Astrophotography has been a passion of mine for around eight years now. For me, it all started when I saw the amazing images from the first Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition back in 2009. Since then, astrophotography has taken me all over the world to some incredible places, and I‘ve spent many hours under the night sky attempting to perfect the craft. It certainly hasn’t all been an easy road though, and I’ve had to work a lot of things out for myself through trial and error, and every astro shoot still continues to be a great learning experience for me.
When I’m scouting locations for astrophotography, I’m looking for a dark sky location relatively free from the effects of light pollution – you will need to travel out of your towns and cities for the best night sky visibility. I also look for geographical features that would work well as objects of interest against the night sky, and I look for good compositions, very much like I would if I was shooting a regular landscape shot. But I also need to take into account the direction the location is facing, and the time of year I plan to photograph it. This is important in astrophotography, as the night sky is constantly on the move and these additional factors will determine what celestial objects will be within your composition. There are numerous apps out there to help you plan and determine this – two of the apps I personally use for this are Photopills and Star Walk.
One of my favorite locations that has all of these factors, and more, is Cape Palliser on the North Island of New Zealand. I tend to spend a lot of time out there, and I actually shot one of my favorite astro images – Guiding Light to the Stars – there too. The interesting, and unusual, thing with that image was, I never actually planned it in the first place.
My original plan was to shoot a timelapse looking up at the Cape Palliser Lighthouse with the Milky Way overhead. I set off the timelapse and headed back to my car to get some sleep. When I woke at 5am to go and check on things, I was taken aback by the scene in front of me as I emerged from my car. The Milky Way was low in the sky, seemingly projecting out from the guiding light of the lighthouse. It was a moment where I felt like I was the only one on this Earth under a sky of millions of stars. I instinctively went to grab my camera gear out of the car, and then remembered most of it was with the timelapse. Unfortunately for me, that was a 280 step climb up to the lighthouse to get my gear before I was able to shoot anything. But I managed to get my camera gear back down in time and set up the shot.
To capture the arch of the Milky Way in the shot, I had to shoot a panorama. I used a Gigapan Epic Pro robotic pano head to do this, and shot a 20 image pano which I stitched together to give me an overall 250 megapixel panoramic image. It was shot with a Canon 5d Mark III and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at a 24mm focal length. I processed all of the images in Adobe Lightroom, and then finished off any of the stitching clean up work in Adobe Photoshop.
For an unplanned image, Guiding Light to the Stars is one of my more popular images, and I do get a lot of people asking me about it and where I got my inspiration for the shot.
Inspiration, for me, comes from many sources – other photographers, artists and even musicians, especially when I am shooting timelapse. But I think most of all, my inspiration simply comes from nature – I spend many nights looking up at the night sky in awe of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things…it certainly puts life into perspective for me and drives how I portray the night sky in my photography.
If you would like to have a go at astrophotography yourself, all you need is a tripod, DSLR or mirrorless camera, a wide angled lens, and a bit of patience! The main thing is to just go out there and have a go. I’ve written a lot more on the technical aspects of astrophotography in a blog of mine on my website, so feel free to go and check that out here.
In the meantime, remember take the time to stop, look up and enjoy – our night sky is one simple but amazing thing that’s free for all…
Mark Gee is an award winning photographer, time-lapse filmmaker & digital visual effects supervisor based in Wellington, New Zealand. His short film, ‘Full Moon Silhouettes‘ gained Mark international acclaim after going viral online, and has been broadcast all over the world by the likes of CNN, The BBC, NASA and various other mainstream media. In 2013, Mark won the prestigious Astronomy Photographer of the Year. Not only did he win it overall, but Mark also won the Earth and Space category, and the People and Space category which had never been done before in the competition’s history.