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.
The heaventree of stars hung with humid night-blue fruit. – James Joyce
Night-blue signals tungsten film! It was not something I usually shot with, but in my younger days I used whatever film was affordable. To get balanced colour in daylight you had to apply corrective filters, but none were used here, so the blues are intensified. Pre-digital, this was a common trick with advertising photographers shooting wintry subjects, moody nudes or studio noir.
As I’ve said before, moonlight is actually like a warmer daylight when exposed for that effect. Here on a crisp autumn night we are looking east across a wilderness of tussock, from the roadside bounding Tongariro National Park in the central North Island. Ngauruhoe is a young 2291 m (7516 ft) stratovolcano, steeper than it looks here and snow-free for much of the year. It last erupted in the mid 1970s. The massif of Tongariro (1978 m; 6,490 ft) is an older, more complex structure, while the even larger bulk of Ruapehu is out of sight to the right.
The contours on the peaks are visible; I like this especially for the cloud wisps and the star-strokes. The hint of cloud in the middle puzzles me but the fainter stars show the effect of a blue sky better than can the rare sight of Venus in the late afternoon. Only the brightest of stars can compete with a moonlit sky. Conversely, on a moonless night far from urban light sources, a myriad of stars are visible.
Exposure was unrecorded; all film exposures for moonlight are educated guesses beforehand, as the variables are considerable. I generally double the time indicated by a digital trial, to make up for film sensitivity decreasing over long exposures (known as reciprocity failure). The odd thing is that in doing this it takes the same camera-time as a digital shot, which in applying a dark-frame immediately after each long exposure (for noise control) also doubles camera-time.
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
Twilight has one simple and obvious advantage over night photography: you can see what you are doing. You can focus by eye or auto, and compose quickly. You have a wider range of exposure choices, to allow or prevent movement showing, for example, without the sacrifice in aperture selection that workable shutter times need at night.
For a good while as twilight deepens you can also hand-hold the camera on a high ISO. This is convenient if you’re just after a few quick shots because of a time constraint. It’s also straight forward with large apertures on standard prime lenses, or you can use the widest end of your zoom, where camera shake is minimised. Steadier hand-held shots at twilight can be had with the support of car windows and chair backs – plus the use of the self-timer.
In the above type of photo, though, depth of focus is supreme and for this you’ll want a calm evening, a tripod and long shutter times. These go with the small aperture required. What to look for is colour contrast, because after sunset the ambient light has one supreme quality – it is very flat. It looks even more so when sky is excluded, an effect in itself worth experimenting with.
The light from a bright sky following sunset is often a good side-light too, but here the light was more diffused by surrounding trees. What this scan from Fuji slide film shows is how even in flat light, colours have subtly different exposure requirements. The correct exposure for one will sometimes drop another colour out – although preferrably just enough to create an effect.
The lavender is thus darker than it appeared, and the background darker still, but this works towards highlighting the rose. So often you expose for an average over the whole frame, but this image shows the benefit of selective exposure where the light provides only low contrast.
50mm, ISO 100. Exposure unrecorded; estimated 1 second at f16.
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 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…
Usually with a sky full of star trails you can safely assume “Film!” I haven’t yet matched anything like this with the Nikon D700, although it’s bound to happen sometime. If you do want to streak the sky with stars it’s easier with a telephoto – here I used a Takumar 200mm on my old Spotmatic.
Fuji 100 slide film was exposed for at least an hour at f11 or 16, for maximum star streak. In scanning I have softened the magenta cast, this being the colour shift that comes with long shutter times on film. The blue stars are hard to explain; the range of star colours is probably a surprise to most people too. It does take a dark night to get so many stars on your frame, and it is also hard work composing in the very low light transmitted by an f4 telephoto lens.
The location is a closed school at the old mining settlement south of Westhaven Inlet, on the long road to the west coast. The school is now holiday accommodation but the limestone bluffs behind it remain unchanged. The light scatter in the sky can only come from starlight, given the distance from urban life. It was roughly ten days since full moon, so there was no risk of moonlight brightening the sky until 3am. There was no risk of my staying up to see it, either, as we were getting up early next day for the long walk down the Kahurangi coast.
In setting up this shot I was confident that nothing would intrude on it, as the lower slopes are forested and the district is barely inhabited. However something unexpected came up – at least in one sense: the long film exposure cramped my digital creativity with the second tripod. I wanted to start experimenting with the bright outside light of the schoolhouse, but had to finish the film exposure first. So it did not get the full exposure that I had planned for it.
Overcast evenings at full moon can be really frustrating. When the moon is full you know it’s somewhere up in the sky, this being one certainty of the laws of celestial machanics. But you can’t see it. The real reason cloud is such a dampener on moonlight photography is that the extra 2 to 4 stops needed for the lower light add up to some very long shutter times. However such times are still practicable with film and manual cameras, where the durability of batteries is not an issue.
