Archive | February 2013

Aramoana Dawn – One Prime Lens

I arrive at the carpark at Aramoana just around dawn. The carpark is empty, except for what appears to be a horse transporter (what’s a horse transporter doing here? There were no horses on the beach).

My self-imposed mission is to look for a shot inspired by Ansell Adams’ great shot of sand dues taken in Death Valley ( This requires the sun to be low in the sky – adams took his shot at dawn, to get the sun low across the dunes. When I left home I thought the sky was going to be clear, but now that I’m in Aramoana there is quite a lot of cloud cover. I’m hoping that there might be some breaks in the clouds where the sun peeks through.

I get out of the car, and pick up the camera bag. It’s quite heavy, with a good selection of lenses and two bodies so I can quickly switch between wide-angle and fisheye. I look up a the sky again. I can tell what’s going to happen – most of the time the light will be dull, but there will be occasional moments of magic when the sun comes through. And then I’ll be running to get to the best places before the light goes again. I don’t want to be running up sand dunes with a heavy bag, so I take a risk. I get out the 6D with a 20mm prime lens, and leave the rest in the car. The 20mm is a lovely lens – the image quality is much better than any of the zoom I have, and the focal length is just right – it’s wide, but not so wide that the photos are dominated by the extreme focal length. Sometimes with a very wide lens it seems that it’s the lens that took the photo, not the photographer.

it’s a short walk top the beach (the north side, not the spit), and the light is dull. Here’s the first shot of the day – an interesting piece of driftwood. But the light is dull, and really there’s nothing going on here. It’s a dull photo. Actually, to be more specific, the light is actually really nice – it’s a calm, even light, and the morning is still and not too cold. But it’s not photogenic at all.


I turn left, and head north. The light stays dull, but I’m hopeful.

I sit on the sand for a while. It’s a really nice morning. it’s a little cold, but I’m wearing a down jacket, so I’m warm, and the place is silent and deserted except for waves.

Suddenly there’s a burst of sunlight! I move over near the sand dunes and find the light is picking out some penguin tracks in the sand. With the camera horizontal I can’t get the top of the cliffs in as well as the penguin tracks, but turning the camera vertical I get the shot below.


At the time I don’t think much of this one, but when I get home I’ll discover the luminous quality to the sky that has come from the clouds that are usually blocking the sun. Actually this is possibly the best shot of the day. I’m still thinking of my self-imposed mission to get a riff on Adam’s Death Vally shot, but there just are not an expanse of dunes here, so I’m not going to get it. What I d=need to do is to jettison my preconceptions and work with what I’ve got – sand and rocks.

Moving further down the beach I find a crest of sand near a rock. This is actually just like Adams’ shot, except much smaller. I sit and wait for the sun to break through again.

When the sun comes it highlights a series of bird tracks along the crest. With the rocky cliffs in the background I’m happy with this shot.


It occurs to me that I should point the camera downwards, just getting the sand. Sort of like Adam’s shot in miniature. Because I’ve only got the 20mm, I can’t avoid getting some rock in the shot. This on is probably more like Adams’ one, but I prefer the one with the cliffs in the shot.


Now I feel a sense of release. I’ve got the shot of the mission. It’s not exactly what I’d set out hoping for, but it’s what the universe offered me. Now I’m feeling looser. The sun is still shining, so I find myself running up the sand dunes of a better angle.

The sand is soft and dry, and for every two steps I take up I seem to slide back 1.999 steps. Eventually I get to some dune grass and manage to make some progress, but it’s hard work. The sun is actually quite hot, so now I’m sweltering in the down jacket, and I’m really glad I left the camera bag in the car.

At the top of the dunes, under the cliffs, there are no photos. I turn around and look back down.¬†I can’t get a decent composition here. I know that the large rock is too central, but panning the camera to either side isn’t working either. It’s never going to work. It’s pretty, but so what.


The sun goes away.

Getting down the dues is a lot easier than going up. I’m happy though. At least I know I’m not missing anything up there, and I think I’ve got a shot in the camera that I’m happy with. I begin walking back along the beach

As I’m walking the sun comes out and highlights a series of tracks – there are fading tracks from humans on the beach yesterday, crossed with fresh penguin tracks heading towards the water. apart from a nice composition, it’s a nice idea for a photo.


As I near Keyhole Rock the sun comes out again, and I have to run to get into position. I’m stopping every now and then since it’s hard to tell when the sun will disappear, and if I’m not careful I’ll get nothing at all. There’s a large rock just in front of Keyhole rock and I go to the right of it. It’s just as I come around the edge that I get this shot, which has nice framing with the sand and ¬†foreground rock giving some depth to the image.


What I like is the contrast between the white sand and the black rock. This inspires me to get a shot of the base of Keyhole.


Back on the main beach, I walk back to the driftwood in the first shot, but just nearby is this piece, which has much more interesting textures. The light is much more interesting now. It’s OK, and it makes a nice bookend to the set, but I don’t think it’s a really great shot.


I think the points to remember for this experience are about the importance of running with what you actually have in front of you, rather than wishing for something that’s not there. You can mess up an otherwise great shot by trying to make it into something that it’s not (and I think there is a lesson there which extends into the rest of our lives as well).

In this case, aiming to replicate Ansell Adam’s shot got me out to Aramoana at dawn (and I am not a morning person). But once there it was important to see the place with fresh eyes, and look at what the universe had given me. It’s not unlike a score to a piece of classical music. Peter Wispelway and Pablo Cassals have both done radically different interpretations of Bach’s Cello Suites. The writing that Bach made on a piece of paper prompts both performers into different performances. Taking a photo that impresses you and using it as a ‘score’ for your own work can prompt you to some wonderful images, but only if you are prepared to let go of the ‘score’ and improvise.

Using one prime lens worked well. With no options other than to use the focal length that was on the camera, well, it seems like there is just one less thing to worry about. You can’t zoom in, so you get closer (always a good thing). WIth only one piece of gear, but a well chosen piece, most of my energies were directed into he creative flow. And it’s easier to run!

Perhaps the other lesson is how important it is to seize the light. When the sun was behind the clouds the light did not yield decent photos. What was good about this morning was that when the un came out the sky was still filled with clouds in the otehr directions, and that’s what has given me the luminous sky in the second shot in the series.