Another time, another season – and another quote from the masterful Rumi. Bemused by her little book, Claire considers the source on the same Manukau beach as my last post. There’s not a great deal the human race seems able to agree on, but who can deny that “Here and now” has a compelling immediacy?
Rumi (1207-73) never studied in a Zen monastery but as this simple truth came to him, perhaps he heard the sound of one hand clapping nonetheless. If you’ve ever wondered where 2016 went, or even 2007 for that matter, this is a cool, mint-fresh flannel for your face.
Gee I wish I’d known this much earlier in life. Model Claire cautiously embodies the sentiment however, one fine Sunday on the beach at Kaiterakihi, on the Manukau. A 13th century Persian poet, Rumi still gets frequent airplay. He was a devout but liberal Muslim (of the Sufi variety) and his poignant – sometimes earthy – commentaries on existence and experience have plenty of resonance for modern people.
Taranaki is famous for its well-watered pastures and of course for its dairy industry. This is FEBRUARY in my Modest Epiphanies 2019 Calendar, which is a selection from my book project of the same title. It features Al (my wife) walking towards a field of maize in south Taranaki, alongside what remains of the old Opunake branch railway. It was taken on a windblown afternoon, and as it happens, we visited this location again in August 2018, on another breezy day – but in winter.
Our recent visit surprised me with the changes to be seen from the same viewpoint over seven years later: the cornfield was back in grass of course, but the boxthorn hedge has disappeared. Also lacking were the summer grasses (and clouds – a cool, clear southwester marked the afternoon). A wintry vista it was.
Photography gives us such a useful and interesting record of little changes in what we assume are “stable” scenes, particularly country ones. I will take more from the same location, sometime!
Purchase my 2019 calendars here: http://www.brewster.co.nz/calendars/
Moonlit grave at Te Hapu, Golden Bay. 9.28pm, 7 February 2012
This follows my Memento Mori post of last month, and records the lonesome hilltop grave of young Cecil Addison, a Tb victim from 1924. The wooden headstone has a carved inscription; the site is protected from stock by a more recent fence. The background blur of colour is my wife Al on her way to a nearby seat bench, unaware of my long exposure.
This uncommon scene has another attribute: it shows both moonlight and twilight, in equal strength. Of course this odd balance of light must occur at some point with every moonrise, but is hard to notice at the time. The rising moon casts no shadows until twilight has dimmed deeply enough for them to show. Moonlight is a feeble 2 watts, so all other light (such as twilight, street lights) outshines it. Each full moon when I am out with my camera I tell myself I must be on the watch for this intriguing moment of light balance, but even so, it usually eludes me!
The freedom of the sands! This image is for January in my Modest Epiphanies 2019 Calendar. Although taken in autumn, it is very evocative of summer on the granitic beaches of Abel Tasman National Park. The two islands in the background (at left is a headland) are within the Park boundary but Marahau, the main gateway, is just outside it. Abel Tasman NP is a very popular venue each summer for daytrippers, hikers and kayakers.
The calendar previews photos for a projected book of the same name, and subtitled: Deeper meanings in the New Zealand landscape. See earlier posts for details on a special offer on both my calendars for 2019; this expires on Friday, 7th September. Both calendars are now available for purchase.
New Zealand’s varied landscapes must be world-famous because now they are talked of by the mainland Chinese, not just wealthy HKers or Singaporeans. A busload of Chinese tourists joined the 40 cars already parked at the Kaikoura road-end, out on the peninsula. The changes to be seen here surprised me, and I am not referring to the recent earthquake uplift, impressive though that is. No, to me it seemed no time at all since this road-end was a broad, featureless gravelled cul de sac; today it is a well developed tourist amenity.
The bus tourists fanned out across the wide shelf of the reef, while others were intrigued by the nearby seals. Not far back along the road another 30 cars were parked by an outdoor cafe, the first I recall seeing by a New Zealand roadside. How we will cope with our rapidly increasing tourism remains to be seen, but the obvious problem is the same one worldwide – overcrowded hot-spots, with amenity development lagging behind.
