A sombre but peaceful scene; the composition may be formalist but with the help of flash it rescues a somewhat flat summer moonrise. These pines at Waireka are at least alive, more than can be said for the 50 victims of the month’s most tragic event or – on a more immediately personal level – for a good friend whose death at the equinox came so prematurely and unexpectedly.
Technically, the depth of focus here at f5 tells you immediately that this was not taken with my favourite 85mm lens, as the background with such a telephoto could only be sharp with a small aperture. The twilight at this time was reasonably balanced with the moonrise but I used flash to highlight the pale trunks.
This is JULY in my 2019 Modest Epiphanies calendar – still available for your purchase, by the way. This winter angle on the tidal flat behind Tahuna Beach benefits from its split focus and from two figures captured by chance (someone with their dog; I saw no one at the time).
The split focus involves firstly a close focus with the telephoto, and beginning the half-minute exposure with flash, then immediately moving the lens barrel to infinity, for the remaining 29 seconds of the exposure. This routine is an awkward one to repeat, but the challenge is to get a balance in the lighting between the flash-lit foreground and the moonlit background. On the tidal flat much of the lighting came from the adjacent motor camp, but fortunately that too has balanced with the low power of the moonbeams.
I could name the dog walker as Sara N. Dippity – thank you Sara. This demonstrates that not everything that intrudes on your long exposure frame is a spoiler. Compositionally the usual challenge at beach locations is finding something interesting to populate the foreground, to add interest and a sense of depth.
In the late summer of 1975 I toured the South Island with a friend, in a 1952 Standard Vanguard (three forward gears; 22 mpg). One drizzly, very overcast Saturday morning we stopped to look over an abandoned farmhouse, close to the roadside. I was 19 years old and felt perfectly free to poke around any unoccupied property – this one was on the coast near Riverton, so that must be Colac Bay in the background.
In my trusty Asahi Pentax Spotmatic I had Kodachrome 25, a venerable slide film with an ISO of (yes) just 25. As I recall, I was not motivated to return to the car for my tripod, so used the self-timer for this, hand-held at 1/60th sec, with the aperture on the standard lens set fairly wide. The light was dull and the focal range low, but with the fragments of tinted glass well etched it made for a moody shot.
Abandoned houses and vehicles are all too easy – and frequent – subjects for artists of all kinds, but especially for photographers. However I still like this image, as it is a less obvious angle on a well covered theme.
A frame from my forthcoming Modest Epiphanies 2019 New Zealand Calendar, soon to be announced. It shows urban infill below an old Maori pa in Westown, a long established suburb in New Plymouth. A slow motion study in suburban subdivision, this last section of the subdivision development was unbuilt on for years, yet the street lights have shone every night regardless. The ponga (tree ferns) are iconic for lowland Taranaki, a reminder of the high rainfall the region receives.
The pa is relatively small but has a large terrace of old cultivations on the northwestern side, included in the historic reserve. Despite this pa being very well preserved and easily accessed, its history is virtually unknown. Old pa are a strong feature of north Taranaki but as they get little publicity they are largely overlooked by visitors. Magnificent Koru Pa, at Oakura, would be the prime example.
A solid (and chilly!) southwesterly was blowing that night, but the clouds are surprisingly static for a 30 second exposure – helped of course by the wide angle lens. Light balance was set on Incandescent, which brings out the blue of the sky while reducing the heavy orange of the sodium street lighting. The aperture setting ensured a good depth of field, not usually a challenge with a wide angle anyway.
The ancient power pole had long been relieved of its duty; perhaps the lines had been re-aligned. The grazing was thistle-infested, not such a common sight now in north Taranaki. I was attracted to this simple scene not only for the lichen growth and the sheep (and lambs), but also because the hillside gives a “false sky”.
A useful aid for composition, false skies are there for the using when you are looking up at a steep hillside, a dune or cliff; or especially when you are above a lake or other water body, looking down. Arrange your foreground and there you have it – added interest, and something momentarily disorienting for your viewer.
This scene would probably be just as effective with the animals completely out of focus behind the pole. However, without a long telephoto neither approach is likely to succeed, as sheep are easily disturbed and will move away as soon as you approach. A zoom is very good for this sort of work, but sad to say, zoom lenses don’t seem to have the sharpness of prime glass (fixed lenses). in post-processing I have used the sharpening tool on the five elements to the image, something I rarely do.
