Surf at dusk, Waitoetoe

Surf at dusk, Waitoetoe, north Taranaki. 27 April 2010

This simple, moody abstract is a long exposure in north Taranaki, further north from Turangi Rd (my previous post). The view is from a small headland, looking down on a tide-washed sill above a bouldery seabed. A small aperture (unrecorded) was used primarily to extend the exposure, rather than the depth of field, although this was probably helped too, given the limited focus inherent in a telephoto lens on a 6×7 Pentax. I had enjoyed camping here with my sisters and friends at New Year’s Eve 1980 but had not been back for 30 years. This second visit I was surprised to see the old foreshore road had disappeared completely, and much else besides. Another visit now, ten years later, would no doubt show further erosion.

This is a companion piece to my post from December 2010, of a seascape taken from the same position:

55. Twilight surf from the Waitoetoe cliffs


Round Rock and the Sugarloaf

Round Rock and the Sugarloaf by the half moon. 10.15pm, 26 March 2010

Another long exposure by moonlight, for which I certainly recall sheltering the tripod from a cold southwesterly, blowing strongly from behind. It meant I had the beach to myself, but airborne sand was a risk. The moon being a waxing one rather than full, it was much higher in the sky (and further west) for the time of night.  Round Rock (Mataora) is semi-tidal, and the Sugarloaf is now known as Moturoa (= long island) but this is also the name of a suburb near the port. The surf line lacks character but what I like here is the bold relief of Round Rock against the triangular feature of the Sugar Loaf (so named by Capt. James Cook in 1770), for which harbour lights provide the main illumination.

Mirror exercise, Taranaki

Mirror exercise, Kaimiro, Taranaki. 11 April 2010

This uncommon view of Mt Taranaki from the roadside at Kaimiro required a careful climb on to my car roof with the heavy Pentax 6×7 and tripod in hand, as I wanted the mountain to show well above the roofline. Elevated viewpoints so often improve a shot and sometimes I had a stepladder on board for this purpose, although nowadays a closed tripod held above the head will do  instead (misaligned digital shots carry no cost).

In composition terms the macrocarpas interrupt the mirrored forms and make up for the lack of interesting cloud. Strong texture is added to form by the twilight reflecting off the ribbed steel.  I usually give my monochromes a tint and this involves converting the scanned image to RGB and mixing the three colour values to my satisfaction. I then add vibrancy and sometimes saturation.

St Joseph’s twilight muster: horizontal

St Joseph’s twilight muster: horizontal. 5.43pm, 18 July 2018

This twilit tableau was the runner-up in my series of St Joseph with a vase of faux flowers. It ranks as “runner-up” only because it’s entirely moon-less, the crescent moon (the object of the whole exercise) being too high in the sky to be included in a horizontal composition. However as a simple set-up, this seems a more compelling image to me. I like the good range of colour and how the flash balances with the background lighting. It also has some artistic black space on the lower right, suitable for a quote (or headline), and I have supplied an anonymous, satirical example of such below.

In comparing the impact of this standard horizontal image with the earlier vertical frame, isn’t it an odd truth that the old 35mm format of 2:3 works much better for horizontals? The 2:3 format seems too long and narrow for most vertical applications, where 4:3 is often a better fit. That aside, good vertical compositions are generally harder to achieve than horizontal ones, yet verticals are so much to the fore these days – thanks of course to the demands of  Instagram, Pinterest and smartphones.

St Joseph’s twilight muster, with quote

1.3 secs at f22. Nikon 28mm; ISO 250. Flash

St Joseph’s twilight muster

St Joseph’s twilight muster, with crescent moon, Nelson. 5.47pm, 18 July 2018

How I love the crescent moon. The new moon is a real waif, and only visible for a short time on the twilit horizon, before it too sinks below sight. Then night after night the crescent moon fattens, spending longer in the western sky – each night the moon rises about an hour later, so sets later too. Twilight is the best time to get the crescent moon; later the sky is so dark that the unlit part of the moon will also show up, stealing your crescent.

In this wide angle view, the moon is reduced to a tiny cameo. Not wanting to participate in rush hour traffic, I stayed home and set this up, hard pressed to find anything else to make an interesting shot. The camera looks up to get everything in, and while I wrestled with different settings and placements, the moon kept moving (surprise surprise), in and out of view through the branches, requiring further frantic adjustments.

So I have at last put St Joseph to work, while he gathers in his lambs. They must be metaphorical, as he was a carpenter (or artisan), rather than a shepherd. We bought this likeness from a Catholic supplies shop in Bangkok in 2003. We got two Holy Virgins at the same time, in different sizes. The virgins have seen more limelight over the years, the BVM having greater recognition value. The companion piece, a vase of fake flowers, came with a house purchase we made in 2010.  It makes a handy, low maintenance prop.

3 secs at f22. Nikon 28mm; ISO 250. Flash

Memento mori 9: In loving memory

In loving memory, at Mokau cemetery. 4.15pm, 12 August 2013

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).

1/50th at f40. Nikon 250mm zoom; ISO 2000

Memento mori at Motunui, Taranaki

Memento mori at Motunui, Taranaki. 6.02pm, 18 August 2013

Across from the huge petro plant at Motunui, north Taranaki, is Waipapa cemetery, a Maori urupa dating from 1923. The cemetery is unusual in having a surrounding wall and a gateway, while its monuments present an awesome contrast with the industrial silos on the other side of Otaraoa Rd, to the northeast. However, most of the Motunui installation is out of sight, beyond the knoll.

When I visited here on a rainy summer’s day in 2010 the no-exit gravel road ended as it does now, just above the beach, but as a neglected cul de sac, overgrown with roadside weeds. Amongst the overgrowth was unsightly rubbish, dumped over a long period, and potatoes grew large in the resulting compost. Later visits found the road-end cleaned up and much improved, and two calls by  moonlight were memorable for the dairy cows in the adjacent paddock, and the surf on the cobble beach below.

