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

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Classic compositions #1

0413 Moonlit foreshore, Collingwood, 10.22pm, 4 March 2015

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

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Te Hapu Road, Whanganui Inlet

June 2017: Te Hapu Road, Whanganui Inlet

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.

 

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Abstract 1: Pukearuhe rockface

DSC_2359Abstract 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.

85mm; ISO 250. 1/640th @ f11.

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Yana by the Aorere, Golden Bay

0362 Aorere rivermouth, Golden Bay

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.

28mm, ISO 500. 3 secs at f11

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Mystic pool, Whatipu

7753. Mystic pool, Whatipu

7753. Mystic pool, Whatipu. 3.53pm, 12 June 2014

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.

85mm, ISO 250. 1/250th sec at f11

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Bold sentry, Paritutu evening

3409 Odd conjunction, Paritutu

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.

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 sec at f16

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Wet evening, Whangarei Harbour

2727 Rainy evening, Whangarei Harbour

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

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Ahu Ahu hues

9286a Ahu Ahu silhouette

DSC_9286b

DSC_9286c9286 Ahu Ahu hues (moonrise-with-flax-flowers)

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.

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Winter roadside, moonlit mono

DSC_8301

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.

28mm, 500 ISO. 15 seconds at f8. Flash

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291. There are no eyes here

There are no eyes here
There are no eyes here, New Plymouth. 8.21 pm, 14 March 2013

There are no eyes here / In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley /                This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms  –  T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

85mm; ISO 500. 30 seconds at f16. Incandescent light balance

 

 

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238. Persimmon by moonlight

Persimmon by moonlight, Nelson. 1.14 am, 6 May 2012

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.

85mm; ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f3.2

 

 

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171. Moonlit natives

Moonlit natives. 2.36 - 2.41 am, 11 November 2011

Friendship is a sheltering tree. –  S.T. Coleridge

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.

28mm, ISO 2000. 5 minutes at f22

 

 

 

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169. Fern and farm, autumn night

 

Fern and farm, autumn night. 8.58pm, 19 May 2011

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.

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f5.6

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160. Spring moonshine: Free performance

Spring moonshine: Free performance. 8.54pm, 29 September 2011

No state of affairs is ever perfect. –  Horace

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.

85mm; ISO 2000. 58 seconds at f7.1

 

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159. New moon from Paritutu, twilight

New moon from Paritutu, twilight. 7.49pm, 29 September 2011

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.

85mm; ISO 1000. 1/50th at f16. Flash

 

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135. Star trails and mountain, from Lake Ratapiko

Star trails and mountain, from Lake Ratapiko. 2 July 2010

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.

200mm, ISO 200. Estimated 12 minutes at f8

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133. Trail and beach

Trail and beach. 7.56 pm, 18 May 2011

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

 

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132. All along the watchtower

All along the watchtower. 9.05 pm, 21 February 2011

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.

Traipsing a tripod also makes you think more.

85mm, ISO 1000. 20 seconds at f16

 

 

 

 

 


 

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131. Kaikoura moonrise, no. 2

Kaikoura moonrise, no. 2. 9.50 pm, 21 February 2011

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

 

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129. Electric poplar, autumn

Electric poplar, autumn. 9.31 pm, 19 May 2011

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

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127. Beside some moonlit highway

Beside some moonlit highway. 18 April 1981

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

 

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119. Uphill and so to bed, Te Hapu

Uphill and so to bed, Te Hapu. 11.06pm, 12 March 2011

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

 

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115. Crescent moonset, with Venus

Crescent moonset, with Venus. 19 January 2010

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.

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113. Night at the saltwater lagoon, Waikanae

Night at the saltwater lagoon, Waikanae
Night at the saltwater lagoon, Waikanae. 11.27 pm, 17 February 2011

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

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108. John and Ilona by moonlight, Te Rewa Rewa

John and Ilona by moonlight, Te Rewa Rewa. 9.45 pm, 19 March 2011

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!

