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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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 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.
All living creatures are making a great endeavour, struggling, to attain real everlasting happiness. – Srila Narayana Maharaja
Happiness through illusion? Thisactually 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view; While all the women came and went, their foot-servants too. – Bob Dylan
The surreal song lyric [misquoted on the web] fits this enigmatic view from the waterfront pavement at Kaikoura, in the South Island. The scale is ambiguous and the light unusual, but at least more sense can be made of it than of Dylan’s allusion to the Book of Isaiah (thanks, Bob). The rock looms out of the deepening dusk as the street light over my shoulder gradually takes command; meanwhile the sun sinks further below the horizon.
Around inhabited places twilight is an excellent time to be out with your camera, because of changes in relative light levels. Always at some point the artificial lighting is at par with ambient twilight; soon after the twilight fades further, to appear like a backdrop. With digital cameras this transition is easy to capture, not that it is hard to see at the time, but the change at every twilight means that over a few short minutes opportunities are rich indeed.
This composition has some classic elements, including a “third punch” with the two smaller rocks. They have the same companionable role as the supporting characters in a Disney movie, where the leading characters often have two sidekicks. Other minor details embroider the frame – the boat in the swell, an emerging breaker and the headline cloud. To tone down the orange cast of the lamp I used Incandescent on the Nikon D700 light balance.
The smallest aperture on the telephoto was needed for good sharpness overall; a fuzzy background would mean less impact, remembering that the focus fall-off is marked on telephotos of even the most modest length. This is the case for setting up with a tripod before sunset, minimalists take note: it enables the best aperture selection without camera shake worries.
Twilight has one simple and obvious advantage over night photography: you can see what you are doing. You can focus by eye or auto, and compose quickly. You have a wider range of exposure choices, to allow or prevent movement showing, for example, without the sacrifice in aperture selection that workable shutter times need at night.
For a good while as twilight deepens you can also hand-hold the camera on a high ISO. This is convenient if you’re just after a few quick shots because of a time constraint. It’s also straight forward with large apertures on standard prime lenses, or you can use the widest end of your zoom, where camera shake is minimised. Steadier hand-held shots at twilight can be had with the support of car windows and chair backs – plus the use of the self-timer.
In the above type of photo, though, depth of focus is supreme and for this you’ll want a calm evening, a tripod and long shutter times. These go with the small aperture required. What to look for is colour contrast, because after sunset the ambient light has one supreme quality – it is very flat. It looks even more so when sky is excluded, an effect in itself worth experimenting with.
The light from a bright sky following sunset is often a good side-light too, but here the light was more diffused by surrounding trees. What this scan from Fuji slide film shows is how even in flat light, colours have subtly different exposure requirements. The correct exposure for one will sometimes drop another colour out – although preferrably just enough to create an effect.
The lavender is thus darker than it appeared, and the background darker still, but this works towards highlighting the rose. So often you expose for an average over the whole frame, but this image shows the benefit of selective exposure where the light provides only low contrast.
50mm, ISO 100. Exposure unrecorded; estimated 1 second at f16.
NEWS: The above image is one of about 50 of mine which have just been published in a free ebook of quotations by Hannah Samuel, public speaker, author and mentor, of Auckland. The Pocket Book of Men’s Wisdom, Volume 1 is a compilation of quotes from Kiwi men associated with Big Buddy (www.bigbuddy.org.nz), a mentoring organisation for boys in need of good male role models.
Each pearl is accompanied by one of my images, mostly daylight ones, although about a dozen are at twilight or night. This collection lets you see a broader range of my work than the images posted here, and the link below will take you to Hannah Samuel’s website. Both low res and high resolution options are available for free download, but I can recommend only the high res version for sharp delivery:
Congratulations to Hannah for bringing this together, and my personal thanks in addition. Hannah’s layout stipulation was for only square images, and that has turned out to be quite a creative spur for me.
The image above was one I had to wait for beside a country road (Neill Rd East) near Eltham. The lights of Kapuni petrochemical are in the distance, meaning it was actually darker than this intentionally pastel rendition of the scene suggests. Darker versions of this scene were less successful as all the lowland detail was lost in the deeper twilight. Here such detail gives a sense of distance and perspective.
In search of just this type of photo I had detoured a short way from the highway while driving home from Hawkes Bay. Fortunately I had some time to spare at this peaceful locality before the evening’s next scheduled event: the fabulous sight, from a hilltop behind Stratford, of these same snowy flanks lit up by the first rays of the rising moon. That image, a personal favourite, features in post no. 23, Moonrise on Mt Taranaki.