The juxtaposition of cross and silos was achieved with a long telephoto setting and a tiny aperture – even f45 is possible at maximum zoom on this lens. This gives a better depth of focus, compensating for the inherent shallow focus of any telephoto lens. After focus, the second challenge at twilight was naturally the changing light, and the trade-off between selecting a small aperture or a short exposure (to freeze cloud movement). In these situations it always comes down to this: you can’t optimise both, so just choose one!

10 secs at f40. Nikon 200mm zoom; ISO <200

All quiet at the marae, by moonlight

All quiet at the marae, Nelson, by moonlight. 6.29pm, 8 June 2017

The Whakatu marae sits on 10 hectares of reclaimed estuary next to Founders Park, in the city. It is hub to six iwi: Ngati Koata, Ngati Kuia, Te Runanga o Toarangatira, Ngati Rarua, Ngati Tama and Te Atiawa. I took this scene because the entrance-way nicely mirrored the meeting house profile; the roofline vents also added interest. The light within the wharenui (Kaakati) was very dim, but that was just what was needed to balance with the moonlight.

In moonlight photography, and particularly in colour work, shadows are a special hazard (pictorially speaking; in safety terms shadows can be trouble too, but that’s another story). The more your frame is dominated by shadow, the more care is required for an effective composition. Here some detail is still visible in the battens of the entrance-way, but beyond, in the middle ground, there is nothing – although as a central mass the deep shadow offsets that of the wharenui quite well. Probably a better image would have been achieved an hour later, when the moon was higher in the sky.

The tripod was propped up against a wire-netting security gate, with the lens poked through. Long exposure photos are a bit like a duck swimming, in that all the effort to get somewhere is unseen; then again, shooting for a full night effect is hit-or-miss because of the variations in screen and monitor illumination – even the angle of view on a laptop makes such a difference to the effect.

30 secs at f5.6; Nikon 28mm, ISO 1000

Memento mori 6: Love at Mokau

Love at Mokau
Memento mori 6: Love at Mokau, Waikato. 4.50pm, 12 August 2013

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.

1/10 sec at f18. Nikon 300mm; ISO 250

Memento mori 5: Odd neighbours

Odd neighbours

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.

1 sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500



Roadside view 1 (Work in progress)

Roadside views 1: Work in progress
Roadside views 1: Garden Valley Rd, Nelson. 6.43pm, 26 April 2018

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 .

30 secs at f5.6. Nikon 50mm; ISO 1000

Memento mori 2: Kettle angel child

Kettle angel child, Greymouth cemetery.
Kettle angel child, Greymouth cemetery. 6.06pm, 10 April 2018

Rarely have I taken such a strange, otherworldly scene such as this. The funereal gold, grey and alabaster are relieved only by the faint sunset and the industrial background. In using flash I could easily have hand-held the shot; instead I struggled to compose on a tripod (already set up for long exposure possibilities). Flash is ideal for highlighting form over colour, but its great powers of definition involve high contrast, which I have softened here in post-processing. Twilight alone would not have chiselled the angel child nor have gilded the name so remarkably.

Memento mori: Latin for “Remember that we all have to die”, a reflection on our respective entrances and exits from the long-running Stage of Life. Of course “We are born alone … and die alone”, but what really matters is that these existential bookends happen gently, and with loving support.

1/250th sec at f8. 50mm; ISO 250

May 2018 in new Perfect Evenings calendar

Quiet night at Kurow, North Otago

Another sample from my 2018 New Zealand calendar, this one is for May 2018. The holiday park at Kurow was decidedly off-season on the cold autumn night that we stayed there. A bitter, blustery wind was blowing but I coated up and left our snug cabin with tripod and gear, determined to make use of the wan moonlight in such an interesting setting – and was then pleasantly surprised to find that down by the river was quite sheltered. From the several hours I  spent on the terraces, covering many angles on the deserted camp, this pic has emerged as a favourite. A second, quite different scene from this frigid outing also features in my upcoming Perfect Evenings photo book.

Monday 2nd October is the last day for my extra special prices on this 2018 calendar, post-free for NZ & Australia. There are still about 20 left – so why not purchase and enjoy?!


Omata panorama, Taranaki

Evening panorama, Omata, Taranaki: 8.57pm and 9pm, 7 August 2017

A family trip to New Plymouth last week coincided with a full moon, but alas, I had flown one stage of the journey, so arrived without a tripod. From a fence post alongside our accommodation I took two frames which have stitched up nicely.  My other steady-state improvisations were not successful – trying the camera on a patio chair (awkward to get the right angle) and on a free-floating fence batten (lingering vibration). Even on the fence post the placement was precarious, so I hung on to the camera strap.  I did not think there was much going on for the left frame until I noticed the sleeping horse and the slight blush to the low cloud (which enveloped the area for days). The neighbouring property was interesting for its rustic buildings, particularly one which leans precariously over a slope.

 50mm lens; ISO 500.  15 secs at f4 and 30 secs at f5.6

Flotsam on a twilit tide

0679 Flotsam on a twilit tide

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.

Summer moonrise

0020 Moonrise wallpaper

0020 Summer moonrise. 8.54pm, 4 February 2015

A twilight moon always rises over a flat landscape – in lighting terms, at least, after sunset. Two strong aids to composition, much to my liking, are silhouettes and clouds, and only these are a match for the moon’s brightness as night begins to settle. A variety of clouds is always welcome, but too many at once and the moon will be continually ducking in and out of view. This deliberately simple image – very much taken with digital wallpaper in mind – records another routine cosmic occasion, as our fellow traveller looms into the gloom, ready to light a summer’s night [applause].