The cemetery at Mokau (in the southwest Waikato) occupies a hilltop terrace and gives good views in all directions. The house far across the valley seems relatively close with the compressed perspective of a long telephoto. Depth of focus here is enhanced by the tiny aperture, only available at the far end of the zoom. f40 is actually a ratio of the size of aperture over the length of the lens – thus the “wide open” f1.4 on my 85mm lens requires big, fat specs to obtain such a ratio: 1/1.4.
In post-processing certain areas of my images are typically worked over with spot-saturation, although I resist the urge to have them “pop”, as you see in so many sparkling real estate photos. Here the lichens were startling enough, and have been left untouched, apart from a +25 increase in overall vibrancy. In composition terms, the top right corner is occupied by only a gate and fence, and a horse or cow would have made this more interesting. Still better if the house owner had come out and stood on her verandah for a minute, but my yodel would never have gone the distance.
“Memento mori” is the Latin phrase reminding us of our inevitable mortality. Some say that we live on in the hearts of others – that’s the “loving memory” part. With the passing of the generations that memory is eventually eclipsed. The love is passed on though, to nurture and sustain later generations (best case).
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!
Among the seraphim at Stratford’s main cemetery, this one reigns supreme. Close to the entrance, she stands very tall, although size can’t be all that matters in the angelic hierarchy. However high they loom, angels all have their price, and this was a dear one. Aeronautical lift is even more challenging for angels than it is for bumble-bees, but in the JW tracts that intrigued me as a lad, angels somehow floated above entire cities. Wow. The only named angels in the Holy Bible are Michael, Gabriel and Lucifer, the Fallen One. It is hard to imagine an angel named Barney, or Charlie say.
In a cemetery dotted with the usual monuments this sort of uncluttered line-up is possible only with a telephoto lens. That explains the lack of sharp focus on the distant cow, despite my using the smallest aperture setting. As f16 gives great focal range, a more astute use of depth of field principles could’ve helped here, if I had focused a little behind the angel. But as a finer point, that escaped me at the time.
Visiting this place again with a dear friend in 2014, I was still unaware that one of my own ancestors is buried here. In an unmarked grave (alas) lies my storied great great aunt Peggy, who died in 1930. Margaret (Madge or Peggy) Jollie had a privileged life, yet died in “reduced circumstances”. She has a major role in a biography I have since written on our neglected grandmother, Beth Jollie (1904-41). Isn’t it surprising who turns up where – living or otherwise?
No longer a common phrase, memento mori translates to “Remember that you have to die”, meant as a reflection on our inevitable mortality.
A view of Nelson’s southern suburbs at low tide, from the cycle trail near Best Island. A haze of wood smoke lies over the city, as does the light trail from a plane. The whitest lights are those of the airport runway. The distant hills mark successive earthquake upthrusts over several million years. The inlet is slowly filling in, but that might be another million years (what a fabulous time lapse that would be, if we could see it).
The brightly lit fringe of sea grass made focussing a breeze, especially with a fast lens like the f1.4 Nikon 85mm. This lens is a terrific piece of glass, yet so heavy to cart around! The level bike path gave an easy placement for my tripod, and not a cyclist was seen. The evening’s work was less pleasant with the southerly breeze, although some shelter came from fenceline shrubbery. Waiting around for long exposures on cold winter nights (they are all cold, bar those with northerly rain) makes you keen to reclaim your creature comforts.
Although I was not so far from an occasional passing car (Best Island has over 30 houses), what generally surprises me in these semi-rural settings after dark is the ambient noise. This comes mainly from heavy highway traffic but sometimes from nearby industry as well. Rural quiet may well exist somewhere locally, but on any still night on the Waimea Plains it seems in short supply.
Sometimes the full moon keeps me waiting. Its predicted peep over the horizon lags, for example, because a range of hills blocks the view. Anticipation! Which hill will the moon rise over? What pictorial elements should I line up for a creative memento of this exciting occasion?? Yes there are apps to tell me such useful info but that’s just one more thing to tangle with.
My selected spot beside the Wairoa River, just north of Brightwater on Bryant Rd, turned out to be a “blandscape” – how to save the situation? Ah, use the immediate foreground to frame the moonrise. The challenge with my long exposure was not in avoiding an oblong moon (a plausible problem with a longer telephoto) but to capture the wee orb unspoilt by fennel stalks, and with some hint of background.
My wide angle makes the moon smaller of course, but its luminosity counterbalances. Focal depth was not an issue here but my efforts were still not trouble-free, as safety concerns emerged. I was on a narrow roadway which ended at a vineyard, and for a “No exit” road there was surprising traffic. Such roads are usually quiet after 5.30pm but vineyard staff came and went for sometime thereafter. The riverbank underfoot was less even, but safer.