Perhaps related to all this, I have a major new project to pursue. While there’s little new to say about our landscapes, at least by the broad light of day, I have conceived a new book-length theme: “Modest Epiphanies: Deeper meanings in the New Zealand landscape”. What exactly does this involve? What are my epiphanies? Are there actually deeper meanings? No doubt some satire and social commentary will emerge alongside interesting new angles on the jeweller’s window (in scenic terms) that is my country, away from the urban centres, that is. Yet I have a feeling Milford Sound and Mount Cook might not even feature…
0362 Yana by the Aorere, Golden Bay. 8.40pm, 4 March 2015
On a lovely late summer evening I took a break from the moonrise to ask Yana to pose as the highlight for this composition. Flash gives a solid block of colour, as expected. The river mouth is intentionally underexposed, while the fisherman is included to add some depth. My initial jpeg from the RAW file was disappointing and not at all faithful to the limpid tones of the original, so adjustments were made in post-processing. This scene was only a short walk from our accommodation at the Collingwood campground. The township is based on a sandspit but is more famous for its flammability.
9978-79 The golf course after dark, New Plymouth. 10.36pm, 3 February 2015
In post-processing I chose two frames which looked doubtful for the auto program to handle, so was agreeably surprised to have them adroitly merged, despite the likely dislocation of fast-moving clouds. I had stopped these on each frame with short exposures; faster shutter speeds were possible but only at wider apertures, which would sacrifice depth of field. City lights fill in the moon-shadow on the left and highlight the macrocarpa trunk and offshore clouds, but to the right is sodium-free, being leeward of the ridge. Human silhouettes would add further interest – one day I must duplicate some people by having them move from one frame to the other in the pause between exposures. Double-click on the image for a closer look.
9940 On the links, Fitzroy full moon. 10.05pm, 3 February 2015
Sited as it is on old dunes, the golf course has some pleasant undulations; two stiles on the street suggested a ramble. A potential problem for moonlight photography was the row of sodium nearby – moonlight can’t compete with city lights, but when they are at a good distance some balance can emerge. The two light sources are also far apart in their colour temperatures so an either/or selection must be made on your camera setting (actually not quite true – an intermediate choice is possible, but not as a preset). In this case the warm sodium glow was acceptable and a higher colour temperature ensured a natural look to the clouds. I asked my wife & companion Narumon to stand on the rise and she held her pose very ably while the clouds moved into position. The image has been cropped to 16×9 and now graces my own screen as wallpaper.
I took this one afternoon in the early autumn of 2010, when Yana was 20. My father had some self-sown vines rioting in his garden (yielding 80 large melons), which looked to make a good backdrop. It’s no surprise to see here the same elements as in previous portraits: sympathetic ground, soft light, harmony of colour – and a subject with a low-key expression, posed direct to camera.
Taken at f2.8 on 1/200th sec on standard lens setting [60mm in 35mm terms]; the great depth of focus even on this aperture stems from the Lumix LX3’s smaller sensor. A law of optics states that depth of field increases as sensor size (or film plate) reduces.
A discrete chair in the Whatipu wilderness puts you one step ahead in the relaxed model stakes – as does a warm coat – but the secret ingredient to portrait work seems to be having an accomplice, one who distracts the subject with lively conversation while the photographer pretends to poodle around with his tripod and settings. In this case, Yana is standing close by, so that Claire remains face-on to camera. For portrait work my Nikon 85mm lens is an obvious choice, and it’s a sharp lens for a soft (though wintry) light. As backdrop I like the filigree of flax and the rock, and Claire’s good twin has also come by – note the different colouration – for a final appearance.
A pause in readings from the Little Book of Sacrifices. A simple lateral flick-trick found online has brought out some unexpected imagery, while a slight re-framing avoids complete symmetry. A warm duotone was selected after conversion from the colour original. The hand-colouring is hardly brilliant, but this looks to be a hard-wearing image with many possibilities for future embroidery. The rosary was Claire’s suggestion, although her own tastes appear to be more literary than gothic. (Would authors of such fiction, however, please communicate).
N.B. No small animals were harmed in the making of this image.
Continuing the evening portrait theme is this “one-take” shot of our UK visitor Ben, in 2010, taken on the cliff above Back Beach in New Plymouth. The light is striking, but the effect is enhanced by the “da Vinci” background of Paritutu Rock, pylon and blue sky. I would not call this twilight photography, as the sun is still at the horizon, although softened in a summer haze. Although most portraits benefit from low contrast, a little more has been added here in post-processing, plus some vibrancy.
Or something like it. Claire is distracted with readings from a good book. Light ent., relief and engagement shine through as the drizzle descends. Low angle with tripod; wide angle lens predictably highlights her fine hands; her hair is emphasised by post-pro desaturation and selective re-saturation.
