A roadside view from a calendar tour of the South Island, made over autumn with my wife Al. This early morning scene explained the chilly temperature in our camper van overnight. We then drove a little way up the summit road before the snow and slush made it clear that the rest of the way would be on foot.
This telephoto view is from above the main highway, not far from Mitchell’s Cottage. I like the long shadows here, and the interest added by the derelict woolshed and the sheep. The scale of the scene does not come across though, the full grandeur of the range being obscured by cloud. Fortunately this cleared during our long trudge to the tops.
An unexpected First World Problem has been developing in western countries in recent years. It is an odd one, to be sure, and some might say it’s a “Giraffe in the Room” (the elephant needs a day off every so often). This is it: Considering the billions of images we now take every month on our cameras and smartphones, where can we see any of these photos?
Certainly not on our walls, as even my own have been bereft of recent imagery. Why are we taking so many photos when so very few get to be printed, and still fewer get framed or pinned up somewhere? Why isn’t all this great creativity on display for all to see – such as on the walls at home, your house and mine? I call this the problem of Wall Art Poverty, a serious middle class malaise, perhaps not fatal but surely damaging to ours souls, which according to Picasso need daily nourishment*.
We seem to be stonkered by the deluge of pixels captured on our marvellous little machines. What to choose to show, and how do you present it? These are the questions I have been asking myself too, as I prepare a first selection of my photographs to offer as fine art prints. The above is the image I began this blog with, in 2010. It graced the cover of my first calendar, and will be one of the images featured in my first offer of fine art prints.
* Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Pablo Picasso(attrib.)
A Good Friday illumination, though not an epiphany, from an unexpected source. A subdivision being so close to where I was staying, it was a simple matter to put on gumboots and shoulder tripod for the short walk to the hilltop, where a house was under construction. As building sites are prone to pilfering I didn’t want my intentions mis-interpreted, so when vehicle headlights suddenly appeared in my frame I did not know what I was in for. However I was set up on the less public side, and whatever the purpose of the lingering lights and long-running engine, my presence was apparently undetected.
I wear a warm, high-vis vest (thanks Narumon) on all my evening outings, for safety’s sake. Generally I avoid using flash in residential areas (discretion vs valour) and have rarely been challenged by suspicious onlookers. On moonlit excursions I mostly stick to public spaces or to holiday places on farms; looking back on work from the last few years, I see my trespassing has been confined to college farms, new subdivisions and golf courses.
Diagonals and limited focus are not common elements in my compositions, and I would have liked a more distinctive shape for the tree, but serendipity should not be denied – namely the headlit timbers – and I am obviously susceptible to a good, unclouded mountain. Mt Taranaki is an immediate anchor for any former resident returning to the region.
Moonlit Mordor, from Arawhata Rd, Opunake. 8.57pm, 25 April 2010.
My 36 Views of Mt Taranaki has sold out. The book used mainly daylight images, just to prove there’s more than one string to my fiddle. Nevertheless I continue to find twilight and night imagery more interesting because of the larger creative possibilities. This is a Lumix LX3 image, converted from colour: a desolate, snow-free mountain, as seen from from a desolate sector of the ring plain. In contrast to the more settled appearance of the other side of the mountain, this is rougher, harder country.
On a personal note, this is a belated coda to my Taranaki series, as this year we have returned to live in Nelson. Despite the hiatus I have been occupied in reviewing my extensive transparency collection, compiling a second book on evening photography and putting together a 2017 calendar, one without a volcanic theme. But about that, more shortly.
2758. Cool majesty from Waingongoro Rd, Taranaki. 1.47pm, 17 October 2015
Two problems in volcano camerawork are vacant skies and the huge gap in exposure values between the snowy elevations and the green landscape below. Here with patchy cloud and silhouettes is an answer to this creative challenge. Lacking as it does spring lambs (and mint) this image does not quite reach the bar, yet I find its ellipsis strangely appealing… On the approach, in a clear sign of ascending middle age, I was more concerned with the wear of the gravel road on my tyres than with how the icy edifice might loom in my viewfinder. The cold sou-wester also dampened my interest, but what I like in this half-submerged image is a mistake in my colour temperature setting (Sodium vapour lamps), which still leaves its mark. It’s all a happy accident, in other words.
