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“North Island 2018: A journey through dreams and delirium”

 

Before embarking on a family and photographic holiday, I tend to dream big. I dream of all the locations we could visit both as a family and individually at the ends of the day to capture the rugged landscapes with favourable light. I had done my usual route planning through a mixture of using google maps, image searches and asking locals as to what was possible in the area. I had high hopes of shooting scenes that were perhaps slightly out of the box from what was normally shot in the general areas we were staying. Perhaps next trip, I’ll lower those expectations somewhat as several health-related issues threw huge spanners into the machinations of our plans A-Y. Plan Z needed to suffice.

Original plans in red. Adjusted plans in blue.

I won’t go into the details of the health issues except to say that the most minor of the issues was that my rear tooth crown fell off on the first night at dinner. The major issue was that I was suffering from bacteraemia (bacteria growing in the bloodstream) for the first 3 days of the trip due to a worsening case of appendicitis that ended in a small self-contained rupture of that pesky, unnecessary organ. Three days into the trip, I found myself undergoing emergency surgery and thereafter needing some strong pain medication and a prolonged course of antibiotics. In effect, the first 10 days of the trip felt like I was floating painfully through a delirium caused initially by sepsis, then drugs. Marianne had to literally do everything including child minding 24/7, all the lifting of luggage and all of the driving that I would normally do on our trips. It’s amazing that she stayed as sane as she did!

My health issues put into context the types of images I would return with. Instead of long hikes to grand vistas of wilderness, there were short 5 minute walks to roadside locations. Instead of scampering around to find multiple compositions from a scene, I could only stick with one. Instead of carrying a variety of lenses and two cameras to allow simultaneous time-lapse and stills shooting at various focal lengths, I could only carry one body and one extra lens as I was not allowed heavy lifting in the recovery period. Astro photography was the one genre that needed to be wiped out entirely as I needed all the rest I could get. Overall, it was such a disappointment to have to deal with these limitations, but it did make me focus on maximising what I could make of any given scene which was a positive.

Tauranga

Mount Manganui is an easily accessed mountain that juts above the landscape north west of Tauranga. After a 20 -30 minute walk , a precarious view point allows great images of the rising sun over the township of Mount Manganui and Tauranga beyond. I intended to take images of night followed by twilight to blend in the city lights, but the changing light and subsequent white balance made this somewhat tricky. In retrospect, I wondered why I was shivering up on the summit while every one else was in shorts. On the way down, right sided abdominal pain with each step was a sure sign  that something was going wrong in the belly! No further images were possible from the area which was a shame as we really wanted to visit the Rotorua Redwoods at night as a family.

Mount Manganui as a ‘time stacked’ image. Lights from before dawn and lights in the sky from after dawn

Hawke’s Bay

I had so many plans for this area including a walk beyond Cape Kidnappers and visiting a few of the local waterfalls. Because I was stuck in Tauranga hospital, we had to forfeit one night’s stay here which meant our trip here was just an overnighter en-route to Castlepoint. By this stage, I could walk one pace at a time while dopey on tramadol and I could not wear by usual filter pouch on my waist. As such, those long walks transformed into a 100m morning stroll to the beach where I shot some images with intentional camera motion to represent my delirium.

It was a real struggle to walk the 50m out to the shore from our apartment but I just wanted some fresh air!

Castlepoint:

Things were starting to improve by this point in the trip. I was able to walk short distances, but I was now troubled with antibiotic side effects! I had planned to walk up Castle Rock for a different vantage point of the coast and I had planned to walk beneath the lighthouse at low tide. Both options were simply not possible, so I carried as light a pack as possible to photograph the lighthouse. On our last morning, I even felt game enough to use a ladder to get to a different vantage point.

It took all my energy to get here while my original plan was to climb the hill in the background!

Turangi:

Our three nights here was the turning point in the trip. I was nearly a week post op now which meant that I could drive! I had also changed my own antibiotic dosing to cover the infection and to minimise my side effects. Narcotic analgaesia also went out the window here thankfully! As such I was able to find a few compositions here which I think are relatively unique including various images of the ‘Taupo Tree’, somewhat of a poor cousin to her famous Wanaka counterpart. During our drive from Castlepoint to Turangi I had noted some remarkable roadside spots along the desert road which I returned to at dawn. We were blessed with some great light displays during our time here and my mind wonders as to what I would have seen from the summits of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing given the amazing roadside light that I experienced.

This image of Ngauruhoe was remarkable only a short distance from the highway!

