Roadside View: From the Lindis Highway

Roadside View: From the Lindis Highway. October 2002.

The view west from the sharpest corner on the Lindis Pass-Tarras road, heading north from Wanaka. I had driven to Central Otago to meet up with a Wellington friend, thinking that Spring would follow me south. It didn’t, and a biting southerly blew for some days. When it relented some beautiful weather followed, but here I was back on the road for home, and on the safe side of it. I parked a good distance from the corner and walked back for this striking scene, which I had noted on the way down.

The modest Lindis River flows below the new-leaf willows. The beehives were an unexpected touch and in composition terms they could be called “third level” – detail which adds interest to an image, but which is not always seen at first glance. The clouds are emphasised by a polarising filter, but the high contrast is also inherent in Fujichrome, the film used here. This well saturated slide film (all “chromes” were slide films) reigned supreme from the late 1980s. Slides from the 1970s and early ’80s now seem dull, colour-wise, when compared with later films, which were contrastier and more saturated.

This arid scene is typical of the Central Otago, although the compressed topography is not quite so. The geology is schist and the climate dry and continental. Not far north from here, Otago turns into Canterbury, another distinctive and more angular landscape, based on greywacke.

Fennel flowers with moonrise

Fennel flowers with moonrise, Nelson. 6.07pm, 28 June 2018

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.

30 secs at f11. Nikon 28mm; ISO 500


Unexpected illumination in New Plymouth

Unexpected illumination in New Plymouth.
Unexpected illumination in New Plymouth. 8.57pm, 30 March 2018

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.

30 secs at f5.6. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500



Minor epiphany at Maitai

3028. Minor epiphany at Maitai

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.

Rivulet of time: Dreams of a small figure

1116 Rivulets of time: Dreams of a young girl

1116 Rivulet of time: Dreams of a small figure.

This uncommon scene is a reprise on my earlier visit, also in May (2009), with the Holy Virgin. Although we’d had some rain before this secular occasion, my obliging figurine held her position well on the edge of the abyss, and so my only task was to administer the correct amount of torchlight. The location is just below the old weir at the Brook Street reservoir, Nelson. A waxing moon had cleared the manuka above, but moonlight here is lost in strong LED torchlight (the moonlight was not lost on my hi-vis vest, however, and my daughter quickly found me once the nearby comfort of the car had palled). LED lighting is quite cool, like daylight, so I’ve added some warmth in post-processing – the photo equivalent of a teaspoon of tumeric in the dinner pan.

28mm; ISO 500. f11 for 30 secs. 8.39 pm, 1 May 2015

Bold sentry, Paritutu evening

3409 Odd conjunction, Paritutu

3409 Bold sentry, Paritutu, New Plymouth. 11.34pm, 21 July 2013

I admit to some anxiety parading a mannequin in a public place late at night, being too old for the art student look, so I was relieved to have this popular venue to myself for the duration. The torso was a gift from my daughter, intended as offset to a female mannequin she admired in one of my old photos. The pot plant is 100% artificial too. Moonlight and port lighting (background) are supplemented with torchlight on my two props. The steps lead to a brutalist viewing platform below Paritutu, the steep volcanic remnant which dominates the local coastline. A cloudlet wandered over, to complete the composition. Not recommended for biscuit tins.

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 sec at f16

Hauraki Gulf moonlight: A cautionary tale

8075 Hauraki moonlight

8075 Hauraki moonlit selfie, to tow truck soundtrack

This is the last frame from a series I took from Achilles Point, a suburban vantage point at St Heliers, Auckland. The view is east, towards Brown’s Island (Motukorea), with Great Barrier Island on the far horizon. More a matter of record than any artistic statement, this was the last frame because during the 30-second exposure I heard unusual truck noises. I was unaware that I had parked in a verboten zone, and the Draconian Guard from Auckland Council were preparing to tow my car away. Fortunately I got back there before its wheels left the ground, but this is probably the most expensive photo I’ve taken, and one with potentially the greatest inconvenience. Parking hazards are now added to an impressive list of other challenges for the night time photographer.