MARCH 2016: Naked mountain, Arawhata Rd; Opunake district
In an earlier post I asked “Where are the cows?”, meaning cattle of course, as Taranaki is host to thousand of beef cattle, as well as its emblematic dairy cows. However, these two images are the only nod in their direction in my 2016 calendar – an oversight, possibly. Yet it is surprising how few herds are seen along the roadside, and a good deal of pasture is now strip-gazed, a practice lacking in pictorial charm. See previous posts for calendar details, and how to order.
With my new photo book 36 Views of Mt Taranaki to be released shortly, it seemed obvious to have our 2016 calendar feature the mountain too. Not so obvious was the decision not to use anything from the book and to turn the images into fine art monochromes – although not strictly black&white, as the image above shows. A few are B&W originals but most have been stripped of their colour data. The tones and textures of the peak lend themselves well to this treatment. I will have more news on the calendar and on the new book shortly.
Moonlit margin, Taranaki. 27 August 2015, 9.50 – 9.51pm
In Taranaki a calm, clear night with a waxing moon is not to be ignored – but rather than drive around, I sometimes prefer to walk out and see what turns up, as pastoral peace on the city margins is not too far away. This two-frame panorama of contented cattle sums up my evening, although my cold, wet feet also made themselves felt by this point. My new photo book on Mt Taranaki will feature day and night photography, but only in standard frame images – no scope for panoramas! Double click on the image for a larger view.
5593 High tide at Kaikoura. 8.36pm, 21 February 2011
Looking lately at some of my own images taken in broad sunlight I knew immediately why I do so little of it – the light is so commonplace! Striking images are harder to achieve. At the end of the day however, in evening sunlight or dimming twilight, the world seems transformed – and the landscape changes with the light. Four years ago we were on our way along the Kaikoura waterfront to see the king tide from the wharf, when I took this strange sea, high on the shoreline.
A cool southerly breezed down the Aorere valley as dark descended on the chief settlement of western Golden Bay. Heading out on Beach Road, away from the village, soon demonstrated the power of microclimate, as around the corner, in the lee of the hill forming a backdrop to the township, there was utter calm. The two photos were taken about 100 metres apart, but with telephoto (135mm) and wide angle (28mm) lenses. Above, 30 seconds; below, 15 seconds – almost too slow to hold the cloud formation. Not surprisingly, clouds move faster on telephoto images than on wide angle ones.
Mt Taranaki is bare of snow and ice for 4 or 5 months of the year; this view from the Blue Rata Reserve is a sandwich of two frames, taken on a full moon evening, the last of summer. The Stony (Hangatahua) is a fast-flowing stream, one prone to flooding with dramatic effect. In shooting for panoramas there are two main hitches: securing enough overlap of the frames (for auto alignment in post-processing), and ensuring a level track in your arc of view, on the tripod.
Still round the corner there may wait / A new road or a secret gate And though I oft have passed them by / A day will come at last when I Shall take the hidden paths that run / West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
For the joy of the angels lies only in obedience to God’s will, and with equal joy they would lift a Lazarus in his rags to Abraham’s bosom, or be a chariot of fire to carry an Elijah home. –John Newton
To be exempt from the passions with which others are tormented, is the only pleasing solitude. – Joseph Addison
Driving north in the early evening, I paused on a 2 km disused section of the old highway, quaint now for its narrowness and rustic one-lane bridge. The night was cold and moonless, with a constant hubbub from the nearby highway. No one came by while I tussled with the split focus (between initial flash and the following l-o-n-g exposure) of gate/mountain with a telephoto.
