Great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together. – Vincent van Gogh (attrib)
85mm; ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f11
Great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together. – Vincent van Gogh (attrib)
85mm; ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f11
|Photographing at night can be fascinating because we lose some of the control over what happens in front of the camera. - Michael Kenna|
28mm, ISO 2000. 464 seconds (7 min 44 sec) at f13. Sodium vapour light balance
The problem with the youth of today is that one is no longer part of it. – Salvadore Dali
50mm, ISO 2000. 30 secs at f11. Flash
The future is just going to be a vast, conforming ‘suburb of the soul’. - J.G. Ballard, 1982
28mm, ISO 2000. 30 secs at f9. Light balance 5000 deg K
Live courageously, and produce. - Vincent van Gogh
28mm, ISO 2000. 3 secs at f8. Sodium vapour light balance
I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace. - Helen Keller
85mm, ISO 2000. 30 secs at f16
What you do comes from what you think. - A Course in Miracles
85mm, ISO 2000. 13 secs at f11. Incandescent light balance
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims, into your eyes when the moonlight swims, and your matchbook songs and gypsy hymns: Who among them would try to impress you? - Bob Dylan (Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands)
85mm, ISO 2000. 5 secs at f11
Tomorrow will be the same, but not as this is. - Colin McCahon
“60mm”, ISO 125. 1 second at f2.8. Tungsten light balance
Through the friendly silence of the soundless moonlight. – Virgil
50mm, ISO 500. 30 seconds at f16. Flash
No state of affairs is ever perfect. - Horace
On a mild spring evening a slip of a moon comes down the starry sky to a calm sea. What a marvellous programme! A bench seat was provided but there was no admission charge, applause or intermission – and no commercials. Truth be told though, I had to leave before the moon did, not wanting to inconvenience the patient souls sitting in my car…
A more consciously abstract image, the layered bands weren’t obvious on site. From below you see the cliff shadow, then the more distant Tasman Sea lit by the industrial shore, then a last lingering twilight below the stars.
85mm; ISO 2000. 58 seconds at f7.1
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise. - Tacitus
You do not have the whole evening to shoot the crescent moon – it retires early. While it’s going, though, the crescent obliges the moonlight photographer on western coasts with some great reflections. The actual light from a crescent appears to be the feeblest shimmy, barely causing a shadow, yet its pictorial effects over water can be demonstrated with a shutter of just 2 seconds.
In view here is the north side of the harbour, bounded by the Lee Breakwater; soundtrack would include the occasional ruckus of roosting penguins under the sea wall from which this was taken. The Incandescent light balance (tungsten) was selected because of the bright bounce off the boats of onshore lighting; tungsten gives a convincing portrayal of night in terms of human emotion, yet it is technically off-beam.
The square format suits the subject matter but in cropping the original rectangle I’ve also eliminated a slight flare from the brilliant port lights, on the left side of the frame. A short shutter was required to have the boats sharp, as their slow motion even in harbour is soon apparent on longer shots. The added benefit of this is sharpness in the stars – on short telephotos the movement of the stars is slight but visible at 8 seconds.
The quote seemed to fit this image of safely moored vessels, on a coast devoid of natural harbours, yet boats are of course designed to ride the swells. The point is, nothing much is achieved in the shelter of a harbour, apart from preparation for the next trip away! We must venture out…
The image succeeds by its moody blues and the close match of light levels, moonlight with onshore lights. When shooting within city precincts this balancing of light sources is a good starting point for your night photography.
85mm, ISO 2000. 2 seconds at f4. Vivid picture control
I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing. – William James
Ratapiko is a small hydro lake near the edge of the Taranaki ring plain, about 40 minutes northeast of New Plymouth, in a quiet country district. Quiet on a winter’s evening at least, as in season Ratapiko is popular for boating and water skiing, but this night our main concern was low cloud and whether the mountain was even in the frame.
The peak could not be discerned through the long Takumar telephoto on the Pentax Spotmatic F, as its maximum aperture is f4. Actually the mountain was hardly visible by eye, and this composition could only be made by referring to a 60-second trial shot on the Lumix LX3 – which does not have a telephoto capability. I then extrapolated a longer exposure (unrecorded) for better star trails and a smaller aperture, to get the best focal depth from the lakeside trees to the mountain.