270. Among mysteries

Among mysteries, New Plymouth. 9.09 pm, 31 October, 2012

Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.  –  Theodore Roethke

50mm; ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f9. Incandescent light balance; flash


138. Moonlit road near Waimarama, Hawkes Bay

Moonlit road near Waimarama, Hawkes Bay. 8.15 pm, 22 September 2010

Everyone complains of his memory; nobody of his judgement.
–  Francois de La Rochefoucauld

When setting this up I wasn’t certain I was on a public road, but according to Google this is Cook Road, overlooking Waimarama on the coast. No vehicle came by the whole time, but traffic was regular on the main road just below.

To get the desired sweep of road I pitched the tripod on an elevated shoulder. Everything was slushy underfoot, and I was pleased to be wearing waterproof gumboots, as having warm, dry feet all evening is a real boon to middle aged night photography. Yet the slush was nothing like the drastic conditions experienced here since, and this scene won’t be so easy on the eye since the area’s record floods.

I have darkened this in post-pro as the original frame looks like daylight; a stop or two less would have been better. Having run into the frame from the higher viewpoint, I am slightly transparent; instead of figuring out the self-timer beforehand on the new camera, in the dark I followed the path of least resistance.

In the field I keep my gear on my back throughout; on changing lenses, filters etc I restore everything immediately to the bag. By day it is often convenient to have accessories out of your kit and close to hand, but even by a bright moon you will find that gear is easily misplaced or knocked over, or simply overlooked when you move on.

Also, when out on your own at night, your primate brain is alert with an instinctive wariness. Having anything not on the tripod already on your back is an elementary precaution for a possible dash to safety – however unlikely that event proves to be by the end of a pleasant evening.

No public road is ever 100% safe, but a gravel one without fences is a good bet.

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f5.6


113. Night at the saltwater lagoon, Waikanae

Night at the saltwater lagoon, Waikanae
Night at the saltwater lagoon, Waikanae. 11.27 pm, 17 February 2011

The Waimanu Lagoon at Waikanae connects by way of a floodgate to the adjacent estuary. Both sites are favoured bird habitats, and bird life appears largely unaffected by the suburban surrounds. Access to this pier is by a narrow sealed road but the area is also very walkable. On a week night I felt quite secure out in the moonlight here with my gear.

To get this simple scene by the full moon and urban glow I used the incandescent (tungsten) light balance, which softens the colour cast of the artificial lighting. This renders the moonlight cooler than it really was – notably in the grassy areas – but gives a nice emphasis to the blues, an effect quite acceptable to the human eye.

I resisted the impulse to add my ghost to the pier, although for unghostly self-images the Nikon D700 has various self-timing options, the longest delay being 20 seconds. To get this viewpoint however the camera was already set up on a handy picnic table, and by time I remembered the self-timer I was back down at ground level, avoiding possible tripod vibration. Finding the self-timer is a nuisance in the dark, but the real awkwardness is with the fully extended tripod. You must lower it before you can use the fiddly controls on the top of the camera, then re-elevate the camera and re-establish your frame.

The problem with advanced digital cameras is not that they have too many controls but rather with their poor arrangement. The ergonomics of the D7oo, for example, are ghastly, while the Lumix LX3 on manual has one tiny toggle to cope with the three key functions. Film cameras seem so simple in comparison. Take the old Pentax 6×7: once your ISO is set, there are just two settings after focus: shutter speed and aperture. Simple!

28mm, ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f4. Vivid picture control

89. Nightfall at Acacia Bay

Nightfall at Acacia Bay, Taupo

9.31pm, 19 December 2010.

Although the lighting looks fairly natural here it actually wasn’t, as during the 2-minute exposure I shone a small LED torch over the foreground rock. In this case the torchlight was a close match to the departing daylight in colour temperature, and my sense of how long to move the torchlight over the lichen was accurate – so I got the natural effect I wanted.