I’m surprised to see Mt Taranaki lit up by the street lights of surrounding towns, but knew my own parking lights would contribute to the gate’s illumination. I was on my way back to New Plymouth, but after a long day on the road was too cold & weary to attempt more than this.
The truth is more important than the facts. – Frank Lloyd Wright
I clambered up a cutting for this welcome perspective, then waited a while for a car to complete the picture, a 5 min 35 sec exposure. The car is actually a police car looking for me. A strange vehicle has been reported down a driveway, although mine is quite plainly parked in a large tanker layby, just out of frame.
Soon the police will return so I’ll descend to explain myself. Glad they’re on the job, but what’s with the dog? It’s a slow night for sure, but otherwise a great one for moonlight photography.
28mm, ISO 2000. 335 seconds at f22. Incandescent light balance
Too much light is like too much darkness: you cannot see. – Octavio Paz
Mt Taranaki and the Southern Cross. I’d had this viewpoint in mind for sometime, as it has a convenient carpark and a sweeping bend. Much depends on car speed, headlight direction and high or low beam – plus ISO choice and moon brightness – but my aperture here was too generous. So I’ve densitised the RAW result to get the desired effect.
Choose a local road but don’t leave it too late or you’ll sit waiting for traffic. And as the evening progresses, each passing vehicle takes a greater interest in your purpose out there.
The thing always happens that you really believe in, and the belief in a thing makes it happen. – Frank Lloyd Wright
Using the smallest aperture on the bridge I got both the near bones and the distant peak into sharp focus with a telephoto lens. A lower ISO was needed to extend the exposure for star trails but the moonlit sky is actually too bright for them.
The bridge has won several international awards. Its clever design has the spine start on one side and end on the other, to great effect. Mt Taranaki is often shrouded, so visitors are by no means guaranteed this line-up.
Everybody has talent at 25. The difficult thing is to have it at 50. – Edward Degas.
With midnight as my deadline, this roadside shot was one of my last for this cool but lovely evening. Pheney Rd is a quiet country location but it is not far from the city and camerawork is not so relaxing late at night when you are in a public space.
A relatively short exposure and wide angle means good star points; getting the opposite effect – good star trails – in combination with flash is tricky on moonlit nights, for light balancing reasons. This photo is soon to be published in a national magazine.
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.
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.
NEWS: The above image is one of about 50 of mine which have just been published in a free ebook of quotations by Hannah Samuel, public speaker, author and mentor, of Auckland. The Pocket Book of Men’s Wisdom, Volume 1 is a compilation of quotes from Kiwi men associated with Big Buddy (www.bigbuddy.org.nz), a mentoring organisation for boys in need of good male role models.
Each pearl is accompanied by one of my images, mostly daylight ones, although about a dozen are at twilight or night. This collection lets you see a broader range of my work than the images posted here, and the link below will take you to Hannah Samuel’s website. Both low res and high resolution options are available for free download, but I can recommend only the high res version for sharp delivery:
Congratulations to Hannah for bringing this together, and my personal thanks in addition. Hannah’s layout stipulation was for only square images, and that has turned out to be quite a creative spur for me.
The image above was one I had to wait for beside a country road (Neill Rd East) near Eltham. The lights of Kapuni petrochemical are in the distance, meaning it was actually darker than this intentionally pastel rendition of the scene suggests. Darker versions of this scene were less successful as all the lowland detail was lost in the deeper twilight. Here such detail gives a sense of distance and perspective.
In search of just this type of photo I had detoured a short way from the highway while driving home from Hawkes Bay. Fortunately I had some time to spare at this peaceful locality before the evening’s next scheduled event: the fabulous sight, from a hilltop behind Stratford, of these same snowy flanks lit up by the first rays of the rising moon. That image, a personal favourite, features in post no. 23, Moonrise on Mt Taranaki.
Teleportation is easy enough to do by moonlight photography. Even on a cool autumn evening not far enough from the Nelson sewage ponds, planet Earth is a good place to beam down on. I do like to visit but would I want to live on it?