These two beasts-and-a-nose were the outliers of a contented herd, all having a lunch break to chew things over. A great gem set in the heart of Auckland, Cornwall Park is the extensive green space which surrounds the old volcanic cone of One Tree Hill / Maungakiekie. It’s a good place to pause when you are in the city, not the least because parking is free.
The “secret” behind the shot is the ditch-and-wall which separates the public from the cattle, although for joggers and ramblers (as above) there is access at various points. As a substitute for a fence, which I can’t recall having seen elsewhere, it enables an unusual overview. I currently have this scene as my desktop wallpaper; I believe it pretty much sums up the pastoral idyll of New Zealand life. It’s also an uncommon angle and contradicts my earlier comment about not favouring the south end of north-bound animals.
The exposure was not optimal because the light was continually changing from sun to cloud, and back again. A typical Auckland day, in other words. The background jogger isn’t blurred from a long-ish exposure but instead slightly out of focal range. Even on the smallest aperture, it’s too much to expect a telephoto lens to deliver sharpness throughout when you are this close to your subjects.
Rear views are not usually the most appealing with animals, I realised some time ago, but this angle was more interesting than most such. A conversation with the owner established that these were miniature horses, not the Shetland ponies we first thought them to be. Although my caption is sardonic these sturdy steeds must have been aware of their vertically challenged state, as a normative horse was close by. Placid animals, they obliged me by grazing close to the roadside before wandering off for some time-out beyond the autumn trees.
This was the prettiest location in Garden Valley yet we arrived too late in the day, as the sun was sinking below the high hills to the west. As every photographer soon discovers, photography in the shade gives an unappealing cool cast to scenes like this, owing to the light of a cloudless sky being so blue (the problem is less obvious on overcast or rainy days). In post-processing I have rescued this shot by a colour adjustment, warming it and adding some contrast too. On reflection, there is no disadvantage in flat light for this situation, as long as you are conscious of the cool cast likely to result, before post-processing.
The shallow depth of focus was intentional. Only the first horse is sharp, and in this type of photo only the first subject needs to be. While we have no problem identifying the two other items, I personally have a problem in usually wanting sharpness and focus throughout the frame. Really, there is so much creative potential in having the opposite.
These cherubim fronting for love caught my eye in a cemetery-with-views on a Mokau hilltop. Having recently purchased a Nikon zoom lens (70-300mm) I was putting it through the paces, late one winter’s afternoon at this small community on the west coast of the North Island.
Using the tripod to allow slow shutter speeds, I was interested to see what the zoom did at the longest extension, especially at closest focus, and when well stopped down. While I was impressed that the lens went to f45 – a ratio usually seen only on large format lenses – only later did I learn about the diffusion effect at such tiny apertures, with DSLR cameras. An odd occlusion occurs – a bottle glass effect might be the easiest way to describe it. Fortunately none is seen here.
I like the juxtaposition in this image, and little group is an uncommon sight too. Exposing for marble sculpture can be tricky, and typically they are overexposed “in scene”, but at close range getting a good range of tones from marble is less challenging. These boys being at ground level were at least clean of the usual overgrowth, a definite problem on taller monumental figures, where beyond easy cleaning reach unsightly lichen and moss can become well established.
Memento mori: In turn we all take our leave. But love lives on, at least.
Odd neighbours at Greymouth. 6.37pm, 10 April 2018
The neighbourhood of New Zealand cemeteries can be quite quirky, especially in the larger cities, but even in Greymouth a cross can have an industrial background. Land bordering cemeteries is less desired for housing, so perhaps becomes more affordable for industry, or other purposes. The cross is strongly associated with Catholic graves, and it is easy to forget that our cemeteries have traditionally been segregated along religious lines, into Catholic, Protestant and Jewish sections (where the cross is understandably absent).
The cross is not perfectly placed, but close enough, given my frustrations with setting the tripod in a confined situation. The foreground is flash-lit, but the small aperture has subdued the usual effect, while enhancing depth of focus (thus the reasonably sharp background). No skein of cloud was available for the top left corner but the space is well balanced by a similar empty space at bottom right. In composition, empty spaces can be offset by other blank spaces in the frame. Colour-wise, the golden lichens on the cross have their counterpoint in the lingering sunset reflected in the windows.
Memento mori: Succinct Latin remembrance that we all die, each in our time.