On an autumn evening on the Caitlins coast I saw that this premier scenic gem of south Otago rather unhelpfully faced south, and that even with Ektachrome 200 I would need a really long exposure. The 28mm wide angle on the Pentax went to f2.5 wide open. I allowed for the sky-crowding trees and high cloud by adding some extra stops to the calculation, and settled on 40 minutes as the appropriate shutter time.
We then faced a long wait on the boardwalk next to the falls, serenaded by their constant cascading rhythm. The tripod was on an adjacent rock, so avoiding vibrations from our pacing up and down. It was no surprise that on a week night in May we had the whole place to ourselves, but it made camerawork easier all the same. If there was any upside to the cloudiness it was that it gave a mild rather than frosty night for outdoor activity, as we counted off the minutes of muted moonlight.
I was pleased with the blur of the water here, although this effect generally takes no more than half a minute. The waterfall is much photographed but even so I have never seen it captured over a similar time-frame. The 40 minutes was actually only enough for the highlights, but that has probably created more impact, if only in a monochromatic style. No doubt this picture would be equally rendered with black & white film, especially if the print was then toned.
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.
This still-life was just outside our house at Marybank, Nelson. Exposure took an hour or more, at around f8 with the Pentax Takumar 50mm, on Kodachrome 64. I recently re-scanned the slide and with greater attention to levels, contrast and colour in Photoshop, I made some gratifying improvements.
Moonlight photography at home has two initial hurdles – your houselights, and then nearby street lighting. In domestic domains the available moonlight is frequently overwhelmed or discoloured by street lamps. Artificial light does not rule out night camerawork in general, of course, but moon rays do not thrive in competition.
In the above case, we turned off the lights in the two adjacent rooms, as even thick curtains will leak wattage over a long exposure. While the camera did its slow work we went to another living room on the other side of the house. Three cheers for obliging housemates!
The further challenge of moonlight close-ups is depth of focus, for which by daylight you usually stop down. At night, though, this can lead to over-long exposures – without even considering battery power. Fortunately my Pentax Spotmatic did not need power for the shutter (unlike the 6×7, I have belatedly learned), but power drainage is a definite concern with most digital cameras.
Then there is the wind. The slightest breeze will make all your efforts for good depth of focus quite pointless. A decent breeze, on the other hand, should give you some scope for motion studies of flowers. Depth of focus is then scarcely relevant, and 60 minutes is unlikely to give you any better flow of colours than 15 mins. However brightly coloured flowers such as poppies are best for this – once you have found some with petals still open.
Vertical tripod positions seem much fussier than the horizontal camera. Angles and levels need more attention, as does tripod balance with the extra weight side-long to the head. Be sure to tighten all screws, and especially your head!
A photo from our garden in central Nelson, in a corner not reached by any street lighting. Taken on Fujichrome 100, on the Pentax Spotmatic, these snapdragons have been titivated slightly in Photoshop, as usual with a slide scan. The warm light with which moonlight suffuses its subjects has not been corrected, however.
Contrary to what our eyes tell us, moonlight is not blue-ish. In fact the moon gives a positively warm light all night long, something like the light of morning with the sun just up. As with the passage of the sun, however, so moonlight is warmest when the orb is low in the sky, and relatively cooler when the moon is high in the heavens.
This close-up demonstrates the shallow focus of a wide open lens (here f1.4), used with a low ISO of 100 for a relatively short time exposure of about 2 minutes, on the B setting. The Spotmatic F was set up on a tripod, and the composition was made fairly readily through the viewfinder, as at f1.4 even by moonlight there is sufficient light transmitted through the lens to frame and compose.
Focus however was not so easy, and I had to use a torch for the fine focus required. Focus is always critical this close anyway, and stopping down improves sharpness much less than it does with “big pictures”. While the depth of field is very shallow the bokeh is attractive; the background is a rose bush.
The colour contrasts are good and the exposure suitable for the highlights. There is no obvious colour shift from reciprocity, although Fuji films are said to be prone to a green shift with long exposure. A still night was a major starting point for this frame to work, but it would also be interesting to try a similar close-up on a windy but clear moonlit night – and with different exposure lengths too.
This image is the Technicolor companion to no. 42. Neudorf apples by moonlight, shown in my previous series of square format moonlight photography. Taken the same night in the same Nelson orchard, the colours are quite reminiscent of the 1950s, as the colour shift on Kodachrome 25 has not been corrected.
The shift does not relate to ageing of the transparency, although that might happen yet. Instead the orange and magenta cast is due to reciprocity failure, the result of an 8 minute (approx) exposure, which the film was not designed for. Kodak films show a marked magenta bias with the long shutters needed for moonlight. Full correction in Photoshop has proved possible, but I prefer the greater impact of the original. The square framing has, however, enhanced it.