165mm, ISO 500. 1/10th sec at f8

Evening parade at Waiwhakaiho

9807 Evening parade, Waiwhakaiho

9807 Evening parade at Waiwhakaiho. 8.20pm, 3 February 2015

Clouds strike some marvellous poses, but as they will not hold them the trick is to be ready and waiting. Even better if they are only a side-show to the main act – an anticipated moonrise, for example. A big Nikon zoom lens needs a tripod for best results, especially with a polarising filter. A tripod does restrict you but it allows a much smaller aperture, which helps with overall sharpness after the filter and softness of a zoom lens are taken into account. Using a tripod also ensures a more considered approach, and more level horizons. The polariser, meanwhile, only works from a certain viewpoint, that is, one at roughly 90 deg to the sun. So you might as well stay in the right spot with your tripod.

112mm, ISO 250. 1/60th at f11. Polariser and tripod

Marahau finale panorama


Marahau finale panorama, 7.15 – 7.16pm, 8 September 2014

Moonlit clouds – how I know these well, as a pleasant pillow for my head. Here’s another practice shot, complementing my earlier Marahau post, in the art of stitching up two wide angle frames. Each was exposed for just 5 seconds, in order to keep the clouds well-defined. In silhouette are the headlands and islands of Abel Tasman National Park, on the western side of Tasman Bay, Nelson. Double-click on the image to see a larger version.

Marahau moonlight, Nelson

8254. Marahau moonlight, Nelson

8254. Marahau moonlight, Nelson. 9.21pm, 13 July 2014

While the others snuggled down to watch rugby on TV, I ventured out into the cool evening and walked towards the Abel Tasman. I followed a shoreline lapped by tiny surf, and set my tripod in the sand every few minutes, only to discover that my lens cap was missing. Retracing my steps along the deserted beach, I saw the moonlit reflection shimmy alongside Adele Island (Motuareronui, big island of the swift moving clouds, is its original Maori name). The view east across Tasman Bay made for a brilliant evening, but the outing came to an early conclusion when I found my backup battery was uncharged. However I did recover my lens cap.

105mm (70-300 Nikon zoom), ISO 500, 30 seconds at f11 

Claire & co in the wilderness

7707. Claire & co at Whatipu

7707. Claire & co at Whatipu

A discrete chair in the Whatipu wilderness puts you one step ahead in the relaxed model stakes – as does a warm coat – but the secret ingredient to portrait work seems to be having an accomplice, one who distracts the subject with lively conversation while the photographer pretends to poodle around with his tripod and settings. In this case, Yana is standing close by, so that Claire remains face-on to camera. For portrait work my Nikon 85mm lens is an obvious choice, and it’s a sharp lens for a soft (though wintry) light. As backdrop I like the filigree of flax and the rock, and Claire’s good twin has also come by – note the different colouration –  for a final appearance.

Renee on the coast

5957. Renee

5957. Renee on the coast

Sunset and twilight glows are great times to photograph people, as the light is warm and lateral, rather than cool and overhead. Long exposures are sometimes necessary, true, but using the tripod slows you down to give each frame full consideration. It was a full moon and Be Kind to Photographers Week when my old chum offered a walk along the coast from Wellington’s Owhiro Bay. This spot by a lichen-encrusted boulder was away from the unseasonal breeze. Exposure was 1/4 sec at f11. The 28mm wide angle is not a lens normally used for portraits, but distortion is minimal. Thanks are due to Geraldine for the robe and Renee for her patience.

Reading the Little Book of Calm

7780. Readings from the Little Book of Calm

7780. Reading the Little Book of Calm

Or something like it. Claire is distracted with readings from a good book. Light ent., relief and engagement shine through as the drizzle descends. Low angle with tripod; wide angle lens predictably highlights her fine hands; her hair is emphasised by post-pro desaturation and selective re-saturation.

An important ingredient of memorable portraits is the capture of micro-emotion, those inner feelings which flicker on the silver screen of our faces. These are surely basic to our primate biology. Even if as here the occasion is fictitious, we immediately recognise the human reality of expression. In this curious blend of fiction and fact we see the genetic relationship of the portrait with the novel. (This observation can’t be original, but at least the occasion was.)

199. Arriving at Wellington, evening ferry

Arriving at Wellington, evening ferry. 10.08 pm, 6 March 2012.

 Life is a badly edited film.  –  Fernando Trueba

This was taken without using a tripod or cable release – just holding the camera open on B, on a guard rail on the Cook Strait ferry, has done the trick. The cloud is lit by moonlight, the lower part of the image must be the motorway the boat is running parallel to. We are close to docking. The undulations of the vessel, hardly perceptible onboard, show up in the apparent movement of the city lights. Steep hills are suggested by the absence of lights in some areas.

85mm, ISO 2000. 10 secs at f11. Incandescent light balance.

175. Mokau twilight

Mokau twilight. 6.54pm, 20 September 2011 

There is no duty we so much underestimate as the duty of being happy.

Being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.   –  Robert L. Stevenson

85mm, ISO 2000. 1 sec at f16. Flash

171. Moonlit natives

Moonlit natives. 2.36 - 2.41 am, 11 November 2011

Friendship is a sheltering tree. –  S.T. Coleridge

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.

28mm, ISO 2000. 5 minutes at f22




159. New moon from Paritutu, twilight

New moon from Paritutu, twilight. 7.49pm, 29 September 2011

Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper. –  Francis Bacon

Contrary to Bacon, as a night photographer my hopes rise at supper. The new moon is not visible until the sky darkens, well after sunset. This moon always needs a supporting cast, to add both human scale and pictorial interest; here that cast is very simple.

This could never be natural light because the new moon after sunset is always in the western sky. You could only get silhouettes from the flax stalks from this angle – without fill-in flash. The location is my regular haunt at Paritutu Centennial Park, not the rock itself.

85mm; ISO 1000. 1/50th at f16. Flash


139. Hawkes Bay springtime, by moonlight

Hawkes Bay springtime, by moonlight. 8.28 pm, 22 September 2010

[The object of art is] to make eternal the desperately fleeting moment. –                    Tennessee Williams

The trick with any arc of headlights is to minimise the full-on glare of the lights, something likely to occur at some point in your frame. Here in the second frame from a moonlight sequence you see a short space between the edge of the frame and where the car lights begin – a gap which would otherwise be occupied by a strong glare.

