This is the very first frame from a simple composition, one that I was subsequently unable to improve on. It is taken from Arthurstown, on the opposite side of the river, where protection works give an unobstructed viewpoint. Cumulus clouds by the full moon are appealing but are not that common; the main problem in photographing them is to stop them from blurring in the exposure required – that is, one which retains an adequate ISO and a sharp aperture setting. The three reflections and street lights are what made the scene worth recording, but the interesting thing is that the lights of the town aren’t reflected under the clouds, meaning they were higher and further north of Hokitika than this viewpoint suggests.
The further west or south you go in December, the longer the day (and the twilight), especially if you’re heading down the South Island before the solstice. We noticed this on our way to the Catlins (South Otago), via the West Coast. Although summer solstice marks the longest day, not many people know the earliest sunrise precedes the solstice, while the latest sunset follows it, by some days.
We began our trip with a full moon approaching, but sad to say, neither our travel arrangements nor the weather were conducive to moonlight photography. However, we had pleasant digs at Arthurstown, right by the Hokitika River, and this view back towards the town was a short walk from there. I had hoped to feature the distant dairy factory more prominently by moonlight, without knowing that at night the place would be brightly illuminated, swamping anything that moonlight could offer. Moonlight is so feeble that it generally competes only with distant artificial lighting.
Balancing the flash at close range with the ambient twilight can be troublesome, especially if depth of field is also important for your composition. I used f16 on my standard lens here, overlooking the optimal f22. Extra lighting is essential for this type of photo; although it doesn’t need to be by flash, I find it highly convenient.
Like some national flag, this somewhat humdrum scene has its quadrants, as well as enough eye-catching detail to make a composition. I can’t say it’s a favourite but it has been promoted up the ranks for selection by an enthusiastic supporter – so it must have something. What? Both colour highlights and silhouette are in there, along with natural texture and the blue wash of a calm Golden Bay (not always, of course – these rocks are foreshore defences). Above all, though, it has middle lines to divide – and unite – the composition. Both horizon and tree are in that “Avoid!” place, dead centre. Taking the place of the “third party” in composition terms are far-off lights, clouds and stars. Spending time at this quiet, far corner of the settlement made for an enchanted evening, despite no awesome photos resulting.
Re-framed to 16×10 for emphasis; 28mm, ISO 2000 30 seconds at f8
My 2017 calendar sold out last week, although some retail returns are expected. This image for June 2017 has been very popular. It was taken at the southern end of the inlet, where from sea level the road climbs steadily and steeply to the top of the limestone. Public roads with grass strips down the centre are not that common in New Zealand, but as this one serves just two farms it’s no real surprise to see it here. “Roads less travelled” lend themselves well to calendar imagery, and this one is in the “even less travelled” category, being off another, unsealed road to several farms which straggle down the coast. The trick is usually in getting sufficient elevation to please the eye with the path fully shown. A misty day helps, adding an uncommon atmosphere.
This is the September image in my North by Northwest 2017 Golden Bay calendar, of which only a small number remain unsold (see earlier posts for ordering details). This late night, full moon scene was taken at high tide, on a small creek on the northern arm of the inlet, in far Golden Bay. The picture also features in my next publication, Perfect Evenings: Long exposures from dusk to dark, which is now in preparation. A sequel to Night Visions: Reflections for the moonlight hours, the new book will round out my twilight & night photography, with the addition of a text explaining my approach and a technical section for those interested in the finer points of camera work at night.
Westhaven panorama, summer, from the Kaihoka hills.
Alas, panoramas do not suit my new calendar but this scene would otherwise qualify. The stormy drama above, stitched together from two frames, unfolded as we climbed the steep hills of the northern arm of the inlet. Although we anticipated a thorough soaking from the gathering cloud, in fact it was an isolated squall which did not stray north from the hills behind Rakopi (the settlement on the flat). Limestone meets granite inland at Knuckle Hill (right distance). The colours are summery and the tide was full – with its rugged hinterland, this is an inlet of many lights and moods! Click on the image for a larger version.
3028. Minor epiphany at Maitai, Nelson. 9.02pm, 25 November 2015
In valleys in summertime the evening can be well advanced before the full moon shows above the hills. To use twilight as well you’ll need to choose the evening just before the moon hits 100% full, when it rises before sunset. It can be fun to perch this lovely orb in various quirky ways, but the surprise is just how quickly – in a matter of seconds – the moon moves away from your careful line-up of picture elements, as I found here while wandering the Waahi Taakaro golf course in the Maitai valley.
