Modest Epiphanies: New project

Modest Epiphanies
Chinese tourists on the new uplift at Kaikoura. 1.09pm, 13 April 2018

New Zealand’s varied landscapes must be world-famous because now they are talked of by the mainland Chinese, not just wealthy HKers or Singaporeans. A busload of Chinese tourists joined the 40 cars already parked at the Kaikoura road-end, out on the peninsula. The changes to be seen here surprised me, and I am not referring to the recent earthquake uplift, impressive though that is. No, to me it seemed no time at all since this road-end was a broad, featureless gravelled cul de sac; today it is a well developed tourist amenity.

The bus tourists fanned out across the wide shelf of the reef, while others were intrigued by the nearby seals. Not far back along the road another 30 cars were parked by an outdoor cafe, the first I recall seeing by a New Zealand roadside. How we will cope with our rapidly increasing tourism remains to be seen, but the obvious problem is the same one worldwide – overcrowded hot-spots, with amenity development lagging behind.

Perhaps related to all this, I have a major new project to pursue. While there’s little new to say about our landscapes, at least by the broad light of day, I have conceived a new book-length theme: “Modest Epiphanies: Deeper meanings in the New Zealand landscape”. What exactly does this involve? What are my epiphanies? Are there actually deeper meanings? No doubt some satire and social commentary will emerge alongside interesting new angles on the jeweller’s window (in scenic terms) that is my country, away from the urban centres, that is. Yet I have a feeling Milford Sound and Mount Cook might not even feature…

1/640th sec at f11. Nikon 85mm; ISO 250

High tide at Kaikoura

5593 High tide at Kaikoura

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.

132. All along the watchtower

All along the watchtower. 9.05 pm, 21 February 2011

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.

Traipsing a tripod also makes you think more.

85mm, ISO 1000. 20 seconds at f16







131. Kaikoura moonrise, no. 2

Kaikoura moonrise, no. 2. 9.50 pm, 21 February 2011

Tomorrow we shall set out once more upon the vast sea. –  Horace

Moonrises after dark indicate the moon is past full, and these moonrises, especially, need a frame of reference. They benefit from foreground interest, in this case from outcrops alongside the wharf at Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island. It’s a variation on the theme of no. 94, Kaikoura moonrise, and in fact taken just 14 minutes later. The spring tide was ebbing and shortly the rocks would be exposed on the beach.

The wharf lights were orange-red, for which the Incandescent balance has only partly compensated. However this is close to how it appeared to the eye, and the moonrise is sympathetic to the colour cast. Four stars are visible on the RAW image, but not here, while a tiny marginal houselight has been edited out. The Nikon D700 mirror does not cover 100% of the frame, so features left out of frame can still turn up in it – but now I am more conscious of avoiding this annoyance.

The vista looks east out to the Pacific and a wide angle lens was a natural choice, as the rocks were quite close. To keep the rising moon undistorted I used a shortish exposure, although normally preferring a smaller aperture for maximum depth of focus. The composition is simple, consisting of just two lines plus the moonbeam, but the textures add sufficient interest. Sadly though, there was no surf breaking because we were on the port’s leeside.

In hinting at life’s daily uncertainties the classical quote has a personal context. This memorable summer evening of boisterous tide and interesting light was followed next day by the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 22nd. Although we were driving to Christchurch we knew nothing of the quake and suffered no consequences. Had we not been in holiday mode, however, we would have arrived there before the quake struck.

28mm, ISO 2000. 5 seconds at f8. Standard picture control


120. Midnight clifftop, Kaikoura

Midnight clifftop, Kaikoura. 12.19 am, 22 February 2011

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.

85mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f4.5


109. Moonlit calm, Kaikoura

Moonlit calm, Kaikoura. 11.52 pm, 22 February 2011

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.

85mm, ISO 2000. 88 seconds (1.5 mins) at f5.6

105. Night tide at Kaikoura

Night tide at Kaikoura. 10.10 pm, 21 February 2011

The tide was a high spring one at the wharf, one memorable summer’s evening. The square format can be applied in later processing to any 2:3 frame from a digital SLR camera – and for several reasons. Although here it was primarily to improve the composition, it also crops flare from the rising moon on the far right of the original frame.

