This is the fifth and final of a series documenting our photography trip in New Zealand in 2016.

 

 

Hobbiton:

After the bus dropped us off, a sign welcomed us down the short path to the village set.
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The last few days of our New Zealand trip was spent in the northern part of the North Island.  We had a mid-morning appointment at the massive ranch where the Hobbiton Movie Set was built for both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.  The day was bright and cool, with a sunny blue sky and white, puffy clouds.  We waited in the small restaurant and gift shop until it was time for our group to board the bus that would take us onto the ranch grounds and to the set.  While the set itself couldn’t be viewed from the staging area or the road, I could already tell that the land was perfect for the role it played.  Verdant hills and fields dotted with trees, rivers and lakes, and the occasional outcropping of rock — we were in The Shire.  I also immediately took note of just how crowded the place was, how much money the place had to be making with all those people, and also just how international the clientele was.  There were visitors from all over the world, and regardless of the language or nationality, everyone seemed equally excited about what they were about to see.  It was a pleasant discovery to see how something like a movie could connect people from all over the world.

The flowers and many frequenting insects were beautiful, and the hobbit holes made nice contextual backgrounds.
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I don’t know if I can adequately describe just how impressive the Hobbiton set was, so hope my pictures do it justice.  The place was large, the size one would have thought a fully-realized hobbit village would be.  The attention to detail was so meticulous that it looked like a real village being lived in at that very moment by actual hobbits.  The adherence to the books to the tiniest detail was nothing less than obsessive, as everything was laid out exactly as described.  The little hobbit holes and props arrayed outside all had functional purposes, telling the story of the whole village, what each inhabitant did for a vocation or hobby and what their personalities were like.  The gardens and fields were tended not to be overly manicured, but cared for by people who simply loved the land as it was.  All of the bushes, trees, flowers and garden vegetables were real, with the one exception of the massive oak tree above Bag End.  Because there was no oak tree on the ranch, one was cut up, brought in and reassembled.  The leaves were all fake, thousands and thousands hand-glued onto to each bough, and we never would have guessed it was fake.  The overgrown foliage, flowers, and bees and butterflies hovering among them also made for some beautiful close-ups, with slightly blurred hobbit holes in the background.

In its props, gardens and design, each house had a story to tell about its inhabitants.
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We were enthralled, following the tour guide on the path that circled through the entire village along and at the base of the hillside, through the party grounds, and around the small lake.  The entire experience lasted two to three hours, and while it was a lot of walking and the day was fairly warm, none of it was difficult.  The guide told a lot of stories about the place, but to be honest I was too involved with taking pictures to hear most of it. The end of the path on the far end of the lake passed the mill, with a working water wheel, and stopped at the Green Dragon Inn, where we were offered a glass of beer brewed on the premises.  I had been hanging back, snapping so many pictures outside that I only had a few minutes left to go inside the inn (which was also amazing) and had to chug the beer down.  We loved our time there so much, and were so wanting more, that after the tour we walked right up to the ticket office and inquired if there were any openings for the evening tour — which differed from the day tour in that it was done by lantern-light and ended with a feast in the same party tent where Bilbo celebrated his birthday in the books.  Unfortunately, the evening tour was already sold out, but we have no doubt that we will go back there someday.  Yes, the tickets seemed somewhat expensive when we first booked them online, but by the end we felt that they were worth every penny.

 

A view of the water mill. I digitally removed all of the tourists on the bridge for a more serene image.  I thought the clouds looked particularly spectacular, but started getting blown out on the right (sunward) side, so I cropped that side of the image down a bit.
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Lessons on Photographing in Harsh Light:

Chimneys of hobbit holes sticking up from the grassy hillside.
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I was using the E-M1 and 12-40mm Pro, while Catherine was using the E-M5 and 8mm Pro Fisheye.  We were shooting in the harsh mid-day light.  One might not automatically think of a beautiful sunny day at around 1100 in the morning as “bad” light, but for photography purposes it can be — and I don’t just mean compared to the soft warmth of the golden hours.  Shooting with the sun at our back produced fantastic images that for many shots needed very little editing.  However, some of the images, particularly with wider angles facing the sun, came out looking overly bright.  Practically blown-out skies, chromatic aberrations and purple fringing on the trees were noticeable on perhaps a quarter of the hundreds of images we took on the tour (we were literally clicking away non-stop).  Nevertheless, the vast majority of these shots were recoverable with careful editing, and I ended up not needing to throw away hardly any on the account of technical flaws.  For the ones that required extra attention, I used RAW Power, a new app for Mac OS, which has a bit more capacity to recover highlights that Apple Photos allows by itself.  I use the word “allows” deliberately, as Photos automatically adds brightness to pictures that defeats highlight recovery, and doesn’t give you a choice about it.  As a result of the new app, I was able to recover the blue in the skies even when the bright sun was in the scene.  While I think RAW Power was well worth its $10 cost for that point alone, there are limits to what it can do.  Try to recover an image too much, and the clouds start to look burned and fake.  So, for any remaining overly bright patches, I used Macphun’s Snapheal to darken sections and blur distant backgrounds, and/or Intensify to increase the detail of bright areas and slightly darken them.  On the flip-side, the hobbit holes themselves were often shaded from the sun.  They were never below the dynamic range of the camera, but what shadow detail I couldn’t squeeze out of Photos, I used Intensify again to bring them out.  In only a few images were the skies so blown out that they could not be recovered, but even then, I still found use for them.  The title picture, utilizing Macphun’s FX Photo Studio CK and Ancient Canvas filter, ended up being one of my favorite shots of the day, yet the original file had completely blown out highlights and would otherwise have been thrown away.