Just kidding. Of the various forms of ghosting in night photography this is the most basic, created under pure, simple moonlight. Other forms are lit by flash, torchlight or car beam, but to get this you simply occupy the stage for part of the exposure – say 40 seconds of the 60 represented here – while requiring your supporting cast to stay put. Here my long-suffering wife Narumon holds her gaze on the laid-back surf of Tasman Bay; I have walked into the frame some time after the shutter opens.
Note that nothing registers of my moving into position, because I have no reflective highlights. In some situations coming or going from place people will show up because they are smoking, wearing light-catching rings or jewelry, or have on something luminous. Or their movement might be caught by a sudden bright light, as in the sweep of a car’s headlights. Sometimes such highlights add an intriguing element to your scene, and sometimes they just look odd. You won’t know until you see it, as the effect is unpredictable.
At the head of the bay are the landing lights of Nelson airport. A snowy peak in the Arthur Range is just visible on the right, while resting on the cobbles are two props waiting to feature in my long exposure studies (see no. 34. Quirky but Perky, by moonlight). The depth of focus on the Lumix LX3 at maximum aperture is phenomenal, especially when the zoom is set at the widest angle. However the autofocus has about a 10% failure rate, while the manual controls are so fiddly for focus that I have never actually tried them.
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 Seaward Kaikoura range rises steeply from the coast although here only the northern outliers are in view. Their prominence is echoed in the rocks along the peninsula shore, which were revealed on the ebb of an impressive spring tide. Although surf still broke over the far outcrop during this long exposure by moonlight, the change in the state of the sea was notable from just a few hours before.
Three little clouds are matched by three short stars (one occluded by a summit) and the three small rocks at the bottom. On the far shore the highway heads north to Picton; I took this in-between occasional car headlights in order to avoid short light streaks. Although telephoto depth of field was adequate, a longer exposure – say 6 minutes at f11 – would have allowed some long headlight trails, as well as perfect sharpness.
However this photo was set up at the tail end of the evening and I was already on the way back to our motel. Waiting out that time would also involve another 6 minutes of dark-processing before I could re-deploy the camera. Ideal exposures are reserved for unwearied, unhurried saints.
The foreground lighting is from sodium lamps on the wharf road. The strong cast of the streetlight suggested an incandescent (tungsten) light balance on the Nikon D700. Because of the relative dimness of the lamps at this distance, using this setting has enabled an attractive high-key blue throughout. There are really only two colours here and while I do like this effect, Photoshop must share the honours.
The enhancement buttons on Photoshop have resuscitated a good number of my favourite night photos, sometimes to my considerable surprise. I shoot in the RAW format and I wonder whether the need for such rescues stems as much from night photography’s uncommon light balances and greater contrasts as it does from my methods not always being exactly painstaking.
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!
This looks like a flood plain, doesn’t it? We could just hear the Stony (Hangatahua) River off to the right; the line of trees marks its rapid course from volcanic ash-heap to the sea – a tumultuous distance of only 16 km (10 miles). The river was once Taranaki’s top trout fishery but it’s been badly affected by unprecedented mountain erosion since 1998.
With the waxing moon still low in the sky I took up a low position with the tripod and the wide angle. Cloud flitted around Mt Taranaki but the lower slopes were nicely lit. I was hoping to include both the rocky field and all of the karaka trees. The karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus)is an attractive New Zealand native notable for its bright orange fruit, just visible centre stage. I could smell the rotting windfall fruit nearby.
Having bobbed around to get the best angle, my next task was to set the best focus, really just a simple matter of using the f8 depth brackets on the barrel. Not every lens has this useful aid: I set infinity close to the far bracket mark and the near bracket mostly covered everything close at hand. I needed to work at a good clip (still slow to most people but my other speed is very slow) – though I was glad to have some company it meant only limited time before I’d hear the words cold and tired!
