3028. Minor epiphany at Maitai, Nelson. 9.02pm, 25 November 2015
In valleys in summertime the evening can be well advanced before the full moon shows above the hills. To use twilight as well you’ll need to choose the evening just before the moon hits 100% full, when it rises before sunset. It can be fun to perch this lovely orb in various quirky ways, but the surprise is just how quickly – in a matter of seconds – the moon moves away from your careful line-up of picture elements, as I found here while wandering the Waahi Taakaro golf course in the Maitai valley.
As well as their cultivated landscapes and easy terrain, golf courses after-hours offer the night photographer something further – a generally safe setting. There’s only a small chance of stumbling into a ditch, of sudden intrusion, or of being run down by something or someone. Golf courses have their quiet corners, and often you can slip in the back way, across a stile somewhere along the boundary.
50mm; ISO 1250. 1/250th sec at f2. Hand-held; flash.
A twilight moon always rises over a flat landscape – in lighting terms, at least, after sunset. Two strong aids to composition, much to my liking, are silhouettes and clouds, and only these are a match for the moon’s brightness as night begins to settle. A variety of clouds is always welcome, but too many at once and the moon will be continually ducking in and out of view. This deliberately simple image – very much taken with digital wallpaper in mind – records another routine cosmic occasion, as our fellow traveller looms into the gloom, ready to light a summer’s night [applause].
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.
9289 NZ flax with moonrise, Ahu Ahu Rd, Taranaki. 8.59pm, 4 January 2015
My previous post left out another great NZ silhouette, Phormium tenax, now in summer flower and shown here in only semi-, thanks to flash. Taken at a sheltered location south of Oakura, one of the few north-facing beaches along the western North Island. The coast here is very walkable, as two footbridges link the Ahu Ahu, Weld and Timaru road ends with Oakura resort. To get the moon this size I used the long end of my zoom, and then self-timed the shutter to reduce shake (hand-held being quite marginal for this focal length). While big moons always mean big, telephoto lenses, the whopper moons often seen in popular media are invariably double exposures or superimpositions.
Somehow to capture the constantly evanescent quality of existence.
– Tennessee Williams, on his goal in writing
It can be a pain to wait for the moonrise on those nights following full moon – although you do get some quality time with undimmed stars and the odd cloud capture. Eventually the eastern horizon lightens and of course it’s too early for dawn.
This is one such evening, looking across the shallows from the last settlement before Abel Tasman National Park. Lights mark the channel at Astrolabe Roadstead; two islands are in view, the obvious one being Fisherman’s. The view varies with the tide, here at its peak.
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
A single second of shutter is a brief joy for the twilight photographer, if only because the results are visible a mere second later. As the evening progresses these exposures become more and more extended as darkness descends. There are good reasons for your night photography to begin at twilight, if not before.
A daylight start confers three advantages. Firstly, your gradual adjustment to the longer exposures that the deeper night will require, and secondly, an easier adjustment to the night, as you settle into the routines of picture-taking. Supposedly it takes 20 minutes for our eyes to adapt to the dark although to me that seems overstated. However there is a lag before your irises really relax and allow your night vision to do what it once did for our far-off ancestors outside their caves!
The third advantage of a daylight arrival at your location relates to your own sense of security and personal safety in the night. Irrespective of your gender or age, this is of key importance. Physical hazards and nuisances are best established by daylight, as is your sense of direction. The human neighbourhood can also be better assessed then. Human risks can be indirect, e.g. wayward mountain bikers or hunters.
Puniho Road ends at the forested edge of Egmont National Park. Although this western side of the mountain is generally less accessible, a track leads up to link with the track around the mountain. At the carpark I waited one winter’s evening for the full moon, wondering if it would ever appear as scheduled. Perhaps with a global positioning device I could have pinpointed its exact rise, but all I knew was that it would come up somewhere around the mountain. I had forgotten what a false horizon even the foothills present. When the moon showed at last next to the rosy summit it was a magic moment.
“60mm” (in standard terms), ISO 80. 1 second at f2.8. Lumix LX3.
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…
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.
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.
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.
We had visited this small country graveyard near Rahotu much earlier in the day, and were now on the homeward drive. The unusual twinkling lights were quite eye-catching from the highway, so after parking in the side road I set off across a few hundred metres of paddock in the deepening twilight, intending to get a few photos by the rising moon. My womenfolk refused to get out of the car for this one, but I couldn’t really blame them as we were all pleasantly tired after a good summer’s outing. Either way I would have little time for camerawork.
The cemetery had a great sense of peace as night descended. Photographically the light was unusual, being really a mix of moonlight and twilight, as f2.2 and 20 seconds at ISO 80 would suggest to any cognescenti. Lately I have paid more attention to the short interval during which moonlight and the last light of day harmonise. Typically it’s really too dim for us to take in the resulting twin-lit landscape but the camera sensor picks up on this highly unusual effect. It can be seen above on the right side of the frame, where the edges of the graves are lit both ways.
