Sony and the star-eater algorithm

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While I’m not a hard-core astrophotographer, I have to confess that for me there are few experiences that come close to standing out in a landscape far from city lights, observing and photographing the night sky. There’s something primeval by way of the connection that it provides with the universe – and with those generations from the past who, without means to easily light their rooms, must have been keen observers of the night skies and their periodic changes in the arrangement of moon, planets and stars.

Over recent months, I’d begun to pursue photography of the night skies over New Zealand with a little more commitment, exploring the astrophotography websites to hone my skills both in image capture and processing. And that began to pay off with some results that begin to capture for me something of the mysteries of what I see above me in our National Parks on a clear, moonless night. That is until I come across the words ‘star-eater algorithm! – and discovered the veritable can of worms that has been opened up by Sony’s latest firmware (3.3) for its Sony A7RII and A7SII cameras.

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The Techart Pro Leica M to Sony E adapter – an enduser perspective…

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While I’ve used autofocus lenses on several previous cameras, I’ve mostly been happy using my Sony A7RII mirrorless camera with a carefully selected set of prime lenses, all of which are manual focus. They work fine for the great majority of my photography projects, but there are times, particularly when photographing at family events or taking other moving subjects, when I have to concede that having access to auto focus would be a great advantage.

When I saw Techart Pro’s first advertisements for their Leica M to Sony E mount auto-focusing adapter I was immediately interested, particularly given that they also advertised the availability of adapters allowing it to be used with a range of other lens mounts. Initial reports with the first firmware indicated less than ideal performance, with not particularly rapid focus and occasional camera lockups. But then reports on a forum at fredmiranda.com of dramatically improved performance with the newly arrived v. 3 firmware suggested that Techart Pro were beginning to iron out the worst of their teething problems. I decided to put my money down!

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Getting high again…

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In my teens, New Zealand’s mountains were a frequent focus of the day-dreams that I sometimes used to escape the hum-drum of suburban life. This interest was fostered by tramping trips with school friends in the nearby Rimutaka and Tararua Ranges near Wellington where I grew up. Later I was to do several training weekends with the NZ Alpine Club, leading to high-country adventures in the mountains of Nelson and Canterbury, where we climbed a number of the less challenging peaks, particularly in the Travers Valley. While many of those trips were memorable, I ended up following a career that not only shifted me to the central North Island but also involved extended periods of field-work. This, coupled with a developing family, pushed high country adventures progressively out of reach and they largely disappeared out of my life for the next 30+ years. Only in the last decade have I revived my interest in exploring New Zealand’s back-country solely for the pleasure of being out there. Continue reading

Smash Palace…

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While its well outside my usual interest in New Zealand’s wild places and things, we recently spent a weekend in Ohakune with a photography friend, and he suggested that we pay a visit to Horopito Motors – more usually known as ‘Smash Palace’. This latter name comes from its association with the iconic 1980’s Kiwi film of the same name that featured Bruno Lawrence as a former race car driver who runs a car-wrecking yard in the central North Island. Well the car yard was not just a set constructed for the film – its a real life vintage car wrecking business located at Horopito (between Ohakune and National Park) with literally acres and acres of old cars of every make, description, and stage of decay.

Smash Palace

Smash Palace

We spent an interesting couple of hours there, the main challenge being what not to photograph – the choice was endless. I took over a hundred images, but have selected out just a few of these below. I used a small set of primes on my Sony A7R II – a Canon tilt-shift 24 mm, which was perfect for some shots requiring large depth of field, a Loxia 35 mm, and my diminutive Elmarit-M 90mm – a perfect small telephoto to pair with the Sony.

For any other punters keen to visit this yard, admission will cost you the princely sum of just five dollars – and it will certainly sharpen your appreciation of the impermanence of human creations.

An exhibition at The Greenspace…

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We had a big night on Thursday night, opening an exhibition of ten prints at The Greenspace, a beautiful meeting venue in Te Aroha Street, Hamilton (NZ) that is operated by Annie Perkins of Groundwork Associates. A year ago I sat next to Annie at a dinner to celebrate a mutual friend’s graduation, and somehow the conversation turned to photography. One thing led to another, and Annie very generously invited me to exhibit some prints at The Greenspace. Although I was very keen to take up her offer, somehow pressures from my own consultancy work got in the way of me assembling the set of prints I wanted to put up.

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Walking in the rain…

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Every year we try to head to New Zealand’s South Island for an extended hiking trip, both to enjoy the magnificent wilderness country of the Southern Alps, and to explore new opportunities for landscape photography. This year we decided on a circuit through the Ailsa Mountains west of Queenstown, travelling up the Caples Valley and then onto the Routeburn Track. We chose mid-March as a generally reliable time for dry weather. We prepared well, upping the training walks, dehydrating meals, and getting all our gear sorted into tip-top order. But as Robbie Burns famously said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry – and this was one of those trips! All caused by a cold front laden with rain from the sub-tropics, and trapped over our intended route between two stationary high pressure systems.