Selecting f11 on the Nikon 28mm wide angle gave the desired depth of focus, and this was set using the depth of field bracket marks on the lens. If you definitely want a sharp horizon then allow an extra stop at that bracket end, but wide angles are generally forgiving of critical-focus. Even at 2000 ISO, f11 required 122  seconds of shutter. I counted them out as I waved the torch around. My electronic cable release is just the basic model, having a button to lock the shutter open but no timing mechanism. It’s price new was outrageous even so, and appeared to bear no relation to the low cost of materials, given the cheapness of non-branded electrical items these days.   

Colour temperature was set to Cloudy, and Vivid was chosen for contrast. It was a drizzly night and an umbrella hovered over my gear for much of it, however this was a quiet and sheltered spot which felt secure to work from. Most of the houses nearby are holiday homes, largely unoccupied even the week before Christmas; the lakefront is public reserve, undeveloped but quite accessible.

There’s a minor sense of time passing in the drifting cloud and in the tiny surf on the lake, caused by a persistent northerly; the telephoto from this point showed the distant buoys bobbing. A street lamp reflects off a more distant rock while the apparently autumnal glow on the trees to the left of the house also comes from sodium lighting. To mention more lasting things, the boulder is likely a volcanic bomb ejected in the last Taupo eruption, around 200 AD.

71. Stockyard gate at night, Koru

Stockyard gate at night, Koru. 10.22pm, 22 October 2010

More experimentation with fill-in flash on a moonlit spring night in Taranaki. The almost ghostly gate shows everything filled in here, so it’s really more of a case of moonlight filling in the background to the desired degree, and here it is sky & peak. It is not difficult to balance the two light sources, or to favour one or the other, but adjusting for flash is unrelated to long shutter speeds. Instead the moonlight photographer changes the illumination either by way of ISO or distance from the foreground interest.

Flash gives a stark light, especially straight off the camera, and I’ve never been a great fan of it. Combined with a long exposure, however, some creative possibilities develop, particularly those showing movement. In the bottom right corner, for instance, a sharper image of clover merges with a second one formed by moonlight – but blurred by the wind.

The 8 second exposure required only f5.6, on ISO 2000. For a sharper background f11 for 30 seconds would have been better, but this equivalent exposure would then show some star movement. In this 28mm wide angle shot the shorter time actually used has  blurred the stars – but stilled them.

The square frame is divided into classic thirds. It tightens the original 2:3 format very well, and I like the colour range and rusty highlights. The tripod was positioned to obscure the fenceline beyond, while the fencepost and power pole were consciously aligned. The original high contrast has been moderated in post-processing.

Distant Mt Taranaki has some fresh snow, but most of the mountain is hidden by the Pouakai Range. Koru is a farming district near Oakura; for Sunday drivers Koru Road is a glorious glide down to the coast. However other folk use the road as a racetrack, reinforcing my belief that a safe park well away from traffic is the first requirement when you are out on location. To be worry-free certainly helps your enjoyment of moonlight photography.

64. Urupa gateway, by the half moon

Urupa gateway, by the half moon. 10.54-11pm, 15 January 2011

Taranaki has many small, secluded Maori cemeteries. This one on the coast near Puniho is the only local urupa I have seen with a decorated gateway, and an angel in residence. The unheralded location, far off and fenced within a field, gives the nearby surfing spot its name: Graveyard’s.

The light is solely from a summer moon 6 nights from full – so the caption is out by one night. However it was a novelty to have the moon in the west for my excursion. As the half moon is at the sun’s noon position at sunset, you can use it only as an “afternoon” light. This westerly light made for an interesting change, particularly as the moon drew closer to the horizon.

Star trails dramatise an otherwise blank sky in this 6 minute exposure (f16/ ISO 2000). Trial exposures of a few seconds at f1.4 and f4 enabled a sharp focus on the gateway with the 85mm lens, which is very precise in its focus. I then stopped right down to f16 to get the background as sharp as possible, and to give a longer time for star trails.

To extend these further still I could have reduced sensitivity, 6 minutes at 2000 ISO being the same as 12 minutes at ISO 1000, and 24 minutes at ISO 500. These would give better trails, but in truth I begrudge the time, as dark-frame processing then doubles these – meaning 24 and 48 minutes of camera time!