A companion piece to no. 107. Twilight tractor (and taken 6 minutes later), this electric call to good order conveys another mood. Existentialists may freely dwell on it. Outside the Waikanae boat club 45 minutes after sunset, the balance of light was changing in favour of artificial light. A star is visible in the nightfall. A full-ish moon had been up since 6.40 pm, so I suspect moonlight had a role in boosting the sky here.
On the Nikon D700 I used the Incandescent (tungsten) light balance to desaturate excessive yellow and intensify the blue. This was going to be a colour statement. Other decisions were also straight-forward: 1. a “short” exposure time to keep the clouds well defined; 2. a very small aperture for maximum depth of focus on the telephoto, and 3. Vivid picture control, for snappy colour. A simple composition such as this is all mood and colour.
The telephoto was a natural choice for the canvas, as a flattened perspective enhances the composition, which is in typical thirds. One horizon line was ample here and the top of the sign was lined up with it. By taking the shot from the elevated frontage of the boat club I could keep the beach itself out of the picture. Also just out of frame is the northern tip of Kapiti Island.
Having the camera already set up on the tripod meant more options at twilight, including long exposures for light trails from boats coming in. Hand-held shots in this gloom were still possible with a fast standard lens – say 1/30th second at f1.4, at ISO 2500 – and for people shots doing hand-held at the wide end of the zoom can still be a good idea. But I prefer a tripod. While there’s no doubt that it slows you down, it’s usually to good effect – your picture-taking will become more deliberate.
You don’t take many snaps when your camera’s on a tripod.
This took around 15 minutes at a small aperture, on Fuji slide film. It was a perfect summer’s evening at Paritutu Centennial Park, and I spent the interlude chatting with a friend. I’m only guessing that the stripe is Venus, but as she often accompanies the early moon it’s a good bet.
For trails like this I suggest a crescent moon and a long lens – the longer the better. Crescent moons set soon after sunset, so good colour on your horizon is likely. However to get such a long exposure and the moon suitably bright in the sky, the evening must be darker than it seems here. So moonset cannot be too close to sunset; about an hour between the two seems to work best.
We were fortunate to have such a warm and still night, as they are uncommon at this exposed outlook. In winter the same effect can be achieved with the waning moon rising just before dawn, but you’d be looking the other way, and without the balm we enjoyed. For the duration you could of course retire to your car and thermos; it’s really a case of when you prefer to be active and outdoors, but I’m an owl myself, not a lark.
The silhouette is of Snapper Rock (Motuotamatea), a semi-tidal island occupied by the old-time Maori. It’s not a brilliant outline but nothing else was available from the vantage point. Sometimes for these long-tail compositions a simple horizon will suffice, especially if there is texture below. However for my own I like to add a silhouette to the foreground or near distance, as having a black shape helps give depth and provides extra contrast.
Just like the sun, as it nears the horizon the moon colours up, as its rays pass through the atmosphere at an increasingly oblique angle. Here however thin low cloud in the far west has softened the effect.
200mm Pentax Takumar lens, ISO 100. Exposure unrecorded.
A single second of shutter is a brief joy for the twilight photographer, if only because the results are visible a mere second later. As the evening progresses these exposures become more and more extended as darkness descends. There are good reasons for your night photography to begin at twilight, if not before.
A daylight start confers three advantages. Firstly, your gradual adjustment to the longer exposures that the deeper night will require, and secondly, an easier adjustment to the night, as you settle into the routines of picture-taking. Supposedly it takes 20 minutes for our eyes to adapt to the dark although to me that seems overstated. However there is a lag before your irises really relax and allow your night vision to do what it once did for our far-off ancestors outside their caves!
The third advantage of a daylight arrival at your location relates to your own sense of security and personal safety in the night. Irrespective of your gender or age, this is of key importance. Physical hazards and nuisances are best established by daylight, as is your sense of direction. The human neighbourhood can also be better assessed then. Human risks can be indirect, e.g. wayward mountain bikers or hunters.
Puniho Road ends at the forested edge of Egmont National Park. Although this western side of the mountain is generally less accessible, a track leads up to link with the track around the mountain. At the carpark I waited one winter’s evening for the full moon, wondering if it would ever appear as scheduled. Perhaps with a global positioning device I could have pinpointed its exact rise, but all I knew was that it would come up somewhere around the mountain. I had forgotten what a false horizon even the foothills present. When the moon showed at last next to the rosy summit it was a magic moment.
“60mm” (in standard terms), ISO 80. 1 second at f2.8. Lumix LX3.