If out on my own I would use f11 or f16 and longer shutter times to be sure of getting everything sharp. The thistles on the right are thus fuzzy, although this could be from wind motion. As it was, I got a brighter night-for-day look than intended, so the frame has been darkened in post-processing. Density of image is hard to judge in the gloom of night, despite the brightness adjustment that can be made to the LCD monitor.
28mm, ISO 2000. 103 seconds (1 min : 43) at f8. Vivid picture control.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Taranaki has many small, secluded Maori cemeteries. This one on the coast near Puniho is the only local urupa I have seen with a decorated gateway, and an angel in residence. The unheralded location, far off and fenced within a field, gives the nearby surfing spot its name: Graveyard’s.
The light is solely from a summer moon 6 nights from full – so the caption is out by one night. However it was a novelty to have the moon in the west for my excursion. As the half moon is at the sun’s noon position at sunset, you can use it only as an “afternoon” light. This westerly light made for an interesting change, particularly as the moon drew closer to the horizon.
Star trails dramatise an otherwise blank sky in this 6 minute exposure (f16/ ISO 2000). Trial exposures of a few seconds at f1.4 and f4 enabled a sharp focus on the gateway with the 85mm lens, which is very precise in its focus. I then stopped right down to f16 to get the background as sharp as possible, and to give a longer time for star trails.
To extend these further still I could have reduced sensitivity, 6 minutes at 2000 ISO being the same as 12 minutes at ISO 1000, and 24 minutes at ISO 500. These would give better trails, but in truth I begrudge the time, as dark-frame processing then doubles these – meaning 24 and 48 minutes of camera time!
The above result was a little brighter than expected, so I have darkened the image slightly for a better feel of night. Luminosity is hard to judge on the LED viewer at night, although I lower the viewer brightness every night out.
Of course I had the place entirely to myself and plenty of time to enjoy the pastoral smells and background surf, but two hours passed rapidly. The only interruption was a disconcerting thrum, which turned out to be a helicopter coming ashore from the rig.
With my moonlight photography I have been experimenting lately with fill-in lighting, either flash or LED torchlight. Although their effects are different, they have in common the daylight colours achieved. Using mainly 30-second shutter times (the last choice before the B setting) I have enjoyed getting photos such as this one. It’s an unpredictable combination of instanteous flash and long exposure, taken on the 28mm lens at f11, on ISO 2000.
Here by the side of a country road southwest of New Plymouth, these botanical signposts of high rainfall appear starkly against the night sky. They loom above fresh snow on Mt Taranaki, which is lit up by the full moon. This is a whole new subset of moonlight photography, where once you have focus the technical difficulties relate to the strength of the flash and how you deploy it. Being something of a minimalist myself, without a separate flashgun, the illumination here comes straight off the camera. It was set off only once, at the beginning of the exposure, so there was no opportunity for side-lighting.
The usual issue is how the flash balances with the ambient moonlight. Getting the right exposure illuminates the fern quite effectively against the semi-night effect of snow and stars, but it is achieved by trial and error. The degree of illumination depends on just two variables: the distance from the flash to the foreground elements, and your ISO setting. So if you don’t want to move the tripod closer or further away, for this type of photo your main control is in the ISO setting, which you change to adjust for the flash result being too bright or too dark.
Only a small aperture was required for this effect, assisting depth of focus, although truth be told, the autofocus failed – and so I no longer bother with it, relying on a manual focus setting instead.
The Te Rewa Rewa bridge is a striking structure which extends New Plymouth’s coastal walkway towards outlying Bell Block (see no. 6). I set up this frame some 55 minutes after sunset, on my return from a long wander on a perfect evening. As the perspective suggests, the lens was wide angle (28mm). Exposure was 30 seconds at f16, ISO 2000, or just two or three stops faster than broad moonlight. The light balance was set on tungsten, which accounts for the engaging blues.
Fill-in flash has lit the foreground. Flash has some intriguing possibilities at twilight, generally to highlight foreground detail otherwise shrouded in gloom. Adjustment of ISO modifies how brightly your closest surfaces are lit by the constant flash; to this shutter speed or aperture can then be matched for the background twilight – all on manual settings of course.