Using ISO 25 by moonlight is the slow work of saints (present company excepted). Shot after shot, a patience is required that’s now even harder to find in the 21st century. The fine grain results require l-o-n-g exposures with only shallow depths of field, using wide-open apertures. Here with the Pentax Takumar standard lens set on f1.4 some sharpness has been achieved, fortunately on a very still night.
The background blur is called bokeh, and variations in it from different apertures and lenses are now assessed as you would judge a good wine. For better focus I could perhaps have used f8 – and gone back inside for 4 hours, as the tree was handy to Jane’s cottage – but over several hours there’s a much higher risk of the lens fogging, a breeze getting up or an orchard vehicle coming by.
As much as I appreciated the fact that care and patience would deliver some possibly stunning results, other creative opportunities by the full moon would not be stifled. What also held me back was my belief that there are few places where you can safely leave your gear “at work” for 4 hours unattended.
The mannequin once adorned my apartment at Courtville, Auckland. We stowed her in the back for an evening trip up to Long Bay, on the North Shore. It felt like so much lumber to be lugging the tripod as well, but I knew a full moon was coming up, and with no tripod there’s no moonlight photography… you might find lucky fenceposts occasionally, but don’t count on it.
In the Pentax was Ektachrome 400; it was fast for the time but was not one I liked much – someone had paid me with a few rolls. How quickly we take for granted the digital benefit of instant feedback, so useful when you’re freehanding with your light source, or mixing sources. On film a shot like this would be guestimated in a number of steps.
First, figure out focus (not 100% here), then remember previous settings for moony reflections, adjust for faster film, assess strength of torchlight and distance from foreground, and then judge the lapse of time as the beam moves up and down the mannequin. Shoot and advance film for next attempt… wait days or weeks for results. Naturally, you hedged with various exposures – bracketing, it’s called – but film was never free, and neither was processing.
The torchlight is an old filament bulb, and today’s torches would deliver a much cooler colour temperature. While the exposure was unrecorded, the tiny surf still visible means the shutter was only for a few seconds. The good depth of field and slight curve to the horizon shows a 28mm lens. The clouds were a photographer’s pleasure; the distant spark is from the lighthouse on Tiritiri Matangi, in the Hauraki Gulf.
I was pleased with the result, and even when adapted to this square format there’s still room for an art director’s headline. The mannequin had a long, productive life and featured in other scenarios I dreamed up around this time. We finished the evening with a midnight swim.
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.
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.
I was pleased with this wide angle 6×7 photo. It conforms to the usual conventions, has all I look for in moonlight landscapes, and will blow up nicely. I like the blur of cloud and surf, two star trails and the flax stalks shaking in the wind… but some ugly gorse has been cropped.
New Plymouth’s Back Beach, with its three little Sugar Loaves, is reached by a long flight of steps from Paritutu Centennial Park. Round, Seagull and Snapper rocks (Mataora, Pararaki and Motuotamatea) have varying foot access: Round Rock is accessible at every tide but neighbouring Seagull Rock can be reached only at lowest spring. The far island here is Saddleback, or Motumahanga; Snapper Rock is out of view to left.
The Pentax 6×7 makes a good second camera for moonlight photography, but the extra gear – and tripod – means I don’t wander too far from the car. I mostly use Ilford B&W films, FP4 and HP5 (ISO 125 and 400 resprectively), doing much longer exposures than on the digital, often using f5.6 or f8 and 20 – 45 minutes shutter. The smaller apertures give better depth of field on the medium format and help cover manual focussing errors. Having found the shutter lock leaves a tell-tale shake on bright highlights, I always use a cable release, and then dial my low-tech timer to the required time.
These longer exposures allow me to concentrate on 30 – 120 second possibilities with the digital on the other tripod, rather than racing from camera to camera and back again, setting up new shots. This more leisured approach suits the 6×7 well because of film costs and the greater care that a large and heavy camera requires. It follows that selection of prospective frames is tighter too.
I keep within earshot of the timer bell but there’s plenty of latitude, as even 5 minutes of tardy makes no difference at the end of a 4o minute exposure, everything else being equal.
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.
The first question asked whenever I show this slide is “How come the car headlights haven’t picked you out on the side of the road”. After all, that’s my own silhouette, for which I stood motionless over many minutes, while gazing up the moonlit south Otago coast. An unoccupied crib (beach house), a single star trail and power pole complete the picture – plus some streaking cloud.
The simple answer is that as the car approached I had just enough time to compose with the wide angle, frantically tilting the camera down to take in the right amount of then-empty road. I was after a sweep of headlights and a rear light trail, and guessed that another car wouldn’t be along for that anytime soon – it was a week night, and off-season in a beach settlement far from any city.
Once the car had gone past I leisurely crossed the road, took up the position to best effect and began my sentry duty. Counted by seconds then, the ingredients were something like: car = 5 seconds, moon = 500 seconds. The 28mm lens on the Pentax was set at maximum, f2.5, with time elapsed about 8 to 9 minutes. And no other car came near.