As a magnificent blot on the landscape the steel mill at Waiuku, south of Auckland, is very impressive. In this shot its dreariness is stylised by layering, using the line of pines it is seen through. Another example of a “look-through” composition, this is one I was definitely searching for. Here the main feature seems almost an afterthought, but one nicely offsetting the dark verticals. The scene is also an example of limited palette (colour range), being close to monochromatic. However I saw during set-up the small smudge of green plant life at bottom centre, and the brown building below the belching chimneys.
I took a second shot with the mill in a more central position, yet this was less interesting. The scene above is underexposed of course, to saturate the highlights, and a smaller aperture can be another gain in doing this – and increased depth of field, no small matter with a telephoto lens such as the 85mm. Using f16 has insured sharpness throughout, with the luxury of a low ISO and a hand-held capture, to boot.
The phrase “Dark satanic mill” comes from an eschatological poem by William Blake, whose text also forms the lyrics to the well known hymn Jerusalem. This contrasts the forthcoming heaven-on-earth of the title with the hellish blight of many hundreds of mills, which scarred the country as it became the first to industrialise.
This moonlit scene in Garden Valley Rd, near Brightwater, demonstrates a work in progress in night photography. It does not meet my own standards for a successful image, but it has some teaching points, so I publish it for that reason.
A good composition can offer a “look-through” sense of depth, when the elements are so assembled. Here the look-through is supplied by the fence netting (always for deer, in New Zealand), while the foreground stalks contribute scale and perspective. All very simple in theory, but (as usual) practice shows otherwise.
Three challenges here were to get the best focus (sharp foreground preferred), exposure (balancing flash with moonlight) and capture (despite the movement of the sheep). Even arranging willing people for a long exposure presents its problems, but the sheep were obviously unaware of their possible place in internet immortality, and moved away as I jostled camera and tripod for position. They were probably unimpressed by the flash as well, so much better results are likely in this situation if you get everything right at first attempt. As we say in English: “Fat chance!”
This is work-in-progress because of the problems referred to. Moonlight photography is challenging: the work is hard and the hours long – and you don’t even have evenings off. Of course these are all First World problems, and exactly what makes a great exposure – when you get there – all the more satisfying .
Amongst the leaves, Te Henui Cemetery. 3.06 pm, 2 April 2018
A supplicant cherub amongst fallen leaves – these being a common metaphor for poignant memory and les temps perdus. This simple image again makes use of contrasting blank spaces, as I have resisted the urge to crop it at top and left. The limited palette adds considerably to the effect, assisted by the flat light of an overcast day.
The 85mm lens at close range has little inherent focal depth, but stopping down to a self-timed f16 has maximised the depth of field. Any gain here will sharpen focus for a short distance in front of the focal point – in this case the tiny leaf directly in front of the figure – while increasing it over a much larger zone behind the object. The self-timer was set to the shortest time (2 secs) and I often use this aid with the 85mm, both for hand-held shots and with tripod.
Te Henui is the first of New Plymouth’s two main cemeteries; situated above the valley of the Te Henui Stream in rolling country typical of Taranaki, it was originally on the edge of town. The lower slopes are wooded, making the older sections of this cemetery notably rustic. However, interesting cameos such as the above were sparse. My time was not all spent on photography, as I was surprised to discover (quite by accident) the final resting places of two people who appear in the family history I am at work on.
Memento mori (“Remember, we all must die”) presents a series of cameos from New Zealand cemeteries, illustrating memorable scenes or detail. Of course they have their melancholy aspect, but cemeteries retain a strong human interest and convey an impressive sense of time’s long passage. Often (but not always) these aspects are matched with a park-like atmosphere of peace and calm.
Sadly missed, Picton cemetery. 11.59 a.m, 14 April 2018
A striking cameo, illustrating colour composition. The two elements of the composition have been widely spaced, but there is just enough line and texture to hold the frame together. The simplicity of the image owes everything to the uncommon colour of the plastic flowers. As for the succinct inscription, those two short words are an effective final statement. I did not see them used elsewhere here.
A short telephoto lens works well for this type of assignment. However a slower shutter speed using the self-timer would give better depth of focus for the inscription. I don’t always think through optimal manual settings – and here I was wary of camera shake, which 85mm exaggerates. My main object was good definition on the key feature.
The drainage built into the site is proof that this cemetery is perched terrace by terrace on a steep hillside. This is not at all unexpected in Picton, a ferry town surrounded by high hills, where flat land is at a premium. The Latin tag “Memento mori” is a shorthand reference to the inevitable mortality we each face.