The ‘Taupo’ tree was an easy option as I could drive the 5 minutes there while not on strong painkillers. As it turns out,it was a pretty cool location!

Waitomo:

Our main objective here was to give the kids a great experience staying on a farm-based BNB where they could interact with the animals. We also wanted them to experience the glow worms where now at least Charlotte will be able to remember the experience more clearly. Along the way, there were some great streams and waterfalls to shoot in the area including the mighty Marokopa falls and the beautiful natural arches and tunnels. I would say that I did not have to modify my original plans much in this area at all. The biggest challenge was the muddy descent to the base of Marokopa Falls which was as slippery and mucky as I remembered from our 2014 trip. My ulterior motive here was to try for a requested postcard shot of Marokopa falls. It was also serendipitous that our evening glow worm tour had no other occupants and that our host Kyle was very interested in photography. As such, I was given the time to attempt some glow worm photography with moderate exposures. To do a proper job, I would need a private tour to allow 30minutes to an hour for a single composition instead of the 5 minutes that I had given the kids were with us as well.

The amazing glow worm staircase of Footwhistle’s cave.

Marokopa Falls was roaring but the trip down to the base was very messy ! Be warned!

Urenui:

Our final landscape location was the idyllic seaside holiday spot of Urenui, 30km north of New Plymouth. Due to my improving health, I again did not feel that my shooting was hampered other than not being able to carry enough gear for simultaneous time-lapse shooting with a second body.  The conditions here were very good though by playing it safe with the tides, the opportunities for very dynamic (and potentially risky) shots were taken away. The coast here can be very wild, but our experience was that of placid seas and comfortable kid friendly environments. I would want to challenge myself at a later date to visit with a higher tide at some stage in the future. The three sisters (now two due to erosion the of the third sister) were the main feature along the south side of the Tongaporutu river. Despite how amazing the North Side appears, I found it extremely difficult to find engaging compositions here. I have a short video of access to the North side for those interested in exploration. The seascape opportunities around Urenui itself were also good! At the western end of the beach, there are a series of arches that can be accessed at low tide but unfortunately, the largest collapsed recently resulting in an isolated seastack and surrounding debris. Our final dawn here was the onset of wilder weather to come for our departure which included a farewell gift of a rainbow.

Post sunset hues of the remaining two sisters (of three) with Taranaki blazing red in the distance on the horizon

Our last morning of shooting was punctuated by a rainbow – a sign of hope for the future!!!

In summary, the last 7-8 days of our trip felt like it was approximating our usual travelling style. By the time we returned to Auckland, we were all in the mood to do ‘homely’ weekend things including normal shopping and eating asian food (of which Auckland has plenty of choices , including probably the best Roti Canai I have had in memory at a food court in Manukau). Unfortunately, the toll of the first 10 days of my illness and the subsequent stresses placed on Marianne and the kids meant that things never really felt the same afterward. By the end of the trip I was able to give Marianne much more ‘me’ time by taking the kids off her hands, something which I would be doing throughout the trip. I was so sad to hear Charlotte say (with a smile though) that she would like the first 10 days of our trip back because I wasn’t there ☹ I don’t know  how many of you have experienced bad luck like this on your holidays but as a cliché to conclude upon : finding ways to view the experience in a positive light and finding ways to stick together go a long way toward normalising such a traumatic and disruptive event. Photographically, the key for me was to not focus on ‘what could have been’ but how I could best adapt to my changing health status.

Walking back from the three sisters after a great sunset shoot and nature play for the girls. Things were approaching normality finally by this stage.

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It’s OK to not take a picture

Have you had one of those frustrating mornings when the conditions weren’t what you expected? Maybe it was raining or maybe what you wanted to photograph just wasn’t presenting itself? At the scene you may have tried your best but nothing really came out the way you wanted it to. Or perhaps you came away with an image that eventually came to life with post processing but because of how you felt at the scene, you lack a certain emotional connection with it?

Mount Rundle on a grey morning. Many photographers have liked this image of ours and it was my best performing image in a recent competition. I admit though that my emotional connection with it is almost absent. I took the shots on a cold raining morning having just landed in Banff while the family was sleeping and I was wide awake from jetlag. I may have produced something others like, but for me , my link to an image is one of the main reasons I produce images, not necessarily the result nor the admiration from peers.