28mm, ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f9.

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105. Night tide at Kaikoura

Night tide at Kaikoura. 10.10 pm, 21 February 2011

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…

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f11

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98. Electric night, Golden Bay

Electric night, Golden Bay. 10.23pm, 12 March 2011

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.

85mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f11.

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97. Nikau mates, Te Hapu moonlight

Nikau mates, Te Hapu moonlight. 9.11pm, 14 March 2011

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.

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95. Kaikoura evening

Kaikoura evening. 11.17pm, 21 February 2011

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.

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94. Kaikoura moonrise

Kaikoura moonrise. 9.36pm, 21 February 2011

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.

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93. Kapiti evening, heavy cloud

Kapiti evening, heavy cloud. 11.03pm, 18 February 2011

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!

28mm lens, ISO 2000. f8 for 30 seconds.

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91. Half-lit shadows by the rising moon

Half-lit shadows by the rising moon. 9.06pm, 10 April 2009

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.

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87. Moonlit church, Waimea West

Moonlit church, Waimea West

6.21pm, 6 June 2009.

This simple image depends for its impact on the white & blue contrast and the unexpected double cross. Also visible is the Southern Cross constellation, moving with the other stars in this 40 second exposure. Some uncommon fretwork and the conical pines serve as additional points of interest. The lens was set at f2.8, the maximum when the Lumix LX3 zoom is at the telephoto end – a modest 60mm in standard film terms.  ISO was 100 and the frame has been slighly cropped to partly correct my poor levels with the tripod.

The front of the church was too exposed to the highway headlights and nearby intersection lamps, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the venue redeemed for moonlight photography by going around the back. Complete with some 19th century graves, this seemed a tranquil spot and one in which I was unlikely to be disturbed by the living – both these aspects being highly valued by the night photographer. Working in the dark is quite absorbing but at the same time your creature instincts are sharpened in the experience, and it’s clear to me that our distant ancestors were not mammals of the night.

As well as being an absorbing occupation, moonlight photography is at times particularly frustrating because the movements and adjustments easily made by daylight can become so muddled or mistaken in the half-light. I’ve used a caver’s light (headband fashion) but can’t repair my current one. Keeping up good habits helps to reduce a few hassles (“No, the lens cap always goes in your right pocket”; “Better zip that bag up right now”) but other irritations are likely as fatigue sets in after midnight. You can also blame fatigue the next day when you ruefully recognise an overlooked angle or missed opportunity from the night before.  

This photo would be improved, I think, with 10-minute star trails but 60 seconds is the maximum on  the LX3, as the camera has no B function for extended exposures.

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85. Midnight girls, Auckland

Midnight girls, Auckland.

3 December 1979.

I was wandering up Queen Street, the main business street, feeling slightly nervous to be out so late on my own with my gear. The models were quite obliging however, and so brightly lit that I could do some quick hand-held photos with the Pentax Spotmatic and move on. Another surprise was the lack of reflection in the window glass. Photographing shopfront displays is usually problematic by day with unwanted reflections, and with street lighting it can still be bothersome. The standard lens was pressed against the glass for this one.

The film was Kodak’s Infra red Ektachrome, unfiltered on account of the tungsten lighting. This enabled an extra stop for the exposure, which was unrecorded but at an ISO of 200 I believe it was f1.4 at around 1/60th second. Holding the camera against the glass helped reduce camera shake. Infra red Ektachrome was a high contrast film, but the exposure has not suffered by it. The film’s infra red sensitivity was restricted to one layer of the emulsion; the other layers simply displaced colours for a surreal effect. The wig was golden as I recall, and her lips and neckline were actually red. My own hair was a similar length at this time but, alas, without any similar sense of style.

Composition and focus were easily established through the viewfinder. While there is some tension from the close cropping at left and the diagonal arm placement on the right, I suspect the frame avoids an intrusive retail placard. The minimal depth of focus which accompanies a wide open aperture has not been a problem here.

