 94, Kaikoura moonrise, and in fact taken just 14 minutes later. The spring tide was ebbing and shortly the rocks would be exposed on the beach.
The wharf lights were orange-red, for which the Incandescent balance has only partly compensated. However this is close to how it appeared to the eye, and the moonrise is sympathetic to the colour cast. Four stars are visible on the RAW image, but not here, while a tiny marginal houselight has been edited out. The Nikon D700 mirror does not cover 100% of the frame, so features left out of frame can still turn up in it – but now I am more conscious of avoiding this annoyance.
The vista looks east out to the Pacific and a wide angle lens was a natural choice, as the rocks were quite close. To keep the rising moon undistorted I used a shortish exposure, although normally preferring a smaller aperture for maximum depth of focus. The composition is simple, consisting of just two lines plus the moonbeam, but the textures add sufficient interest. Sadly though, there was no surf breaking because we were on the port’s leeside.
In hinting at life’s daily uncertainties the classical quote has a personal context. This memorable summer evening of boisterous tide and interesting light was followed next day by the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 22nd. Although we were driving to Christchurch we knew nothing of the quake and suffered no consequences. Had we not been in holiday mode, however, we would have arrived there before the quake struck.
28mm, ISO 2000. 5 seconds at f8. Standard picture control
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust
Out for an evening’s recreation, I soon noticed these poplars on the fringe of New Plymouth. They are lit by the rising moon and distant street lamps, as well as the lights of a neighbouring school, where an evening meeting was in progress.
The challenge was to get the tripod in just the right place to line up the dead branch with the gap in the trees, and then to light-paint the limb to best ghostly effect. Highlighting the foreground interest by waving a torch over it involves Goldilocks timing – you want something not too dark nor too bright. This one is slightly underdone.
The quote applies especially to moonlight photography. New perceptions emerge in the twilight zone from the warmer colour, stronger shadows and greater range of interpretative exposures: night as night? as stronger twilight? as daylight? In terms of composition I’ve used a standard line-up of features near and far, but the extra light source means that “light up” is added to line-up… another reason why night photography offers such creative potential.
Around urban areas there are two types of extra light source: static (houselights; street lamps) and mobile sources (flash, torchlight, vehicle headlights). Even if you are in a remote area for a few nights you won’t need to ration the flash if you carry a solar charger, or one that plugs into your car battery, while an LED torch will go for ages.
After that, however, you must resort to kero lamps, campfires, candles and match flames. All these have a strong colour cast and go best with an Incandescent light balance. Incandescent will cool the moonlight down yet this effect still works because of a limitation of the human eye. Moonlight is actually full spectrum colour but it always seems blue to us.
28mm; ISO 2500. 30 seconds at f5.6. Vivid picture control
When inspiration arrives I want it to find me working. – Pablo Picasso
“Some highway” means that I do not know exactly where this was taken. On Easter holiday near Tongariro National Park (central North Island), we were off for a drive-about, on the night before full moon. Here we might be on the Turangi road or, less likely, the main highway south, but traffic is light and I’m glad the headlights aren’t coming towards us because they would flare the lens.
So I’m in the passenger seat of John’s Triumph 2000 with the tripod over my lap and I’ve asked him nicely not to move at all for a spell, while the film works its magic. Fortunately he’s a patient fellow and ever ready to indulge the creation of Art. Both depth and movement enhance this simple composition but another 30 seconds would have improved the exposure. Thanks anyway, John.
The car bonnet is visible in this wide angle view; the streak of the passing car would be more orange but for my using tungsten film. Tungsten is the old equivalent to digital’s Incandescent light balance setting – except once your film is in, you can only adapt separate shots to daylight by fitting compensating filters. Tungsten gives a bluer sky to the above, dark though it is, and better colour to carlights and other filament sources.
The quote applies in part because I was willing to work for an awkward shot rather than just relax and enjoy the outing. At the time my expectations were fairly low, as I was doubtful that the tripod could be kept still enough across the car seat for a sharp image. However I was willing to set it up anyway. Tripod work is slow craft indeed, and so your photo intentions require that extra effort.