Kodachrome 25 was the film. Although a very good one its speed now seems of horse and buggy vintage. It also had a colour chemistry that only a Kodak lab could unlock, in this country anyway. Surprisingly though, for the night photographer a slow film or low ISO setting still gives plenty of creative scope, as well as good latitude and fine resolution – as long as you stick to wide angle lenses. They offer better depth of field and easier focus.
With a low ISO setting, when your compositions require serious depth of field, as 35mm/full frame non-wide lenses often do, then the small and smaller f-stops involved mean long and longer exposure times to compensate. And more and more patience – so often a scarce commodity!
Of course it’s the film that’s infra red, not the church on Sea View Rd (near Dargaville, in Northland). Kodak’s Infrared Ektachrome was a popular film in the 1970s, and illustrated the front cover of a few rock albums. It was also the first slide film I ever used, back in 1974. I took this when visiting a friend at the beach: a moonlight stroll suggested itself, and with a feeble torch we wandered the quiet streets nearby.
The cloud movement is gratifying but there are some puzzling aspects for me now: it must be wide angle but the star trail is uncharacteristically long for 28mm, and the moon looks like a large, stationary lightbulb. I usually avoid shooting straight at the moon (but see 3. Waitakere nikau and the rising moon), however with some haze or cloud around it seems workable – even if the frame has had to be slightly cropped to remove lunar flare.
Some torchlight is evident on the right hand side of the building, where Caron is just visible, shining her torch into a hydrangea bush. Torchlight being so much stronger than moonlight, I soon asked her to turn the beam off. Exposing this sort of scene is like a play in two acts: the torch paints some part or somebody with light for the short first act – the time depends on torch brightness and distance to subject – and then the exposure continues in a longer second act, gathering in more light for the dimmer backdrop.
Infrared Ektachrome was a high contrast film, so fairly unforgiving in exposure terms. It worked best with a deep yellow or red filter, at 100 ISO, but under tungsten lighting the filter could be discarded, and an f-stop thereby gained. The infra red part was only a wee slice of spectrum beyond the visible, while the other emulsion layers simply displaced the colours. The full effect is not displayed here.
Stars are suppressed by moonlight because they are competing with a brighter sky. Nevertheless, while out with friend Richard one clear night at the base of Farewell Spit, I dedicated roughly 15 minutes to placing the lone manuka against a moonlit sky. The starry arc is identical to that seen in 46. Bullock Creek – meaning we’re again looking east, this time towards the northernmost Albel Tasman National Park.
People are always surprised by the variation in star colours, while the meteorite flash was unnoticed at the time. The glow across the bay I can’t explain, but there’s a general shift to warm colour here, made clear by the “normal” colours that Richard got at the same time on his digital Canon. It’s an innate tendency of all film to “go off” on the B setting; Fujichrome is usually less susceptible than Kodak, but not here. However I find the effect quite moody and acceptable.
A note in my camera bag recommends (with the 85mm lens) 10 minutes at f16 for star trails, at ISO 200. For film f11 might be better, as it slows up with long exposure. A standard lens was used for this picture but a longer lens often gives better results, as focussing is not so fussy at these smaller apertures.
After 5 to 10 minutes film has a real advantage over digital – especially if, like my old Pentax, your film camera operates without a battery (light metering excepted). Extended exposures are a serious strain on digital battery power. Also, once the exposure is done there is no dark-frame waiting around either, the post-processing noise-reduction interval usual in digital cameras.
The 24×36 frame here looks too long and narrow to me. So often this is a hard proportion to use well in vertical compositions; they only really work with good vertical lines. The Lumix LX3 has three format options, including the TV screen 4:3. I’d love cameras to have square and oval options too!
NOTE: Please feel free to comment on this or any earlier post – your appreciation (or lack of it) for particular images will assist me in picture selection for future calendars or book projects. I will leave this open unless the flood of comment-spam becomes unbearable. In this regard, any non-specific comment will most likely be deleted.
In the autumns of 1981 and 1982 I did photo tours of the South Island in a fitted-out van, cruising at a leisurely 40 mph (65 km/hr). With two Pentaxes for my own photography, I could enjoy monochrome or colour just as I preferred, as long as I had both cameras in harness – plus the large format gear for the calendar photos we were actually there for. Truth be told, each time I had an obliging assistant to help with the portage.
Arriving mid-May at Okarito, South Westland, just before dark, we parked near the old boathouse (still there today) and soon after, with the moon already up over the lagoon, I set up this self-portrait. That’s our camper in the background, with the highlights predictably burnt out. The real highlight for me though was having the moongleam off my glasses come out exactly as I had intended – two pin-pricks of light. Leaning back against the railing, hands deep in my jacket in the early chill of evening, I tried to guess the angle which would bounce the rays straight at the lens. That this would also be level with the ridge line was happy coincidence.