Stop! Time out! Seriously , why were you out there taking photos? I’ve definitely had many of those mornings locally but not so much when I’m overseas.  One of the trendy things to talk about these days is how one develops as a photographer. I’m not someone who likes to buck the trend. I’m a white collar professional with an average number of kids living in suburbia who basically lives a life that many would say is part of the gravy train of society. So I’m going to say something ‘untrendy’. Just don’t take a photo. I’m serious. Do something you enjoy and don’t waste the morning feeling angry and frustrated when you’re supposed to be having fun. Let me explain further.

I find I still enjoy taking pictures of jetties and cannot subscribe to the thinking of ‘I don’t do X’ type of landscape. It works for others but I like to keep a completely open mind. This was my first visit to Wool Bay on Yorke Peninsula

I recall a specific morning a couple of years ago when I drove down to Victor Harbor (a local seaside spot one hour’s drive from home). The forecast was for high cloud but when I got there, it was pretty much a grey out with constant rain. I was tired from the work week and I was struggling to keep awake during the drive. I tried to take a couple of shots. I tried long lens photography to focus on details but couldn’t find anything meaningful. I tried long exposures which ended up getting ruined with droplets. I tried intentional camera movement by panning during a long exposure. I even switched lenses and tried to make reference images for Marianne’s art by taking pictures of seagulls in flight but they just weren’t doing the right things ! At the end of the shoot I literally spat the dummy and stormed away , pissed off that MY morning of solitude and relaxation had been WASTED.

This wasn’t the most vibrant or mornings but instead of being disappointed. I thought I’d use a new remote my KK from Christmas had given me . Also thought I’d have some fun trying to climb that rock!

More recently, I’ve kept some spare sneakers and shorts in the back of the car. If things are not looking promising, I’ll go for a jog instead. I know that’s going to do me good and I know I’m going to get the endorphin rush. I even love running in the rain. This back up plan basically means that no matter the conditions, I’ll come away with something from the morning out ; just not necessarily in the form of treasured RAW files to make a masterpiece from. The drive is never wasted.

I’ve learned over the years that my local trips out have really been about destressing from the week of work, especially since I’ve photographed many of the locations locally. And when I’m not visiting a ‘usual’  spot to shoot, then part of the journey becomes one of exploration and images from a new spot are taken really as part of a scouting mission. I feel that perhaps that’s why when I’m overseas, these types of mornings don’t tend to affect me as much. Many of the spots I’m visiting are new, many of them requiring a long hike in the dark to arrive at dawn which in itself is an endorphin rush. Because of my situation in life , photography is a bonus to me, not a necessity. I’m sure many of you who don’t do it for a living are in the same boat.

On this morning, I knew that there was going to be volumes of water flowing at Mannum Falls. My usual spot was a foam bath! So instead of being disappointed, I explored upstream and what do you know, a rainbow put some icing on my exploration cake!

So my final message is this. Explore what it is that drives you leave home at 4am when you could be sleeping in. If there are non photographic elements partially fuelling that seemingly masochistic drive, be prepared to fulfil them if the photographic mission turns out to be a failure. If it is purely photographic, then by all means, try all those things I tried on that grey morning down at Victor Harbor. Find ways to feel you’ve accomplished something and don’t stress about having no golden images from the morning ; that’s only part of the picture.

For this local shoot at Brown Hill, I came prepared to fulfil my secondary agenda : sleep! While a time lapse was shooting, I brought a sleeping mat and snuck in an hour of sleep 😉

Tips for using a CPL effectively

Some of you who follow our work would know that a circular polariser (CPL) lives on the front of our lenses. Recently, we’ve made a change to using Nisi filters which means that for the most part, we use the kit CPL included with their variety of holders. As with many phases of development in photography, using a CPL is one of those subjects where once you discover it, there’s an initial trend to blindly use it no matter the situation! (Didn’t we all go through that to some degree with ‘HDR’ ??) With time and experience though, one becomes a little more judicious and refined with its use. I would say that a CPL is used for the majority of our images and I thought I’d share some do’s and don’ts about their use.

What does a CPL do?

  • Cuts out reflections : particularly useful for forest scenes.
  • Deepens natural colours : useful for most scenes.
  • Acts as a very light ND filter (1-1.5 stops): useful for seascapes in bright light.
  • They are potential rainbow killers! Be wary of having a CPL on with wide angled lenses if you think a rainbow is even a possibility.
  • It’s also another piece of glass that could interfere with image quality , particularly in moist situations and prolonged shooting. If I had to choose between polarisation for colours and a clean image, I would choose a clean image and remove the CPL.

Predawn light: A situation where I would be trying to avoid using a CPL since it acts as a light ND filter. For this scene, I was at iso 800 and did not want a shutter speed longer than 5-10 seconds or all texture would be lost. Hence I removed the CPL.

