Flash, twilight and birds on the wire. A straight-forward composition – what more is there to say?
1/200th sec at f16. ISO 500; Nikon 50mm. Flash
Flash, twilight and birds on the wire. A straight-forward composition – what more is there to say?
1/200th sec at f16. ISO 500; Nikon 50mm. Flash
PRINT of the Month for February is this colourful composition from Omata, on New Plymouth’s southern fringe. Enlightened fennel flowers front for an almost-full moon, rising slowly without fanfare. The road is a quiet, no-exit one and but for a muted drone from distant SH45 the scene had no soundtrack.
This fine art photo is printed A3 size (297 x 420mm) on archival photo rag paper, with long-lasting proprietary inks. The edition is strictly limited to just 25 prints, each numbered and signed by yours truly, the photographer. A certificate of authenticity, an artist’s statement and a warranty come with every print.
This month only, Waireka Moonrise, Taranaki is available for $99 post-free within NZ (or $A99 post-free to Australia). Please allow 10 days for printing and despatch. A receipt is emailed too, if required. Special price offer ends Thursday 28th February 2019; price thereafter $125 each. I reserve the right to further increase print prices as the edition nears selling out.
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DECEMBER in my Modest Epiphanies 2019 Calendar (now sold out). This is a nice balance between ambient twilight and flash, which shows as only a hint on the flax. Most magazine photos with close-up subjects (especially people) are illuminated in the same way, but often with the subject massively highlighted.
The Sugar Loaves – so named by Captain James Cook – are volcanic remnants about 1.75 million years old, adjacent to (and partly sheltering) Port Taranaki. This view is from the base of the most conspicuous remnant, land-based Paritutu Rock, looking out on to Motumahanga (Saddleback), the most outlying of the islands.
1/250th at f2.8. Nikon 85mm; ISO 200. Flash
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!
2 secs at f2. Nikon 50mm; ISO 2000
This twilit tableau was the runner-up in my series of St Joseph with a vase of faux flowers. It ranks as “runner-up” only because it’s entirely moon-less, the crescent moon (the object of the whole exercise) being too high in the sky to be included in a horizontal composition. However as a simple set-up, this seems a more compelling image to me. I like the good range of colour and how the flash balances with the background lighting. It also has some artistic black space on the lower right, suitable for a quote (or headline), and I have supplied an anonymous, satirical example of such below.
In comparing the impact of this standard horizontal image with the earlier vertical frame, isn’t it an odd truth that the old 35mm format of 2:3 works much better for horizontals? The 2:3 format seems too long and narrow for most vertical applications, where 4:3 is often a better fit. That aside, good vertical compositions are generally harder to achieve than horizontal ones, yet verticals are so much to the fore these days – thanks of course to the demands of Instagram, Pinterest and smartphones.
1.3 secs at f22. Nikon 28mm; ISO 250. Flash
How I love the crescent moon. The new moon is a real waif, and only visible for a short time on the twilit horizon, before it too sinks below sight. Then night after night the crescent moon fattens, spending longer in the western sky – each night the moon rises about an hour later, so sets later too. Twilight is the best time to get the crescent moon; later the sky is so dark that the unlit part of the moon will also show up, stealing your crescent.
In this wide angle view, the moon is reduced to a tiny cameo. Not wanting to participate in rush hour traffic, I stayed home and set this up, hard pressed to find anything else to make an interesting shot. The camera looks up to get everything in, and while I wrestled with different settings and placements, the moon kept moving (surprise surprise), in and out of view through the branches, requiring further frantic adjustments.
So I have at last put St Joseph to work, while he gathers in his lambs. They must be metaphorical, as he was a carpenter (or artisan), rather than a shepherd. We bought this likeness from a Catholic supplies shop in Bangkok in 2003. We got two Holy Virgins at the same time, in different sizes. The virgins have seen more limelight over the years, the BVM having greater recognition value. The companion piece, a vase of fake flowers, came with a house purchase we made in 2010. It makes a handy, low maintenance prop.