In general a shutter of 15 to 30 seconds best suits headlight arcs, but it depends a lot on how distant your view is, the speed of the car and how far it travels across your frame. At any rate, your exposure can continue past that if you need to relieve the following darkness. On the other hand, the background setting should only be semi-dark so that the headlight trails show well, as they lose their power in near-daylight effects with moonlight photography. This image has been darkened in post-pro for that reason.

The steep slope in front of the camera is not obvious in the wide angle, but it required a dab hand with the tripod set-up. In such situations four-stage tripods must really come into their own. When fully extended the four stages give you more height than you need – except on steep banks and perches. On slopes the fourth extension puts the camera back up to eye-level… for a line-up you’d otherwise be struggling to obtain.

However I do not own such luxury myself! Another tripod feature which I am increasingly using, though, is the spirit level. Slow learner that I am, I find shining the torch on the spirit bubble beforehand saves time in post-pro with the Rotate button. Although it is no big deal to level a horizon in post-pro, it involves sacrificing a little of the frame, and usually I’d rather not.

28mm, ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f5.6. Standard picture control.

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


135. Star trails and mountain, from Lake Ratapiko

Star trails and mountain, from Lake Ratapiko. 2 July 2010

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.

200mm, ISO 200. Estimated 12 minutes at f8

129. Electric poplar, autumn

Electric poplar, autumn. 9.31 pm, 19 May 2011

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust

Out for an evening’s recreation, I soon noticed these poplars on the fringe of New Plymouth. They are lit by the rising moon and distant street lamps, as well as the lights of a neighbouring school, where an evening meeting was in progress.

The challenge was to get the tripod in just the right place to line up the dead branch with the gap in the trees, and then to light-paint the limb to best ghostly effect. Highlighting the foreground interest by waving a torch over it involves Goldilocks timing – you want something not too dark nor too bright. This one is slightly underdone.

The quote applies especially to moonlight photography. New perceptions emerge in the twilight zone from the warmer colour, stronger shadows and greater range of interpretative exposures: night as night? as stronger twilight? as daylight? In terms of composition I’ve used a standard line-up of features near and far, but the extra light source means that “light up” is added to line-up… another reason why night photography offers such creative potential.

Around urban areas there are two types of extra light source: static (houselights; street lamps) and mobile sources (flash, torchlight, vehicle headlights). Even if you are in a remote area for a few nights you won’t need to ration the flash if you carry a solar charger, or one that plugs into your car battery, while an LED torch will go for ages.

After that, however, you must resort to kero lamps, campfires, candles and match flames.  All these have a strong colour cast and go best with an Incandescent light balance. Incandescent will cool the moonlight down yet this effect still works because of a limitation of the human eye. Moonlight is actually full spectrum colour but it always seems blue to us.

28mm; ISO 2500. 30 seconds at f5.6. Vivid picture control

127. Beside some moonlit highway

Beside some moonlit highway. 18 April 1981

When inspiration arrives I want it to find me working. –  Pablo Picasso

“Some highway” means that I do not know exactly where this was taken. On Easter holiday near Tongariro National Park (central North Island), we were off for a drive-about, on the night before full moon. Here we might be on the Turangi road or, less likely, the main highway south, but traffic is light and I’m glad the headlights aren’t coming towards us because they would flare the lens.

So I’m in the passenger seat of John’s Triumph 2000 with the tripod over my lap and I’ve asked him nicely not to move at all for a spell, while the film works its magic. Fortunately he’s a patient fellow and ever ready to indulge the creation of Art. Both depth and movement enhance this simple composition but another 30 seconds would have improved the exposure. Thanks anyway, John.

The car bonnet is visible in this wide angle view; the streak of the passing car would be more orange but for my using tungsten film. Tungsten is the old equivalent to digital’s Incandescent light balance setting – except once your film is in, you can only adapt separate shots to daylight by fitting compensating filters. Tungsten gives a bluer sky to the above, dark though it is, and better colour to carlights and other filament sources.

The quote applies in part because I was willing to work for an awkward shot rather than just relax and enjoy the outing. At the time my expectations were fairly low, as I was doubtful that the tripod could be kept still enough across the car seat for a sharp image. However I was willing to set it up anyway. Tripod work is slow craft indeed, and so your photo intentions require that extra effort.

28mm; ISO 160. Ektachrome slide film; exposure unrecorded but est. 90 seconds at f8


125. Twilight in the front garden, Nelson

Twilight in the front garden, Nelson. 7 December 2008

Twilight has one simple and obvious advantage over night photography: you can see what you are doing. You can focus by eye or auto, and compose quickly. You have a wider range of exposure choices, to allow or prevent movement showing, for example, without the sacrifice in aperture selection that workable shutter times need at night.

For a good while as twilight deepens you can also hand-hold the camera on a high ISO. This is convenient if you’re just after a few quick shots because of a time constraint. It’s also straight forward with large apertures on standard prime lenses, or you can use the widest end of your zoom, where camera shake is minimised. Steadier hand-held shots at twilight can be had with the support of car windows and chair backs – plus the use of the self-timer.

In the above type of photo, though, depth of focus is supreme and for this you’ll want a calm evening, a tripod and long shutter times. These go with the small aperture required. What to look for is colour contrast, because after sunset the ambient light has one supreme quality – it is very flat. It looks even more so when sky is excluded, an effect in itself worth experimenting with.

The light from a bright sky following sunset is often a good side-light too, but here the light was more diffused by surrounding trees. What this scan from Fuji slide film shows is how even in flat light, colours have subtly different exposure requirements. The correct exposure for one will sometimes drop another colour out – although preferrably just enough to create an effect.

The lavender is thus darker than it appeared, and the background darker still, but this works towards highlighting the rose. So often you expose for an average over the whole frame, but this image shows the benefit of selective exposure where the light provides only low contrast.

50mm, ISO 100. Exposure unrecorded; estimated 1 second at f16.