 

It’s generally a good idea to remove all filters (CPL included) when shooting for a sunstar.

 

Mornings with rain and breaking light lead me to prepare for a quick CPL removal ! If positioned incorrectly, a CPL may well polarise out the rainbow entirely or at least in part.

What do you do with the dial?

  • Its maximal effect is perpendicular to light source. If you point your index finger to the light source and poke your thumb out perpendicularly, the maximal polarisation occurs in the plane as you rotate your hand around.
  • If  your CPL has a dot on it, point that to the light source for maximal effect but use judgement depending on the presence of plain skies in particular.
  • Don’t forget to turn the CPL if you happen to change from landscape to portrait orientation (or vice versa) otherwise one of your images will have no polarisation effects!

In a forest situation, the light source is generally from up above. A useful starting point to achieve maximum polarisation is to have the ‘dot’ of your CPL pointing straight up in whatever orientation you are shooting. If your CPL does not have a ‘dot’ to indicate maximum polarisation direction, you may need to experiment for the best result.

Forest/waterfall scenes:

  • Use it to deepen the greens and allow a ‘see through’ effect to river beds.
  • Point the ‘dot’ on the CPL up to the sky.
  • Remove it if needing to keep foliage still with faster shutter, or alternatively, take separate frames with the CPL on at higher iso /larger aperture to allow adequate exposure at the desired shutter speed.
  • And remember (again), turn that CPL if you change orientation!

A forest scene with the CPL positioned to have minimal polarisation (dot sideways). Note the glare of the foliage and the presence of a waterfall reflection. The greens are also less vibrant.

The same scene with the CPL ‘dot’ turned upward. Note the vibrance of the greens and the removal of the waterfall reflection and see through effect to the creek bed.

Sometimes, to get the best of both worlds , polarised and unpolarised images can be blended such as in this example where the reflection is maintained along with the vibrant greens.

A perfect scenario for a CPL is a cloudy day with alpine streams of various natural hues. The CPL can really enhance the hues of the water while having no banding in plain skies to worry about!

Open skies:

  • Very good with long focal lengths to isolate your subject with blue skies.
  • Avoid using with wide angled images especially when perpendicular to light source (or expect to have to correct in post process) .
  • Use it to enhance detail in clouds : be wary of patches of open sky in the clouds themselves.
  • When in doubt with open skies, take the CPL off. It can be quite tricky to blend images with polarised and unpolarised images.

Enhanced clouds but note the darkened band in the blue sky perpendicular to the light source to the right of the image.

The sky is unpolarised in this version of the same scene but note that the reflections from the water have been removed by polarisation in a different plane.

RAW file of a wide angled image demonstrating the problematic band that a CPL can cause when shooting perpendicular to the light source.

The same scene as above but shot at a longer focal length. If your subject is perpendicular to a light source, shooting at longer focal length with the CPL turned to the light really can enhance the subject greatly without the same problematic banding that is seen with shorter focal lengths.

Not that this sky needed it, but the CPL certainly helps bring out textures in clouds.

Seascapes:

  • Can enhance natural colours and reduce glare off rocks.
  • Sometimes the glare or reflection shooting into sun is required/desired therefore you may not want to use the CPL.
  • Sometimes in bright light, you may be using the CPL purely as a light ND filter in order to achieve 0.3-0.5 second exposures in bright light.

Generally speaking, polarisation isn’t necessary when shooting seascapes directly into a light source, especially when shooting for sunstars.

 

A CPL in this situation may slightly enhance general colours but may also reduce colourful reflections. In any given situation, it may help you achieve a slightly lower shutter speed rather than stopping down to small apertures such as F22.

Conclusions:

  • I consider a CPL a very important part of a landscape photographer’s kit.
  • If your CPL does not have a ‘dot’ I would experiment and perhaps even mark out where the ‘dot’ for maximum polarisation should be as a time saver.
  • Forest scenes are where they truly allow colours to sing .
  • Beware situations where you would rather not use one : plain skies, sunstars, rainbow opportunities and shutter dependent low light scenes
  • Most importantly, you need to decide according to your shooting style and preferred subjects whether you invest in one. Lastly, if you do invest in one, consider using screw-on filters for shooting handheld. For tripod situations using a filter holder, I would recommend using the NiSi filter holder system which has the CPL as part of the holder itself (take this with a grain of salt as I am an Australian Nisi ambassador !)

Happy shooting all and I hope there was at least one bit of information there that was useful! We’re off the New Zealand 🙂