Sunday, August 30, 2009


Sure, there can be a downside to military service: Violent, agonising death; captivity, torture and inconvenient hours. You've got to be smart about who you pick your fights with, but if my nephew's anything to go by, the other stuff is worth joining up for. He's a Sub Lieutenant in the RNZN, training to be the Tactical Officer on Sea Sprite helicopters. Travel, excitement, and an organisation that's best interest is served by helping you perform at your very best. I don't know too many corporates that make such a binding commitment to their staff. I've seen my nephew grow from an ordinary Kiwi kid into a man who's focussed, hard working and full of life. He's pretty much changed my opinion of the whole military service thing. So I decided to take the family down to visit the HMNZS Hawea while it was in port yesterday as part of its commissioning cruise.

The Protector

She's a tidy little Protector-class vessel, and her job will be to enforce our 200 mile economic zone. That's a lot of fish to look out for. Things were a little hectic on open day and I didn't want to turn a family outing into another of Dad's photo missions, so I decided to go back this morning and see if I could get a nice shot in the morning light - glassy water, fiery sky, jolly jack tars in the rigging etc. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate. The sky was dull and I suspect even the sailor on watch was below with a cup of something warm. Still, I took my shot and managed to make something pretty of the ship's lights on the water. Tripod of course, 30 seconds at f/10, 200 ISO on timer release and using the mirror lock function. My Induro tripod is pretty solid, but for windy conditions like this morning, its also got a nifty little hook on the centre column to hang a bag from for a little extra stability.

Good luck in your struggle against fish-stealing eco-bandits, crew. That's a just war if ever there was one. Gotta love this country, we're pretty smart about who we pick a fight with.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Shooting Party

Why do men like hunting?

Bill 1

Are you serious? Just look at Bill and his dog. Do they look unhappy?

When Craig Taylor asked me to tag along on a pheasant shoot (actually I've been hounding him to take me on one of his outdoor adventures for a while), I didn't think twice. Craig is always excellent company, as down to earth as a pair of Red Band boots; It was a great chance to practice a little documentary style photography as well as a bloody good walk in the foothills of the Knobby Range.

Did I mention the free parking?

Free Parking

By nine am, several blokes and as many dogs were working the gullies and spurs in careful lines, well-trained dogs at heel, on point or flushing out prey. For the less experienced pups, it was a chance to learn from the example of older dogs like Craig's Meg and Monty. Fun? I learned that a dog can actually wag its tail until it bleeds and still not stop.

Man and Beast 1

Man and Beast 2 The snowline

The natural light was fine for what I was doing, just tagging along. If I was going to do this again though, I might get a little more in the shooters faces, maybe throw a little light under those hunting caps with a small softbox. These on-the-go shoots are another occasion when a voice-activated light stand would come in really handy. Feel free to leave your contact details in the comment box at the bottom of this entry if you'd like to volunteer.

Feel free to leave a comment there anyway. I know you're out there. My stats tell me my visitors are spread all over the world, from Argentina to Iran. Don't be afraid to say hi.

Feather Craig scans the horizon

This can be tough country. The spiny scrub and rocky outcrops make for great pheasant habitat, although the birds don't really thrive here unless you provide some feed. That means they pretty well stay on the property.

Tough country Both Barrels

Out of the gully

The Teviot Mob

Today it's a working farm, but this land used to be the shooting estate of Dunedin Architect NYA Wales. Still in family hands, Nathaniel's great grandson Jeremy got the idea to stock it with pheasants and open up to paying shooters. I can't say much about what the other shooters were using, but most of what I bagged was at the long end of my Canon EFS 55-250mm lens, with a polarising filter to accentuate the dark blue of that Otago sky. I pretty much stuck around 400 ISO, occasionally creeping up to 800 when the light levels dropped. Speaking of dropping things...

Craig Shoots

Jeremy Retrieval

Craig and the bird

A Bird in the Hand

These are magnificent game birds. Their plumage is beautifully patterned and yet makes ideal camoflage. When flushed from their hiding places, they explode into the air and soar down the ridges like proud viking ships under full sail. On the matter of morality, well this is an introduced species originally from India, bred for this purpose. Death in this instance comes quicker than it does of natural causes. There were a few carcasses lying around that had obviously been killed and ripped apart more slowly by the bills and talons of harrier hawks. Finally, hunting is in the human DNA. Take a cheek cell scraping down to your local shooting and fishing store and they'll show you.

Plumage Happy Shooter

By late afternoon, I think just about everybody had got a bird or two and tails were starting to droop from sheer exhaustion. I pulled out my flash, popped a radio trigger on to get it off the camera and used it for a little fill against the low afternoon light. Happy hunters posed with trophies or beloved dogs. Not "I love you poochie" beloved. I mean "Get back here ya mongrel", "Seek it out", "Good Girl" beloved. Working dog love. It's strong stuff.

The Shooting Party

Handshakes all round, it was time for us to hit the road and face another working week, while in the back, exhausted pups dreamed of their next day out. Up front in the cab, I was doing the same.

Sleeping Dog

Friday, August 21, 2009

Oh Behave Baby.