121. South Taranaki dusk, in spring

South Taranaki dusk, in spring. 7.08 pm, 25 September 2010

NEWS: The above image is one of about 50 of mine which have just been published in a free ebook of quotations by Hannah Samuel, public speaker, author and mentor, of Auckland. The Pocket Book of Men’s Wisdom, Volume 1 is a compilation of quotes from Kiwi men associated with Big Buddy (, a mentoring organisation for boys in need of good male role models.

Each pearl is accompanied by one of my images, mostly daylight ones, although about a dozen are at twilight or night. This collection lets you see a broader range of my work than the images posted here, and the link below will take you to Hannah Samuel’s website. Both low res and high resolution options are available for free download, but I can recommend only the high res version for  sharp delivery:

Congratulations to Hannah for bringing this together, and my personal thanks in addition.  Hannah’s layout stipulation was for only square images, and that has turned out to be quite a creative spur for me.

The image above was one I had to wait for beside a country road (Neill Rd East) near Eltham. The lights of Kapuni petrochemical are in the distance, meaning it was actually darker than this intentionally pastel rendition of the scene suggests. Darker versions of this scene were less successful as all the lowland detail was lost in the deeper twilight. Here such detail gives a sense of distance and perspective.

In search of just this type of photo I had detoured a short way from the highway while driving home from Hawkes Bay. Fortunately I had some time to spare at this peaceful locality before the evening’s next scheduled event: the fabulous sight, from a hilltop behind Stratford, of these same snowy flanks lit up by the first rays of the rising moon. That image, a personal favourite, features in post no. 23, Moonrise on Mt Taranaki.

85mm, ISO 2000. 10 seconds at f4


118. No stopping, Kapiti twilight

No stopping, Kapiti twilight. 9.09 pm, 16 February 2011

A companion piece to no. 107. Twilight tractor (and taken 6 minutes later), this electric call to good order conveys another mood. Existentialists may freely dwell on it. Outside the Waikanae boat club 45 minutes after sunset, the balance of light was changing in favour of artificial light. A star is visible in the nightfall. A full-ish moon had been up since 6.40 pm, so I suspect moonlight had a role in boosting the sky here.

On the Nikon D700 I used the Incandescent (tungsten) light balance to desaturate excessive yellow and intensify the blue. This was going to be a colour statement. Other decisions were also straight-forward: 1. a “short” exposure time to keep the clouds well defined; 2. a very small aperture for maximum depth of focus on the telephoto, and 3. Vivid picture control, for snappy colour. A simple composition such as this is all mood and colour.

The telephoto was a natural choice for the canvas, as a flattened perspective enhances the composition, which is in typical thirds. One horizon line was ample here and the top of the sign was lined up with it. By taking the shot from the elevated frontage of the boat club I could keep the beach itself out of the picture. Also just out of frame is the northern tip of Kapiti Island.

Having the camera already set up on the tripod meant more options at twilight, including long exposures for light trails from boats coming in. Hand-held shots in this gloom were still possible with a fast standard lens – say 1/30th second at f1.4, at ISO 2500 – and for people shots doing hand-held at the wide end of the zoom can still be a good idea. But I prefer a tripod. While there’s no doubt that it slows you down, it’s usually to good effect – your picture-taking will become more deliberate.

You don’t take many snaps when your camera’s on a tripod.

85mm, ISO 1000. 10 seconds at f16

114. Nikau mates at Te Hapu, no. 2

Nikau mates at Te Hapu, no. 2. 11.03 pm, 12 March 2011

We waved the torch over nearby palms on our way back from Gilbert’s Beach, at Te Hapu (, a remote cattle station in Golden Bay. On a wide angle lens it is easier to stop the stars, which were more visible with the moon being blotted out by a cloudbank.

Having selected Direct sunlight light balance, I wasn’t happy with the coolness of the torchlight on the nikau – I’d assumed the LED beams were close to daylight colour temperature. Warming up the palms in post-pro gave the sky an unexpected boost, an effect I immediately liked. Also needing attention was the grass closer to the torch, which was a little overexposed.

I could easily have spent an hour here but further delay would have dragged on my good-natured company. Luckily I got the shot right first-off… how many times have I passed interesting scenes close to quarters, and thought “Well I can easily come back here another night”. All too often the following nights turn out to be too cloudy, or cold, or windy, and the photo is not worth the trouble.

Or if the evening’s not too dark nor too bright, and not a social night of the week, then you are too tired to summon the energy (“Not tonight, Josephine”). Or other nights you’re too well fed or wined, with other distractions for your leisure. In winter you leave a warm fire for the dubious pleasure of night photography in a chill breeze, while in summer you must wait too long for suitable darkness, then when you finally get out and about you remember the mosquito repellant is still at home.

I haven’t even started on the mechanics of setting up in the dark, never as simple as camerawork by daylight. Really, night photography takes far too much effort, and all for such uncertain results. Of course I thoroughly recommend it.

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 seconds at f4. Vivid picture control

108. John and Ilona by moonlight, Te Rewa Rewa

John and Ilona by moonlight, Te Rewa Rewa. 9.45 pm, 19 March 2011

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!

28mm, ISO 2000. 15 seconds at f9.

107. Twilight tractor, Waikanae

Twilight tractor, Waikanae. 9.03 pm, 16 February 2011

A very simple image taken at the Waikanae boat club on the Kapiti coast. The tractor is lit by a single bulb outside the clubrooms, and here is matched with the deepening gloom of twilight. Several boats came in shortly after, and the tractor was used for hauling each in turn up to road level. The profile offshore is the southern end of Kapiti Island, landmark for the district.

The twilight was darker than the exposure suggests, the Nikon D700 settings being only 3 stops more more than exposure for full-moon-on-water, for example. The incandescent (tungsten) light balance softens the harsh sodium lighting while deepening the evening blues. The balance of light was still slightly in favour of the western sky, but this changed in a few short minutes, despite the full moon in the east.