As often, Mt Taranaki looms above low cloud at 2518 m (8260 ft), in a common composition of vertical and horizontal thirds. The striking red shift is mostly reciprocity failure from such a long exposure on colour negative film (used here in desperation), but looking again at my digital trial shot suggests there is also some light scatter from the nearest towns, Stratford and Inglewood.
The early evening was really dark as the waning moon only rose at bedtime – a good opportunity for star trails, although I expected to see more. Next time I will use a shorter lens, frame this as a vertical and have the trails reflected on the lake, even at some sacrifice of the peak’s prominence in the frame.
Speaking of reflection, the quote from the American philospher is apt for the pause that l-o-n-g exposures enable. Working with two cameras, however, generally means less reflection and instead for me the satisfaction of more activity.
200mm, ISO 200. Estimated 12 minutes at f8
You can boost minimal moonlight by using its reflection for a silhouette – another way to employ the wan light of a slender moon. “Moonlight photography” for me means not photographing the moon itself (another subject entirely), but rather making pictures by its light. The term is freely abused by amateur photographers.
For a sharp study you want a calm night, or at least a sheltered location. At New Plymouth we had easterly winds recently, so leeward all was relatively tranquil, along the shoulder of Paritutu Centennial Park. The backdrop is the Tasman Sea and western sky lit by a sinking moon. The background silhouettes are two of the inshore Sugar Loaves; the stalk is from a flax bush (Phormium tenax), which is very tolerant of exposed coastal locations.
The highest normal ISO was used on the Nikon D700 (there are 2 higher steps, good only for exposure trials) to test for fine focus with the telephoto, after a rough guess by eye was made through the finder. My first trial shot at ISO 6400 was a mildly astonishing quarter of a second, wide open at f1.4… very rapid for night photography!
Afterwards I forgot to reset the ISO but the shorter times helped as there was a small problem with the intermittent breeeze. Top speed also enabled a smaller aperture and enhanced the background clarity. I was pleased the high ISO was not obvious in the result, as it sometimes is.
When I used 35mm B&W film I’d take this at ISO 125 and then print it on gold paper. Although I composed this through the viewfinder as a rectangular frame, I took it with a square composition in mind. In simple compositions there is often a lot of “waste” to either side with the standard 2 : 3 aspect ratio, a 35mm camera legacy. I believe the square format is more sympathetic to simple statements.
85mm, ISO 6400. 8 seconds at f8. Vivid picture control
North Taranaki this week has been clear and mild for night photography by the crescent moon. These slender new moons might give only the feeblest of light but if you can see your shadow by them then there is enough for moonlight photography! Nature also provides some magnifiers for moonlight, the best being its reflection on water. Snowy peaks or landscapes also good amplifiers of minimal moonlight.
The most obvious use of reflected moonlight is in seascapes, as in this view from the heights of Paritutu Centennial Park, above Back Beach, New Plymouth. Ngamotu nowadays refers to the beach enclosed since the late 1960s by Port Taranaki, but its original Maori reference is to the Sugarloaf Islands, two of which can be seen here: inshore Snapper Rock (Motuotamatea) and the Seal Rocks (Waikaranga) well beyond.
The moon was really past crescent but not yet at first quarter (a confusing term, say I); it was signing off early for the night by sinking into an approaching cloudbank. Out to sea it was already obscured, seen in the diminished reflection. Over a 5 minute exposure there was sufficient light however for the clouds and sea, even when using the smallest aperture on the telephoto.
It was also long enough to show a ship’s trail on the horizon (rather faint to my eye at the time) and a solitary star blaze in the right corner. The clouds were relatively slow moving, blurring less than anticipated. The vegetation on Snapper Rock has criss-cross shadows from the stark lights of the Dow agrichemical works, a great blight on the night landscape of this coast.
Autumn is a great season for the night photographer, and by 10th May in Taranaki the sun sets around 5.20 pm, allowing an early start without discouragement by the chill of July and August. Autumn also has more settled weather; wide isobars and an anticyclone are welcome here.
85mm, ISO 2000. 340 seconds (5 mins : 40) at f16. Vivid picture control
That’s the reflection of a sinking half moon, and probably Venus nearby, plus some extra electricity. This is actually on the West Coast, but access is by a long and winding road from Golden Bay. Here the remoteness and locked gate give the moonlight photographer total elbow room and real peace of mind. Come evening we had the whole place to ourselves, with not a single steer in sight, on our part of the farm at least.