As well as their cultivated landscapes and easy terrain, golf courses after-hours offer the night photographer something further – a generally safe setting. There’s only a small chance of stumbling into a ditch, of sudden intrusion, or of being run down by something or someone. Golf courses have their quiet corners, and often you can slip in the back way, across a stile somewhere along the boundary.
50mm; ISO 1250. 1/250th sec at f2. Hand-held; flash.
Tic tac toe: your move. Golden Bay, 7 January 2012, 9.33pm
When they get bored with pasture, cattle can freely roam these dunes at Kaihoka, but it looked like these ones were pondering their next move in a game of tic tac toe. Taken after sundown, my flash has caught their eyes and added form to blackness. This effect is different from the red-eye syndrome of old party snaps, but I know not why. The half hour after sunset is an excellent time to mix light sources, while unusual adjacencies also add interest. The colour temperature was boosted for this series, to offset the cool twilight.
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.
0679 Flotsam on a twilit tide, Golden Bay. 8.30pm, 5 March 2015
In photography the golden hour before sunset is followed by the blue hour of developing darkness. The blue cast can be mitigated with a light balance setting above “Direct sunlight”, which in degrees Kelvin measures about 5500. On the Nikon D700 you can choose to a maximum of 10,000 deg. Conversely, the blue cast can be exaggerated with a tungsten or sodium colour balance – each below 4,000 deg K – especially useful if your subject is lit by old style torch, headlight or house lights. However the reflected moonlight shown here has an unmodified light balance, for a simple composition. Selected by my daughters, each independently.
200mm, ISO 500. 5 secs at f16. Direct sunlight light balance.
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.
0085 Brewster’s Best Assorted. 9.28pm, 4 February 2015
I believe this is more biscuit tin than chocolate box, which is an elevation of one step in the Brewster Heirarchy of Fine Art. At least it is free of ferns and magnolias. From notes made some years ago I see that the three levels above “Biscuit tin” are deemed as Classic, Iconic and Sublime (also known as “Shock & awe”). In approbation these 5 levels correspond to good, very good, excellent, fave and absolute fave… Moonlight reflections have the same exposure value as clouds typically – that is, higher than city glow, which is minimal here. With a telephoto you can reach into a well lit landscape even when from my own position the moon was completely clouded. The long shutter speed has given clear images of the boats, which surprises me as they usually blur with sea motion.
A twilight moon always rises over a flat landscape – in lighting terms, at least, after sunset. Two strong aids to composition, much to my liking, are silhouettes and clouds, and only these are a match for the moon’s brightness as night begins to settle. A variety of clouds is always welcome, but too many at once and the moon will be continually ducking in and out of view. This deliberately simple image – very much taken with digital wallpaper in mind – records another routine cosmic occasion, as our fellow traveller looms into the gloom, ready to light a summer’s night [applause].
9807 Evening parade at Waiwhakaiho. 8.20pm, 3 February 2015
Clouds strike some marvellous poses, but as they will not hold them the trick is to be ready and waiting. Even better if they are only a side-show to the main act – an anticipated moonrise, for example. A big Nikon zoom lens needs a tripod for best results, especially with a polarising filter. A tripod does restrict you but it allows a much smaller aperture, which helps with overall sharpness after the filter and softness of a zoom lens are taken into account. Using a tripod also ensures a more considered approach, and more level horizons. The polariser, meanwhile, only works from a certain viewpoint, that is, one at roughly 90 deg to the sun. So you might as well stay in the right spot with your tripod.
112mm, ISO 250. 1/60th at f11. Polariser and tripod
9797 Wet feet at the Waiwhakaiho. 8.16pm, 3 February 2015
Zoom lenses are very engaging, but the price of their versatility is their typically lacklustre definition, and the extra care required in their use – especially with focus and depth of field. I have found with the Nikon 70-300mm that no really serious work can be undertaken without a tripod, and a self-timer release of 2 to 5 seconds, depending on the focal length and wind strength. Here a slow shutter speed resulted not only from the polariser (effectively 2-stops) and the low ISO but also the need for a small aperture for depth of field. The polariser works wonders on cloud forms at right angles to the sun, which was low to the left. The gulls are enjoying the dog-free side of the river; their beach was soon covered by the incoming tide.
95mm, ISO 250. 1/50th sec at f11. Polariser and tripod
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.