Although taken on the margin of night it is true that by the strict minimalist standards of, say, Ken Rockwell (, this shot could be managed without a tripod. However, using a hand-held 1/160th sec at f1.4, at ISO 2500, would involve only the shallowest of focuses and include some risk of camera shake on the telephoto.

Being an enthusiast for depth of field and a night photographer to boot, of course I had my tripod along and this was one of my first shots for the evening. Without a tripod it would have been one of my last. It can be tedious at times to have to lug and re-set the three-legged beast all evening, but only a portable fixed position allows the full scope of long exposure creativity. For me the beauties of this are the main attraction of twilight and night photography.

The single subject is a common starting point and its very simplicity can be a striking element, compositionally. Further interest I think lies in the two contrasting but balanced bodies of colour.

85mm, ISO 1000. 2 seconds at f16, Vivid picture control.

104. Stony landscape, Taranaki

Stony landscape, Taranaki. 10pm, 15 February 2011

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.

99. Moonlight multiplicity, Te Rewa Rewa

Moonlight multiplicity, Te Rewa Rewa. 2.04-2.08 am, 20 January 2011

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) (; blog at and the Icelander Rebekka Gudleifsdottir, who now gives less prominence to this side of her work than previously ( .

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.

28mm, ISO 2000. Each exposure 30 seconds at f8.

97. Nikau mates, Te Hapu moonlight

Nikau mates, Te Hapu moonlight. 9.11pm, 14 March 2011

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.

92. Stars over Mangarakau, Golden Bay

Stars over Mangarakau, Golden Bay. 20 March 2009

Usually with a sky full of star trails you can safely assume “Film!” I haven’t yet matched anything like this with the Nikon D700, although it’s bound to happen sometime. If you do want to streak the sky with stars it’s easier with a telephoto – here I used a Takumar 200mm on my old Spotmatic.

Fuji 100 slide film was exposed for at least an hour at f11 or 16, for maximum star streak. In scanning I have softened the magenta cast, this being the colour shift that comes with long shutter times on film. The blue stars are hard to explain; the range of star colours is probably a surprise to most people too. It does take a dark night to get so many stars on your frame, and it is also hard work composing in the very low light transmitted by an f4 telephoto lens.

The location is a closed school at the old mining settlement south of Westhaven Inlet, on the long road to the west coast. The school is now holiday accommodation but the limestone bluffs behind it remain unchanged. The light scatter in the sky can only come from starlight, given the distance from urban life. It was roughly ten days since full moon, so there was no risk of moonlight brightening the sky until 3am. There was no risk of my staying up to see it, either, as we were getting up early next day for the long walk down the Kahurangi coast.

In setting up this shot I was confident that nothing would intrude on it, as the lower slopes are forested and the district is barely inhabited. However something unexpected came up – at least in one sense: the long film exposure cramped my digital creativity with the second tripod. I wanted to start experimenting with the bright outside light of the schoolhouse, but had to finish the film exposure first. So it did not get the full exposure that I had planned for it.

91. Half-lit shadows by the rising moon

Half-lit shadows by the rising moon. 9.06pm, 10 April 2009

The adjective refers to my moving shadows, or rather my shadow having moved during the exposure. I counted 30 seconds before I side-stepped away from the tripod in this full minute’s worth of moonlight. The shadow dilution is evident in the darker imprint of the little Lumix on the tripod. I liked the angle of the concrete ford against the willow – the angle also mirrors the hillside. With the moon rising behind me the tripod shadow could not be avoided, so instead I got creative with the problem.  

Adding shadows also fixed the composition problem of the plane of the ford lacking sufficient interest, although as a monochrome this might still have worked. The warmth of colour shows how the light from a low moon tends towards Golden Syrup – a warmth that daylight can only match when the sun is just above the horizon. I had had to wait some time for the rising moon to clear a spur in the valley, yet when it did there were still the long shadows that are useful to moonlight photography.

The “half-lit” adjective also hints at how the image depends for its impact on your angle of view on the laptop screen, or the brightness of your computer monitor. In viewing terms this is a Goldilocks image – not too hot, not too cold please!

The scene is the Maitai River, on the outskirts of Nelson, but looking like only a puddle here. April is autumn in New Zealand and all along the Maitai the willows and poplars dress accordingly. The ford gives access to a broad field in the narrow valley. Fords are uncommon in this country and culverts are preferred, as New Zealand rivers flood regularly. I would not perch my gear here after heavy rain.

f2 was used at the widest zoom – “24mm”. ISO was a low 100, contributing to a darker effect than I usually seek in my moonlight photography.

83. Lilies by moonlight at Marybank

Lilies by moonlight at Marybank. 28 September 1985

This still-life was just outside our house at Marybank, Nelson. Exposure took an hour or more, at around f8 with the Pentax Takumar 50mm, on Kodachrome 64. I recently re-scanned the slide and with greater attention to levels, contrast and colour in Photoshop, I made some gratifying improvements.

Moonlight photography at home has two initial hurdles – your houselights, and then nearby street lighting. In domestic domains the available moonlight is frequently overwhelmed or discoloured by street lamps. Artificial light does not rule out night camerawork in general, of course, but moon rays do not thrive in competition.

In the above case, we turned off the lights in the two adjacent rooms, as even thick curtains will leak wattage over a long exposure. While the camera did its slow work we went to another living room on the other side of the house. Three cheers for obliging housemates!

The further challenge of moonlight close-ups is depth of focus, for which by daylight you usually stop down. At night, though, this can lead to over-long exposures – without even considering battery power. Fortunately my Pentax Spotmatic did not need power for the shutter (unlike the 6×7, I have belatedly learned), but power drainage is a definite concern with most digital cameras.

Then there is the wind. The slightest breeze will make all your efforts for good depth of focus quite pointless. A decent breeze, on the other hand, should give you some scope for motion studies of flowers. Depth of focus is then scarcely relevant, and 60 minutes is unlikely to give you any better flow of colours than 15 mins. However brightly coloured flowers such as poppies are best for this – once you have found some with petals still open.

