Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Charming Creek Walkway, Ngakawau Gorge

Over the Christmas/New Year break we had planned as a family to do a few local walks (weather permitting). So we jumped at the chance to join some friends who were going on the Charming Creek Walk, half an hour north of Westport, in the Ngakawau Gorge (pronounced 'Nock-a-war').

Fortunately we chose the right day to go as the day dawned beautiful and clear (we've had a lot of rain this summer). It was, in fact, too clear, with harsh light that followed us around all day.

Charming Creek Daisy: Celmisia Morganii. OM-D E-M5 MkII
The track is an easy walk, with only a very gradual incline following old rail lines to a stunning waterfall about an hour in. Along the way, and depending on the time of year that you visit (December/January is ideal) you will come across the Charming Creek Daisy (celmisia morganii) growing along the side of the track. This highly localised species of daisy is found only in the Ngakawau Gorge - and grows abundantly along the Charming Creek walkway.

The Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm EZ f3.5/6.3 has a 'macro' setting on the lens that I find myself using quite a lot. It's obviously not 'true' 1:1 macro, but it allows for decent close-focusing at the 50mm end of the range, where the f6.3 aperture allows for a decent depth of field. The lenses 'bokeh' (out of focus background) is quite smooth and natural, making for some very pleasant 'macro' flower shots. My son Josh doesn't have this functionality with his 14-42mm kits lens and he really missed this on the walk. He seems naturally drawn to macro-type photo opportunities, so a dedicated macro lens (the 60mm f2.8 or 30mm f3.5) is the top of his lens wish list.

Tunnel exit. Charming Creek, Ngakawau Gorge
The Charming Creek Railway was a privately owned line built in 1912 by brothers George and Bob Watson, sawmillers from Granity. The original line was wooden and was worked by horses. It ran as far as Watson's Mill in the Charming Creek Valley. In the 1920s the line was upgraded to steel and rail tractors were introduced. Bob Watson established the Charming Creek Westport Coal Company in 1926, and from 1929 up to six coal trains used the line daily. By 1942, at the height of its operation, the Coal Company employed 69 men and produced 43,385 tonnes of coal. The line closed in 1958, after which wood and coal was trucked by road to Seddonville.

This sense of early New Zealand pioneering history is evident all along the Charming Creek walk. Old rusting train parts and the ever-present steel tracks that cut through the forest and tunnels, remind you of the walks historical significance every step of the way. Yet, as impressive as the history is, the crowning jewel of the Ngakawau Gorge has to be the impressive Mangatini Falls.

Mangatini Falls, Charming Creek Walkway, Ngakawau Gorge. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 9mm fisheye bodycap lens
On the other side of a suspension bridge, about an hour's walk in, Mangatini Falls can be heard long before it is seen. The rumble and roar of hundreds of tonnes of water makes for an impressive sound as you approach the falls - and the view does not disappoint. There are tracks that lead down for a more up-close-and-personal view of the falls, or you can take in the full vista from a lookout along the track.

Above is the view from the track, taken with the 9mm fisheye bodycap lens. Again, the conditions were quite harsh, with very bright highlights and deep shadows. I exposed for the highlights as much as possible, letting the shadows go black. Later, using ACDSee's Ultimate 9 software, I pulled out as much detail from the shadows as I could while still making it look natural.

I could have maximized the dynamic range by using the HDR function on the OM-D E-M5 MkII, or set up on a tripod and taken five exposures that covered a complete range of exposures. But to be honest, I didn't even think of using the in-built HDR function, and didn't have a tripod for bracketing exposures. Shooting in RAW, and knowing I could pull detail out of the shadows later on as long as the highlights were ok, was my best option. And it worked fine - although at ISO 800 the shadows are a little noisy.  

Fern frond. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Olympus 40-150mm f4/5.6.  F6.3 @ 1/60th sec, ISO 400
Because a lot of the day was spent shooting macro in the shade - hand-held - my ISO hovered around 800. I will take the E-M5 MkII up to 1600 without too much concern for noise, although it is definitely there at the higher ISO's. The great feature of the OM-D's is their incredible IBIS (In Body Image Stabilisation) that can give you two or even three stops to play with, so you can wait longer before having to increase the ISO.

The fern frond above was taken at 1/60th of a second with the 40-150mm lens zoomed all the way out to 150mm. This makes it the equivalent of a 300mm focal length on a full-frame system. Conventional wisdom would claim that the shutter speed should be at least equal to the focal length if you want a sharp image - which would have meant shooting at 1/500th sec on a film camera.  Shooting at 1/60th instead has given me three extra stops (1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th) to play with, allowing me to lower the ISO to 400. The resulting shot therefore has less noise, and is plenty sharp enough.

A family of Photographers. Charming Creek Walkway
Despite the overall harsh lighting conditions, we had a fantastic time, and took some great photos along the Charming Creek Walkway. It's one of the most spectacular (and easy) walks on the West Coast, and well worth doing if you are ever lucky enough to be in this part of New Zealand.

I'm certainly going to do the walk again soon - hopefully on a slightly more overcast day. I've got an 8-stop ND filter which I think would be perfect to play with in places along the track, and at the waterfall itself. Nicky, a friend and fellow photographer who came with us on the walk, used her 10-stop ND for some water images and got some beautiful results. Can't wait to give it a go myself.   

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