9039 Pukekura Park lights. 9.56pm, 22 December 2014
New Plymouth’s central park is not much fun to stroll through clutching a tripod, especially along with the evening crowds out to see the same lighting spectacle (and the free performances). So I left my ballast behind. This sort of photo is more effective in twilight rather than after dark, but on the other hand, flash is more dramatic on foregrounds. The colour changes on the spheres were rapid and uneven (in exposure terms) and as I did not want to hold up the company I took only a few frames, stopping down as much as I could. The golden glow is the fountain; the ducks did not register.
Simple, graphic compositions such as this moonrise-with-flax-flowers can be varied in post-processing with the hue tool. In my tool kit this is handily located next to the saturation dial, and enables a surprising spectrum of bizarre and surreal imagery. I have put some variations up for contrast but am not able to format them with suitable elbow-room. If you want to appreciate an image without colour clash, single it out with a double-click. While the middle image looks almost normal, the blue has been preternaturally intensified. It is quite safe to try this at home.
9289 NZ flax with moonrise, Ahu Ahu Rd, Taranaki. 8.59pm, 4 January 2015
My previous post left out another great NZ silhouette, Phormium tenax, now in summer flower and shown here in only semi-, thanks to flash. Taken at a sheltered location south of Oakura, one of the few north-facing beaches along the western North Island. The coast here is very walkable, as two footbridges link the Ahu Ahu, Weld and Timaru road ends with Oakura resort. To get the moon this size I used the long end of my zoom, and then self-timed the shutter to reduce shake (hand-held being quite marginal for this focal length). While big moons always mean big, telephoto lenses, the whopper moons often seen in popular media are invariably double exposures or superimpositions.
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.
9127 Evening sky at Bell Block beach. 8.39pm, 27 December 2014.
Tweaked in post-processing, as a surreal version. Taken not long before a pallid sunset, with the moon at 6 days new. Crescents are best photographed at twilight, as after dark the effect is lost because the dim entirety of the moon shows up. However, the twilit crescent 6 days new is too high in the sky for an interesting shot (the waxing moon sets roughly an hour later each evening). On a cloudless evening the best solution is to put the crescent close to a hilltop silhouette, by getting below it and looking up.
At Bell Block, a suburban outlier of New Plymouth, the Mangati Stream meets the coast through a steep shingle bank. This last reach came into view after sunset as we came up from the beach, by the new walkway extension. Adding to the uncommon textural unity was a soft, warm twilight. It was a lovely summer’s night.
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.
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)
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.
Live as long as you may, the first 20 years are the longest half of your life. – Southey
A composition in classic thirds. The quote is personal, referring to my first return to Waikanae Beach since spring 1976, with some ardent memories attached. Youthful impressions can be deepest on the sand!
Bright shore means a flash shore; moonlight being as feeble as the surf here, you can’t stop the waves in-frame by the wan moon. However a good mix of natural and artificial light occurs when a long shutter follows the flash, allowing the moonlight to accumulate on the sensor. The surf then is too blurred to feature.
Tomorrow we shall set out once more upon the vast sea. – Horace
Moonrises after dark indicate the moon is past full, and these moonrises, especially, need a frame of reference. They benefit from foreground interest, in this case from outcrops alongside the wharf at Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island. It’s a variation on the theme of no. 94, Kaikoura moonrise, and in fact taken just 14 minutes later. The spring tide was ebbing and shortly the rocks would be exposed on the beach.
The wharf lights were orange-red, for which the Incandescent balance has only partly compensated. However this is close to how it appeared to the eye, and the moonrise is sympathetic to the colour cast. Four stars are visible on the RAW image, but not here, while a tiny marginal houselight has been edited out. The Nikon D700 mirror does not cover 100% of the frame, so features left out of frame can still turn up in it – but now I am more conscious of avoiding this annoyance.
The vista looks east out to the Pacific and a wide angle lens was a natural choice, as the rocks were quite close. To keep the rising moon undistorted I used a shortish exposure, although normally preferring a smaller aperture for maximum depth of focus. The composition is simple, consisting of just two lines plus the moonbeam, but the textures add sufficient interest. Sadly though, there was no surf breaking because we were on the port’s leeside.
In hinting at life’s daily uncertainties the classical quote has a personal context. This memorable summer evening of boisterous tide and interesting light was followed next day by the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 22nd. Although we were driving to Christchurch we knew nothing of the quake and suffered no consequences. Had we not been in holiday mode, however, we would have arrived there before the quake struck.
28mm, ISO 2000. 5 seconds at f8. Standard picture control