Colourwise this shot turns upside down my earlier post (No. 94 Kaikoura moonrise) from the same wharf – it was a productive evening. This is interesting for its mix of three light sources as well as its abstraction. There’s moonlight in the sky, plus sodium lighting on the sand (which is only just covered by the surf), but the violent green on the rocks comes from what I took to be a mercury vapour lamp, at the end of the wharf. The line of pink is moonlit cloud, and a ship on the horizon, not noticed at the time, has also registered.

The unexpected turn-ups are what keeps night photography interesting. The fortunate aspect here was that all three light sources were in a good balance, an effect sometimes very hard to achieve. The light balance control was set to Cool white fluorescent; I had expected this to absorb some of the green but it has not made much of a difference really.  I’ve been wondering why the sodium here is not a good deal stronger, considering the incandescent (tungsten) setting was not used.

One big advantage of digital over film work is the ability to change light balances without having to add or remove filters, particularly in alternating between incandescent and daylight. Quick adjustments can be made also for other light conditions or cloudy skies. When light sources are mixed, there’s plenty of creative scope in trying one balance and then another.

The drawback appears the next time you pick up your camera and take photos without checking the balance properly…

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f11

95. Kaikoura evening

Kaikoura evening. 11.17pm, 21 February 2011

This scene immediately appealed for its mixed lighting and the sense of depth. The fish factory was notable for the top-hat storey, as well as the many gulls roosting on its roofline. In the 100 minutes since the previous image (no. 94) the sea had calmed quite noticeably, and the outgoing tide soon revealed how shallow this side of the port was.

The challenge was to get all four elements right – cloud, moon, rocks and the buildings – and only the wide angle could do this. The lens was stopped down to optimise depth of field but I was also keen to keep the interesting cloud shape well-defined. This aperture/shutter speed conflict is a common dilemma for the moonlight photographer, but in addition there was no time to worry about exact focus.

Typically, featured cumulus clouds unfreeze after exposures of roughly 5 seconds, and there is even less latitude when you use telephoto lenses. Like stars, the best effects seem to come from getting them either quite still or really streaky, and “quite still” requires quick action with camera settings. The left hand sky seems too dark but the moonlight reflection on the right works well I think.

A longer exposure risked losing some of the cloud definition but then again might have given the moon a more perfectly circular shape – something I have noted in long shots of the gibbous moon. Going the other way, however, one stop less (6 seconds) would have sharpened the cloud shape further and perhaps have shown too the surprising aerial wheeling of the gulls above the roofline.

Sometimes it seems the perfect photo requires an hour of effort at any one spot, but just as often the light effect fades or the scene itself changes before you are done. You’d think that  doing moonlight photography would be like watching paint dry or grass grow – that you’d always have as much time as you needed!

28mm lens; ISO 2000. 13 seconds at f11. Incandescent setting.

94. Kaikoura moonrise

Kaikoura moonrise. 9.36pm, 21 February 2011

Heading south to Dunedin, we broke the journey at Kaikoura. Situated on the east coast 2.5 hours north of Christchurch, Kaikoura is a minor fishing port but whale-watching has made the town a fast-developing tourist destination. Mountains rise abruptly behind it and with the peninsula walkway also to enjoy, the place has a lot to offer visitors.

Before sunset we strolled the waterfront towards the port, watching the spring tide spray the road occasionally or erode the pohutukawa shore. It was a perfect summer’s evening after a long, hot day; it was also the night before the Christchurch earthquake – when it happened, we were barely 2 hours away, on the road down.

The nights that follow full moon offer one particular delight for the moonlight photographer – moonrises after dark, by which some lovely scenes result. You can’t get these shots before full moon, although you can of course do the setting moon before dawn instead. Here the moon was two nights on the wane, so it rose about 75 minutes after sunset.

For that interval I was happily occupied on the Kaikoura seafront and port precinct, and the tide was well on the ebb when I took this from the wharf. The lamps must be mercury rather than sodium, thus the green cast to the volcanic rocks. Focus was manual, and found by eye for a change, instead of estimation. I selected f8 rather than f11 because the shorter exposure time would give less distortion to the rising moon.

Composition is once again in natural thirds. A little bit of cloud and some foreground interest add depth. This was an impressive moonrise, the scene enhanced by the vigour of the surf on the rocks. I checked the lenses several times for spray, and for some time kept a wary eye on the unpredictable slop over the wharf. The only other hazard was the occasional motorist from the fishing group nearby.

85mm lens, ISO 2000. f8 for 15 seconds. Incandescent setting.