Private land in interesting, open country tops my list of great destinations, because the biggest issue regarding your wandering about at night has to be your personal safety – particularly if you are female. “Safety in numbers” is the answer, but when you can’t find ready company do you go out alone? If you do, I suggest you at least get there before dark. You’ll then be more familiar with the ground you’ve covered, when it’s time to turn back. You’ll also find the developing dark easier to adapt to.
Better again though to give some thought beforehand to the best venues, beginning with how the carpark looks. You want somewhere with predictable traffic – e.g. late boaties or daytrippers – or really none at all. In Taranaki and Nelson I’d say the safest venues are to be found at distant road-ends, specifically those which are connected by walking tracks (or at least well marked access) to river reserves or national parks, and which cross open country. Private land with public rights, in other words.
At Te Hapu (www.tehapu.co.nz) we certainly didn’t have to think about this. For this shot I could have found the self-timer, selected the longest option and then run down the slope with my torch at the ready – but having Gerry willing to do the lighting on call from beneath the nikau made it much easier.
I enjoyed the company and also the directorial bit, so thanks again Gerry.
85mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f11.
Te Hapu is a cattle station south of Westhaven Inlet, an hour down the scenic coast from Collingwood in Golden Bay. It’s a big, rugged belt of limestone and its holiday cottages give city dwellers the chance to enjoy the landscape and splendid isolation (www.tehapu.co.nz). The four of us had the Shearing Shed Retreat for a few nights. It’s solar-powered with a lovely outdoor bath, but best of all is nearby Gilbert’s Beach, preserved by a locked gate from access by all and sundry.
Gilbert’s broad beach has an offshore reef, making it a safe swimming spot with clear water. A backdrop of scattered nikau and huge limestone buttress enhances the experience and as a location for the perfect summer idyll Gilbert’s lacks only shade – not that this mattered when I took the shot above.
It shows the last of the twilight when a half moon is in the western sky. The rosy glow was superb and the perfect balance of the two natural lights was striking. However the window of opportunity was narrow and the pink lasted but a minute or so. Soon after I could get landscape detail or a good reflection – but not both.
Focus was by eye, fortunately, but I was glad of a small aperture to get a good depth of field with the telephoto. This was our last night at Te Hapu; on earlier evenings we had had the pleasure of the crescent moon gracing the sunset sky, but only now was the moon in the right quadrant – and bright enough – to give this effect.
The half moon is at roughly at 12 o’clock position at sunset. In terms of the lunar cycle and moonlight photography it’s a good time for landscapes which need a westerly light – late afternoon in daylight terms – because the fuller moon only reaches the position well after midnight, or in the wee hours before dawn.
85mm lens, ISO2000. 30 seconds at f13
3 December 1979.
I was wandering up Queen Street, the main business street, feeling slightly nervous to be out so late on my own with my gear. The models were quite obliging however, and so brightly lit that I could do some quick hand-held photos with the Pentax Spotmatic and move on. Another surprise was the lack of reflection in the window glass. Photographing shopfront displays is usually problematic by day with unwanted reflections, and with street lighting it can still be bothersome. The standard lens was pressed against the glass for this one.
The film was Kodak’s Infra red Ektachrome, unfiltered on account of the tungsten lighting. This enabled an extra stop for the exposure, which was unrecorded but at an ISO of 200 I believe it was f1.4 at around 1/60th second. Holding the camera against the glass helped reduce camera shake. Infra red Ektachrome was a high contrast film, but the exposure has not suffered by it. The film’s infra red sensitivity was restricted to one layer of the emulsion; the other layers simply displaced colours for a surreal effect. The wig was golden as I recall, and her lips and neckline were actually red. My own hair was a similar length at this time but, alas, without any similar sense of style.
Composition and focus were easily established through the viewfinder. While there is some tension from the close cropping at left and the diagonal arm placement on the right, I suspect the frame avoids an intrusive retail placard. The minimal depth of focus which accompanies a wide open aperture has not been a problem here.
I call this photo the near side of night photography, relying as it does on a hand-held camera, instantaneous exposure and completely artificial lighting. It would not be possible to replicate the image by daylight, as the background mannequin would then be better lit.
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.
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.
Only with highly reflective scenes can the moonlight photographer stop down to f16, even with ISO 2000.
While using 30 seconds, that is, the last speed on the Nikon D700 before B. The Lumix LX3 has one thing over the D700: an extra speed, 60 seconds. Of course you can do any length on the B setting, but you must time it yourself, which is less convenient.