The translucence shows that I walked into the picture after the shutter was opened; the density of the shot was just as I had visualised it but the cloud movement was not anticipated. After processing Agfa Isopan (100 ISO?) with a reversal kit the slide was sepia toned for further effect. I have no record of actual camera settings but as the widest aperture on my 28mm wide angle was f2.5, shutter time must have been at least 5 minutes, and more likely ten.
Bullock Creek is not far from the pancake rocks at Punakaiki, on the South Island’s West Coast. This 40-minute exposure by moonlight was taken by the side of the gravel road running up the pastoral floor of the canyon to the backcountry of Paparoa National Park. Mist slowly forms in the middle distance; the limestone cliffs have numerous caves at river level; the trees are all kahikatea, a white pine which doesn’t mind soggy ground – and nor does the flax. The star trails show their curve around the south pole, so we are looking east or southeast here.
The view is wide angle (28mm) and at least a half-hour of open aperture is evident in the length of the star trails, as these take longer with a wide angle. Exposures of this length don’t occur to me very often, as usually I’m weighing up the chance of getting 5 other shots for the same time spent.
Also there are other constraints, even when battery life was irrelevant back in the time of film. Why risk your lens misting up on an autumn evening with a shot lasting an hour? And because with such long exposures you tend to walk away from your gear – to sit in the car, on the porch or best of all, around the campfire – the risk of disturbance is so much the greater from stock, wild animals, walkers and dogs, hunters’ vehicles. We were camped fairly close by, so for this one I returned to comfort and company to wait out the time. No one drove by the entire night.
The monochrome here is Kodak’s fine grain Panatomic-X, 32 ISO. Although this was not a film I used much, the results when reversal-processed with a special kit were impressive. I then sepia-toned the slide for extra contrast. After scanning, however, I decided the more neutral cast given it by “Auto colour correction” was just as appealing, and that’s how you see it.
I took this on a rare night in which I stayed up sleepless till well past dawn on the wild Waitakere coast, with a Pentax Spotmatic F and three lenses. By sunrise I was truly worn out and the long drive home was grim – fortunately I had the passenger seat and the weekend to recover.
However I loved the results, which showed only modest colour shift from long exposure, even on Kodachrome 64. The sense of scale and depth of focus suggest the 28mm wide angle here, approx 10 minutes at f2.5. The islet is Panatahi and we’re looking southwest. The modern aerial on Google doesn’t show the stillwater but probably the stream has changed course since.
The picture elements here are very simple: an even vignetting from the lens barrel plus almost a mirroring of sky and lagoon, two brief star trails in similar positions – but why is the islet right in the middle? The rocks are volcanic, the sand more likely grey than tawny, and the tinge to Panatahi tells of a declining moon. Time of night I did not know but it must have been about 5 am.
The beach was broad and the tide out. I’d had this entire landscape to myself for many hours, yet at one point while crossing a long reef to the south this perfect isolation was nearly my undoing. While lugging my gear – and just a short time before taking this photo – I almost stumbled into a gaping chasm in the reef, from fatigue and inattention. No doubt the incoming tide would have found me long before anyone else could have.
Let’s not ignore the safety side of moonlight rambles, especially solo ones. Cell phones and emergency beacons can be unreliable; help is so often far off; fatigue and the gloom lead to misjudgements – the outdoor moonlighter from time to time faces serious risk to life and limb. A daylight reconnoitre beforehand is a good idea.
This scene capped a great summer’s evening, and an entire slide film. First up was a moonrise over Rangitoto (Auckland’s youngest volcanic cone, in the Hauraki Gulf) from Cheltenham Beach, complete with kids frolicking in the surf… then a series from the open deck of the ferry. The bright idea of setting up the tripod there was probably by way of light relief after a few anxious moments beforehand, when it looked as if we might miss the the last ferry back to the city.
As the boat pulled away from the wharf, I thought the movement over the water could deliver some unusual effects from the waterfront lights. Judging exposure was simply guesswork, but each frame was in the vicinity of 10 to 30 seconds, around f8 as I recall. Composition was no problem through the Pentax viewfinder and the standard f1.4 Takumar lens. The apparent size of the moon is not due to a long telephoto but simply an elongation caused by the movement (to left of frame) of the ferry, on its diagonal course for the opposite shore.
The film was Ektachrome 64 – guess the ISO – and it cost me $2.50! I always kept an eye on the phases of the moon, and as the evening looked promising I took the trouble to lug a tripod along – despite being on foot. However even today, when I know full well that unusual results so often require unusual effort, I find tripod-carrying a chore, and don’t always take one with me on shorter, “fun” outings.