28mm; ISO 160. Ektachrome slide film; exposure unrecorded but est. 90 seconds at f8
Despite this corner being at evening’s end Gerry and I were happy for the uphill slog that began here, under a moonless, starry sky. By text message we had heard of the huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and remote though Te Hapu station (www.tehapu.co.nz) may be at the top left corner of the South Island, it is also on the coast.
As the tsunami rippled into the South Pacific, the walk up from the beach to our quarters assured us step by step of a more elevated perch – although next day we found no sign of a surge on the broad sands below. How curious that such a back-road should be framed by a very distant event. Yet as we are often shown, the world is much smaller than it seems.
The photo shows torchlight used for a different take on an otherwise insipid prospect, with the snow white manuka contrasting with the silhouettes. Recovering latent possibilities in a disappointing result can be a nice surprise and what you probably can’t tell here is that my underexposed original has been rescued by Photoshop. Auto levels gave life to this image; further adjustments came with the Adjust lighting/shadows & highlights function: lighten shadows (+10%), darken highlights (+10%) and midtone contrast (+20%). All good!
So why didn’t I put a figure in the background – a third punch to the composition? The answer is predictable and a well known syndrome within the craft of night photography: end of evening drag. When out with folk, as above, I am too polite to ask my companions to wait out and/or perform for yet one more “last shot”. Another weary minute detracts from the fresh experience of the earlier evening – plus I know that it’s not often that my objective can be achieved by a single frame.
But really, I guess I was too tired to even think of it.
28mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f3.2. Vivid picture control
This took around 15 minutes at a small aperture, on Fuji slide film. It was a perfect summer’s evening at Paritutu Centennial Park, and I spent the interlude chatting with a friend. I’m only guessing that the stripe is Venus, but as she often accompanies the early moon it’s a good bet.
For trails like this I suggest a crescent moon and a long lens – the longer the better. Crescent moons set soon after sunset, so good colour on your horizon is likely. However to get such a long exposure and the moon suitably bright in the sky, the evening must be darker than it seems here. So moonset cannot be too close to sunset; about an hour between the two seems to work best.
We were fortunate to have such a warm and still night, as they are uncommon at this exposed outlook. In winter the same effect can be achieved with the waning moon rising just before dawn, but you’d be looking the other way, and without the balm we enjoyed. For the duration you could of course retire to your car and thermos; it’s really a case of when you prefer to be active and outdoors, but I’m an owl myself, not a lark.
The silhouette is of Snapper Rock (Motuotamatea), a semi-tidal island occupied by the old-time Maori. It’s not a brilliant outline but nothing else was available from the vantage point. Sometimes for these long-tail compositions a simple horizon will suffice, especially if there is texture below. However for my own I like to add a silhouette to the foreground or near distance, as having a black shape helps give depth and provides extra contrast.
Just like the sun, as it nears the horizon the moon colours up, as its rays pass through the atmosphere at an increasingly oblique angle. Here however thin low cloud in the far west has softened the effect.
200mm Pentax Takumar lens, ISO 100. Exposure unrecorded.
The Waimanu Lagoon at Waikanae connects by way of a floodgate to the adjacent estuary. Both sites are favoured bird habitats, and bird life appears largely unaffected by the suburban surrounds. Access to this pier is by a narrow sealed road but the area is also very walkable. On a week night I felt quite secure out in the moonlight here with my gear.
To get this simple scene by the full moon and urban glow I used the incandescent (tungsten) light balance, which softens the colour cast of the artificial lighting. This renders the moonlight cooler than it really was – notably in the grassy areas – but gives a nice emphasis to the blues, an effect quite acceptable to the human eye.
I resisted the impulse to add my ghost to the pier, although for unghostly self-images the Nikon D700 has various self-timing options, the longest delay being 20 seconds. To get this viewpoint however the camera was already set up on a handy picnic table, and by time I remembered the self-timer I was back down at ground level, avoiding possible tripod vibration. Finding the self-timer is a nuisance in the dark, but the real awkwardness is with the fully extended tripod. You must lower it before you can use the fiddly controls on the top of the camera, then re-elevate the camera and re-establish your frame.