A hobbit hole with a pretty garden in front. Though it was mitigated a lot in post, the upper left corner background shows a bit of the high dynamic range I was dealing with at times.
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As I mentioned, because we were in a timed tour, we didn’t have a lot of time to set up or think about our shots.  We really were just snapping away.  We weren’t really thinking about how the late morning lighting could be harsh to shoot in at times (particularly for the fisheye), casting deep shadows.  Next time, I will probably use a flash (provided I become proficient with one) or HDR — any of which would have given us more control over the deep shadows we were battling.  I didn’t bring a flash, however (because I am not good with them), and if you recall from earlier posts in this series, I had shot so much HDR and burst images earlier-on in the trip that I was running out of disk space.  So, we were just relying on the dynamic range and Evaluative metering capability of the camera and shooting RAW.  While some images ended up with blown out skies, most of them came out of post processing looking just fine.  I even used Snapheal to add extra blur to the distant backgrounds when I wanted to.  Of course, in such bright conditions noise wasn’t a problem at all, but when I pulled out shadows or used Intensify — either of which can introduce some noise, Noiseless took care of it.  While I am always thinking about how I could have done even better with more careful technique, in the end, using the above mentioned editing techniques mitigated many of the IQ issues associated with smaller sensor formats and harsh lighting conditions.  I would expect the editing process would be even more effective with expensive, sophisticated photo editing options like Adobe Lightroom — and in fact I am in the process of giving Lightroom a try for myself, though at the time of this writing I am still learning and by no means as comfortable as I am with my old suite of tools.

This image shows a little of the dynamic range and purple fringing problems we dealt with when shooting into the sun.
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Another important lesson here is that I might have paid more attention to the histogram and exposed a little more to the right.  The reason I think this would have helped is because Evaluative metering does not always provide the optimal exposure for an entire scene.  I am writing another blog on exposure and flash fundamentals (which I hope to publish soon and will get into this topic in much more detail), but I want to mention this here because it is such a good example.  Shooting straight at a shaded hobbit hole with the bright blue sky at the top of the image inevitably gave me a well exposed hobbit hole, but the sky was oftentimes close to white.  Because the hobbit hole was the bulk of the image, and because even on Evaluative (ESP) metering priority goes to the zone being metered to — the exposure the camera chose was not the median between the brightest and the darkest parts of the image.  While Evaluative is closer to the middle than Spot or Center Weighted, it still favors the brightness levels of what it considers to be the primary zones — in this case the hobbit hole and not the sky.  Similarly, when I was shooting a wider scene of the whole village, I’d get a shot with the ambient light and sky all well exposed.  While the shaded areas were dark, however, none of the shadow details were ever lost, and I was able to bring them out in post processing.  What this all told me was that I had some room to lower exposure compensation to better expose for the brighter parts of the scene so that both the shadows and the highlights would have been more recoverable.  A hand-held light meter (had I owned one) would have shown me this, but I also could have looked at the histogram of a shot I had already taken and come to the same analysis.  The lesson I learned here is to pay more attention to the light — perhaps by taking some test shots first and trying to plan out what techniques I need to use.  I do wish there was a exposure metering option that simply took the exact median (not mean) measure between the brightest and darkest portions of a scene, without any favoring for the centrality or size of the portions.  I think this would be useful, but I am not aware of any camera that has this feature.

The famously cantankerous sign at the gate to Bag End, from The Fellowship of the Ring.
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The harsh sun, featured directly in many shots, also created chromatic aberrations such as purple fringing in the trees (and in a few images, sun flares from the direct sun.  While Olympus has lens coatings that reduce these issues, they don’t completely eliminate them.  More powerful editing software (such as Adobe’s Lightroom or Macphun’s Luminar) has tools to take care of these issues, but unfortunately my current editing software at the time lacked those features.  So, I used Snapheal again, brushed on a mask over the effected areas, reduced the saturation and moved the tint toward green (away from purple).  If done judiciously, this technique eliminates 80-90% of the purple fringing, though I imagine a de-fringing tool would be even more effective and probably a lot easier and quicker.  Snapheal could only help a little with the sun flares.  While removing sun flares is a piece of cake in an empty sky, it can be a tricky proposition (or at least no way that I know of) to completely remove the ghosts of light in front of busy scenery such as houses or trees, so at times I left them in the picture.  On a few images, I chose to use Snapheal again to remove other tourists from the shot, but for most of the images I left the people in there.  The set is crowded, pumping a large number of tour groups through at any given time, so any wider views of the village is bound to have many tourists in the shot.  However, the groups are timed and therefore don’t stay in one place long, and people seemed willing to take turns for picture-taking, so it isn’t difficult to get unobstructed shots of the individual hobbit holes or various props on the grounds.