I call this photo the near side of night photography, relying as it does on a hand-held camera, instantaneous exposure and completely artificial lighting. It would not be possible to replicate the image by daylight, as the background mannequin would then be better lit.

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80. Rotomanu evening contrasts

Rotomanu evening contrasts. 9.14pm, 19 January 2011

This twilight image at Lake Rotomanu, New Plymouth, completes my current series of square format images. The starting point has been the standard 3:2 rectangle, which is the only choice on my Nikon D700. This lack of options hangs over from the days of 35mm preeminence, as the 60-year standard is now losing ground to the 4:3 screen format. One advantage of the Lumix LX3 compact is its three formats of 3:2, 4:3 and 16:9, which is the panoramic frame.

I have found many of my pictures are much improved from squaring up, and not only the horizontal frames. As one last option, squaring up tightens composition and sometimes perspective, by eliminating “unoccupied ground” – those areas of the canvas where the pixel-paint is not very interesting, poorly detailed or badly daubed.

Using the 85mm lens at f7.1, and 1/250th second on 2000 ISO combines the garish aspect of flash with the pleasure of the evening sky. I have only the flash pop-up on the camera, sufficient for my own low usage of this melodramatic form of lighting. Separate lights would be the next step for anyone really taken with the possibilities. Pop-up flashes can hardly be subtle light sources in twilight settings, and fill-in flash is easily overdone in my opinion.

The volcanic peak Taranaki looms above the frequent cloud, while the lakeside reeds are stilled in the wind. Cropping on the right has removed a lens flare caused by a careless finger too close to the glass. Auto levels on Photoshop gave the background highlights such an unexpected magneta lift that I just hit “Save”. There was improvement also in contrast, the bands of colour being a large part of the impact.

Deeper twilight, say 20 minutes later, has more creative scope than this quick shot. For example, an  exposure of several minutes would blur the cloud layer while maintaining the flash instantaneity on the foreground. This is where an evening with the tripod would begin.

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79. Light ribbons at Puponga, Golden Bay

Light ribbons at Puponga. 10.32pm, 10 January 2009

Here’s a bit of fun, on a hilltop overlooking Farewell Spit at the top of the South Island. You can have some good, creative fun when you are out with a camera and tripod at night. Sure it’s wholesome, legal and involves exercise in the fresh outdoors – but as Keith Richards might say, it ain’t all bad, despite this.

After dark Richard and I walked over the bridge at Puponga and up the hill. It was too overcast for actual moonlight photography, as the high ISOs needed by the Lumix LX3 gave such marginal results – yet the moon was well up and fairly full. On such summery after-moons, when the waning moon rises in the night, you either stay outdoors soaking up the ambience, or you head out well after sundown.

This shot was taken 90 minutes after sunset, at f2 and 10 seconds, on ISO 200 and with the zoom at widest. The grass detail helps to locate and add depth to the photo, but the shutter was not long enough for much else in the landscape. It’s fine for the sky and the torchbearer though. Waving the torch through three arcs has lit Richard’s face in corresponding fractures. You can tell from the cool flesh tones that the torch was an LED one; with a filament bulb I would have tried the tungsten setting as well.

So you don’t have to wield the torch yourself – let your friends brandish it. Extending the shutter time and moving Richard from spot to spot would have developed this theme nicely, but alas, I took back the torch and followed just the spot-to-spot part. Squaring the original has improved it, by deleting the empty wings (left and right) of the wide stage, a common surplus when your frame features just a single subject.

Two’s good company on these capers. Even if your companion is 50 metres away with his own camera and moonlit absorption, the company makes a difference.

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77. Madonnas by moonlight, Nelson

Madonnas by moonlight. 11.01pm, 9 July 2009

Here’s the female form in another light entirely – although still moonlight photography.  Once again there’s a mix of moonlight and incandescent light, but in reverse to no. 76, Moonrise at Long Bay. The foreground above is moonlight, the background household tungsten. The moonlight only balances (more or less) with the stronger artificial light because it has filtered through blinds on the windows and door. However, at the time the houselights seemed a bare glimmer.

