This is the second of a series documenting our photography trip to New Zealand in 2016.
I am back, after a long and unwanted hiatus. I want to thank all of you who have stuck with me, apologize for the long silence, and promise more regular posts for the foreseeable future.
The drive to our next destination, Te Anau, was surrounded by rugged valleys of green and gold, rocks and grass. Grazing sheep was the most common sign of habitation. The drive took us down much of the expanse of Lake Wakatipu, until we finally left it behind at its southernmost point. The drive was sparsely populated, and we stopped several times to take pictures of the landscape. The day was very cloudy, which made for some more dramatic pictures. Te Anau itself is an even smaller town than Queenstown, serving as a sort of a tourist base camp for hiking, fishing, and excursions into Fiordland National Park. It is situated by a large, scenic lake, and as usual there were several nice restaurants. We enjoyed the meals we had both nights we were there, and also had some really good scones and coffee for breakfast at what our tour guide later confirmed was the best place for breakfast in Te Anau, the Sandfly Cafe. The next morning we were soon picked up from our hotel by Geoff, a tour guide we booked through Trips and Tramps, and set off for a tour to Milford Sound. There are several tour guide companies in New Zealand; we chose Trips and Tramps because they use vans instead of buses, allowing them to take smaller groups and go places that buses cannot. It was another cloudy day, but once the small shuttle took us across the western divide into the rainy side of the Alps — marked by dense rainforest and green valleys — the sky turned outright foggy and wet. As he drove, Geoff entertained us with local lore of the surrounding areas. We saw an amazing amount of scenery along the way, and stopped several times for photos. The golden color of the grassy valleys with the sheer rocks and dark, foggy skies were surreal, and I took several photos of the area, mostly in Dramatic Tone. If you think I overuse Dramatic Tone on my landscapes, you may be right. This is certainly a Dramatic Tone-heavy post. However, it’s so often the case that when I compare its results to that of RAW files, I like it so much better. It just works so well in certain conditions (such as cloudy or inclement weather), and I seem to be in those conditions a lot. In any case, this was the only day that I did this on the trip. I did my best to choose as diverse a range of images as possible for this blog, as many of our favorites ended up being similar in look and style. A great deal more will be posted on our Flickr page, if you would like to see more of both Milford Sound and the road between it and Te Anau. During the shuttle ride down, my lens hood for 12-40mm popped a spring, and the now-loose hood left a one-inch black vignette on two of the corners of several photos before I noticed it had broken. I later fixed those shots with cropping on Macphun’s Snapheal CK (see if you can spot which ones). With the overcast skies, I didn’t need the lens hood that day anyway. On the west side of the Alps, it had rained the night before and into the morning, but the rain had stopped by the time we reached our destination — which in a few respects was as fortuitous a weather outcome we could have asked for, for our boat tour through Milford Sound. Whenever it rains, dozens of temporary falls appear and supplement the several waterfalls already present in the sound (technically a fiord) year-round. But since the inclement weather had stopped by our arrival, the boat ride was neither too cold nor windy, and the water was calm. The clouds were still heavy, and the lighting wasn’t great for pictures, but the day still had its own beauty, and I just had to adapt to the situation. I don’t know if Milford Sound itself could be anything less than absolutely gorgeous regardless of the lighting or the weather, but I am sure it would look quite different with a sunny blue sky. The entire area felt old, forbidding and exotic, giving it a sort of Jurassic Park-type quality. In fact, I think a lot of movies have been filmed in the area because of the surreal scenery. Although filming had already finished, we saw production equipment for the Alien: Covenant movie (coming in 2017) still left in parking lots. The boat ride itself took a few hours, out to the mouth of the sound and back again. The looming mountain formations right up on the water were breathtaking, and the ship took us close to several of the falls for some interesting shots.