Sealion on sandfly

A lot of people start to feel uncomfortable when Hookers start parading around the neighbourhood. Not me. I find them exciting to be around. I just wouldn't want to kiss one.

OK enough of the double entendre. Hooker's sealions, Phocarctos Hookeri have been making a resurgence on the Peninsula of late so yesterday I decided to head for Sandfly Bay and try to get some decent behaviour shots. I got there about 11 am and the beach was littered with a few sleeping males, doing a good impression of washed up kelp or logs. Then Wow. Up from the surf came these two babes:

Here come two Hookers

I thought I'd sit high on the beach and get some shots of these beauties at play but they had other ideas. I first thought they were chasing me (the default male assumption), but then I realised they just wanted to rest in the dunes. I was curious as to why they'd lumber up there when there was plenty of beach space, so I decided to follow them carefully from the dune margin. There were already plenty of sealion tracks up there as well it being a yellow-eyed penguin nesting area, so it doesn't do to go blundering into the dunes without a lot of caution.

Seeking Privacy

I'm glad I followed. I got some great interaction shots. Mainly play fighting by the look of it, but I also got some beautiful moments. I recommend clicking the picture to get to the shot and clicking the 'all sizes' button to see the large versions. My guess is that these two are sisters, possibly reaching breeding age, but I'm no expert. It was only later that I guessed what they might be here for.

Girl power

After about 15 minutes I left them to it and wandered the track that follows a stream up the valley towards the spine of the peninsula. It was too close to noon to see any Harriers flying, so I just sat and watched the light play on the hills around me. Occasionally a break in the cloud came, and I ended up sitting there in a paddock for a couple of hours thinking how wonderful it is to have all this just a few minutes drive from my ordinary little Dunedin suburb.

Farm hill

Around 3.30, the harrier hawks became a little more active, but the light had gone and my 200mm zoom just couldn't get me close enough. I decided to call it quits and head back down- track. There were the girls, snoozing where I'd left them but a little further on, some young bulls were slowly walking, fighting, and repeatedly resting on their way up the beach.

Hooker Bull 1 Sleepy Bull

It became clear that one of the bulls intended to pay the girls a visit.

Hello Ladies
Bull herds girls

This is where I guessed that the girls are probably hiding out in the dunes to avoid precisely this kind of attention.


The other bull decided to make it a double date, but the first guy would have none of it. There was a little argy-bargy, but it was all over pretty quickly and the interloper moved up into the dunes, leaving the victor standing proudly over the girls. They may not have wanted all this attention to start with, but they didn't seem too displeased by it either.

Bull fight

Bull Closeup

It was getting on for 4.30 now and sightseers were showing up to watch the yellow-eyed penguins come in from the sea, so I decided to press on. But wouldn't you know it, there was another beautiful young female behaving strangely on the beach near the exit dunes. As I got closer, I realised she was throwing up. I guess I would too if I'd just eated a meal of raw fish, bones and all. Boy did her breath stink. Since the light was starting to fade, I tried a couple of flash shots, but didn't get anything remarkable. You really want a voice-activated lightstand for this kind of work. Nothing worse than a queasy, loved-up sealion knocking your flash onto the beach.

A Hard Day's Night

What a great day. I'm a tad disappointed that some of the shots are a little soft, and the light's not always stunning, but I'm still pleased with what I managed to get. Lessons learned: Only time in the field can deliver good behaviour and decent light. Gotta keep that zoom rock steady. And there's a very, very good reason you're not supposed to kiss Hookers.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Trust Your Subconscious

Red Signs

So there I am talking about the creative aspects of photography at a workshop at Otago Museum a few nights ago. Thankfully the Fraud Police had the night off.

Along with some ideas for lighting and angles, I mentioned my trust in the subconscious creative process. For some time now, as a writer, I'll finish the day troubled by a script or story problem, and a solution will only come to me after sleeping on it. I believe your brain works hard on things without your conscious mind doing much more than priming the pump.

When it comes to taking pictures, the same process often works for me. Sometimes I've felt like taking a shot without really being able to express what's working in it. The more I learn about composition, colour, texture etc, the better I'm able to say what I like in a scene - and work to make the most of it. But occasionally I still have no answers. My subconscious knows something, it just hasn't told the rest of me yet. This shot is an example. In hindsight I could waffle on about the negative space, the purity of red, the lines, the mystery of the incomplete neon sign, the danger the red light on the railway sign represents... but at the time, I just liked what I saw and couldn't say why.

Seven months on, this is still one of my best loved shots. I'm glad I'm learning more about what makes good pictures work. It's making me a better photographer. But every now and then, it's good to just go with your gut.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wildlife Practice

2 Shags

Having hung out at the Gasworks for a while, I thought it was time I moved onto something new, and since there's a wildlife photography comp coming up, I thought I'd go to a few local spots for a recce this weekend. The first was a sneak-peek at the newly established Orokonui eco-sanctuary near Waitati. It has a state-of-the-art predator fence, and they've introduced saddleback, kaka, tuatara and jeweled gecko there. A visitor's centre is under construction and it really is going to be an asset to the region. It's set to open some time this Spring but just like Karori and Tiritiri Matangi, it'll be a few years before it's really pumping with wildife. We saw some bellbirds at feeding stations along with a few other passerines like grey warblers and I did manage to get a couple of decent shots of tomtits with a borrowed 100-400 L-series Canon lens. I used it to snap some shags on my way home, at the Sea Scout den by the Andersons Bay causeway.