3 secs at f22. Nikon 28mm; ISO 250. Flash
Across from the huge petro plant at Motunui, north Taranaki, is Waipapa cemetery, a Maori urupa dating from 1923. The cemetery is unusual in having a surrounding wall and a gateway, while its monuments present an awesome contrast with the industrial silos on the other side of Otaraoa Rd, to the northeast. However, most of the Motunui installation is out of sight, beyond the knoll.
When I visited here on a rainy summer’s day in 2010 the no-exit gravel road ended as it does now, just above the beach, but as a neglected cul de sac, overgrown with roadside weeds. Amongst the overgrowth was unsightly rubbish, dumped over a long period, and potatoes grew large in the resulting compost. Later visits found the road-end cleaned up and much improved, and two calls by moonlight were memorable for the dairy cows in the adjacent paddock, and the surf on the cobble beach below.
The juxtaposition of cross and silos was achieved with a long telephoto setting and a tiny aperture – even f45 is possible at maximum zoom on this lens. This gives a better depth of focus, compensating for the inherent shallow focus of any telephoto lens. After focus, the second challenge at twilight was naturally the changing light, and the trade-off between selecting a small aperture or a short exposure (to freeze cloud movement). In these situations it always comes down to this: you can’t optimise both, so just choose one!
10 secs at f40. Nikon 200mm zoom; ISO <200
Rarely have I taken such a strange, otherworldly scene such as this. The funereal gold, grey and alabaster are relieved only by the faint sunset and the industrial background. In using flash I could easily have hand-held the shot; instead I struggled to compose on a tripod (already set up for long exposure possibilities). Flash is ideal for highlighting form over colour, but its great powers of definition involve high contrast, which I have softened here in post-processing. Twilight alone would not have chiselled the angel child nor have gilded the name so remarkably.
Memento mori: Latin for “Remember that we all have to die”, a reflection on our respective entrances and exits from the long-running Stage of Life. Of course “We are born alone … and die alone”, but what really matters is that these existential bookends happen gently, and with loving support.
1/250th sec at f8. 50mm; ISO 250
I have begun a new project: a series of cameos from New Zealand cemeteries, taken by day and night, styled under the Latin term above. No longer a common phrase, memento mori translates to “Remember that you have to die”, meant as a reflection on our inevitable mortality. Cemeteries, and particularly older ones, are sanitised theme parks testifying to this hugely inconvenient fact.
They are also places where one can nod to one’s ancestors and their collaterals, witness innumerable past lives (some long; many short) and war casualties, and see unusual sculptural forms. It is generally the only place where Westerners can encounter angels, which are very distinctive forms and ones I rather like.
There are two main challenges here, the main one being to balance the flash with the steadily fading daylight – this requires an effort with aperture selection and distance, owing to flash fall-off. For example I would’ve preferred f8 or f11 (rather than f5.6) for better depth of focus, but these weren’t practicable because the flash was not so strong at that distance. The second consideration is to crop surnames from headstones wherever possible, although occasionally a single distinctive name adds to the effect, as we shall see in due course.
Karoro Cemetery is on Greymouth’s outskirts; it is a large and open setting, on a long, flattish terrace; we walked there in a roundabout way from the holiday park below. My Thai companions walked through the place reluctantly, from cultural apprehensions, and did not linger. However I found plenty of interest, as night gradually fell.
1/250th sec at f5.6; Nikon 85mm; ISO 250
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.
50mm lens, ISO 500; 1/8 sec at f16; flash
Te Hapu is a wonderful farmstay in far Golden Bay – on the West Coast in fact, after a drive down fabulous Westhaven Inlet. The farm is a rugged 1,000 acres of limestone, and its scenic highlights include what must be one of the best private beaches in the country, Gilbert’s Beach, with its encircling reef and dramatic backdrop of cliff and nikau palms.
It is a lovely place to wander, although not much of it is level! Some days too the wind blows strongly, especially from the southwest, and anything trying to grow where the wind funnels is bound to take a protective stance against it, as above. I took this when we stayed there last April; the photo features in my new book, Perfect Evenings.
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.