A Good Friday illumination, though not an epiphany, from an unexpected source. A subdivision being so close to where I was staying, it was a simple matter to put on gumboots and shoulder tripod for the short walk to the hilltop, where a house was under construction. As building sites are prone to pilfering I didn’t want my intentions mis-interpreted, so when vehicle headlights suddenly appeared in my frame I did not know what I was in for. However I was set up on the less public side, and whatever the purpose of the lingering lights and long-running engine, my presence was apparently undetected.
I wear a warm, high-vis vest (thanks Narumon) on all my evening outings, for safety’s sake. Generally I avoid using flash in residential areas (discretion vs valour) and have rarely been challenged by suspicious onlookers. On moonlit excursions I mostly stick to public spaces or to holiday places on farms; looking back on work from the last few years, I see my trespassing has been confined to college farms, new subdivisions and golf courses.
Diagonals and limited focus are not common elements in my compositions, and I would have liked a more distinctive shape for the tree, but serendipity should not be denied – namely the headlit timbers – and I am obviously susceptible to a good, unclouded mountain. Mt Taranaki is an immediate anchor for any former resident returning to the region.
An unusual evening this, as having driven up Garden Valley (30 minutes from Nelson) for the very first time to note the lie of the land, we came back only when the moon had cleared the hills. We were looking for miniature horses, but, sadly, on nightfall the dozen in the next paddock had retired from the roadside. This lone, non-vertically challenged mare remained still enough for only one frame (even so, there is a double impression of her head), as she soon became quite agitated by our presence on the darkened roadside.
Apart from equine nervousness, two other hazards for the night photographer were of the more common variety: an awkward car park on a narrow shoulder of a narrow road, and the lingering dust clouds stirred up by passing cars. Even on a no exit gravel road, people still come home from work! Photographing much later in the evening would have meant less disturbance from traffic, but our presence then up this fairly isolated valley would be more disturbing to the locals.
The light foreground streaks are grass stalks close to the camera; with a faint moon, far from full, and the need for shutter times less than 30 secs, wide apertures are needed, with resulting shallow depths of field. To get this colourful biscuit tin / chocolate box image on first attempt was quite surprising, although ideally a rustic barn should be in the background (but I jest). A sliver of sky at the very top of the frame has not been cropped out, although my usual instinct is to reduce frame-edge distractions.
My visit to Taranaki last month offered no new opportunities for creative photography, but I have just re-discovered this unusual image, taken with a telephoto in our back garden (then) in Westown, New Plymouth one early spring. A power cable mars the lower portion (too hard to retouch!) but the main interest is the sense of depth in the clouds. The trees and the lower cloud are illuminated by street lights, but not the upper cloud. Two stars are visible. Although I took many further photos at different settings (some too slow for the cloud movement, others at similar shallow apertures) the formation quickly dissipated, along with my evening’s hopes. So much of long exposure work is like the dilemma at the printers: do want it fast, good and cheap? Choose two only.
This is a sample illustration from my long exposure Perfect Evenings 2018 New Zealand calendar. Magnolia flowers are a welcome sight in the southern spring, appearing from July to September, depending on the species and local climate. By moonlight or street light they are even more luminous and lovely than by day.
Printed in just a small edition of 125, most of my calendars have now sold at the special early bird prices quoted in the last post. The three for $30 deal and 5 + 1 for $60 have been very popular. There’s obviously good interest – not to mention good sense – in having giftable items on hand well before the usual rush, especially when so many New Zealanders are taking to the air (and the road) and require packable items for their calls and hosts.
All prices are post-free within NZ and Australia. My best-ever, these prices are current until Monday 2nd October, and will not be repeated. By that time the entire stock will probably be spoken for, and any reprint considered will have to be at standard prices. These will still be good value, however, with various extras offered, in addition to the photographer’s own prompt and personal service!
2393. Abstract 2: Pukearuhe rockface. 4.06pm, 31 July 2015
My interest in these stripes was partly spurred by my SO’s work in creative fibre, designing woven creations with striking bands of colour. The strong reflections here are in the surface topography. This is very close-up by telephoto standards and the wide f-stop only just copes; a better depth of field would be achieved with a faster ISO and slower shutter speed. However I had set out without tripod – as I often do when my photography is secondary to a social outing. Even for an exposure of 1/500th I used the self-timer at 2 seconds to delay exposure slightly, reducing the risk of camera shake, something that is magnified with telephotos.
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.
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.
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
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.