Tomtit 2

Unless you've got time to sit and get really good behaviour, its easy to come away with rather ordinary animal portraits, which is all I really got from this trip. No, wait, I did come away with a bit of gear envy too! (Thanks Mike)

I'm keen to go back to Orokonui. With time I may be lucky enough to see the saddlebacks or kaka. What I'd also like to try is take my flash gear and light the birds at feeders, to get a really rich look. Same with the tree bark and some of the ferns. The more pictures I take, the more important the quality of light is becoming to me.

Penguin Crossing Snooze

This morning I took Ali and Georgia to Sanfly Bay to play in the giant dunes and see if I could get some sealion shots. I decided not to take my Canon gear lest I completely obsess over shooting and neglect the girls. Instead, I took my 5.1 Mp Fuji ultrazoom. The shot of yellow-eyed penguin tracks I got was interesting, but I'm not in love with the fur seal and sea lion shots I got. They haul out on the beaches to sleep, so the most action you're going to get from them is a yawn. Again, I'd really like to come when the light is best, or bring some flashes and do something different with these critters.

Sealion Profile 2 Fur Seals

Using flash on wild and endangered animals does raise some ethical questions. In cases like these I think we all have to ask ourselves how much we're disturbing them and how sensitive they are to that disturbance. Every situation has to be judged on its merits. If I was dealing with the yellow-eyed penguins, I'd be pretty careful to stay out of sight and use available light only, but I think snoozing seals and sea lions can handle me getting within a several metres in plain sight and even a few bright flashes. I'm definitely going to give it a try. I want to lift my game when it comes to wildlife.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Now We're Cookin' With Gas

Beam Engine Lit1

If it's Tuesday, then of course I must be at the Gasworks Museum again. I think I'm done documenting the bits I want to for now. I really wanted to get a nice shot of the beam engine. Beam engines are the original steam engines, so named for the beam at the top that transfers the power of the piston to the driving wheel. If you're nerd enough, go read a little about the design of early steam engines, it's fascinating. This little engine was one of the original machines in the Dunedin City Gasworks, imported from Scotland in the 1860's.

Beam Engine Detail 2

These steam-powered pumps where what drove gas through the mains pipes throughout the city. The beam engine is in a tight little corner, so was quite hard to get a really satisfactory shot of, but after much experimenting with 3 strobes, I got something I can settle for. Here's an unlit shot from a similar angle:

Beam Engine Unlit

You may be thinking why I go to all the bother of lighting these things. I'm sure my wife does. All I can say is that if the volunteers who maintain these wonderful old engines can put all that time into keeping them clean and running - and if you've any mechanical experience, you'll know how well-kept this stuff is looking, then I can put a few hours into showing off their work as well as I can. I'm going to make my shots available to the Museum Trust for their website and publicity purposes. There were no other members of the public here again today, and I really would like to help bring people to see it all.

After the beam engine I moved on to the old gas stove display. Not terribly exciting by itself, but after playing with some strobes and coloured gels, I got some fun stuff.

Gas Stoves

Blue Stove 1 Blue Stove 2

Red Stove

Finally, I got a shot of Stan Read in action. I've mentioned Stan before. He and Bill are the heroes of this place, unpaid volunteers who as far as I can tell, really make it all go.


Bloody good on them, I say.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hoopers Inlet

The Ruin

In this proud era of global warming, habitat depletion and other environmental blunders, it's easy to forget that our relationship to the natural environment is a two-way one. Last month's big shake down here in the south was just another reminder that ultimately we and all our works exist at nature's mercy.

I love documenting the decay of man-made objects like old buildings. It reminds me that no matter what we do, natural processes endure and ultimately, the rest of the universe doesn't care about the better angels of our nature, our good intentions or the enduring human spirit. It's up to us to make those things render any kind of difference in this world with the knowledge that it too is only temporary.

I found this old farm building on the Nyhon track near Hoopers Inlet a few months ago. It's where I first stumbled upon the idea of tossing a strobe in a derelict building to give one part an unnatural light, like some kind of life force or spirit of the past.

Hoopers frame 1 Hoopers Frame 2

Inside, I exposed for the outside view, and adjusted an off-camera flash to light the wall and window frames to frame the landscapes outside. I brought musucian Marcus Turner here to shoot some portraits later on and it worked really well, apart from the cold wind. From the amount of crap on the floor, it's also a popular spot for sheep when the southerly blows.

Marcus Outlook for Sunday

Window Jam

I wonder how much longer this old place will be standing? And will it matter? The sun will still rise over Mount Charles, the tide in Hoopers Inelt will rise and fall long after we and this old farmhouse are gone. Beautify it, exploit it or mess it up as we will, the earth won't care. We're the only ones who care what happens to our environment, and the only ones who can do something about it.

Hoopers Derelict 2