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Photographing the Milky Way over Fiordland, New Zealand

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It can be rather disconcerting, staring up into the cosmos. Billions of stars winking back at you, the Milky Way spanning the sky, making you feel insurmountably small on our tiny, fragile planet. Yet it is also one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles we can have the pleasure of witnessing. Such an event happened during my holiday earlier this year.

During my extensive research for my New Zealand adventure with Mam back in April, I had eyed Lake Tekapo as the place to get the best star image. With a tiny church on the bank of a lake and one of the world’s most famous Dark Sky sites, it sounded ideal!

Before that, we stayed 25 minutes north of Te Anau at Fiordland National Park Lodge. This was our base for travelling to Milford Sound for a boat trip. It would mean having to get up early to make the hour and 20 minute journey for our 10am sailing, but at least we were nearer than if we’d stayed in Te Anau.

Now that's what I call a room with a view!

Now that's what I call a room with a view!

Staying at Fiordland felt like being at the End of the World. Our lodge looked out over the mountains and Lake Te Anau, it was a beautiful vista. It was so quiet. I had to remind myself that this would be the furthest south we would travel. The South Island stretched down another 80 miles past Te Anau before it hit the Tasman Sea. After a short hop across to Stewart Island, Antarctica would be the next land.

Morning mist over Fiordland.

Morning mist over Fiordland.

On the first night at Fiordland we sat on the small patio area with a drink to watch the sunset. It had been a bright, clear day and it looked as though the night would be cloudless too. There was hardly any artificial light, only that spilling from between the closed curtains of the nearby lodges.

I had put my camera outside on the tripod while it was still light so it would get used to the chill as night approached. When it got really dark we turned out the lights in our lodge and stepped outside. As our eyes adjusted to the sheer and silent darkness, we began to see the stars.

Then we saw more, and more, then more! I turned around to see the Milky Way stretching across the sky. It made me feel incredibly small, here at the “End of the World”, looking up into infinity.

I took some images of the stars looking out across the lake and mountains, but the main arm of the galaxy was behind me, above our lodge. I turned to attempt some photographs.

Stars over the lake and mountains.

Stars over the lake and mountains.

For this holiday I did not have my SLR camera. To keep weight down I took my small mirrorless Canon M3, which for all intents and purposes functions like a SLR. One benefit the M3 has over my SLR is that it has a flip up screen, which came in useful when I pointed it up towards the night sky.

Did I have a special lens? No. It’s a basic, 15-45mm that I bought online for about £95. I had it set at the widest field of view at 15mm to get more of the sky in the frame.

My super lightweight travel tripod that I got for Christmas was sturdy enough for both the weight of the camera and the minute-long exposures I took. I used my wireless remote to release the shutter without touching the camera.

The original, unaltered image straight out of my camera. Scroll to the end to see the final image.

The original, unaltered image straight out of my camera. Scroll to the end to see the final image.

It took me a few attempts in the cold night air, but I finally ended up with this image. On the camera screen it looked good, zoomed in on my MacBook screen I could see slight movement in the pinpoints of stars, but that is to be expected given the Earth’s rotation during a minute-long exposure. I would wait until I got home to look at it properly.

The next morning when we got up early to head to Milford Sound, I looked outside to see our little Nissan Note hire car was covered with a thin film of ice. I had no scraper with me, I hadn’t planned for ice. Luckily our lodge had a small kitchenette with some utensils, so I ended up scraping off the ice with a spatula!

Our one night spent at Lake Tekapo was slightly cloudy. I did get one photograph with the stars and the church, but a huge blanket of cloud obscured the stars at the top of the image.

Some stars at Lake Tekapo, but nowhere near as many!

Some stars at Lake Tekapo, but nowhere near as many!

When I got home and looked at the Fiordland photograph on my iMac, I did not have to do much with it, merely upped the highlights and whites slightly, and reduced the blacks in Lightroom. It wasn’t until a few days later when I zoomed right in that I noticed a shooting star in the middle of the frame.

The final image of the Milky Way above the roof of our lodge!

The final image of the Milky Way above the roof of our lodge!

I know it’s not perfect and that astrophotographers with more experience will have managed a more clear image with less movement, but I don’t care!

For me, this photograph represents one of the defining moments of our New Zealand holiday. I know I’ll probably never see that many stars again.