“This’ll be good!”, I thought to myself, as an evening squall approached Plimmerton, a Wellington suburb on Porirua Harbour. Keen photographers should be out for every passing shower, but of course location is everything – and the right time of day. The squall soon passed over and the clouds parted for an enormous rainbow lit by the setting sun, plus this view of Mana, with its distinctive flat top. The car window has been given first place here, while “liberty” refers to my changing the entire hue in post processing.
To be exempt from the passions with which others are tormented, is the only pleasing solitude. – Joseph Addison
Driving north in the early evening, I paused on a 2 km disused section of the old highway, quaint now for its narrowness and rustic one-lane bridge. The night was cold and moonless, with a constant hubbub from the nearby highway. No one came by while I tussled with the split focus (between initial flash and the following l-o-n-g exposure) of gate/mountain with a telephoto.
I’m surprised to see Mt Taranaki lit up by the street lights of surrounding towns, but knew my own parking lights would contribute to the gate’s illumination. I was on my way back to New Plymouth, but after a long day on the road was too cold & weary to attempt more than this.
[Only the camera can express] the full majesty of the moment. – Paul Leopold Rosenfeld
Looking down on the tops of the persimmon. You can only do this on a very still night, as the slightest breeze blurs the detail. However, to get a really creative blur, you need a gusty evening – nothing in-between is very satisfying. An aperture of f16 is the smallest on my telephoto lens; at close range the depth of field is minimal even at this setting. The light is a mixture of moonlight and ambient city light. The cool tones of the background roof show mainly moonlight (it is leeward of city light), while the warmer leafage shows it was more exposed to the street lighting.
85mm, ISO 2000. 108 seconds at f16. Sodium vapor lamp light balance
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report. – Paul Simon (The Only Living Boy in New York)
Still lifes by moonlight are formidable propositions because of the problems in seeing what you have, particularly with close framing and the shallow depth of field of a mild telephoto. This scene was by our front door in Nelson. The background light is mainly moonlight, with some city fill. Persimmon trees loose their leaves with surprising speed – one windy night soon after did the trick! But now we are back in the North Island, in New Plymouth.
Peering through a suburban cabbage tree involved an awkward set-up on sloping ground; every slight adjustment of the tripod also changed the ponga ferns relative to the foreground. I was however nicely sheltered from a frigid gale.
I’ve used a conventional depth of field method known as f22, rather than split focus (see no. 170). This is the next aperture down from f16; not many lenses have it so I’m glad to see f22 on my 28mm and my new 50mm lens.
With moonlight this means a fairly long exposure (292.1 seconds) to compensate, but it does give star trails instead of hyphens or stutters.
Experience is the comb that nature gives us when we are bald. – Anon
Another split focus, single frame experiment; the hairdresser’s quote is suggested by the full-frontal flash on the flower stalks. For the rest of the exposure the lens barrel has been swiftly rotated, moving the focus closer to infinity. This gives reasonable definition to the distant magnolias and a short star trail – but the depth of field is false and not otherwise possible at this close range with a telephoto.
This is the last I will show of the magnolias. The tree of course is now in full green leaf.
Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance. – Samuel Johnson
Taranaki is so wet that ferns thrive even out on their own, as here on farmland close to town. The extra lighting is from a penlight, and far more subtle than in my previous post. Ambient lighting is a mix of moonlight and the distant city.
Torchlight is more selective than flash, but getting the desired coverage can take some doing, in terms of how long you run the beam over the various foreground elements. I would’ve liked the lily’s supporting role to have featured more strongly. The good depth of focus tells you the lens is a wide angle one.
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.
Our wealth lies not in what we have, but in what we enjoy. – Anonymous
So where the clear light of day would need only 20 seconds for preparation and never more than a second for exposure, I choose the half-light of evening and belabour the task for far too long… It must be the challenge and the beauty of brilliant moonlight on a still winter’s night.
Some will prefer a darker feel of night, but sometimes I like a daylight effect. The telephoto has a highly selective focus at close range, used to good advantage here. Raindrops from an afternoon shower can be seen on the petals.
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. – Aesop
Last full moon I spent many happy hours over several evenings tackling the budding magnolia next door. This one worked better at f5.6 than at f16, to my surprise, but with f16 needing nearly 5 minutes the risk of a breeze was high. So instead of deeper focus and star blazes I have made do with two blurred stars – the brightest in the Southern Cross.
Telephoto focus at close quarters on manual is painstaking, and I could only get this vantage point with the camera clamped to the top of a stepladder.
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.
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.
