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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!

The drive down went quickly enough, helped by a great coffee at Bosco’s Cafe in Te Kuiti and some old-fashioned radio cricket commentary that gradually crackled and faded the closer I got to my destination. Reaching National Park by midday, I soon downed my lunch, donned boots and pack, and headed off around the lower track to Whakapapaiti Hut, where we would spend that night, and where I planned to stay on for a second.

Mountain cabbage tree

Mountain cabbage tree

The weather was perfect – a dying southwesterly wind blowing the odd cloud across, with just the slightest hint of moisture from time to time. The two and a half hours travel to the hut passed quickly, as I enjoyed the forest track, listening to long-tailed cuckoos and stopping a couple of times to photograph plants of interest. Meeting up with my mates, we decided to have an early dinner before heading up into the basin above the hut to see what opportunities for photos might present themselves with the onset of evening light.

Soon we were up on the small ridge above the hut, where great views presented themselves in two directions – to the southeast the dominating bulk of Ruapehu reared above us, a number of streams rushing steeply down its rocky sides and converging to form the Whakakpapaiti Stream – to the northwest, the view was down the river to the gently sloping ring plain with the dissected hill-country of the Tongariro State Forest and beyond forming repeating lines of ridges thrown into sharp detail by the evening sun.

Spacing ourselves out, we indulged ourselves in capturing the landscape – I found myself sometimes shooting back towards the mountain as clear patches of blue allowed the lowering sun to throw the rugged mountain terrain into sharp relief, and sometimes turning instead to the northwest where the constantly changing light played on a mix of agricultural and forest landscape. Perfect subjects with which to test the ‘Sky HDR’ app, which would be much better labelled as the ‘GND’ app, given its function as a graduated neutral density filter.

Feeling well satisfied, we returned to the hut, sorted our gear, and headed for our sleeping bags. That’s when the trip began to disintegrate – lying in my bunk reflecting on the day, I had the vaguest of sensations that something was moving on my arm, but I dismissed it. It happened again, this time with the tiniest of pin-pricks, but again I ignored it, not wanting to disturb the now peaceful hut. But then I heard something small drop onto the plastic covering of the mattress – turning on my torch I saw to my dismay that I was sharing this particular corner of the hut with a very active colony of bed-bugs! After dealing to a few of the more accessible ones, whose spectacularly bloody demise indicated that they had already drunk deeply, I decided to relocate to another bunk, only to realise that I had been accompanied by several of my new-found ‘friends’. After several sessions with my torch, during which I accounted for more of these little nasties, I eventually dropped off into a fitful sleep, determined that this would be the last night I would ever spend in this hut.

In the morning, my account to the other hut occupants of my broken night was initially greeted with skepticism, but subsequent inspections brought to light evidence of goings on in other’s beds as well – both livestock and bites! And the hut book indicated that we hadn’t been the first to experience the attention of these unwelcome house guests. Carefully we inspected and packed our gear, before heading off for a morning shoot, exploring up one of the cascading streams coming off the mountain. This proved to be the real buzz of the trip as we crossed the ‘around the mountain’ track and then climbed up along a series of benches above the stream, photographing a number of waterfalls and cascades – perfect test material for the ‘smooth reflections’ app, which functions in much the same way as a neutral density filter. By about midday we had reached an elevation of nearly 1600 metres, and at this point I decided to head back, wanting to complete the drive home in daylight, and before the effects of a very short night’s sleep caught up with me.

This last part of the trip was uneventful, except for the heat and humidity, the downing of much fluid to compensate, and frequent stops on the 3 hour drive home to keep myself awake – the radio commentary on the cliff-hanger one-day cricket match between NZ and Pakistan also helped. Then it was into a rigorous quarantine procedure to ensure that no unwelcome hitchhikers should establish themselves at home – yours truly into a long and thorough hot shower, clothes all straight into a hot wash, other gear into sealed plastic bags, insect spray into the car, and the sleeping bag into the freezer, where it is still sitting. So far, there has been no concrete evidence of unwelcome guests back home, although its funny how the mind can play tricks at night!

Striped sun-orchid

Striped sun-orchid

The images were the one positive from this trip, and in particular the indications that they gave about the utility of aperture stacking and the new Sony apps. Details as follows:

  • Aperture stacking – I took several pairs of images with my Ultron 21mm at F/8 and F/16 – as expected the F/8 images had superior central sharpness and contrast, but conversely the F/16 images had much better foreground sharpness, particularly in the corners. Combining them in Lightroom and Photoshop was very straightforward, giving results that are clearly superior to shooting a single image using either aperture on its own. A big gain, particularly for landscapes with a lot of close foreground where getting adequate depth of field can be a challenge.
  • The misnamed Sony ‘Sky hdr’ app functioned very well as an electronic graduated neutral density filter suitable for use in some circumstances. With practice I could quickly set the position and angle of the boundary line where density effects start to kick in, the width of the transition zone around this line, and the degree of exposure reduction, all in a continuously variable fashion. There are drawbacks – a tripod is essential, and its obviously not an option with a moving subject. Yes, much of what it achieves can also be done either with a physical filter or later in Lightroom, but I’ve also encountered high-contrast situations where use of this app would substantially reduce how much the shadows need to be pulled up later, and that in turn will reduce noise.
  • The so-called ‘smooth reflections’ app also has potential, offering an alternative to carrying a number of neutral density filters. It produces interesting effects if used to combine a number of short exposure images, or if used with a moderate neutral density filter, can lengthen the effective exposure to give an effect similar to that given by a Lee big-stopper or other similar neutral density filter.

Together, these give a range of useful options that should improve the image quality of my future landscapes, while also reducing the amount of gear needing to be carried – good news all round. Here are some examples…

As for the bed-bugs, I emailed the nearest Department Of Conservation office on my return to tell them of my experience, and received a very apologetic phone call, along with an outline of their planned campaign to deal to these unwanted house-guests. I’ll update this if I hear any positive reports of their success!