A very simple image taken at the Waikanae boat club on the Kapiti coast. The tractor is lit by a single bulb outside the clubrooms, and here is matched with the deepening gloom of twilight. Several boats came in shortly after, and the tractor was used for hauling each in turn up to road level. The profile offshore is the southern end of Kapiti Island, landmark for the district.
The twilight was darker than the exposure suggests, the Nikon D700 settings being only 3 stops more more than exposure for full-moon-on-water, for example. The incandescent (tungsten) light balance softens the harsh sodium lighting while deepening the evening blues. The balance of light was still slightly in favour of the western sky, but this changed in a few short minutes, despite the full moon in the east.
Although taken on the margin of night it is true that by the strict minimalist standards of, say, Ken Rockwell (www.kenrockwell.com/trips/2011-02-yosemite/index.htm), this shot could be managed without a tripod. However, using a hand-held 1/160th sec at f1.4, at ISO 2500, would involve only the shallowest of focuses and include some risk of camera shake on the telephoto.
Being an enthusiast for depth of field and a night photographer to boot, of course I had my tripod along and this was one of my first shots for the evening. Without a tripod it would have been one of my last. It can be tedious at times to have to lug and re-set the three-legged beast all evening, but only a portable fixed position allows the full scope of long exposure creativity. For me the beauties of this are the main attraction of twilight and night photography.
The single subject is a common starting point and its very simplicity can be a striking element, compositionally. Further interest I think lies in the two contrasting but balanced bodies of colour.
85mm, ISO 1000. 2 seconds at f16, Vivid picture control.
Stony twilights, Taranaki. 9.30 pm, 15 February 2011
Twilights in the plural because the background stones along the Stony River are moonlit, while the far slopes of Taranaki soak up the last of the day – although there must be some moonlight in there as well. However, the mid-distant rocks are lit from the north, where the half moon was well up in the sky. This uncommon sense of natural light from two different directions is quite subtle to the naked eye.
It’s more telling in a photograph, despite the surreal addition of foreground highlighting from the wan beams of an LED torch. Focus with the telephoto was too dim by eye, so to get a better depth of field I stopped down and decided to risk an increase in ISO, to one stop beyond my usual 2000. The difference in grain however is palpable.
Although this shot is not an immediate attention-grabber, it has interesting detail: cloud movement on the peak, a layer of flood-borne debris on the rocks, and a blurry river ripple above the boulders. Going upriver I found that the little red highlight was a track marker, while the other bright spot is a metallic band protecting a tree from possums.
Location is just off the Stony walkway, which largely follows the river. The Stony (Hangatahua) River is the only major river in western Taranaki, notable for its flood-prone wildness and the rapid descent it makes to the sea. Here it looks relatively tame, but the curve it makes around to the right below the trees suggests a high gradient.
Any wide riverbed makes an attractive venue for moonlight photography, especially if it has easy access and is tree-lined. A wide bed has the advantage of better lighting earlier in the evening. However what you gain in personal safety from the sense of seclusion is compromised by the rough terrain you have to cross. This applies too to setting up on the water’s edge.
85mm, ISO 4000. 30 seconds at f11. Vivid picture control
The nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is New Zealand’s only endemic palm. It likes company – the coastal flanks north of Te Hapu are swathed in this graceful palm – but can also stand on its own. As an iconic item in the New Zealand lowland landscape the nikau photographs well in pairs and threesomes.
These nikau pals hang out beside the track to Gilbert’s Beach at Te Hapu, a private cove on the South Island West Coast. I had walked past them many times in previous days but here at last was my opportunity after dark, by the light of a sinking half moon. Unfortunately my moonlight photography had already tested Gerry’s patience and the location was exposed to a cool easterly breeze – so my 85mm telephoto work was quick rather than careful. A 5-minute exposure at f8 would give a better result.
Even though this is not as sharp as I’d like, it conveys the mood and the depth of blue against the stars works especially well. I suspect there is still some lingering twilight in the sky, giving it a more vivid blue, but as the green fronds were at right angles to the earlier sunset I’m confident their colour comes from the waxing moon.
The main problem with my 85mm f1.4 lens in moonlight photography is not in seeing through it but in getting critical focus. I quickly found auto focus to be of no use and currently use trial & error for close-at-hand subjects, or f16 and the focus brackets on the lens for more distant compositions. My 85mm and 28mm Nikon lenses each have a depth of field that resembles a longer lens, relative to their equivalent 35mm-film lenses – or so it seems to me.
Vertical positions on the tripod ball are awkward. Fumbling around with your gear in the dark is awkward. Getting a pleasing result is not awkward.
85mm lens, ISO 2000. 65 seconds at f4. Vivid picture control.