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
Twelve hours before the Christchurch earthquake I was somewhat wearily walking the quiet waterfront at Kaikoura, 150 km to the north on the east coast. I was happy after a perfect evening of night photography, and had the moon well up behind me when I spotted these trees high above. They fringe the cliffs which back the narrow beach near the port.
The uncommon perspective of looking up at this scene was embellished by the cloud movement plus street lighting from below. There’s a possible problem with limited depth of focus on the telephoto, evident in some softness on the lower vegetation. This happens to be gorse, a thorny weed which no self-respecting Kiwi photographer would normally allow within the frame. Either focus was soft or it was breezier up there!
The answer to depth of field is usually a smaller aperture, which mostly means a longer shutter time – but here that would have dispersed the fast-moving cloud much more. The alternative is to increase ISO one stop (i.e. double it) and close aperture one stop. However as I usually hover around the Nikon D700 noise limit of ISO 2000, I don’t often resort to this.
As it is, I like the blur that just half a minute achieves. A surprising number of stars came out for a moonlit evening… that they are not perfect points shows that the earth’s rotation is perceptible even over this short span. With the 85mm lens I am noticing that 10 seconds does not freeze the stars perfectly. What a speedy globe we live on.
Using the Incandescent light balance (= tungsten) setting on the Nikon D700 alleviates some of the orange blast from the streetlights and gives a very cool sky. A daylight balance would be too orange and would add colour to the low cloud, though sometimes that is to good effect. The square format presents the layered elements of the photo better.
Teleportation is easy enough to do by moonlight photography. Even on a cool autumn evening not far enough from the Nelson sewage ponds, planet Earth is a good place to beam down on. I do like to visit but would I want to live on it?
Just kidding. Of the various forms of ghosting in night photography this is the most basic, created under pure, simple moonlight. Other forms are lit by flash, torchlight or car beam, but to get this you simply occupy the stage for part of the exposure – say 40 seconds of the 60 represented here – while requiring your supporting cast to stay put. Here my long-suffering wife Narumon holds her gaze on the laid-back surf of Tasman Bay; I have walked into the frame some time after the shutter opens.
Note that nothing registers of my moving into position, because I have no reflective highlights. In some situations coming or going from place people will show up because they are smoking, wearing light-catching rings or jewelry, or have on something luminous. Or their movement might be caught by a sudden bright light, as in the sweep of a car’s headlights. Sometimes such highlights add an intriguing element to your scene, and sometimes they just look odd. You won’t know until you see it, as the effect is unpredictable.
At the head of the bay are the landing lights of Nelson airport. A snowy peak in the Arthur Range is just visible on the right, while resting on the cobbles are two props waiting to feature in my long exposure studies (see no. 34. Quirky but Perky, by moonlight). The depth of focus on the Lumix LX3 at maximum aperture is phenomenal, especially when the zoom is set at the widest angle. However the autofocus has about a 10% failure rate, while the manual controls are so fiddly for focus that I have never actually tried them.
The Seaward Kaikoura range rises steeply from the coast although here only the northern outliers are in view. Their prominence is echoed in the rocks along the peninsula shore, which were revealed on the ebb of an impressive spring tide. Although surf still broke over the far outcrop during this long exposure by moonlight, the change in the state of the sea was notable from just a few hours before.
Three little clouds are matched by three short stars (one occluded by a summit) and the three small rocks at the bottom. On the far shore the highway heads north to Picton; I took this in-between occasional car headlights in order to avoid short light streaks. Although telephoto depth of field was adequate, a longer exposure – say 6 minutes at f11 – would have allowed some long headlight trails, as well as perfect sharpness.
However this photo was set up at the tail end of the evening and I was already on the way back to our motel. Waiting out that time would also involve another 6 minutes of dark-processing before I could re-deploy the camera. Ideal exposures are reserved for unwearied, unhurried saints.
The foreground lighting is from sodium lamps on the wharf road. The strong cast of the streetlight suggested an incandescent (tungsten) light balance on the Nikon D700. Because of the relative dimness of the lamps at this distance, using this setting has enabled an attractive high-key blue throughout. There are really only two colours here and while I do like this effect, Photoshop must share the honours.
The enhancement buttons on Photoshop have resuscitated a good number of my favourite night photos, sometimes to my considerable surprise. I shoot in the RAW format and I wonder whether the need for such rescues stems as much from night photography’s uncommon light balances and greater contrasts as it does from my methods not always being exactly painstaking.