As a companion to no. 27, St Mary’s evening vigil, this is a more congenial domestic environment. The figurines come from Bangkok, from a Catholic supplies shop not listed in the tourist literature. In a Thai household shrine these statuettes would be tended with garlands and other offerings, but their post here was a private visit, and only transitory.

The house was supplied by Derek and Claire (with thanks). Only at 11pm had the moon moved far enough around the two storeys to light this scene. Being a winter moon it was high in the sky, yet the Holy Mothers lack the summery look that the solar equivalent would give in January. Exposure was f2 for 60 seconds, at ISO 200, on the Lumix LX3, with the zoom at its widest.

For me the appeal here is in the offbeat contrast between the fluid lines of the blue and red figures and the more angular forms of yellow, green and brown. The angles give a strong sense of perspective, although a limited focus is noted on the close-up at f2, even with a very wide angle. Tungsten light balance was not used.

The square format suits this frame very well, and improves the original 3:2 composition. But starting out with square format is not easy, as I found with my old 6×6 cameras. Effective framing took a lot more effort than did the standard rectangle of the Pentax. The 6×7 compromise adopted by Asahi Pentax for their medium-format SLR was a considerable success.

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74. Moonstruck coast at Oakura

Moonstruck coast at Oakura. 9.20pm, 22 October 2010

Only with highly reflective scenes can the moonlight photographer stop down to f16, even with ISO 2000.

While using 30 seconds, that is, the last speed on the Nikon D700 before B. The Lumix LX3 has one thing over the D700: an extra speed, 60 seconds. Of course you can do any length on the B setting, but you must time it yourself, which is less convenient.

Admittedly there are worse hardships, but for me f16 is an aspirational aperture. I use it and B without hesitation in two situations. The first is for l-o-n-g exposures for star trails  and the second is where I want the deepest possible focus. This especially applies to the shallow field of my regular partner, the 85mm lens (as above).

By extending the field of sharpness over the greatest distance f16 usually covers careless or difficult focussing. If you have manual focus, work off the bracketed scale on the lens barrel: set the near bracket a little closer than your estimated distance to the foreground interest. Or try some pre-focus frames. Sometimes I do trials with f1.4 and a few seconds. The results are always awful but can be deleted as soon as you have the correct fix – and once you calculate what f16 will need (a 7-stop difference).

Not every camera can manage ISO 2000 without excessive noise – electronic static comparable to emulsion grain, the old bane of fast film.  A full-frame (FX) digital camera apparently handles this problem better than the sensors in DX cameras or compacts.

The shot has squared up fairly well. We’re looking northeast to the Sugar Loaves at New Plymouth, from near the Oakura River. The receding wave leaves ghostly impressions of  movement. The tripod was set up at the top of the tide but I still had to move around as rogue ripples came up. Here 60 seconds would have doubled the risk of a shaken tripod; the wasted frame would take 2 minutes to clear.

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73. Late spring evening, Ngauruhoe

Late spring evening, Ngauruhoe. 21 November 1981

Well located between massive Ruapehu and Tongariro, Ngauruhoe is a young volcano (2291 m, or 7516 ft); the three mountains make up New Zealand’s oldest national park. The cone rivals Mt Taranaki in symmetry but lacks her majesty of situation. However in its recent history Ngauruhoe is certainly the more active volcano.

For this simple composition I used Kodachrome 64 in a Pentax Spotmatic F, with a Tamron 135mm lens. I prefer slide film in the 25 – 100 ISO range; slides have the advantage over colour negative of more intense and unmediated colour, a critical factor in many photos.

Exposure details were unrecorded, but most likely this shot is a hand-held 1/125th at f2.8, using the self-timer to reduce camera shake. Ideally, by using a tripod I could have stopped down for perfect focus throughout. However I believe the background softness is much more acceptable to the human eye than the reverse – unfocussed foreground interest.