The above result was a little brighter than expected, so I have darkened the image slightly for a better feel of night. Luminosity is hard to judge on the LED viewer at night, although I lower the viewer brightness every night out.

Of course I had the place entirely to myself and plenty of time to enjoy the pastoral smells and background surf, but two hours passed rapidly. The only interruption was a disconcerting thrum, which turned out to be a helicopter coming ashore from the rig.

62. Venus from Te Rewa Rewa bridge

Venus from Te Rewa Rewa bridge. 6.44pm, 10 July 2010

For the night photographer, winter delivers an earlier start. There’s a better chance of a good stint as you are fresher creatively, and for longer. In July we antipodeans can take this sort of scene before dinner – it was already an hour after sunset, as the horizon fade suggests.

The star might not even be Venus, but it was bright enough to be. Star smudges and trails near the edge of a lens are a good test of its sharpness, but this shot is compromised by extra noise from the ISO 400 setting. While not so high by today’s reckoning, on the Panasonic Lumix LX3 ISO 400 really is on the cusp, and lowering the contrast has partly camouflaged the electronic static inherent to this image.

The other variables (60 secs@f2) establish that this moonless gloom is again at the Lumix’s limit. I abstained from tungsten, so the uncorrected light serves to underline the unexpected source – city glow, in the form of some far-off street lighting just below moonlight in strength.

The zoom was set at widest, “24mm”, and the self-timer at longest – 10 seconds – to enable my quick trot down the bridge, to the casual pose I struck (with some effort). In picture-making a notable structure is similar to a giant specimen tree in that a figure always adds interest, by supplying the all-important scale. Compositionally, my figure is the third strike, or what I call “the Detail”.

On the outskirts of New Plymouth, Te Rewa Rewa was acclaimed as a local icon as soon as it opened last year. The bridge links to a new section of the coastal walkway and is much used by cyclists. The minute exposure here ran the risk of someone running into the tripod, particularly when I was really some distance from it. Little traffic cones with glow lights would be useful as an extra safety precaution. There must be a world market for these – perhaps a dozen?

60. High tide, low moon, Marahau magic

High tide, low moon, Marahau magic. 2.04 am, 26 November 2010

This high contrast composition won’t work for everyone. At the time I was much taken with it, but then sidelined it on light of day. It has returned to favour since, as family viewers enjoyed its simplicity… picture selection is an art as well as science.

The bottom layer is a 500 m sea wall protecting the main access to a premier playground, Nelson’s Abel Tasman National Park. Even at 2 am the seasonal traffic along here was notable, cramping any creative prospects involving a tripod in the middle of the road.

This image is sidelighting to the limit – the rising moon flaring in despite my attempt to shade the wide angle. Thirty seconds on a 28mm lens minimises star movement, while f4 gives just enough depth of focus. Exposing for highlights (ISO 2000) naturally results in  deep shadows, but the cloud detail compensates, and there’s a clearer sense of calm water in this sheltered, highly tidal inlet. Marahau is a mere scallop on the western shore of Tasman Bay, which has the largest tide-range in the country.

Left offshore are Adele and Fisherman islands; there’s also a solitary boat light at the roadstead. The rugged coast across the bay shows not a single light – it’s uninhabited. Only moonlight competed with the stars on this magical evening, but two in the morning is not a typical time for my moonlight photography. Late night fatigue takes its toll, and driving any distance home in a weary state is not so healthy.

However when bad weather or good society deletes a few big moon nights from your logbook, then a late-rising moon is better than none. Fortunately this excursion, an hour or two on either side of midnight, needed only a short walk down from Colin’s beach house. Beach settlements feel much safer for late night wandering than more citified coasts. Just avoid those secluded carparks where later on young people gather to party near your car.