The zoom was not quite at widest – 28mm in full frame terms – on the Lumix LX3. The mountain was almost bare of snow and ice, as it is in late summer. The white graves and the moving lights indicated a Maori graveyard, while the presence of farewell goods on some graves was an unusual sight to us Pakeha. You tend to think of cemeteries as unchanging places but a few months later when I came back at sunset I was surprised at the work in progress, giving improved access and fencing off the tapu ground more adequately.
The cemetery occupies two adjoining knolls and I hope one day to channel Ansel Adams from one of them. However I suspect another 30 years of preparation are in order. As well as some perfect timing.
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.
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.
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.
German Hill (395 m) is quite prominent on the north Taranaki ring plain; the only evening I’ve been to the top the wind chill was so ferocious we stayed only a few minutes. This night, though, I was hanging around solo on Maude Road, waiting for an after-full moonrise. The sun had set more than an hour before, so the light above is all lunar, as this equation makes clear: f2 at ISO 400 for 60 seconds, on maximum wide. This setting is right at the edge of the Lumix LX3 capability.
There’s an unexpected blue between the moving bands of cloud, and the sweet look of dawn. The highlights are totally blown, admittedly, but without a graduated neutral density filter or any fondness for high dynamic range (HDR) the choice was simple: either get the sky right or the landscape below.
Moonlight photography in winter has one big advantage over other seasons: night comes earlier, moon rises sooner. The same celestial mechanics also favour camerawork on the evenings after full, when the waning moon rises roughly an hour later each night. Let’s take the winter moonrises of July 2011 as an example, say from 40 degrees south (175 deg east). The full moon rises at 5.14, exactly at sunset (usually it’s only close) and on following nights it rises at 6.19, 7.22 and then 8.24pm. Even when we allow another hour or two for the moon to gain some elevation for a brighter light, these times are not too yawny for most people to venture out.
But in summer? This (southern) December the full moon rises at 8.44pm, 4 minutes before sunset, and on the wane it shows at 9.43pm, 10.16pm and 10.53pm. As the summer moon also arcs low, it takes longer to give a good light. Few people find the midnight hours especially creative, particularly outdoors. The secret on these evenings? Get out earlier and play around with starlight or city glow, while you wait for the magic moment.
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.
Arriving at a known location after dark still has its uncertainties, especially when the moon is just past full and so has yet to appear. Where exactly will it come up, and how long before it illuminates my landscape?? This lovely scene is inland from Stratford but not too far into the hill country. After many days of rugged winds in Hawkes Bay and Manawatu it was a relief on my way home to have a clear, calm night. I staked a place at the top of the road, and watched impatiently the developing moonglow on the horizon behind.
“Moonrise” in the title is not wholly accurate, as this was not taken on the actual event, but some little time after, when the moonbeams had powered up enough to light the snowy peak before me. At first there was nothing at all to see in the viewfinder, but then the strong reflection off the snow became unmistakeable. Here the middle distance is still in shadow, meaning the moon has some way to climb. I like this sinuous shadow line replicating the hill’s, while the pines mimic the peak itself.
Venus has more than a walk-on part, burning a hole in the southwestern sky. She was apparently at her very brightest for 2011 over this week. The cool overall feeling is a photographer’s trick and results from a tungsten setting, chosen for effect. As with the rising sun, early moonlight is warmer than the later rays, but this night my mood was against golden syrup.
All was still and quiet and in 45 minutes not a single vehicle came past. Exposure was a quick 15 seconds at f2, ISO 1000, on a 85mm Nikon lens. Having bought an ultra-fast f1.4 lens I now stop down at least once because the lens seems to give some vignetting when wide open – and at f2 I suspect that the lens will be a tad sharper.
This simple image is actually a suburban west Auckland scene, of native trees along the boundary of a friend’s house in Woodlands Park, in the Waitakere ranges. It features as the MAY image in my 2011 Moonlight Calendar, and has been published as a greeting card.
The red highlights just visible come from the house; the moon is shining through a light haze. I was pleasantly surprised this came out so well, earlier shots featuring the moon point blank having given no great encouragement. However the right exposure subjugates all else to the brightness of the moon – thus the silhouettes. Exposure was 3.2 secs at f2.8 on my Lumix LX3, ISO set at a high 400 in error.
The photogenic nikau is very much a New Zealand icon but for me the palm has other associations too, when I was a partner in Nikau Press, a small publishing house still operating in Nelson. This particular night I was a frustrated photographer, as my photo-fun was soon foreclosed on by social obligations, pleasant though they were. Daylight photographers have it easy.
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.