This type of scene can only be taken with a telephoto. A flattened perspective is highly suitable when you want only a few elements in a picture. A good mountain photo at sunset is usually no great challenge, but by adding something extra I think more impact is achieved.

The Brewster Theory of Composition holds that the two simple layers or planes needed to make a good picture are substantially improved by a third item of interest, usually a smaller detail in the scene. Three keen elements = one good picture, yet it is surprising how hard this understanding is to apply in the field, when the pictures are actually taken.

The essential ingredient of course is having the twilight closely match the street light. This balance lasts only a few minutes each evening. By exposing for the highlights landscape details are necessarily lost, but the cloud patch comes through as a good “third hit”. I have not been back to this spot for years but probably the Skotel now occupies the site.

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72. No exit at Waikawa Beach, Horowhenua

No exit at Waikawa Beach, Horowhenua. 11.06pm, 2 October 2009

A single star, a dash of moonlight and the ever-present sodium lighting contribute to this striking composition. My shadow only hints at the heavy coat I wore against a chilly wind, whose blast is visible in the ruffling of the cabbage tree leaves. The high, solid fence stumps the dead end of Drake St at Waikawa Beach, near Levin. The landowners evidently wanted no truck with locals or the weekend throng – an impression they have reinforced further on with a very effective electric fence.

Adding my own shadow broke up the blankness of the wall and echoes the dark form of the cabbage tree quite well. It’s a pity there isn’t more interest in the sky, but it was swept clear of any cloud by the fierce southerly. The Lumix LX3 fortunately does not offer much wind resistance, being so compact, so I could stand well away from the tripod. It’s a rare night when conditions are truly perfect for moonlight photography, especially if deck chairs, bougainvillea and emerald waters are considered essential ingredients.

The pale sky comes from a high, full moon but the hue owes much to tungsten, a setting selected to counteract the orange cast of the street lighting. This light has mixed nicely with the moonlight on the cabbage tree. Zoom was at the longest, 60mm (in 35mm camera terms), and exposure was f2.8 for only 20 seconds, on a low ISO 200.

The background topography sums up this sandy coast, where older, grassed dunes predate a wide frontage of more active material on the beach. As with so much of the pastoral coastline of New Zealand, the landscape is somewhat bleak and away from the baches and subdivisions it is only sparsely settled. Apart from Dr Seuss cabbage trees, the typical trees of this coast are those just visible on the margins – gloomy pines, by the hectare.

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71. Stockyard gate at night, Koru

Stockyard gate at night, Koru. 10.22pm, 22 October 2010

More experimentation with fill-in flash on a moonlit spring night in Taranaki. The almost ghostly gate shows everything filled in here, so it’s really more of a case of moonlight filling in the background to the desired degree, and here it is sky & peak. It is not difficult to balance the two light sources, or to favour one or the other, but adjusting for flash is unrelated to long shutter speeds. Instead the moonlight photographer changes the illumination either by way of ISO or distance from the foreground interest.

Flash gives a stark light, especially straight off the camera, and I’ve never been a great fan of it. Combined with a long exposure, however, some creative possibilities develop, particularly those showing movement. In the bottom right corner, for instance, a sharper image of clover merges with a second one formed by moonlight – but blurred by the wind.

The 8 second exposure required only f5.6, on ISO 2000. For a sharper background f11 for 30 seconds would have been better, but this equivalent exposure would then show some star movement. In this 28mm wide angle shot the shorter time actually used has  blurred the stars – but stilled them.

The square frame is divided into classic thirds. It tightens the original 2:3 format very well, and I like the colour range and rusty highlights. The tripod was positioned to obscure the fenceline beyond, while the fencepost and power pole were consciously aligned. The original high contrast has been moderated in post-processing.

Distant Mt Taranaki has some fresh snow, but most of the mountain is hidden by the Pouakai Range. Koru is a farming district near Oakura; for Sunday drivers Koru Road is a glorious glide down to the coast. However other folk use the road as a racetrack, reinforcing my belief that a safe park well away from traffic is the first requirement when you are out on location. To be worry-free certainly helps your enjoyment of moonlight photography.