The problem with advanced digital cameras is not that they have too many controls but rather with their poor arrangement. The ergonomics of the D7oo, for example, are ghastly, while the Lumix LX3 on manual has one tiny toggle to cope with the three key functions. Film cameras seem so simple in comparison. Take the old Pentax 6×7: once your ISO is set, there are just two settings after focus: shutter speed and aperture. Simple!
28mm, ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f4. Vivid picture control
It was a perfect evening, with the biggest full moon since 1993, this being another close approach in the 18-year cycle of lunar orbits. Four of us visited the famous bridge and wandered along the coastal walkway, on New Plymouth’s northern outskirts. The rolling landscape was beautifully lit and John had some fun with his camera too – proving that moonlight photography is quite infectious.
People shots by moonlight are a challenge. Forgetting to alter picture control from Vivid to Standard, as here, wasn’t the best start, as strong shadows are rarely flattering for your subjects. Ilona is wearing a black cap, for example. The wide angle I used is less suited to portraits, unless you seek subtle distortions in the human face. It is fine for groups, however, where the camera is not so close.
Yet for night photography wide angles have a big advantage in easier focusing. They have a better inherent depth of field than telephotos. Cameras with smaller sensors also have better depths of field, over every class of lens (the Nikon D7oo is a full-frame dSLR). This principle is easily demonstrated with film: 35mm camerawork has less demanding focus than you get with roll film (medium format), while it’s a cinch compared with finicky large format (4×5 and larger).
After poor focus, fuzzy results in moonlight people shots can be blamed on subject movement. People sway or fidget – or just plain breathe. Subject movement can be interesting but in a similar way to how stars look good either sharp or long – smudges have less impact. Here John and Ilona did their best but model this principle.
So to get better results I must use the tricks of early studio photographers, whose daylight exposures were similarly long because of their slow emulsions. I will have to either anchor my subjects to whatever fittings are at hand – or get them really moving!
The tide was a high spring one at the wharf, one memorable summer’s evening. The square format can be applied in later processing to any 2:3 frame from a digital SLR camera – and for several reasons. Although here it was primarily to improve the composition, it also crops flare from the rising moon on the far right of the original frame.
Colourwise this shot turns upside down my earlier post (No. 94 Kaikoura moonrise) from the same wharf – it was a productive evening. This is interesting for its mix of three light sources as well as its abstraction. There’s moonlight in the sky, plus sodium lighting on the sand (which is only just covered by the surf), but the violent green on the rocks comes from what I took to be a mercury vapour lamp, at the end of the wharf. The line of pink is moonlit cloud, and a ship on the horizon, not noticed at the time, has also registered.
The unexpected turn-ups are what keeps night photography interesting. The fortunate aspect here was that all three light sources were in a good balance, an effect sometimes very hard to achieve. The light balance control was set to Cool white fluorescent; I had expected this to absorb some of the green but it has not made much of a difference really. I’ve been wondering why the sodium here is not a good deal stronger, considering the incandescent (tungsten) setting was not used.
One big advantage of digital over film work is the ability to change light balances without having to add or remove filters, particularly in alternating between incandescent and daylight. Quick adjustments can be made also for other light conditions or cloudy skies. When light sources are mixed, there’s plenty of creative scope in trying one balance and then another.
The drawback appears the next time you pick up your camera and take photos without checking the balance properly…
That’s the reflection of a sinking half moon, and probably Venus nearby, plus some extra electricity. This is actually on the West Coast, but access is by a long and winding road from Golden Bay. Here the remoteness and locked gate give the moonlight photographer total elbow room and real peace of mind. Come evening we had the whole place to ourselves, with not a single steer in sight, on our part of the farm at least.
Private land in interesting, open country tops my list of great destinations, because the biggest issue regarding your wandering about at night has to be your personal safety – particularly if you are female. “Safety in numbers” is the answer, but when you can’t find ready company do you go out alone? If you do, I suggest you at least get there before dark. You’ll then be more familiar with the ground you’ve covered, when it’s time to turn back. You’ll also find the developing dark easier to adapt to.