0973 Autumn in the Maitai gloom, Nelson. 5.11pm, 26 April 2015
In late April a quick trip to the Maitai Valley, on the edge of the city, is much easier than the long road to central Otago (where great swathes of lovely poplars and cotoneasters are now gone from our favourite walk at Arrowtown). Although the light balance between flash and background above suggests twilight, this cameo was actually taken half an hour before sundown, in the pre-drizzle gloom of a heavy overcast. Flash is a crude instrument but then so is a hammer – and after a few attempts I felt I had it nailed.
50mm; ISO 250. 1/250th sec @ f7.1. Flash
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.
85mm, ISO 100. 5 seconds at f11.
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.
28mm, ISO 500. 3 secs at f11
0020 Summer moonrise. 8.54pm, 4 February 2015
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].
165mm, ISO 500. 1/10th sec at f8
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.
300mm, ISO 2500. 1/250th sec @ f8. Flash
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.
70mm, ISO 500. 1/500th sec at f8
9135 The evening rush. 9.03pm, 27 December 2014
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.
180mm, ISO 250 – 1.3/sec at f11.
5957. Renee on the coast
Sunset and twilight glows are great times to photograph people, as the light is warm and lateral, rather than cool and overhead. Long exposures are sometimes necessary, true, but using the tripod slows you down to give each frame full consideration. It was a full moon and Be Kind to Photographers Week when my old chum offered a walk along the coast from Wellington’s Owhiro Bay. This spot by a lichen-encrusted boulder was away from the unseasonal breeze. Exposure was 1/4 sec at f11. The 28mm wide angle is not a lens normally used for portraits, but distortion is minimal. Thanks are due to Geraldine for the robe and Renee for her patience.
The true art of memory is the art of attention. – Samuel Johnson
50mm; ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f11
Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever. – Napoleon Bonaparte
50mm; ISO 2500. 30 seconds at f22. Flash; sodium vapour light balance
There are no eyes here / In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley / This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms – T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
85mm; ISO 500. 30 seconds at f16. Incandescent light balance
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you. – Lewis B. Smedes
85mm; ISO 500. 15 seconds at f16. Incandescent light balance
85mm; ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f16
I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.
85mm; ISO 2000. 1/400th second at f4
This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple. Your philosophy is simple kindness.
– Dalai Lama XIV
50mm; ISO 2000. 1/13th second at f11
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. – Oscar Wilde
85mm; ISO 2000. 1/400th sec at f9
The illiteracy of the future will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography. – László Moholy-Nagy (Weimar photographer, 1926)
Oh for a rising moon behind! But there was heavy overcast – and anyway, the moon was yet to rise. By the way, a big moon rising after dark is past full and on the wane – not many people seem to know that.
This is the founding church at Ratana Pa, near Wanganui. Photography is not allowed within the gates, but as they are quite a feature in themselves I was content to take this from outside them. It was that time of evening when flash balances well with a longer exposure.
28mm, ISO 2000. 2 seconds at f16. Flash
The moon develops the imagination, as chemicals develop photographic images.
28mm; ISO 2000. 1/1.3rd second at f18. Flash
I see magic in the quiet light of dusk. – John Sexton
85mm; ISO 250. 30 seconds at f16. Incandescent light balance
Twilight photography is unfortunately neglected; what may be drab and uninteresting by daylight may assume a magnificent quality in the halflight between sunset and dark. – Ansel Adams
28mm; ISO 2000. 1/200th sec at f5. Flash
My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it. – Ursula K. Le Guin
28mm, ISO 2000. 1 sec at f11. Flash
All living creatures are making a great endeavour, struggling, to attain real everlasting happiness. – Srila Narayana Maharaja
Happiness through illusion? This actually is twilight, but stirred with the flash for foreground and then thoroughly shaken in post-pro. The original sky is very blue because I was trying a tungsten light balance. However I wanted something more upbeat and striking, since achieved by applying desaturation, dodging and hue manipulation to the RAW image .
At least the sheep are genuine; the hill profile is beyond the ridgeline by some distance. I like this as a simple but interesting composition, suitable for all ages.
85mm, ISO 2000. 1/2 sec at f5. Flash
Diligence is the mother of good fortune, and the goal of a good intention was never reached through its opposite, laziness. – Cervantes, 1615
85mm, ISO 2000. 1/500th sec at f5.6
The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not our circumstances. – Martha Washington, American First Lady.