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70. Rapids at the tidal limit, by moonlight

Rapids at the tidal limit, Waiwhakaiho. 10.14-10.16pm, 19 January 2011

The Waiwhakaiho River is on the northern edge of New Plymouth, main centre for the Taranaki region. Radiator problems further north brought me back to the city prematurely, so I settled on a quiet stretch of the river for half a night of moonlight photography.

Exposure was 139 seconds, or 2 minutes 19 secs, at f8, ISO 2000. Counting down these long shutters means ample time to take in the surroundings. I watched or heard ducks fly in, and pukeko (swamp-hens) going about their noisy business, but this miniature rapid in the river also supplied a sound which was quite unexpected. The tide was almost full, and I soon discovered that it reached this lowest rung of a ladder of tiny falls and shoals – the location is well above the Te Wera Wera Bridge and about 800 metres (half a mile) from the sea.

The tide came up in a long series of pulses, which soon rose to virtually submerge the fall, and so to silence it. As each pulse waned, the water level would drop and the sound of cascading water would again surge. The change in timbre and pitch was quite uncanny as the water tumbled, then merely meandered, then resumed its fall. I have never heard anything like it. Unfortunately I do not have the technical sophistication to add audio to my photo blog, which is a real pity on those occasions when sound is a compelling extra element in the experience.

The lens was 28mm, picture setting Vivid. The low moon gave an especially warm light, but there’s an extra glint from street lighting far away to the right. f8 allows sufficient depth of focus on the wide angle. The blur on the near rocks records the start of another rise of the tide. The slightly jarring notes to the composition are intended to offset the water movement, the soft blur of which risks cliche.

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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.

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66. Maude Road mountain moonlight, Taranaki

Maude Road mountain moonlight, Taranaki. 8.54pm, 24 July 2010

So begins another series of square frames… if they are not square on your monitor then believe me, I have counted every pixel. However these are not “as-composed” on the ground glass but knock-downs from the standard 24×36, each time from seeing a new way of interpreting an existing shot. Cutting away waste or just plain simplifying is a useful discipline!

I was intrigued by the peer-through at this stand of pines at the Maude road end, north Taranaki. It had shadow and texture, and the slight shroud on Mt Taranaki was appealing. The square re-composition here is well-filled, and the bottom has a wee echo of the peak’s summit. The diagonal bracing gives extra strength and a sense of depth is suggested by the foreground interest, tonal banding and retreating fence… while it has lots of texture, it could do with some movement, such as cattle in the background.

Texture is the essence of monochrome photography, and so is side-lighting. The sepia or selenium tone was not obligatory but was more fitting than other combinations I tried under Colour Variations on Photoshop. I enjoy playing around with this feature but the palette is limited to blue, green and red.

Settings were f2.8 for 60 seconds, ISO 200. The Lumix LX3 was on maximum zoom, an odd 60mm (in 35mm photo terms); the camera sacrifices its tele function for a fast f2 on the wide end. This trade-off has suited my love of moonlight photography, an extreme form of “available light”.

Depth of focus is phenomenal, and owing to the laws of optics this depth would not be possible on a full-frame digital without a much smaller aperture – perhaps f8. These 3 extra stops however would extend shutter time and make more than tadpoles of the stars. Unfortunately the LX3 lacks a B function, so I’ll just have to try again sometime with the Nikon D700, in order to add star trails to this scene.

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62. Venus from Te Rewa Rewa bridge

Venus from Te Rewa Rewa bridge. 6.44pm, 10 July 2010

For the night photographer, winter delivers an earlier start. There’s a better chance of a good stint as you are fresher creatively, and for longer. In July we antipodeans can take this sort of scene before dinner – it was already an hour after sunset, as the horizon fade suggests.