An important ingredient of memorable portraits is the capture of micro-emotion, those inner feelings which flicker on the silver screen of our faces. These are surely basic to our primate biology. Even if as here the occasion is fictitious, we immediately recognise the human reality of expression. In this curious blend of fiction and fact we see the genetic relationship of the portrait with the novel. (This observation can’t be original, but at least the occasion was.)
Whatipu is a vast expanse of beach and wetland on Auckland’s west coast. It’s a wild place and amazingly changed since my first visit over 40 years ago – wider and wetter, it is now also far more vegetated. On a winter’s afternoon we barely sampled the place – there’s hours of it. After only a short interlude of sporadic sunshine, threatening cloud suggested a retreat to the car. Here Claire and her faithful doppelganger appear to enjoy some brief relaxation, in between rays. With thanks to Lucy for the chairs and Yana for other assistance.
In post-processing this simple image transforms, giving two quite different versions. In the image above, I dialled back the saturation and increased the contrast (80% in each case), to mimic the current glossy style. In the monochrome below, each colour channel was separately modified in the conversion process, so the flax has come out lighter (the green & yellow channels) and the towel darker (blue channel) – and Claire’s lips also (magenta). The towel merging with the background means the image is now somewhat over-flaxed, while 22-year-old Claire looks even younger than before.
Everyone complains of his memory; nobody of his judgement.
– Francois de La Rochefoucauld
When setting this up I wasn’t certain I was on a public road, but according to Google this is Cook Road, overlooking Waimarama on the coast. No vehicle came by the whole time, but traffic was regular on the main road just below.
To get the desired sweep of road I pitched the tripod on an elevated shoulder. Everything was slushy underfoot, and I was pleased to be wearing waterproof gumboots, as having warm, dry feet all evening is a real boon to middle aged night photography. Yet the slush was nothing like the drastic conditions experienced here since, and this scene won’t be so easy on the eye since the area’s record floods.
I have darkened this in post-pro as the original frame looks like daylight; a stop or two less would have been better. Having run into the frame from the higher viewpoint, I am slightly transparent; instead of figuring out the self-timer beforehand on the new camera, in the dark I followed the path of least resistance.
In the field I keep my gear on my back throughout; on changing lenses, filters etc I restore everything immediately to the bag. By day it is often convenient to have accessories out of your kit and close to hand, but even by a bright moon you will find that gear is easily misplaced or knocked over, or simply overlooked when you move on.
Also, when out on your own at night, your primate brain is alert with an instinctive wariness. Having anything not on the tripod already on your back is an elementary precaution for a possible dash to safety – however unlikely that event proves to be by the end of a pleasant evening.
No public road is ever 100% safe, but a gravel one without fences is a good bet.
All glory comes from daring to begin – Eugene F. Ware, American soldier
There’s no better time for moonlight photography than when you are on holiday with a large territory you are free to wander over. Here’s a memorable evening at summer’s end with a cool southwester still about, as indicated in this well-clad group study. Remarkable about this line-up at Kaihoka, Golden Bay is my lack of better stage direction and that these obliging folk have all held still for half a minute.
At least I have separated the two coloured jackets and arranged people by height, while the long shutter is a necessity with the Lumix LX3 as anything over ISO 200 results in excessive noise. The skin tones are great and there’s a pleasant warmth overall. If this was a daylight photo only its slight underexposure might warrant comment, but this is no-street-light-for-miles, 100% full spectrum moonlight… the kind I really like.
My nameless victims are resting their heads against the corrugated iron to help hold their poses, a technique evocative of old-time daylight photography. In the 1840 – 1890 era slow emulsions required similarly long exposures, and the same sort of accommodating poses. When you attempt this sort of line-up yourself, try one with the last person on the right moving about in a blur. As we typically scan images left to right, this should create a startling effect. So why didn’t I think of that at the time?
Despite the possibly unsavoury context for the quote, I use it as an unsubtle prompt for two of the people shown and as a reminder to myself as well, to “Get going!” As a fatuous generalisation there are two types of people: those who have trouble finishing anything, and those in the opposite camp, who have ignition issues. Active self-starting bodies are in the first division; passive vessels with hard-to-find crank handles are in the second.
Out with some Scottish friends under a brilliant moon – the best since 1993 – we legged a good stretch of the Waiwhakaiho walkway, on the New Plymouth outskirts. Having noted this viewpoint along the way, it was surprising how long it took to re-locate it on our return. On the wild uplands of Tibet photographer Alister Benn used GPS data to find his earlier location, for a great moonlit mountain scene (www.availablelightimages.com) but you and I muddle in the dark instead, on city fringes.