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Return to Ruapehu

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With the Auckland Anniversary weekend giving me a Monday off, the invitation from a couple of friends to join them for a photographic foray at Tongariro National Park was very tempting. They would not have the Monday off, but we could explore a tempting looking valley on the west side of Ruapehu on the Saturday and Sunday, and I would stay on for the Sunday night and return on the Monday.

This would provide me with an opportunity to test out the new and curiously named “Sky HDR” and “Smooth reflection” apps that I had downloaded onto my Sony A7RII from the Sony store. I also wanted to try a promising new idea I’d come across on the internet – aperture stacking – combining images shot on a tripod using different apertures. With an improving weather forecast, I quickly pulled together my gear and after a leisurely start to the day, headed off on the 3 hour drive to National Park. This had the prospect of being a great trip – although, subsequent events meant that it didn’t quite turn out that way! Continue reading

Ngauruhoe from a distance…

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Work had been hectic for a couple of weeks and it was beginning to cause some internal conflict – who wants to sit at home in front of the computer when there are spectacular places to visit? Worse than that – spectacular places offering opportunities for great photos, and fast losing snow in the warming weather of spring!

I’d long eyed a spot on the northern slopes of Ruapehu as likely to provide great views north to Ngauruhoe, a young volcanic cone in the centre of the Tongariro National Park. I’d spied this spot first when exploring around the Tama Lakes, which lie in old explosion craters on the southern flanks of Ngauruhoe. Looking back to the south from above the Upper Tama Lake, I could see a point where the long, gently sloping ridges coming off Ruapehu converged before rising steeply up the mountain. Tucked in at the foot of these ridges were a series of bluffs and waterfalls that just might offer a good vantage point for some photos. I was keen to get there before the winter snow had completely gone, but with an El Nino spring running rampant, several weekends had been ruined by gale-force westerlies and rain. We wanted it fine and clear!

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Can a ‘permanently fixed’ Voigtlander lens-hood be removed?

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It’s a while since I’ve done a post – too long in fact, but the last six months have taken a lot of focus and energy as I’ve established a new business. And although I’ve managed to get out in the wilds with the camera a bit of late, this post delves more into a question of equipment, and the modification of equipment in particular – it goes like this:

In shifting from my previous Olympus M43 system to a Sony full-frame system (A7R), I was concerned to keep my gear costs to a reasonable level. My Olympus kit included two very nice wide angle prime lenses, the last of which is just going out the door. The catch with the Sony system is not so much the availability of such lenses, but their cost – an equivalent Zeiss wide-angle to my previous Olympus wide-angle sells for around 2.5x the cost!

After looking at a variety of wide-angle options I decided to check out the Voigtlander Ultron 21mm F/1.8, a lens reported to have good performance and that sells for around half the price of its Zeiss equivalent. This cost saving then opened up the possibility of also buying the newly released Voigtlander 15mm Heliar III – a super wide angle optimized specifically to work well on mirrorless cameras such as the Sony. Two wide primes for the cost of a single Zeiss Distagon looked very attractive, except for one snag – both of the Voigtlanders come with permanently built in lens-hoods that prevent the use of a filter holder and neutral density and/or graduated filters.

Voigtlander Ultron 21mm F/1.8

Voigtlander Ultron 21mm F/1.8

After casting about on-line, I eventually found a cryptic description by one home handyman who had manually removed the lens hood on his Ultron, though he gave only the barest details of how he achieved it. However, after trying the two lenses in the shop, I decided to go ahead with an order for both, with the possibility that I might try and remove the hoods in due course. Both lenses duly arrived, and both performed very well on the A7R – some magenta tinging around the corners with the Ultron 21, but that was easily corrected in Lightroom – now that I’ve traded up to an A7RII, that problem has gone completely, and both lenses are a delight to use. However, the hoods remained an issue…

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Walking the Dusky…

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We’re just recently back from doing one of New Zealand’s more challenging multi-day walks, the Dusky Track which runs between the northern end of Lake Hauroko and the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. It’s a relatively undeveloped route, notorious for its sandflies, mud, and rivers that rise rapidly after each of the intense rain storms that regularly sweep in from the Tasman Sea. We knew that it was going to push us to our limits, but the opportunity to do it with friends was too hard to resist, and on a soggy morning in late March we stood in the rain and watched the Namu depart back down Lake Hauroko after dropping us at the Lake Hauroko Hut.

Lake Laffy at dusk


A selection of photos from the stunning landscapes encountered on this trip can be found here.

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