The star might not even be Venus, but it was bright enough to be. Star smudges and trails near the edge of a lens are a good test of its sharpness, but this shot is compromised by extra noise from the ISO 400 setting. While not so high by today’s reckoning, on the Panasonic Lumix LX3 ISO 400 really is on the cusp, and lowering the contrast has partly camouflaged the electronic static inherent to this image.

The other variables (60 secs@f2) establish that this moonless gloom is again at the Lumix’s limit. I abstained from tungsten, so the uncorrected light serves to underline the unexpected source – city glow, in the form of some far-off street lighting just below moonlight in strength.

The zoom was set at widest, “24mm”, and the self-timer at longest – 10 seconds – to enable my quick trot down the bridge, to the casual pose I struck (with some effort). In picture-making a notable structure is similar to a giant specimen tree in that a figure always adds interest, by supplying the all-important scale. Compositionally, my figure is the third strike, or what I call “the Detail”.

On the outskirts of New Plymouth, Te Rewa Rewa was acclaimed as a local icon as soon as it opened last year. The bridge links to a new section of the coastal walkway and is much used by cyclists. The minute exposure here ran the risk of someone running into the tripod, particularly when I was really some distance from it. Little traffic cones with glow lights would be useful as an extra safety precaution. There must be a world market for these – perhaps a dozen?

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60. High tide, low moon, Marahau magic

High tide, low moon, Marahau magic. 2.04 am, 26 November 2010

This high contrast composition won’t work for everyone. At the time I was much taken with it, but then sidelined it on light of day. It has returned to favour since, as family viewers enjoyed its simplicity… picture selection is an art as well as science.

The bottom layer is a 500 m sea wall protecting the main access to a premier playground, Nelson’s Abel Tasman National Park. Even at 2 am the seasonal traffic along here was notable, cramping any creative prospects involving a tripod in the middle of the road.

This image is sidelighting to the limit – the rising moon flaring in despite my attempt to shade the wide angle. Thirty seconds on a 28mm lens minimises star movement, while f4 gives just enough depth of focus. Exposing for highlights (ISO 2000) naturally results in  deep shadows, but the cloud detail compensates, and there’s a clearer sense of calm water in this sheltered, highly tidal inlet. Marahau is a mere scallop on the western shore of Tasman Bay, which has the largest tide-range in the country.

Left offshore are Adele and Fisherman islands; there’s also a solitary boat light at the roadstead. The rugged coast across the bay shows not a single light – it’s uninhabited. Only moonlight competed with the stars on this magical evening, but two in the morning is not a typical time for my moonlight photography. Late night fatigue takes its toll, and driving any distance home in a weary state is not so healthy.

However when bad weather or good society deletes a few big moon nights from your logbook, then a late-rising moon is better than none. Fortunately this excursion, an hour or two on either side of midnight, needed only a short walk down from Colin’s beach house. Beach settlements feel much safer for late night wandering than more citified coasts. Just avoid those secluded carparks where later on young people gather to party near your car.

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59. Moonlight without shadows

Moonlight without shadows. 10.23pm, 20 December 2010

At over 600 square km Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand; it also has the most violent origins. It is eerie to stand on its shores and contemplate the lake’s vastness as being one immense caldera, whose formation dates from a staggering eruption of around 26,500 years ago, which blasted most of the North Island.

This very simple moonlight photo is from south of Acacia Bay looking across to a cliff-bound, uninhabited stretch of shore. The exposure of 117 seconds (just under 2 minutes) was intended to blur the passing clouds and bring out streaks of moonlight in the low, heavy cover. Aperture was f8, and ISO was 2000 on the 85mm Nikon lens. Contrast has been added in post-processing to emphasis the layered effect, although this also increases the noise, noticeable in the lake. The ripples are the swell of a northerly wind.

The composition (in classic thirds) conveys the experience of a gloomy, drizzly night, when only the clouds hint at the full moon above. Moonlight photographers know what gloom is  when faced with a succession of such nights as the full moon approaches. Out of frame to left were the red lights of a constant stream of trucks heading south from Auckland – the highway here turns inland some distance – while to the right I have avoided the lights of beacons or small settlements on southerly shores.