Needless to say, night photography hinges on a tripod. Fenceposts, little beanbags, mini-tripods and obliging rocks will only take you so far… to contemplate anything more than the most casual of photography by extended exposure, a tripod is essential. I recommend something solid, with a quick-release plate for loading the camera. The legs should be easily adjusted and the head should move without fusswork. And be warned – plastic wears out quickly.
Neudorf is an orcharding district near Upper Moutere, Nelson; I took this not far from where my girlfriend and I were staying in a worker’s cottage, occupied by her apple-picking sister. Not a simple composition, this experiment in moonlight photography will not appeal to everyone, but it has held my own attention with its selective focus, deep tones and unusual tints. I’m not pleased with the background, but these are so often hard to assess in nocturnal camerawork.
Without a powerful torch most focussing by moonlight at close range can only be approximate with a roll film camera (such as the Yashicamat 124G), which is no surprise with a bigger format. Additionally the film was Ilford Pan F, a slow 50 ISO, although here it was marginally uprated to 80 ISO. Once reciprocity slow-down is factored in, exposures at f3.5 (max aperture of standard lens) are in the vicinity of 10 – 20 minutes, and recalling my impatience to take other photos around the orchard, the exposure above would have been at the shorter end. I had 2 cameras but only one tripod.
The depth of tone here reflects the fine grain of a slow-speed film, while the odd effect of two tints is achieved readily in Photoshop. After scanning I converted Mode to colour, and then under Colour variations I played around with different combinations, with Shadows and Highlights. There are only three colours available (red, blue or green), or their mixture in layers.
If you live around about our southern latitudes then May is a good month to go moonlighting: the nights are often clear and the moon is higher in the sky than in summer (in reverse of the seasonal solar arc). Best of all, however, is the early start you can make in the evening, especially on the night before full, when the moon is already up. When you have creative juices rising too, though, one tripod and slow film does hamper you.
Now this isn’t my usual sort of exposure. One late summer’s evening I propped my bicycle out of sight against a fence, not far from where I was living near Masterton, a country town northeast of Wellington. I wandered over the hills to wait for the moonrise… while I preferred company clearly none was around that night, so I was obliged to pose for my own photo.
With Kodachrome 64 in my Pentax Spotmatic, and an exposure of 15 minutes in mind, I framed the scene with a 28mm wide angle before taking up this pose within it. The wide angle was chosen to help with depth of field, but it was a pain to compose with, as the f2.5 maximum aperture transmitted so little light for viewing.
Having got in the curve of the ridge, I then had to decide on a simple pose for the duration. I locked open the cable release and darted in, the self-timer being unavailable on the B setting. My movements at beginning and end do not show up as they are only a tiny fraction of the total exposure, although anyone doing this while dragging on a cigarette, say, would leave an ember trail.
I hadn’t reckoned on my long shadow on the left, but this is unexpectedly balanced by the vignetting on the right margin. I counted out the 15 minutes; the actual exposure is unknown but it accommodated the slow-down from reciprocity (the colour shift is from the same cause). It was also time enough for a star trail to be just visible top right; not surprisingly, star trails are much shorter on wide angles.
Fortunately it was a mild evening. Of course I rather like my youthful figure and the full head of hair, but as Oscar Wilde once said: “Youth is a gift of nature, Age is a work of art”, and don’t we all love Art status.
We were touring the South Island on a calendar assignment, and had arrived for Easter at Graham’s bucolic pad at Woodstock, south of Hokitika. He and Sue were paying $10 a week for this… everything in sight here had seen better days, including my white Morris van peeping around the corner. However the derelict Wolseley was a spare. The house was just back from the highway; oddly neither house nor highway are there now, the main road south being moved coastways sometime in the 1990s.
This looks wide angle; actual exposure was unrecorded but likely to be f8 for an hour. Assuming your gear is safe from hazard or interference, long exposures from a garden can be quite comfortable ones for the photographer, as you head back indoors for the duration – while keeping one eye on the clock.
A faint star trail is visible above the roofline although moonlit skies are really too bright to do the stars justice. The breeze has blurred the washing on the line, as well as the trees at the back. The house lights are not direct; even after soaking through the curtains their wattage is stronger than the wan sunlight reflected by the moon (just 1 or 2 watts). The water tank supplied the household; the late tomatoes supplied the salad. Further interest could be added had I got someone to stand for just a few minutes on the path to the right of the tomatoes. A spectral figure would then deliver a compositional third punch.
The film was Kodak’s slowest panchromatic B&W, Panatomic X, rated at 32 ISO as I recall. It was developed by a reversal process and then sepia toned, to add contrast. This procedure was a fraught one as frames were toned singly and I lost a good number to careless handling. However this one survived, to be screened many times as a personal favourite; fortunately I understand the sepia chemicals make it resistant to light-fade.