Vertical tripod positions seem much fussier than the horizontal camera. Angles and levels need more attention, as does tripod balance with the extra weight side-long to the head. Be sure to tighten all screws, and especially your head!

82. Moonlit snapdragons

Moonlit snapdragons, Nelson. 12 November 2008

A photo from our garden in central Nelson, in a corner not reached by any street lighting. Taken on Fujichrome 100, on the Pentax Spotmatic, these snapdragons have been titivated slightly in Photoshop, as usual with a slide scan. The warm light with which moonlight suffuses its subjects has not been corrected, however.

Contrary to what our eyes tell us, moonlight is not blue-ish. In fact the moon gives a positively warm light all night long, something like the light of morning with the sun just up. As with the passage of the sun, however, so moonlight is warmest when the orb is low in the sky, and relatively cooler when the moon is high in the heavens.

This close-up demonstrates the shallow focus of a wide open lens (here f1.4), used with a low ISO of 100 for a relatively short time exposure of about 2 minutes, on the B setting. The Spotmatic F was set up on a tripod, and the composition was made fairly readily through the viewfinder, as at f1.4 even by moonlight there is sufficient light transmitted through the lens to frame and compose.

Focus however was not so easy, and I had to use a torch for the fine focus required. Focus is always critical this close anyway, and stopping down improves sharpness much less than it does with “big pictures”. While the depth of field is very shallow the bokeh is attractive; the background is a rose bush.

The colour contrasts are good and the exposure suitable for the highlights. There is no obvious colour shift from reciprocity, although Fuji films are said to be prone to a green shift with long exposure. A still night was a major starting point for this frame to work, but it would also be interesting to try a similar close-up on a windy but clear moonlit night – and with different exposure lengths too.

80. Rotomanu evening contrasts

Rotomanu evening contrasts. 9.14pm, 19 January 2011

This twilight image at Lake Rotomanu, New Plymouth, completes my current series of square format images. The starting point has been the standard 3:2 rectangle, which is the only choice on my Nikon D700. This lack of options hangs over from the days of 35mm preeminence, as the 60-year standard is now losing ground to the 4:3 screen format. One advantage of the Lumix LX3 compact is its three formats of 3:2, 4:3 and 16:9, which is the panoramic frame.

I have found many of my pictures are much improved from squaring up, and not only the horizontal frames. As one last option, squaring up tightens composition and sometimes perspective, by eliminating “unoccupied ground” – those areas of the canvas where the pixel-paint is not very interesting, poorly detailed or badly daubed.

Using the 85mm lens at f7.1, and 1/250th second on 2000 ISO combines the garish aspect of flash with the pleasure of the evening sky. I have only the flash pop-up on the camera, sufficient for my own low usage of this melodramatic form of lighting. Separate lights would be the next step for anyone really taken with the possibilities. Pop-up flashes can hardly be subtle light sources in twilight settings, and fill-in flash is easily overdone in my opinion.

The volcanic peak Taranaki looms above the frequent cloud, while the lakeside reeds are stilled in the wind. Cropping on the right has removed a lens flare caused by a careless finger too close to the glass. Auto levels on Photoshop gave the background highlights such an unexpected magneta lift that I just hit “Save”. There was improvement also in contrast, the bands of colour being a large part of the impact.

Deeper twilight, say 20 minutes later, has more creative scope than this quick shot. For example, an  exposure of several minutes would blur the cloud layer while maintaining the flash instantaneity on the foreground. This is where an evening with the tripod would begin.

76. Moonrise at Long Bay, Auckland

Moonrise at Long Bay, Auckland. 4 December 1979

The mannequin once adorned my apartment at Courtville, Auckland. We stowed her in the back for an evening trip up to Long Bay, on the North Shore. It felt like so much lumber to be lugging the tripod as well, but I knew a full moon was coming up, and with no tripod there’s no moonlight photography… you might find lucky fenceposts occasionally, but don’t count on it.

In the Pentax was Ektachrome 400; it was fast for the time but was not one I liked much – someone had paid me with a few rolls. How quickly we take for granted the digital benefit of instant feedback, so useful when you’re freehanding with your light source, or mixing sources. On film a shot like this would be guestimated in a number of steps.

First, figure out focus (not 100% here), then remember previous settings for moony reflections, adjust for faster film, assess strength of torchlight and distance from foreground, and then judge the lapse of time as the beam moves up and down the mannequin. Shoot and advance film for next attempt… wait days or weeks for results. Naturally, you hedged with various exposures – bracketing, it’s called – but film was never free, and neither was processing.

The torchlight is an old filament bulb, and today’s torches would deliver a much cooler colour temperature. While the exposure was unrecorded, the tiny surf still visible means the shutter was only for a few seconds. The good depth of field and slight curve to the horizon shows a 28mm lens. The clouds were a photographer’s pleasure; the distant spark is from the lighthouse on Tiritiri Matangi, in the Hauraki Gulf.

I was pleased with the result, and even when adapted to this square format there’s still room for an art director’s headline. The mannequin had a long, productive life and featured in other scenarios I dreamed up around this time. We finished the evening with a midnight swim.

74. Moonstruck coast at Oakura

Moonstruck coast at Oakura. 9.20pm, 22 October 2010

Only with highly reflective scenes can the moonlight photographer stop down to f16, even with ISO 2000.

While using 30 seconds, that is, the last speed on the Nikon D700 before B. The Lumix LX3 has one thing over the D700: an extra speed, 60 seconds. Of course you can do any length on the B setting, but you must time it yourself, which is less convenient.

Admittedly there are worse hardships, but for me f16 is an aspirational aperture. I use it and B without hesitation in two situations. The first is for l-o-n-g exposures for star trails  and the second is where I want the deepest possible focus. This especially applies to the shallow field of my regular partner, the 85mm lens (as above).