In other words this is a timeless view of the lake, one which might have greeted early European travellers, such as Ferdinand Hochstetter in 1859. Timelessness is often a spacious commodity for night photographers, excepting those who keep track of their shutter times by counting out the seconds. For exposures over 5 minutes I use a small, low-tech cooking timer, but two minutes is hard to set accurately and counting to 120 I find just as effective. I was 3 seconds out on this one but on a 2-minute shot only an error of 20 seconds or more would be noticeable, exposure-wise.

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58. Taupo at night, from Acacia Bay

Taupo at night, from Acacia Bay. 9.31pm, 19 December 2010

When starved of moonlight by continuing nights of low cloud and rain, the desperate night photographer resorts to framing any scene containing an attractive range of form or colour. So an evening along the shores of Acacia Bay was balm for my exasperated soul, even if half my time was spent holding an umbrella above camera and tripod.

How things have changed here since my last visit on New Year’s Day, 1966! The bay is now an affluent outlier of Taupo, a resort city on the lake’s northern shore. Much of the Acacia waterfront is away from vehicle traffic, and is well kept, quiet and safe. This made for pleasant photography, bar the challenge of finding good compositions. I was attracted to the scene above by the nearby willow branch (lit by a tiny LED torch) and my interest was confirmed by the shoreline detail. Both elements fill out the frame, add depth and avoid the simple but conventional shot suggested by the curve of shore.

The low cloud reflects the city lights as a pleasing pink, picked up again on the water. More distant cloud highlights are a mix of moonlight and twilight, as f8 @ 30 seconds/ISO 2000 indicates these sources were close to par about 45 minutes after sunset. “Cloudy” was selected for light balance. Depth of focus at f8 is great on a 28mm lens. The shoreline blur gives a slight sense of lapping wavelets, although half a minute has smoothed the breezy ruffles on the lake.

It seems to me that city-at-night scenes need more than just bright lights to inspire us. They can be enhanced by foreground silhouettes (using a small aperture for good focal depth), or by adding some nearby colour detail by torchlight – preferrably something to contrast with the dominant yellows-and-reds, appealing though they are. The picture works as a colour statement yet only the extra interest of the right hand foreground compelled me to take it.

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55. Twilight surf from the Waitoetoe cliffs

Twilight surf from the Waitoetoe cliffs. 27 April 2010

The north Taranaki coast is all soft ash-and-mudstone, and eroding fast. In 1980 we spent New Year’s Eve camping on a spot which is now on the surfline shown here. In April I returned for the first time in 30 years and was surprised to see how much solid earth had since gone seaward.

The best perspective on the beach is from the southern end, as it takes in the Mimi estuary and the bluffy coast north to Pukearuhe. We cut across farmland to some low cliffs, and there at dusk came close to the edge, to look down on to a mudstone shelf and a high tide. Over this shelf the surf was breaking – the wet line runs down to the fallen fragment – but the time exposure, roughly a minute, blurs this completely.

The effect is also noticeable on the middle right rocks, yet a vague sense of sea swell is visible running up the frame, past the protruding log. In contrast, anything not moving in the frame is perfectly sharp. This stems from a technical advantage that dusk has over moonlight photography, in that the much higher light levels match long exposures with the smallest of apertures. From this you get the very best depth of focus.

For this I used medium speed Ilford FP4 film, ISO 125, with a standard lens on a Pentax 6×7. It’s a heavy camera so vertical views challenge the tripod head, but the big negative prints up very nicely. Vertical is not easy with seascapes or coastal vistas, with their broad horizons, because strong vertical elements are usually needed. Once again my favoured “Elevation!” tactic came into play, to find a double curve of coastline to tie up the composition.

An extra tint has been added after scanning, yet I feel the photo might lack tonal drama. However the main drawback to my mind is the need for a scale indicator in the foreground.

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