Oh well… To fit my intended photo, the path had to look out to sea and take in the two largest Sugar Loaves off Port Taranaki, so that the frame would feature long surf breaks while avoiding city lights. However the walkway crosses various low sandills and in the gloom all the crests looked the same – until we arrived back here.
In this shot, flash in the first instant is paired with a long interval over which the feeble photons of moonlight build up on the sensor. These two light sources are rarely combined. I missed an opportunity in not re-focussing for background straight after the flash, for the moonlight fill-in. To do this you simply move the focus closer to infinity on the lens barrel, manually, to give two fields of focus on the same frame.
Our friends had gone on ahead but with more time I would have thought of a better pose, while for the ghosting a dark background is clearly preferrable. Obliging here is my wife Narumon; the red poles are sculpture and the light out to sea is actually at the end of the breakwater.
The varying distance of the moon from Earth affects the power of moonlight slightly over the 18-year cycle of the lunar orbit. In March 2011 the moon was again at its closest point to Earth, and so at maximum luminosity.
85mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f11. Vivid picture control, pop-up flash.
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.
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!
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.
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.
It was midnight by the time I got here for some moonlight photography. Oakura is a good stretch of sand, in Taranaki terms. The place is very popular in summer but in these small hours all was quiet and deserted. No dog was walked and no beer was chugged in the carpark.
One problem for night photography at seaside resorts is street lighting. Even distant lamps will filter in under the moonlight, at a quite different colour temperature. The orange cast of most New Zealand street lighting is the difficulty. The answer is to use the tungsten setting to moderate the orange – and to get as far away from the lamps as possible. Distance from them also increases your chance of a balance with moonlight, as above.
So the extra glow on my legs is not sunburn but low-level sodium from the street. Parka Man looks out to sea and the next wave, on a mild summer’s night. The blue note is tungsten’s second contribution to this frame. Colour is an equation, and in taking away one hue you have to add another. This has creative application in setting mood.
ISO was a low 100, at f2 for 20 seconds on the Lumix, implying a bright scene by moonlight standards. The Lumix LX3 is a very advanced compact by Panasonic, whose market penetration has surely been assisted by the adoption of Zeiss lenses. The widest end of the zoom was used – 24mm in film terms – but not the self-timer. I have walked into the scene once the exposure has started, demonstrating a certain lack of substance which should appeal to the Buddhist segment of my readership.
Squaring up the original frame gives the canvas some peripheral interest – two stars top left, plus shipping and Saddleback (Motumahanga, the outermost Sugar Loaf). The proverbial footprints in the sand, a slight flare from the moon and low cloud above the central highlights all add further texture.
A single star, a dash of moonlight and the ever-present sodium lighting contribute to this striking composition. My shadow only hints at the heavy coat I wore against a chilly wind, whose blast is visible in the ruffling of the cabbage tree leaves. The high, solid fence stumps the dead end of Drake St at Waikawa Beach, near Levin. The landowners evidently wanted no truck with locals or the weekend throng – an impression they have reinforced further on with a very effective electric fence.
Adding my own shadow broke up the blankness of the wall and echoes the dark form of the cabbage tree quite well. It’s a pity there isn’t more interest in the sky, but it was swept clear of any cloud by the fierce southerly. The Lumix LX3 fortunately does not offer much wind resistance, being so compact, so I could stand well away from the tripod. It’s a rare night when conditions are truly perfect for moonlight photography, especially if deck chairs, bougainvillea and emerald waters are considered essential ingredients.
The pale sky comes from a high, full moon but the hue owes much to tungsten, a setting selected to counteract the orange cast of the street lighting. This light has mixed nicely with the moonlight on the cabbage tree. Zoom was at the longest, 60mm (in 35mm camera terms), and exposure was f2.8 for only 20 seconds, on a low ISO 200.
The background topography sums up this sandy coast, where older, grassed dunes predate a wide frontage of more active material on the beach. As with so much of the pastoral coastline of New Zealand, the landscape is somewhat bleak and away from the baches and subdivisions it is only sparsely settled. Apart from Dr Seuss cabbage trees, the typical trees of this coast are those just visible on the margins – gloomy pines, by the hectare.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cinematographers have a style called day-for-night, in which night scenes are filmed by day. They are underexposed and a blue filter is sometimes added for closer simulation. Here’s the opposite approach, a night scene designed to resemble daylight. Admittedly the original file is a little duller than this, and I have brought the large slow-moving cumulus out more, but the telling signs of movement are there – especially my sister’s walk-on role as a spectral presence.