 

A wide-angle view of the village and party tree (center), as well as the lake, mill and the Green Dragon Inn on the far side.  You can also see on the right chimneys from hobbit holes lower on the hill.  This image was taken from the front of Bag End, so it would have been the view Bilbo would see as he smoked his pipe on a warm Autumn morning.
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Auckland and Miranda Shorebird Centre:

Reluctant as we were to leave, we drove the last stretch north to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.  Oddly, we found we had taken on a passenger from Hobbiton, a bee that must have attached itself to Catherine’s clothes while on the set — because after about an hour or two of driving it stung her in the back twice (which I hadn’t thought was possible).  We didn’t know what had happened right away, but she was complaining of such an intense pain that I had to stop the car, and then we found the culprit.  Luckily, she wasn’t allergic, but I know she was hurting like hell for a while.

A collage of images of the dishes we were served at Ebisu. This collage was not made with the E-M1s’ Story Mode.
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The traffic was pretty bad in Auckland — as bad as any major metropolis at rush hour.  We stayed at a hotel in the Ellerslie area of the city, and took an easy bus to the downtown area.  I snapped a few street photos (nothing of interest) and we shopped for a while.  That evening, we had one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten in our lives at the Ebisu Japanese restaurant in the harbor area — a place we luckily decided on after Googling the nearby restaurants.  Catherine and I are both true foodies who appreciate all sorts of cuisines.  While Japanese is among our favorites, this also means we have high standards.  All I can say is that each course we had at Ebisu was among the best bites we’ve ever experienced.  Their presentation was elegant as well.  Of course, we took pictures of each dish — which is something we do at just about every nice restaurant we go to.  I have been debating doing a food photography blog for a while now, and if I do, some of these shots would likely make it.  Catherine put together a small collage of images for this post.  Afterwards, we wandered the downtown area by night, and (at Catherine’s insistence) stopped at another restaurant that specialized in desserts.  I was amused by how many young girls there were among the clientele, and how the staff was all young, good looking guys.  It didn’t matter, because the desserts were really decadent and tasty, and I think the girls were too distracted to pay much attention to the waiters other than to place their orders.

A South Island Pied Oystercatcher picks through the water, searching for morsels.
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The next day was the only day of the entire trip that our plans were ruined by bad weather.  We had planned to take a ferry to Tiritiri Matangi Island, an island eco-sanctuary renowned for its bird life.  Unfortunately, there was such inclement weather in the forecast that we couldn’t go.  This is yet another destination we will have to see another time.  Instead, we drove to the coastline southeast of the city to see what bird life we could find there.  In the countryside along the way, we passed numerous (perhaps dozens) of kingfishers sitting on telephone wires.  While they were always alone, it was by far the largest number of kingfishers we have ever seen in a day (the previous record never higher than one).   We stopped at the (Pukorokoro) Miranda Shorebird Centre, a long stretch of rocky beach and high grass fields.  The weather was still wet and dreary, and it wasn’t the right time of day for much bird activity.  While we didn’t see much, we had fun nevertheless and we didn’t have anything else to do.  Given that it was Autumn and we had been in New Zealand for nearly two weeks, having only one day spoiled by rain was fairly lucky, in my opinion. The place was still beautiful, and I shot gulls, herons and cormorants, and got to test the E-M1’s C-AF against birds in flight.  While we didn’t see anything exotic or new, that was enough.  Score another point for the excellent weather sealing on the E-M1 and Pro lenses.  You can see the rain in some of the images, but I wasn’t at all worried about the camera gear getting wet.

A White-Cheeked Heron at the Miranda Shorebird Center.
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Conclusion:

I am a bit big to live in a Hobbit hole.
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This ends my travel blog series on New Zealand, one of the most amazing countries we have ever visited.  From Queenstown to Auckland, everywhere we went was filled with welcoming people, fantastic food, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous scenery.  I loved the peaceful yet dramatic atmosphere of the South Island, which even in populated areas was still far more natural than urban.  While we absolutely intend to spend more time there someday, the trip had been long and we were looking forward to being home again.  I had thousands of pictures to sift through and edit upon my return.  Looking through them, and as I tried to record in this series, I learned a lot of valuable lessons on traveling and on travel photography.  I hope that you enjoyed the few sample images that I picked out to share with you in this series — both the ones I thought turned out nice, as well as the ones I posted to show my mistakes.  If you wish to see more pictures from this trip, there are a great many more images of these areas as well as all of the others we covered in the New Zealand album on our Flickr page.  Lastly, thank you for reading, and I hope my stories and descriptions were interesting and informative, and perhaps have inspired some of you to visit this magical country called Middle Earth New Zealand.

 

I only did a couple of Key Line Art Filter images at the Hobbiton set, but I thought they all came out rather well.
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