Suggesting an alien spacecraft landing, this scene is one only a vertical composition could accommodate. Unspooked, Jane was also accommodating and held her umbrella pose well for almost a minute, as cars drifted past on Domain Drive, somewhere near the Auckland Museum. We had wandered through the Domain at dusk; it was too cloudy for any moon but the drizzle gave us a wet road and reflections.
The pink umbrella sets off the wintry leaves (still there owing to the streetlight?) and the light trails. I was using Kodak 2483, an E-4 microscope film which I had some fun with over 1981-82, after buying some outdated rolls for 50 cents each. Its strong contrast preshadowed the advent of vivid slide films sometime after Y2K. 2483 was also distinctive for its fine grain, although this was achieved with a laughably low ISO of 16. What took more getting used to was the strong magenta bias – a shocker at first, although I soon learned how to apply it. Here the cast is emphasised with a further colour shift likely from the long exposure, known as a reciprocity effect.
The low ISO enabled long exposures earlier in twilight. Exposure for the above was unrecorded but was probably f16, the smallest aperture on the standard 50mm lens (Pentax Spotmatic F), for around 45 seconds. As I haven’t worn a watch for 30 years, I always just counted the seconds off. Now that estimates can be checked against actual time elapsed on a digital camera I see that mine are no more than 5% out – for the first 2 minutes anyway…
Given the high contrast, the exposure is about as good as you’d get on the one frame of film. With film of course there is not the instant feedback on exposure guestimates, meaning I regularly lost frames in bracketing or from careless estimates. At least I didn’t lose friends as well – their patience for my photo experimenting was remarkable.
The 7.30pm time slot is only approximate, as you are looking at a 20 minute experience. The night was close to new moon, so this cannot possibly be by moonlight (for a change) but instead the illumination is from the working lights of Port Taranaki, well below the viewpoint here.
This wide angle shot on the 6×7 Pentax was recorded on HP5 film, ISO 400. I neglected to note f-stop (probably f8) but the exposure was calculated after a quick trial with a digital camera at higher settings, then doubled to allow for reciprocity slow-down. Twenty minutes was enough for good star trails, I thought, however they are only starting to look interesting. Must have forgotten that wide angle lenses minimise star movement; telephotos maximise them. Their slight curve above suggests the view is to the southwest, as to our eyes the stars revolve around the South Pole.
Thin low cloud was billowing over the summit but it was hard to tell how it would show up. Another variable was how panochromatic film would respond to the fairly orange light, in a long exposure – actually no problem. Framing was awkward wide open at f4, as not enough light was transmitted for the viewfinder.
While the shutter was open I hoped a car would not drive into the carpark, which so far I’d had to myself. Wouldn’t the sweep of headlights overpower the foreground? Really I need not have worried, and in any event such intrusions sometimes add interest in unexpected ways. The perspective does not convey the scale of this volcanic remnant, but the sign at bottom left might help… I couldn’t leave it out anyway. A staircase and then a safety chain takes you to the 153m summit, where a trig point is just visible, and a great view. In pre-European days it had a Maori palisade. It would have been a very windy place of refuge.
A 6×7 Pentax shot, with sepia added in Photoshop after scanning the 120 negative. Still being used by Craig Potton, pre-eminent NZ landscapist, the 6×7 is a scaled-up version of the popular 35mm Pentax of yore. A whopper to handle, it is at least simple to use, although reloading is fiddly. However the 6×7 advantage in offset reproduction is clear when comparing, say, calendar images against those from 35mm originals. As a young photographer I admired the picture quality in glossy magazines without realising so much of it came from medium and large format cameras, using tripods and lights.
The 6×7 is a trial to take moonlighting, not only because it’s heavy. Increased format size is matched by decreased focal depth, so that it is harder to cover your subject well, and the 120 format is less forgiving of sloppy focus. To compensate for dim and difficult focusing, I select a smaller aperture (to extend depth of field) and lengthen exposure to 10, 20 or 40 minutes. My usual alternative to simply sitting around, waiting, is to take a second tripod and camera outfit, and work both at once – but I wouldn’t recommend this for a windy beach at night, because the sand risk means there’s just no work-space. I took the above photo in a bitter wind, with all my gear on my back.
The standard lens was set close to infinity, exposure unrecorded. Taken at the foot of Paritutu, the foreground is a blur of surf at mid-tide. For a high moon like this, earlier in the evening, go out 3 or 4 nights before it’s full. Not every “Seascape by moonlight” is genuine but yours can be authentic even at first quarter (the half-moon), if silhouette and reflection are your aim. If you use film, be sure to vary exposure and note your settings – as well as the age of the moon – until you are familiar with results.
An autumn view looking south. Situated in the northern South Island, Rotoiti is the park’s leading gem. I didn’t set out to compose this in thirds, and its not quite so anyway, but this shot consistently gets good reactions and perhaps because of its traditional composition.