58. Taupo at night, from Acacia Bay

Taupo at night, from Acacia Bay. 9.31pm, 19 December 2010

When starved of moonlight by continuing nights of low cloud and rain, the desperate night photographer resorts to framing any scene containing an attractive range of form or colour. So an evening along the shores of Acacia Bay was balm for my exasperated soul, even if half my time was spent holding an umbrella above camera and tripod.

How things have changed here since my last visit on New Year’s Day, 1966! The bay is now an affluent outlier of Taupo, a resort city on the lake’s northern shore. Much of the Acacia waterfront is away from vehicle traffic, and is well kept, quiet and safe. This made for pleasant photography, bar the challenge of finding good compositions. I was attracted to the scene above by the nearby willow branch (lit by a tiny LED torch) and my interest was confirmed by the shoreline detail. Both elements fill out the frame, add depth and avoid the simple but conventional shot suggested by the curve of shore.

The low cloud reflects the city lights as a pleasing pink, picked up again on the water. More distant cloud highlights are a mix of moonlight and twilight, as f8 @ 30 seconds/ISO 2000 indicates these sources were close to par about 45 minutes after sunset. “Cloudy” was selected for light balance. Depth of focus at f8 is great on a 28mm lens. The shoreline blur gives a slight sense of lapping wavelets, although half a minute has smoothed the breezy ruffles on the lake.

It seems to me that city-at-night scenes need more than just bright lights to inspire us. They can be enhanced by foreground silhouettes (using a small aperture for good focal depth), or by adding some nearby colour detail by torchlight – preferrably something to contrast with the dominant yellows-and-reds, appealing though they are. The picture works as a colour statement yet only the extra interest of the right hand foreground compelled me to take it.

45. Karekare before dawn, west Auckland coast

Karekare before dawn, west Auckland coast. 25 October 1980

I took this on a rare night in which I stayed up sleepless till well past dawn on the wild Waitakere coast, with a Pentax Spotmatic F and three lenses.  By sunrise I was truly worn out and the long drive home was grim – fortunately I had the passenger seat and the weekend to recover.

However I loved the results, which showed only modest colour shift from long exposure, even on Kodachrome 64. The sense of scale and depth of focus suggest the 28mm wide angle here, approx 10 minutes at f2.5. The islet is Panatahi and we’re looking southwest. The modern aerial on Google doesn’t show the stillwater but probably the stream has changed course since.

The picture elements here are very simple: an even vignetting from the lens barrel plus almost a mirroring of sky and lagoon, two brief star trails in similar positions – but why is the islet right in the middle? The rocks are volcanic, the sand more likely grey than tawny, and the tinge to Panatahi tells of a declining moon. Time of night I did not know but it must have been about 5 am.

The beach was broad and the tide out. I’d had this entire landscape to myself for many hours, yet at one point while crossing a long reef to the south this perfect isolation was nearly my undoing. While lugging my gear – and just a short time before taking this photo – I almost stumbled into a gaping chasm in the reef, from fatigue and inattention. No doubt the incoming tide would have found me long before anyone else could have.

Let’s not ignore the safety side of moonlight rambles, especially solo ones. Cell phones and emergency beacons can be unreliable; help is so often far off; fatigue and the gloom lead to misjudgements – the outdoor moonlighter from time to time faces serious risk to life and limb. A daylight reconnoitre beforehand is a good idea.

43. Offshore squall, Taranaki, at night

Offshore squall, Taranaki, by moonlight. 8.45pm, 29 April 2010

Actually the foreground is lit by the petro installation on Centennial Drive, New Plymouth, but the fast-approaching squall is by moonlight. My car had to be parked next to my set-up for shelter from the strong wind. The squall came in rapidly and soon hit, so the next shot was abandoned halfway. I discovered that clambering into your vehicle in pelting rain with a long tripod and open-shutter camera is harder than you’d think.

The artificial lighting at this distance balances with the clouds, whose brightness required  slightly shorter exposure than the usual Lumix LX3 scenes: 40 seconds at f2, ISO 200. In this wide angle view, movement in the squall cloud is less than expected, although it is only about 600 m away. The well-defined cloud beyond must be heading straight for the camera, as well as being much further out, as 40 seconds is long enough to blur similar clouds if they are closer, or moving across your view.