My JPEG Experiment:I’ll pause in the travel story to get into some technical aspects, and relate that I have been internally wrestling for a while now with whether I should be shooting RAW exclusively, or sometimes switch to JPEG when conditions allow it. I am really interested in easing my post processing burden, and wondered if I should relax my almost paranoid fixation in sticking with RAW (unless I am using Art Filters). To this end, I was testing a hypothesis I have been kicking around that there would be times when shooting JPEG would give me good results that wouldn’t gain anything from further processing (at least, for the level of processing that I do), and that I would be able to tell when those conditions are present at the time I am shooting. I thought this theory might be able to save me some post processing time, something I do not really enjoy doing. I’d even drafted a post on my internal debate, but hadn’t published it because I hadn’t been able to convince even myself that my theory was true. Milford Sound became a testing ground for it, despite the fact that the gloomy weather and high dynamic range of the scenery was a definite disadvantage for using standard JPEG over RAW. I mostly used the 12-40mm Pro and a JPEG Art Bracket set to include Dramatic Tone (because of the grey sky and primordial feel of the place), Diorama (which works well on mountains) and Natural (as the closest comparison for RAW). I ended up deleting most of these, including all of the Natural. Fortunately, however, the camera was set to still capture RAW files as well for comparison — or the experiment would have completely failed and I would not have gotten any normal shots. My opinions on the results were not high, so I haven’t included a lot of pictures here, but I did discover quite a bit about my skill development and the truth of the JPEG vs. RAW debate. I ended up prefering how the more specialized Art Filters turned out over both the RAW or standard JPEG files, but the processed RAW files were just slightly nicer-looking than Natural — something only noticeable when they were side-by-side on my large computer screen. Both of these conclusions were influenced by the poor light and high contrast of the foggy grey skies and water next to the starkly dark cliffs and forests. Dramatic Tone is (in my opinion) always awesome in those conditions, and Diorama’s perspective bending does interesting things with mountains (and also boosts saturation quite a bit), so many of them looked good as well. However, the exercise definitely demonstrated how JPEG is inferior to RAW in coaxing out more dynamic range from an image. My understanding is it can be about two stops, and I definitely saw it when I was examining the results, which is why I didn’t keep any of the Natural files. I’m not suggesting Natural is no good. It would be fine in fairer circumstances, but these lighting conditions were too difficult for it. I’m not sure I could have exposed better and still captured both the brighter sky and the darker cliffs. There were few RAW images where I had opened up the lens to capture the broad surroundings that I felt came out really well, but images where I zoomed into one area (shortening the day’s wide dynamic range), the RAW images came out just fine. I had also occasionally used HDR (mostly the out-of-camera JPEGs) because of the high contrast of dark mountains and grey, foggy skies, but perhaps because of the swaying boat, I don’t think any of these came out well enough to post. The JPEG-only HDR modes 1 and 2 should have been able to mitigate the dynamic range problem. HDR 1 succeeded somewhat (HDR 2 was too much), but in my mind I compared them to what amazing images could have been produced with the RAW Exposure Bracket options and HDR post processing software, and kicked myself for a missed opportunity. I have produced some realistic HDRs with the auto-modes before, and the process is just as easy as taking a regular photo, but I don’t think they are generally as striking as what can be done with proper HDR software, and having more control over the number of stops I bracket to ensure I am not eliminating so much contrast that the image looks fake. In looking into this I discovered that the E-M1 does not have a +/-1 exposure bracket option when the HDR button is pressed, but there are many more fine-tune increments in the main menu’s Exposure Bracket option. While the end result is exactly the same, the two methods are slightly different, because HDR takes all of the frames at once (making hand-held HDR easier), while Exposure Bracketing requires the shutter button be pressed for each exposure. In conditions where HDR is truly needed, it would be good to take at least a few money shots (if not all) in one of the RAW Exposure Bracket modes and do something interesting with it later on the computer. Those likely would have been the best pictures I could have taken that day, and the fact that I didn’t do them means I have a ways to go still in my ability to take in the current conditions and ascertain what settings and style of photography would produce the most interesting artistic results. So, hopefully I’ll remember this lesson the next time. But, I hope most of you will agree that the Dramatic Tone and some of the RAW images came out well enough that my efforts that day were not completely wasted. One further point of interest is that I noticed that on some of the images, particularly ones displaying the clean lines of the boats, resolution was slightly better with RAW. On most images with mostly organic terrain the difference was negligible, if any at all. I certainly expected some difference in resolution between JPEG and RAW, but I found it strange how inconsistently I was able to discern it, ranging from more than I expected with some to less than I had expected with others. The mixed results of that test also adds to issues I discussed in Travel Photography for Amateurs: Packing for the Big Adventure. Thinking ahead of how I will shoot a locale when still planning for the vacation can be helpful for packing purposes, but it can only go so far, as we’ll have no way of truly knowing what the weather and lighting will be like until we got there. Also, a vacation in an exotic locale is usually not the best time to be experimenting with new photography techniques, unless it is the only opportunity to try it (such as my astrophotography excursion in Part One of this series). It is certainly better, if possible, to build experience back home so as not to waste precious travel time trying to work out and practice how best to shoot an image. Such floundering can sometimes end up being a missed opportunity. That said, self-taught folks like me still have to acquire experience one way or another, and work out new challenges presented by new environments, so I am certainly not sorry I tried. In any case, Catherine was having none of my personal struggle, and used the 8mm fisheye Pro and either RAW or Art Filters, so most of the fisheye images you see of the Sound are hers. At one point, we passed a group of seals sunning themselves on a rock, and I caught them with the 300mm Pro. One last photograph that I wanted to share was another approach to post processing a RAW image of the Milford Sound expanse. I think one of the aspects that draws me to the color version of Dramatic Tone is the way it takes what looks like a high contrast black and white photo, but with striking color serving as a counterpoint, such as seen in the images of the grassy valley I took en route to the Sound. The image of the Sound to the left, however, was quite dull and monotone due to the lighting, even in the Dramatic Tone treatment, so I decided it didn’t need color. I put it in Macphun’s Tonality to see if I could work the shading of the air, land and sea elements. I chose an Outdoor preset, which I dialed down to about 80%. Then I added a layer to darken the sky, and another layer to add microstructure to the mountains. Then I put the image into Noiseless for the lightest setting of noise reduction, and the final product is shown to the left. It still provides a lot of what Dramatic Tone does, but the detail and contrast is a little more controlled. There are also some settings in Tonality that keep a little color, but I decided it was too similar to what I already had.