By extending the field of sharpness over the greatest distance f16 usually covers careless or difficult focussing. If you have manual focus, work off the bracketed scale on the lens barrel: set the near bracket a little closer than your estimated distance to the foreground interest. Or try some pre-focus frames. Sometimes I do trials with f1.4 and a few seconds. The results are always awful but can be deleted as soon as you have the correct fix – and once you calculate what f16 will need (a 7-stop difference).

Not every camera can manage ISO 2000 without excessive noise – electronic static comparable to emulsion grain, the old bane of fast film.  A full-frame (FX) digital camera apparently handles this problem better than the sensors in DX cameras or compacts.

The shot has squared up fairly well. We’re looking northeast to the Sugar Loaves at New Plymouth, from near the Oakura River. The receding wave leaves ghostly impressions of  movement. The tripod was set up at the top of the tide but I still had to move around as rogue ripples came up. Here 60 seconds would have doubled the risk of a shaken tripod; the wasted frame would take 2 minutes to clear.

73. Late spring evening, Ngauruhoe

Late spring evening, Ngauruhoe. 21 November 1981

Well located between massive Ruapehu and Tongariro, Ngauruhoe is a young volcano (2291 m, or 7516 ft); the three mountains make up New Zealand’s oldest national park. The cone rivals Mt Taranaki in symmetry but lacks her majesty of situation. However in its recent history Ngauruhoe is certainly the more active volcano.

For this simple composition I used Kodachrome 64 in a Pentax Spotmatic F, with a Tamron 135mm lens. I prefer slide film in the 25 – 100 ISO range; slides have the advantage over colour negative of more intense and unmediated colour, a critical factor in many photos.

Exposure details were unrecorded, but most likely this shot is a hand-held 1/125th at f2.8, using the self-timer to reduce camera shake. Ideally, by using a tripod I could have stopped down for perfect focus throughout. However I believe the background softness is much more acceptable to the human eye than the reverse – unfocussed foreground interest.

This type of scene can only be taken with a telephoto. A flattened perspective is highly suitable when you want only a few elements in a picture. A good mountain photo at sunset is usually no great challenge, but by adding something extra I think more impact is achieved.

The Brewster Theory of Composition holds that the two simple layers or planes needed to make a good picture are substantially improved by a third item of interest, usually a smaller detail in the scene. Three keen elements = one good picture, yet it is surprising how hard this understanding is to apply in the field, when the pictures are actually taken.

The essential ingredient of course is having the twilight closely match the street light. This balance lasts only a few minutes each evening. By exposing for the highlights landscape details are necessarily lost, but the cloud patch comes through as a good “third hit”. I have not been back to this spot for years but probably the Skotel now occupies the site.

72. No exit at Waikawa Beach, Horowhenua

No exit at Waikawa Beach, Horowhenua. 11.06pm, 2 October 2009

A single star, a dash of moonlight and the ever-present sodium lighting contribute to this striking composition. My shadow only hints at the heavy coat I wore against a chilly wind, whose blast is visible in the ruffling of the cabbage tree leaves. The high, solid fence stumps the dead end of Drake St at Waikawa Beach, near Levin. The landowners evidently wanted no truck with locals or the weekend throng – an impression they have reinforced further on with a very effective electric fence.

Adding my own shadow broke up the blankness of the wall and echoes the dark form of the cabbage tree quite well. It’s a pity there isn’t more interest in the sky, but it was swept clear of any cloud by the fierce southerly. The Lumix LX3 fortunately does not offer much wind resistance, being so compact, so I could stand well away from the tripod. It’s a rare night when conditions are truly perfect for moonlight photography, especially if deck chairs, bougainvillea and emerald waters are considered essential ingredients.

The pale sky comes from a high, full moon but the hue owes much to tungsten, a setting selected to counteract the orange cast of the street lighting. This light has mixed nicely with the moonlight on the cabbage tree. Zoom was at the longest, 60mm (in 35mm camera terms), and exposure was f2.8 for only 20 seconds, on a low ISO 200.

The background topography sums up this sandy coast, where older, grassed dunes predate a wide frontage of more active material on the beach. As with so much of the pastoral coastline of New Zealand, the landscape is somewhat bleak and away from the baches and subdivisions it is only sparsely settled. Apart from Dr Seuss cabbage trees, the typical trees of this coast are those just visible on the margins – gloomy pines, by the hectare.

69. Three wary birds, one wet night

Three wary birds, one wet night. 11.10pm, 20 December 2010

This is something of a burlesque on the cliched tranquil-lake-and-pier scene, examples of which somehow still win in photo competitions. I’m a fan of chocolate boxes myself but there’s no tranquillity here, with unforgiving lakeside lighting adding to some uncommon elements: cloud streaks lit by a town, a boat moving on its anchor, three unsettled ducks (unharmed in this production), and a little spotlighting with a brilliant LED penlight.

The scene was recorded one unquiet, drizzly night when there was a brisk northerly under persistent cloud, which hid the full moon from a frustrated photographer. The location is Acacia Bay, Lake Taupo; the town is Taupo too. This tight composition does not have the usual top layer, while the perspective receives some assistance from the stepped pier. The ducks were all too wary of me, understandably, as it was much too damp an evening to show my “Vee for vegetarian” T shirt – an umbrella hovered above the tripod and camera for much of time.

The 28mm lens was set at f11 for good depth of focus, and shutter for 30 seconds. It was chance whether the birds obliged by not moving (much), but I knew the boat would bump about on the lake swell. ISO was 2000, and tungsten was selected to offset the orange sodium lighting. On assessing the high contrast, I chose the Neutral picture control for the first time. This is the least contrasty of the three picture controls offered on the Nikon D700, the Standard setting being in the middle. .

The penlight was very bright and I flashed it on for just a few seconds, wanting to open up the shadows. The main benefit has been to illuminate the white duck. Torchlight is a useful adjunct to night photography but to get it to balance with the ambient light the trick generally is to give the scene less highlighting than you think it probably needs.