Better again though to give some thought beforehand to the best venues, beginning with how the carpark looks. You want somewhere with predictable traffic – e.g. late boaties or daytrippers – or really none at all. In Taranaki and Nelson I’d say the safest venues are to be found at distant road-ends, specifically those which are connected by walking tracks (or at least well marked access) to river reserves or national parks, and which cross open country. Private land with public rights, in other words.
At Te Hapu (www.tehapu.co.nz) we certainly didn’t have to think about this. For this shot I could have found the self-timer, selected the longest option and then run down the slope with my torch at the ready – but having Gerry willing to do the lighting on call from beneath the nikau made it much easier.
I enjoyed the company and also the directorial bit, so thanks again Gerry.
The nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is New Zealand’s only endemic palm. It likes company – the coastal flanks north of Te Hapu are swathed in this graceful palm – but can also stand on its own. As an iconic item in the New Zealand lowland landscape the nikau photographs well in pairs and threesomes.
These nikau pals hang out beside the track to Gilbert’s Beach at Te Hapu, a private cove on the South Island West Coast. I had walked past them many times in previous days but here at last was my opportunity after dark, by the light of a sinking half moon. Unfortunately my moonlight photography had already tested Gerry’s patience and the location was exposed to a cool easterly breeze – so my 85mm telephoto work was quick rather than careful. A 5-minute exposure at f8 would give a better result.
Even though this is not as sharp as I’d like, it conveys the mood and the depth of blue against the stars works especially well. I suspect there is still some lingering twilight in the sky, giving it a more vivid blue, but as the green fronds were at right angles to the earlier sunset I’m confident their colour comes from the waxing moon.
The main problem with my 85mm f1.4 lens in moonlight photography is not in seeing through it but in getting critical focus. I quickly found auto focus to be of no use and currently use trial & error for close-at-hand subjects, or f16 and the focus brackets on the lens for more distant compositions. My 85mm and 28mm Nikon lenses each have a depth of field that resembles a longer lens, relative to their equivalent 35mm-film lenses – or so it seems to me.
Vertical positions on the tripod ball are awkward. Fumbling around with your gear in the dark is awkward. Getting a pleasing result is not awkward.
85mm lens, ISO 2000. 65 seconds at f4. Vivid picture control.
This scene immediately appealed for its mixed lighting and the sense of depth. The fish factory was notable for the top-hat storey, as well as the many gulls roosting on its roofline. In the 100 minutes since the previous image (no. 94) the sea had calmed quite noticeably, and the outgoing tide soon revealed how shallow this side of the port was.
The challenge was to get all four elements right – cloud, moon, rocks and the buildings – and only the wide angle could do this. The lens was stopped down to optimise depth of field but I was also keen to keep the interesting cloud shape well-defined. This aperture/shutter speed conflict is a common dilemma for the moonlight photographer, but in addition there was no time to worry about exact focus.
Typically, featured cumulus clouds unfreeze after exposures of roughly 5 seconds, and there is even less latitude when you use telephoto lenses. Like stars, the best effects seem to come from getting them either quite still or really streaky, and “quite still” requires quick action with camera settings. The left hand sky seems too dark but the moonlight reflection on the right works well I think.
A longer exposure risked losing some of the cloud definition but then again might have given the moon a more perfectly circular shape – something I have noted in long shots of the gibbous moon. Going the other way, however, one stop less (6 seconds) would have sharpened the cloud shape further and perhaps have shown too the surprising aerial wheeling of the gulls above the roofline.
Sometimes it seems the perfect photo requires an hour of effort at any one spot, but just as often the light effect fades or the scene itself changes before you are done. You’d think that doing moonlight photography would be like watching paint dry or grass grow – that you’d always have as much time as you needed!
28mm lens; ISO 2000. 13 seconds at f11. Incandescent setting.
Heading south to Dunedin, we broke the journey at Kaikoura. Situated on the east coast 2.5 hours north of Christchurch, Kaikoura is a minor fishing port but whale-watching has made the town a fast-developing tourist destination. Mountains rise abruptly behind it and with the peninsula walkway also to enjoy, the place has a lot to offer visitors.