The area around Westhaven Inlet in the far west of Golden Bay has some really interesting topography. On holiday on a Kaihoka farm, we all went out for a moonlit walk, for which naturally I took along my tripod and Lumix LX3. When you do exposures as long as 60 seconds apiece (at f2, ISO 100), in the gloom people can’t always see what you’re aiming at – I could hardly tell myself – or get that you’re actually photographing. By pure serendipity Fran has wandered into the wide angle frame, perhaps from the 3o second mark. Her colourful but translucent windbreaker adds considerably to the interest, and despite her apparent pose no Shakespearean sililoquy was intended.
The main point to convey is that moonlight will resemble daylight if enough rays can assemble on your sensor. Usually it will be a warm-looking daylight, and usually it will need an exposure of 30 seconds or more. Secondly, though, if this apparent daylight is then undermined by obvious signs of motion or activity, how all the more startling!
Moving subjects might include people, animals, wind-blown trees, clouds, water and surf, washing on the line… I’m still exploring the possibilities myself.
The composition is also worth noting, as it is again in classic thirds (see no. 20. Spring willows). The sinuous road matches the ridge line, while the brightest part of the cloud mass has its counterpoise in the figure; meantime a bright rooftop anchors the perspective. At least some of the photo was deliberate.
Winter outings under a clear sky and high moon make for pleasant social excursions, especially when everyone is properly kitted up. The city of Nelson is ringed by hills, and with just a few turns in the road – usually uphill – you are soon removed from urban lights and noise. There’s safety in numbers too, and so I was out with four venturesome women friends. Parking at the Tantragee Saddle, we walked down the access road to Groom Creek, a minor tributary of the Maitai.
Not so long ago this was a charming byway, which criss-crossed Groom Creek with rustic copses along the way. Now the road has been upgraded to take logging trucks, and its leafy margins have been cleared. Above, we’re close to a logging platform, as the rigging suggests. With moonlight photography only occasionally can you see what you’re doing in the Lumix LX3 viewfinder, so to have the bright sky and cloud quite visible this night was a big help.
With a 50 second exposure (f2, ISO 200) and four people posing, there’s little scope for extra shots, and you have to think quickly on the technicals and how to choreograph your subjects. So I was happy to get this in just one exposure. Then there’s the fun of everyone waiting another 50 seconds for the image to show – while I try to think of other possible angles. However, you have to keep up with the company, and that night some of them were reluctant to stand still because they were cold.
Active ingredients in this pic are the moving cloud, silhouettes and the unexpected profile of the derrick. You could get a similar effect with a sunlit underexposure, and then take a dozen variations quite quickly too, but the cloud blur as a capping element is simply not possible by day. In outdoor terms, captured motion is a creative dimension unique to deep twilight and the dark.
My people shots by moonlight have been infrequent, but with the luxury of quality ISO 2000 on the new Nikon D700, I will do more. The movement factor widens the creative scope of long exposures considerably. Here it’s demonstrated simply, by Gerry taking a puff of her cigarette for 8 seconds (at f4, using a 28mm wide angle lens). What this pic lacks in an ember trail it makes up for with a startling daylight effect, supplied by just a few seconds of open shutter – my previous camera required 60 seconds minimum for this.
Given the usual warm tones of moonlight, a second surprise is the colour balance: an unexpected daylight feel, especially in skin tone. The auto balance is obviously a real performer. Unfortunately the auto focus is not so clever and nor am I: the lack of focus on Gerry shows. A less experienced photographer might pass this off as subject movement but the clue is in the fuzzy seaweed in the right hand corner. Supposing that I’m more experienced, shouldn’t I have realised that casual focus would not pay, even with a wide angle lens at f4? Conversely, had I focussed at 2 m, roughly my distance here, background sharpness would’ve been quite passable.. in mitigation I must plead fatigue after a great night of photography. Not to mention lack of practice with manual focus on the new lens – and auto focus settings.
This night visit was my first to the area and the view above is my only “daylight” impression of it. Although it’s a small settlement Ocean Beach seems to have some renown, and certainly the final approach down a steep narrow road cut into the hillside was memorable for Gerry, at the wheel. Also memorable was the unseasonable 2 degrees Celsius, the result of a frigid southerly breeze “springing” up. Under the circumstances I told Gerry that for this photograph she could keep her clothes on.