85mm, ISO 320. 5 secs @ f5.6. Col balance 8330 deg K
Tomorrow will be the same, but not as this is. – Colin McCahon
“60mm”, ISO 125. 1 second at f2.8. Tungsten light balance
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. – William Faulkner
The epitome of the lonely grave, this one has extensive seafront views. Cecil Addison died of Tb, aged 16, on Christmas Eve 1924, and here lies in splendid isolation, some 800 m from the old homestead at Te Hapu.
From numerous technical frustrations this test frame emerged as the most interesting. With the moon rising I knew its light must at some point draw level with dwindling daylight, and from sunset I kept looking for my own moon shadow, even though it shows only in the deepest twilight.
Apart from sun bounce there are few occasions where natural light comes from multiple sources.
50mm, ISO 2000. 2 secs at f2
Start every day with a smile and get it over with. – W.C. Field
85mm, ISO 2000. 1/13th sec at f7.1. Flash, 10000 deg K
Do not dwell on the past; do not dream of the future.
Concentrate the mind on the present moment. – Buddha
85mm ISO 2000. 1/10th sec at f5.6. Flash at 10,000 deg K
There is no duty we so much underestimate as the duty of being happy.
Being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world. – Robert L. Stevenson
85mm, ISO 2000. 1 sec at f16. Flash
To have made a beginning is half of the business; dare to be wise – Horace
85mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds @ f11
Plan for the future because that’s where you are going to spend the rest of your life. – Mark Twain
But why plan for the future when it’s already here? While waiting for a late moonrise I saw this spectacle, looming above the top floor of a parking building. Flash-assisted in deep twilight, the scene is straight from Pixar – add your own morlocks.
I selected the highest possible light balance to offset the bluish twilight. The lamp standards are a feature of this elevation but they stayed off this evening. I’m uncertain what the flimsy structure behind houses; do the double doors give a clue?
85mm, ISO 1000. 30 seconds at f16. Flash, colour temperature 10,000K
Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone. – Anon
Any “ordinary” photo of floodlit buildings will be lifted by background twilight, an obliging moon and the selection of an artificial light balance. Lady Godiva obliging on a white horse in front of the dark tree would’ve helped too, but unfortunately she was already booked for the Rugby World Cup.
If a tripod is not available, go to wide angle, increase the ISO and steady yourself for a slow hand-held using the self-timer. Take several and chances are you’ll get something adequate even at 1/10th – depending somewhat on how wide you go.
28mm; ISO 2500. 1/50th at f2.8. Sodium vapour light balance
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
Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper. – Francis Bacon
Contrary to Bacon, as a night photographer my hopes rise at supper. The new moon is not visible until the sky darkens, well after sunset. This moon always needs a supporting cast, to add both human scale and pictorial interest; here that cast is very simple.
This could never be natural light because the new moon after sunset is always in the western sky. You could only get silhouettes from the flax stalks from this angle – without fill-in flash. The location is my regular haunt at Paritutu Centennial Park, not the rock itself.
85mm; ISO 1000. 1/50th at f16. Flash
Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long life. – Daniel F. E. Auber
Using the wide angle with flash at twilight is easier than the telephoto because the former has better depth of focus. Aperture selection balances the two light sources, the flash burst with the longer background fill. Flash impact is otherwise limited by ISO choice, or by adjusting distance from your foreground interest. The foreground was against the light so had no ambient detail; without the flash it was a vast silhouette.
28mm, ISO 2000. 1/3 sec at f14. Vivid picture control
Patience is a bitter plant, but it has sweet fruit. – Chinese proverb
The new crescent waxes and each evening is higher in the sky. Through a wide angle the early moon is barely visible; waxing a night or two later it is more conspicuous. Being higher in the sky it is harder to frame in the landscape – except on hillsides, and here I’m crouched low on a grassy slope. The tripod was optional at this point, but sharp results are more certain and for me working more slowly leads to greater concentration.
28mm, ISO 2000. 1/60th at f11. Incandescent light balance