Before sunset we strolled the waterfront towards the port, watching the spring tide spray the road occasionally or erode the pohutukawa shore. It was a perfect summer’s evening after a long, hot day; it was also the night before the Christchurch earthquake – when it happened, we were barely 2 hours away, on the road down.
The nights that follow full moon offer one particular delight for the moonlight photographer – moonrises after dark, by which some lovely scenes result. You can’t get these shots before full moon, although you can of course do the setting moon before dawn instead. Here the moon was two nights on the wane, so it rose about 75 minutes after sunset.
For that interval I was happily occupied on the Kaikoura seafront and port precinct, and the tide was well on the ebb when I took this from the wharf. The lamps must be mercury rather than sodium, thus the green cast to the volcanic rocks. Focus was manual, and found by eye for a change, instead of estimation. I selected f8 rather than f11 because the shorter exposure time would give less distortion to the rising moon.
Composition is once again in natural thirds. A little bit of cloud and some foreground interest add depth. This was an impressive moonrise, the scene enhanced by the vigour of the surf on the rocks. I checked the lenses several times for spray, and for some time kept a wary eye on the unpredictable slop over the wharf. The only other hazard was the occasional motorist from the fishing group nearby.
85mm lens, ISO 2000. f8 for 15 seconds. Incandescent setting.
We had three moonlit nights at Waikanae last month on our way south. The beach is on a long sand coast, this stretch being renowned for its bird life. Their abundance is related perhaps to nearby Kapiti Island, predator-free and about 8km offshore. Kapiti is the most significant island on the entire west coast of the North Island, and its distinctive profile and wildlife sanctuary status earn it a special place in the hearts of Wellingtonians.
This was the last photo I took on my third night under clear skies – or formerly clear, as soon after dark cloud came in from the west with great speed, and was then about to envelop the waxing moon. Using the “Feature your problem” principle, I have here made something of this fast-moving cloud, while adding extra interest to the foreground.
The moody blue of the background is of course my old friend tungsten, although this option on the D700 is called Incandescent. I chose it not so much for mood but to reduce the sodium orange of the strong shore lighting coming from the boat club. From this, tungsten has turned the gentle surf into a line of pink. The solitary light on the island must be from Department of Conservation quarters, as their staff are the island’s only inhabitants.
The “classic thirds” composition is unsurprising for this type of landscape. The foreground mimics the island profile; lighting was applied by hand with a finger torch. This has a colour temperature close to daylight, explaining the cool rendering here by tungsten. I did not quite get the balance right, so this part has been burned in later.
A long exposure of 5 or 10 minutes would have streamed the moving cloud more conspicuously, as the effect is only just apparent here. I suppose that in my frustration at the unexpected overcast I simply gave up on the evening’s potential too soon!
The adjective refers to my moving shadows, or rather my shadow having moved during the exposure. I counted 30 seconds before I side-stepped away from the tripod in this full minute’s worth of moonlight. The shadow dilution is evident in the darker imprint of the little Lumix on the tripod. I liked the angle of the concrete ford against the willow – the angle also mirrors the hillside. With the moon rising behind me the tripod shadow could not be avoided, so instead I got creative with the problem.
Adding shadows also fixed the composition problem of the plane of the ford lacking sufficient interest, although as a monochrome this might still have worked. The warmth of colour shows how the light from a low moon tends towards Golden Syrup – a warmth that daylight can only match when the sun is just above the horizon. I had had to wait some time for the rising moon to clear a spur in the valley, yet when it did there were still the long shadows that are useful to moonlight photography.
The “half-lit” adjective also hints at how the image depends for its impact on your angle of view on the laptop screen, or the brightness of your computer monitor. In viewing terms this is a Goldilocks image – not too hot, not too cold please!
The scene is the Maitai River, on the outskirts of Nelson, but looking like only a puddle here. April is autumn in New Zealand and all along the Maitai the willows and poplars dress accordingly. The ford gives access to a broad field in the narrow valley. Fords are uncommon in this country and culverts are preferred, as New Zealand rivers flood regularly. I would not perch my gear here after heavy rain.
f2 was used at the widest zoom – “24mm”. ISO was a low 100, contributing to a darker effect than I usually seek in my moonlight photography.