As the squall had tone rather than colour, and as the foreground colour didn’t add much, I switched to black & white in camera. The moody tint was added later in post-processing, under Colour variations (convert to colour in Mode first). The simple, layered composition gives a sense of depth and works well for me, but would be less effective if the fence battens were unangled.

The advantage of the square format for the photographer is that neither horizontal (usually) nor vertical lines are immediately favoured as elements in the composition, meaning that all lines on offer to the creative eye compete on equal terms! However, to be sure that I do not fall captive to the lure of the square format, this image completes the current series.

The coast here is now protected as the Tapuae Marine Reserve, a development which contrasts strongly with my boyhood memory of a suspiciously smelly outfall in this neighbourhood – on Paritutu beach below the chemical works.

37. Nude by moonlight, Wairarapa pastorale

Nude by moonlight, Wairarapa pastorale. 22 February 1979

Now this isn’t my usual sort of exposure. One late summer’s evening I propped my bicycle out of sight against a fence, not far from where I was living near Masterton, a country town northeast of Wellington. I wandered over the hills to wait for the moonrise… while I preferred company clearly none was around that night, so I was obliged to pose for my own photo.

With Kodachrome 64 in my Pentax Spotmatic, and an exposure of 15 minutes in mind, I framed the scene with a 28mm wide angle before taking up this pose within it. The wide angle was chosen to help with depth of field, but it was a pain to compose with, as the f2.5 maximum aperture transmitted so little light for viewing.

Having got in the curve of the ridge, I then had to decide on a simple pose for the duration. I locked open the cable release and darted in, the self-timer being unavailable on the B setting. My movements at beginning and end do not show up as they are only a tiny fraction of the total exposure, although anyone doing this while dragging on a cigarette, say, would leave an ember trail.

I hadn’t reckoned on my long shadow on the left, but this is unexpectedly balanced by the vignetting on the right margin. I counted out the 15 minutes; the actual exposure is unknown but it accommodated the slow-down from reciprocity (the colour shift is from the same cause). It was also time enough for a star trail to be just visible top right; not surprisingly, star trails are much shorter on wide angles.

Fortunately it was a mild evening. Of course I rather like my youthful figure and the full head of hair, but as Oscar Wilde once said: “Youth is a gift of nature, Age is a work of art”, and don’t we all love Art status.

31. A winter’s walk to Groom Creek, Nelson

Winter’s walk to Groom Creek, Nelson. 8.35pm, 8 July 2009

Winter outings under a clear sky and high moon make for pleasant social excursions, especially when everyone is properly kitted up. The city of Nelson is ringed by hills, and with just a few turns in the road – usually uphill – you are soon removed from urban lights and noise. There’s safety in numbers too, and so I was out with four venturesome women friends. Parking at the Tantragee Saddle, we walked down the access road to Groom Creek, a minor tributary of the Maitai.

Not so long ago this was a charming byway, which criss-crossed Groom Creek with rustic copses along the way. Now the road has been upgraded to take logging trucks, and its leafy margins have been cleared. Above, we’re close to a logging platform, as the rigging suggests. With moonlight photography only occasionally can you see what you’re doing in the Lumix LX3 viewfinder, so to have the bright sky and cloud quite visible this night was a big help.

With a 50 second exposure (f2, ISO 200) and four people posing, there’s little scope for extra shots, and you have to think quickly on the technicals and how to choreograph your subjects. So I was happy to get this in just one exposure. Then there’s the fun of everyone waiting another 50 seconds for the image to show – while I try to think of other possible angles. However, you have to keep up with the company, and that night some of them were reluctant to stand still because they were cold.

Active ingredients in this pic are the moving cloud, silhouettes and the unexpected profile of the derrick. You could get a similar effect with a sunlit underexposure, and then take a dozen variations quite quickly too, but the cloud blur as a capping element is simply not possible by day. In outdoor terms, captured motion is a creative dimension unique to deep twilight and the dark.