At this hour the bridge was unpopulated, and even the distant city lights have failed to impact. I was surprised however by a cyclist arriving on a reclining machine with cinematic side lights, which resembled something from a sci fi movie. He appeared at the far end in blue, but quickly changed to red as he approached and glided past. I have him to thank for the extra highlight added here. In composition terms I consider it the third punch, the mountain forming the second. Often I am at places which have plenty of two-punch prospects, but have a dearth of thirds.
I have over-levelled the frame a little in post-processing, and the compact square format has cut away most of the river reflection to the right. Missing also is the slender moon, too high in the sky at this time of the month to be in the frame. With moonlight photography one can’t help but learn a little about celestial mechanics: only the newest of moons will ever be seen in the western sky soon after sunset.
Taken from a perennially windy location above Back Beach, New Plymouth, this recent evening was notable for its wonderful calm. The photo is yet another attempt to nail a perfect score from this outlook. A tiny sliver of moon had set on the western horizon, which my 85mm could hardly do justice to, but the lens was just right for this scene, cropped from the usual D700 rectangle.
The near pylon is lit by huge floods from Dow Chemical; the far structures are close to the tank farm, the usual glare from which some bushes close to hand were the screen. Traffic here is generally light so it was luck to get the car lights, as evidently the tankers have Sundays off. Lack of moonlight means brighter star trails and looking south gives them their slight curve. Southern hemisphere stars “revolve” around a point not far from the Southern Cross. Even without moonlight the receding snow cover on Mt Taranaki is visible, while the pylons look better with light balance set to tungsten.
Exposure was f16 for just over 8.5 minutes on the bulb setting, at ISO 500. I did a trial shot at faster settings, then extrapolated a longer one for the star trails. If you don’t use manual on your camera you might not understand how all the settings work in multiples, either doubling or halving (depending which direction you’re heading on the dials). One equation can be the same as any other relative to the light admitted, but results can be substantially affected by variations in shutter speed, aperture and ISO selection. Lack of knowledge of the interplay of these variables must frustrate many a picturemaker.
For this sort of night photography a higher ISO is a hindrance, and to avoid overexposure from your intended time, once you have stopped down to the smallest aperture your only choice is a progressive dropping of the light sensitivity (ISO).
Taranaki can really hold a pose when the clouds depart, and a southerly keeps the peak clear for days at a time. However you don’t want to be in it for long, as a fierce, frigid wind can really rock your boat. Set room temperature to “Brrrr” to view this photo in full context.
The foreground Pete Turneresque fence seemed to have some depth-conveying possibilities, so with the tripod already out for the twilight, I took this at f16 for 20 seconds, using ISO 2000 and the 28mm lens. Regardless of f-stop, this depth of field is impossible with my 85mm lens. Incidentally, f16 or 22 is not a mechanical limit for small f-stops but a technical one, due to diffraction. This causes a loss in both sharpness and contrast with smaller f-stops; see www.kenrockwell.com/tech/diffraction.htm.
A higher viewpoint would have separated the ranges (the Pouakai) from the near ridgeline, but we were just off the roadside and none was to hand. The exposure has suppressed most of the foreground detail – there’s an old cowshed on the ridge – but underexposing has allowed Venus and two stars to shine through at left. Also visible is the light from Tahurangi Lodge, high on the mountain, and (more prominently) the top light of an oil and gas derrick, which is just showing above the ridgeline. White balance was set to auto.
The square format is experimental; I have an e-book project which requires them. They are much more demanding than rectangular compositions. On the Lumix LX3 there are 3 format choices, including a TV style 4:3, but Nikon are still captive to the standard 35mm frame, which gives 2:3. Thus my square compositions are all cropped from the usual rectangular original.
I think a little more cloud, horizontal and pinker, would have enhanced this. No doubt post-pro features such as “Select pink cloud type to add” will soon be routine, but I won’t be using them.
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.