Admittedly there are worse hardships, but for me f16 is an aspirational aperture. I use it and B without hesitation in two situations. The first is for l-o-n-g exposures for star trails and the second is where I want the deepest possible focus. This especially applies to the shallow field of my regular partner, the 85mm lens (as above).
By extending the field of sharpness over the greatest distance f16 usually covers careless or difficult focussing. If you have manual focus, work off the bracketed scale on the lens barrel: set the near bracket a little closer than your estimated distance to the foreground interest. Or try some pre-focus frames. Sometimes I do trials with f1.4 and a few seconds. The results are always awful but can be deleted as soon as you have the correct fix – and once you calculate what f16 will need (a 7-stop difference).
Not every camera can manage ISO 2000 without excessive noise – electronic static comparable to emulsion grain, the old bane of fast film. A full-frame (FX) digital camera apparently handles this problem better than the sensors in DX cameras or compacts.
The shot has squared up fairly well. We’re looking northeast to the Sugar Loaves at New Plymouth, from near the Oakura River. The receding wave leaves ghostly impressions of movement. The tripod was set up at the top of the tide but I still had to move around as rogue ripples came up. Here 60 seconds would have doubled the risk of a shaken tripod; the wasted frame would take 2 minutes to clear.
When starved of moonlight by continuing nights of low cloud and rain, the desperate night photographer resorts to framing any scene containing an attractive range of form or colour. So an evening along the shores of Acacia Bay was balm for my exasperated soul, even if half my time was spent holding an umbrella above camera and tripod.
How things have changed here since my last visit on New Year’s Day, 1966! The bay is now an affluent outlier of Taupo, a resort city on the lake’s northern shore. Much of the Acacia waterfront is away from vehicle traffic, and is well kept, quiet and safe. This made for pleasant photography, bar the challenge of finding good compositions. I was attracted to the scene above by the nearby willow branch (lit by a tiny LED torch) and my interest was confirmed by the shoreline detail. Both elements fill out the frame, add depth and avoid the simple but conventional shot suggested by the curve of shore.
The low cloud reflects the city lights as a pleasing pink, picked up again on the water. More distant cloud highlights are a mix of moonlight and twilight, as f8 @ 30 seconds/ISO 2000 indicates these sources were close to par about 45 minutes after sunset. “Cloudy” was selected for light balance. Depth of focus at f8 is great on a 28mm lens. The shoreline blur gives a slight sense of lapping wavelets, although half a minute has smoothed the breezy ruffles on the lake.
It seems to me that city-at-night scenes need more than just bright lights to inspire us. They can be enhanced by foreground silhouettes (using a small aperture for good focal depth), or by adding some nearby colour detail by torchlight – preferrably something to contrast with the dominant yellows-and-reds, appealing though they are. The picture works as a colour statement yet only the extra interest of the right hand foreground compelled me to take it.
Frustrated by endless murk and rain over several nights at the last full moon, I set out anyway to prop up the tripod at some new locations around New Zealand’s largest lake, in the central North Island. I added an umbrella to the kit and spent a lot of time under it, trying to keep the drizzle off my lenses. The bag kept dry directly under the tripod. Fortunately Acacia Bay was a sheltered spot, without much wind.
The image above combines an initial instant of flash with a 30 second shutter time (using f8 at ISO 2000), through a 28mm lens. Slightly cropped from full frame, the shot shows something distinctly unusual – duck trails. I have previously found that a moving line of geese at twilight will turn into a sinuous snowy blur with extended exposure, but I was still surprised to see the brown smudge that each duck left as it paddled away from my camera.
These three had been disturbed from the pier by my intrusion, and returned to roost there whenever I moved off. The blue duck is really a white one, but she demonstrates the effect of flash when the tungsten setting is used – a case of mixing light sources of different colour temperatures. I chose tungsten to counteract the powerful cast of the sodium lighting nearby but this worked only partially – sodium has a much lower colour temperature than tungsten (think: household filament bulbs). While tungsten is around 3100 degress Kelvin, flash is 5500.
As it turns out, the sodium only shows in the movement trails, not counting the reflections from other shoreline lights. The flash has supplied the unexpected mosaic on the lake surface - the lake bottom is not that regular – although I can’t be certain that these effects are not from flash on the rain itself. It is these uncertainties plus the unpredictablility of your moving subject matter that give night photography such creative scope.
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.