18. Pineapple Drive by moonlight, Waimarama, Hawkes Bay

Pineapple Drive, Waimarama Domain, Hawkes Bay. 10.25pm 23 September 2010

Last week was my first visit to the Hawkes Bay coast via the hill country – I come from across the island, on the opposite coast. Apparently there are three other beach settlements south of Cape Kidnappers, each reached singly by long road from the inland highway.

Arriving somewhere for the first time at night is usually such a different experience, and when we came upon these fat little phoenixes in the dark we laughed. Even in a domain they were still so unexpected and unaccompanied – there was no pavilion or other structure you usually find along with this sort of beach embellishment.

Seeing such an unusual avenue of dwarves lit up by headlights, we set about doing something on it. It’s fun to have someone else along to help make interesting images, however it took quite a few runs by Gerry in her car to get what I was after. At least we had the place to ourselves, and had no worries about other traffic.

The challenge was to match the strong illumination from the car with the much weaker light from the moon, as moonlight is roughly par with the light from a 2 watt bulb. Either we had to turn off the headlights or do faster runs, to reduce their effect. Using just the blinking hazard lights achieved this and a bit more. Exposure was f8 for 30 secs, at ISO 2000, on the new Nikon D700, with the 28mm lens. Actually f11 would have been better, as I’ve had to damp down the daylight effect we ended up with.

However my first move had been to select tungsten for light source. Once available to photographers only as an entire length of film, this setting tones down the orange hazard lights while cooling the moonlight. It’s a great option for extra creative effects, especially underexposure by moonlight. Having not yet mastered custom settings, I still had to remember “Tungsten!”

15. Leaving Port Taranaki at midnight

Leaving Port Taranaki at midnight. 11.57pm, 26 March 2010

This image is one I was thrilled to get. It’s taken from an elevated platform some way up the steep steps from Back Beach to the carpark. The location is Paritutu, a volcanic relic of old New Zealand and a favourite haunt of mine; the giant rock somewhat shields this viewpoint from industrial intrusion. Offshore is distinctive Saddleback (Motumahanga), one of the Sugar Loaves (Ngamotu) – and the light trail of a departing ship. Just around the corner to the right is the harbour, a decommissioned power plant (and 195 m chimney) and fuel depots.

Exposure was 1 minute at f2.8, ISO 100, lens at maximum setting (60mm in 35mm terms). The moon was 4 nights away from full, so far from maximum strength, but seascapes using reflection and silhouette require the least exposure of moonlit subjects. This could be one reason for their relative commonness, although I believe the light trail rescues this example. There is nice detail in the foreground rocks, the surf is wispy, the clouds have come out well… taken in monochrome, with a sepia tint added later. My earlier, colour versions of shipping movements from the beach were disappointing for the lack of a good telephoto, which I will re-visit and remedy sometime soon.

The elevation here adds a sense of depth unobtainable on the beach. As a sheltered corner of the coast the steps were very welcome after four exciting but tiring hours on the wind-swept beach. Not a soul had come by in that time – I had the place to myself the entire evening. The 6×7 Pentax had unfortunately packed up at the last frame on the beach, leaving me just the Lumix LX3 to play around with. One minute exposures are followed by a dark frame minute before your image appears – meaning you have plenty of time to enjoy the silence of the stars, to the soundtrack of the surf.

8. Rustic evening near Omata, Taranaki

Rustic evening near Omata, Taranaki. 10pm, 31 October 2009

Farm animals make good subjects for moonlight photography precisely because they won’t keep still. Sometimes they hold it remarkably well though, as this placid minute in a cow paddock shows. The two leading beasts twitched their heads, to prove the point that this is indeed a night photo – as if the stars weren’t evidence enough.  With the lens at widest zoom and f2, ISO 200 was the setting. The wide perspective has reduced the star stutter; conversely for maximum star trail effects, a telephoto is more appropriate. Unfortunately, for star effects one minute is neither dot nor trail, but some sort of middling dash.