Other Stops:There are a lot of other things to do in Fiordland National Park besides seeing Milford Sound, though we only had the one day in the area. On the way back, Geoff took us to some of those places bigger buses couldn’t go. At Hollyford Valley, we took a short hike over a suspension bridge and up a short nature walk to some beautiful waterfalls. I love these sorts of places, and shot some long exposure and/or Dramatic Tone of the landscape, using my tripod, polarizer and Lee Seven5 Little Stopper. Four of the shots in this post are from this short excursion. It was still wet and overcast, but I like the kind of lighting these conditions provide for waterfalls and rainforest, and as you can see, I felt less compelled to turn to Dramatic Tone (only one image this time). Along the walk, we learned a lot of interesting facts about the flora of the area. I probably would have stayed at this spot longer, but couldn’t keep the group waiting. The next stop was Lake Gunn, where we were immediately greeted by a Bush Robin, looking like a tiny Totoro sitting on the park sign. For those not familiar with Japanese animation, this is a reference to a cute forest spirit from the excellent movie of the same name by Hayao Miyazaki, who also uses a lot of nature themes in his work. We took a longer nature walk through a serene, lush forest before coming out onto the large lake. There wasn’t much by way of photography opportunities along the way, but there were some interesting lichens to shoot macro. In all, it was a pleasant, informative experience. Lastly, we stopped at Mirror Lakes to take a short walk next to some calm pools perfectly reflecting the distant mountains (hence the name). We didn’t spend too much time there, so I haven’t posted any images of it. However, I wanted to share another technical experience. I took some shots of ducks and met my first Fantail, an amazing bird native to New Zealand. The flight of a Fantail reminds me of the movements of fans in the hands of East Asian dancers (only at higher-speed), the way they twist and loop acrobatically. The Fantail’s erratic and constant movement makes them hard to photograph in flight. From the results in the viewfinder, I thought I had lucked out with a really good (sharp and in a good position) shot of one in flight. Unfortunately, when I saw the image on my computer I saw that the day’s gloom had prevented me from having a high enough shutter speed to capture his flight (640th/sec even though I was at F/4 and 2000 ISO), so the image wasn’t as sharp as I was originally thinking. I probably would have needed at least another 2/3 stop, but I was worried about noise, even though the shot I got looked clean. Instead of shooting Aperture Priority, which I usually have it set for when shooting landscapes, a quick switch to a preset mode with Shutter Priority or Manual and Auto ISO probably would have gotten the shot. We did shoot Fantails again later in the trip, and got some technically better images (which I will post when I come to those points in the trip), but not in as interesting a motion as we almost captured at Mirror Lakes. Another highlight on the return road was running into a group of wild Kea parrots. Keas, endemic to the South Island, are among the most intelligent animals in the world (and the largest of all parrots), and as a result they interact with humans more confidently than most birds. We were able to get up close with the large, green parrots — so close I was using my 12-40mm lens. Keas have a smaller, more shy and less intelligent cousin, the Kaka, whom we came across and photographed a few days later. I will detail that adventure in my next post.
In all, it was a great, highly memorable day, and we have to thank Geoff and Trips and Tramps for making it so fun, informative, and smooth. They really took care of us, providing transportation, lunch, ferry ticketing, lots of interesting entertainment, and a very personal experience. If you are interested in seeing what they are about, here is a link to their website.That night, just outside our motel in Te Anau, I shot the moon with the 300mm Pro. There was some light pollution from being in the middle of town, but not much. I used my tripod and no teleconverter. I was amazed at how this incredible lens could clearly capture tiny craters that were not visible with my naked eye. The settings were easy; I just lowered the exposure compensation until the moon’s details became visible. Since I was shooting on a tripod, there was no reason to raise ISO from the E-M1’s native 200. The moon had not quite reached full size, so I planned to try again a few days later, and experiment with the x1.4 teleconverter as well. This image was cropped a bit to fill the frame a little more.
Geoff had informed us of a lot of amazing-sounding things to do in the scenic southern loop of the island, but we unfortunately didn’t have enough time to take that route, which easily would have taken up an entire day, if not more. Next time we are there, though, we absolutely want to drive that southern coastline. This time, we instead cut straight east across the island to the town of Dunedin, where we had a plan for another exciting photographic opportunity. I’ll detail these next two days, primarily focusing on bird photography, in the next post.