It was a perfect evening, with the biggest full moon since 1993, this being another close approach in the 18-year cycle of lunar orbits. Four of us visited the famous bridge and wandered along the coastal walkway, on New Plymouth’s northern outskirts. The rolling landscape was beautifully lit and John had some fun with his camera too – proving that moonlight photography is quite infectious.
People shots by moonlight are a challenge. Forgetting to alter picture control from Vivid to Standard, as here, wasn’t the best start, as strong shadows are rarely flattering for your subjects. Ilona is wearing a black cap, for example. The wide angle I used is less suited to portraits, unless you seek subtle distortions in the human face. It is fine for groups, however, where the camera is not so close.
Yet for night photography wide angles have a big advantage in easier focusing. They have a better inherent depth of field than telephotos. Cameras with smaller sensors also have better depths of field, over every class of lens (the Nikon D7oo is a full-frame dSLR). This principle is easily demonstrated with film: 35mm camerawork has less demanding focus than you get with roll film (medium format), while it’s a cinch compared with finicky large format (4×5 and larger).
After poor focus, fuzzy results in moonlight people shots can be blamed on subject movement. People sway or fidget – or just plain breathe. Subject movement can be interesting but in a similar way to how stars look good either sharp or long – smudges have less impact. Here John and Ilona did their best but model this principle.
So to get better results I must use the tricks of early studio photographers, whose daylight exposures were similarly long because of their slow emulsions. I will have to either anchor my subjects to whatever fittings are at hand – or get them really moving!
This looks like a flood plain, doesn’t it? We could just hear the Stony (Hangatahua) River off to the right; the line of trees marks its rapid course from volcanic ash-heap to the sea – a tumultuous distance of only 16 km (10 miles). The river was once Taranaki’s top trout fishery but it’s been badly affected by unprecedented mountain erosion since 1998.
With the waxing moon still low in the sky I took up a low position with the tripod and the wide angle. Cloud flitted around Mt Taranaki but the lower slopes were nicely lit. I was hoping to include both the rocky field and all of the karaka trees. The karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus)is an attractive New Zealand native notable for its bright orange fruit, just visible centre stage. I could smell the rotting windfall fruit nearby.
Having bobbed around to get the best angle, my next task was to set the best focus, really just a simple matter of using the f8 depth brackets on the barrel. Not every lens has this useful aid: I set infinity close to the far bracket mark and the near bracket mostly covered everything close at hand. I needed to work at a good clip (still slow to most people but my other speed is very slow) – though I was glad to have some company it meant only limited time before I’d hear the words cold and tired!
If out on my own I would use f11 or f16 and longer shutter times to be sure of getting everything sharp. The thistles on the right are thus fuzzy, although this could be from wind motion. As it was, I got a brighter night-for-day look than intended, so the frame has been darkened in post-processing. Density of image is hard to judge in the gloom of night, despite the brightness adjustment that can be made to the LCD monitor.
28mm, ISO 2000. 103 seconds (1 min : 43) at f8. Vivid picture control.
Here’s my first foray into moonlit multiplicity. While the subject matter, complete with camera bag, is regrettably dull there’s some novelty for me in combining three exposures for a triple self-portrait. Multiplicity has intrigued me so I was pleased to find plenty about it on the web, including self-portrait work by prolific “Miss Aniela” (Natalie Dybisz) (www.missaniela.com; blog at missanielablog.com/picture-what) and the Icelander Rebekka Gudleifsdottir, who now gives less prominence to this side of her work than previously (www.rebekkagudleifs.com/self-portraits.php) .
The main requirement for multiplicity is a fixed position for the different exposures, which of course a tripod answers to immediately. The fun part is followed in post-processing by stacking the images in layers and then careful working on these with the program of your choice. The more pics to be merged, the more layers, and consequently the more work – erasing, inverting, flattening – but at least your inevitable mistakes can be easily fixed with the “Go back one step” button.
While I can’t say I’ve absorbed all the finer points, I do lay a modest claim here to the world’s first moonlit multiplicity. For the contra jour look I hid the moon behind the spine of the bridge. The daylight effect is surprising but the moon was high and the light comparable to the early afternoon of daylight. A wide angle was used for maximum coverage and to reduce any worries about critical focus.
Te Wera Wera bridge is one of the sights of New Plymouth; it’s a good location for moonlight photography because there’s no street lighting nearby, motor traffic is low (and at one remove) and after midnight there are scant cyclists or joggers around. Lastly, the other end of the bridge features a marvellous line-up with Mt Taranaki, as cloud cover allows.
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.
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.
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.