I chose the slope for its simple ridgeline and because the cows would be nicely placed along it. Often some elevation is needed to give a scene that extra sense of depth and here the rising ground served that purpose. The shadow of the trees behind was steadily dropping as the moon rose, but I wanted this in the frame to make a compositional third; the grass seemed a bit blank otherwise. The water trough was not visible at the time and shows too much in other frames. I liked seeing the stock uncrowded, strip-grazing being so common on Taranaki dairy farms. This photo comes without the incredible sound-track of cattle lowing, blowing, peeing and huffing; a sonic performance that as a townie I would never have imagined.

Featured as NOVEMBER in my Moonlight Calendar for 2011, this shot is taken at the fenceline of a no exit road. I’m not against getting closer but our spontaneous wander down it meant we did not have any landowner’s permission. Country people are suspicious enough of vehicles on their quiet roadsides; staying close to your car allows an immediate explanation. Whatever, a no exit road should reduce the chance of disturbance.

7. One a.m. and the last house on the street, Waikawa

Last house on the street, Waikawa, Horowhenua. 1.03 am, 3 October 2009

Waikawa is a fairly typical New Zealand beach settlement, not far from Levin, and about as far as Wellingtonians ever want to drive for the weekend. Sodium lamps are sprinkled throughout this well-lit settlement, as it has numerous permanent residents as well as seasonal ones. A letterbox or the lack usually tells the difference, although here the absence of a formed driveway says it all.  This house was handy to where we stayed, it’s a really quiet location and my company had long retired. Personal safety never seemed an issue at Waikawa but my moonlight creativity that weekend was hampered by unsettled weather and a chill southerly.

My shadow seemed a more interesting option than having the tripod shadow in the frame. The problem with the Lumix LX3 used here is the viewfinder does not work in such low light, often requiring several test shots at high ISO to get the framing right. Maximum setting of f2 on the wide angle allowed a low ISO of 100, exposed for one minute. On the Lumix this is close to the limit for noiseless images with good saturation. On Light Balance tungsten was selected to reduce the orange glare of the street light, and this choice can be detected in the blue moonlight filling in the tree-shadow on the house. In photographic terms moonlight is actually pleasantly warm, not cool. Photographers sometimes use tungsten film to render moonlit scenes closer to the way the human eye perceives them.

While street lighting at close proximity is too strong to mix with moonlight, there are opportunities at the fringe, and sometimes the infiltration of quite distant street lighting can be quite surprising. This is simple composition with strong coloration, good lines and a sense of depth, while I believe the shadow adds some piquancy. The image appears as MARCH in my Moonlight Calendar for 2011.

1. Mt Taranaki under full moon

Mount TaranakiMt Taranaki from above Inglewood. 10.02pm, 27 June 2010

This image graces the cover of my first Moonlight photography calendar, for 2011, and is now available also as a greeting card. I’d had the location very much in mind for the first full moon of winter, but the weather over previous days had been particularly dismal, even by Taranaki standards. An unexpected break was announced by a friend calling from Nelson, and I was astounded to look out to clear skies. This proverbial window lasted only a few hours, during which we covered only two locations, this being the first, roughly 20 km from New Plymouth.

The night was memorable for the striking clarity of snowy Taranaki and the constant motion of the low cloud around it, as well as the varying layers of mist over the nearby country town of Inglewood. Also memorable was my narrow escape from a high voltage electric fence which I had assumed was safe from its lack of insulated wires. Owing to the narrow shoulder of ground on my side of the fence I interlaced the legs of two tripods with the fence wires to secure stable positions. A few minutes after I had removed both tripods we heard a sudden loud and unmistakeable hum from the wires as the current began moving…

The exposure was 60 seconds at f2.5, ISO 200 on my toy Lumix LX3. Autofocus failed me on a number of times here – rather frustrating with minute-long exposures (2 mins really, to complete post-processing). The band of amber is street lighting reflected by the mist; the line of light at lower left is the signature of a distant truck with headlights at full beam. In the dense mist of the lower country I drove the backroads very slowly; out on the breezy hilltop with my cameras I was grateful for my big coat and gumboots.