However the most recent comment related to the light; someone familiar with this scene by daylight remarked that he had never before seen the light so even on Mt Robert, whose slopes are conspicuous. Moonlight is not as harsh as sunlight, being warmer for a start, and the long exposure may have some bearing on this, with the slow arc of the moon softening any shadow edges.
Of course my friend had never seen the star trails either, a pair which conveniently occupy a pleasantly blue but otherwise fairly blank sky… no doubt there would be more stars visible on a moonless night. Blue skies in my moonlight photos surprise people but I once glimpsed this high in the heavens in real time, as patches of blue showing up amongst great masses of luminous cloud. An odd but awesome phenomenon.
In this photo there’s some cloud movement, and a breeze to shimmer the reflection on the lake. The shadows add a sense of depth but are really too black, and I see some vignetting in the sky to the left. With long exposures, particularly of half an hour or more, you never know what you’ll get. Using film adds the further uncertainty of reciprocity effects, when light sensitivity slows up and colour shifts can happen,. Here, however, there’s no obvious shift, unlike the magenta cast notorious in earlier years with Kodak film.
Time and timing were unrecorded but this took around 30 – 40 minutes on Fujichrome, using the Pentax 6×7 with the 55mm wide angle lens wide open at f4. This is the JULY image in my Moonlight calendar for 2011.
The exact time and length of exposure for this I never recorded, but the film was Agfa Isopan (100 ISO?), developed as a B&W slide and then sepia toned. Over 1981-82 I developed a good number of monochrome films with a reversal kit; the results however were always fussy and frequently spotty – photos from negatives are easier to rescue. This pic, though, has always screened to a warm response; it puzzles audiences used to daylight and to glorious Kodachrome.
That autumn I was touring the country with a lady friend, doing my first calendar for Friends of the Earth. On this tranquil evening in south Otago I’m standing by the Linhof 4×5, timing a long exposure of the limestone cliffs across the bay. A good jacket and a cap warms me from the stiff sea breeze, and gumboots (wellingtons) keep the damp away; waterproof boots are a real boon for the night photographer. The translucence shows that I’ve walked into the exposure after it’s begun, as self-timers can’t do time (B) exposures. The beach is wide and gentle on the receding tide, while surf breaks on the far rocks. There is some movement in the thin cloud cover also, although the cloud was only intermittent. The two shadows are matched with reflections off the wet flats.
Composing a well-lit scene such as this was easy with the f1.4 standard lens on the Pentax Spotmatic F, but focussing was more problematic. Nowadays when I use this same camera for moonlight photography I do a minimum of f4 for 10 – 20 minutes (100 ISO film), or sometimes f8 for longer, to increase depth of field and thus improve focus. With a slower wide angle lens focus is less of a worry but then it’s harder to frame the average moonlit scene, and to see what’s in it. This pic features in the introduction to my Moonlight Calendar for 2011.
This is the DECEMBER image from our Taranaki: The mountain 2011 calendar, which celebrates Mt Taranaki’s hold on the local landscape. South Road is the main artery to western Taranaki, a fairly unpopulated district but one full of possibilities for the keen photographer.
In early summer the last of the season’s snow was receding on the tops, roughly 27km away. Digital was my first preference here, but for all its merits as a low-light camera the Lumix LX3 stops at a standard setting (60mm equivalent), so I resorted to my trusty Pentax SP F (Suva, June 1974) and of course a tripod. A 100mm lens was used to flatten perspective and bring in the peak; the 200mm lens was even better but that shot was spoilt by camera shake.
Then it was game over, as the peak became too dim for the purpose. Twilight at this latitude (39 degrees south) gives a balanced light for these compositions for only a short time, although in summer the interval is a little longer. Exposure not recorded but roughly two minutes at f16, on Fujichrome slide film. The number of points on the starry lights indicate how many blades are inside the lens, according to Ken Rockwell (www.kenrockwell.com) – something I’d never even considered. This photo gets a range of reactions; it’s quite captivating to some, but seems a little contrived to other (sophisticated?) eyes – the variety of comment on a single photo can be really surprising. We have also published this image as a greeting card.
Harataonga is a gem on the eastern side of Great Barrier Island, about 100 km east of Auckland. We camped out there for several days in February 1982 to get photos for a Friends of the Earth calendar. From a headland near the beach I got the Linhof 4×5 ready before dark, as a field camera takes a fair bit of setting up, with a black cape and upside down frame-and-focus. I used a moderate telephoto lens and exposed Fujichrome for 45 minutes at f5.5, pretty much as a guestimate. The moon had risen above the frame and its light is diffused through slow-moving cloud.
This is the full frame; I have resisted the temptation to trim the skeletal tree or to recompose. The outline offshore is a rugged islet; the creek is tidal but deep; the headland is an old Maori pa site. The photo gets a range of reactions, mostly favourable but occasionally I hear a definite “Hallmark!!” It appears as September 2011 in my new large-format Moonlight photography calendar. We have published it as a greeting card too.