Astrophotography in Hawkes Bay

I clearly remember my first attempt at Astrophotography in 2012. I had seen photos of the night sky and was amazed that modern day cameras could effectively see in the dark, so I headed out one cold clear winters night to capture the night sky; the results were pretty poor but I captured enough at that first attempt ( I actually managed to accidentally capture a portion of the Milky Way in some of the shots ) to ensure that I was hooked. Please excuse me for not showing those images; they were an important stepping stone to understanding astrophotography, but that doesn’t mean that I want anyone to see them!

After moving to Hawke’s Bay in 2008 I am pretty sure that I saw more stars in the sky in the first few weeks of living here than I had ever seen in my life before, so I was pretty sure that with a a bit of learning and a lot of practice I could capture photos similar to those that had got me interested in astrophotography, but with the beauty of the Hawke’s Bay night sky in my shots.

As a region Hawke’s Bay is blessed with many things that contribute to great astrophotography: settled weather ( especially in the winter months ), large areas of open dark countryside within a short drive, relatively low light pollution levels ( especially given the fact we have two reasonably sized cities within 30kms of each other right in the heart of the district ) and we have sea to our east ( I will explain the importance of that later).

The Milky Way

So a bit of information about astrophotography for those just starting out ( it has been described as the nerdiest form of photography so bear with me if this gets a little technical ). Our galaxy, The Milky Way, appears to us on Earth as a band of stars encircling our planet. Some portion of the Milky Way is always visible to us in our night sky, but for reasons of the way our planet rotates and wobbles we see different parts of the Milky Way in our skies at different times of the year. Due to Earths location within the Milky Way we have two distinct areas that we can see; our view towards the centre of the Milky Way is densely packed with stars and areas of interest, and is therefore main part to feature in astrophotography, whereas our view towards the outer edge of the galaxy is less densely packed with stars but still forms a visible band in the sky.

In the southern hemisphere we are lucky to be able to see the core of the Milky Way through our winter months, with it’s long nights making astrophotography much easier than in the northern hemisphere where the core of the Milky Way is only visible through their summer months, so for many people living in northern parts of North America and Europe the almost 24 hour daylight makes capturing shots of the core very difficult.

During our winter months ( or more February to November ) the core of the Milky Way appears in different parts of the sky, and has quite different orientations, depending on the time of year and the time of day ( or night ). In early February we normally get our first look at the core of the Milky Way for the year as it starts to move away from the area of the sky that our Sun occupies, and it appears in the early morning ( about an hour before sunrise ) as a near vertical band of stars stretching from the eastern horizon ( this is why it is good to be on the east coast ) up to and through the Southern Cross, which quickly fades into the daylight as the sun appears. Both of the photos below were shot just before sunrise late January and mid-March respectively, looking east.

As the ‘astro season’ progresses this vertical line of stars which make up the core of the Milky Way is visible earlier and earlier in the night and by June is visible just after sunset. As the core ‘rises’ earlier and earlier through the year then that core is also visible for longer parts of the night until again around June it is visible through the entire night, starting as a vertical band in the early evening and progressing across the sky to form a near horizontal band of stars on the western horizon just before dawn. After June the vertical view starts to be wiped out by the setting sun to the west before it has a chance to be seen in the night sky, and the horizontal western view is visible earlier and earlier in the night, until around November when it is visible just after sunset and is only visible for a short time before the rotation of the Earth drags it below our western horizon.

The photos below were both shot looking west but the first one was shot in June just before sunrise and the second one was shot in October just after sunset.

So for the ‘beginner’ astrophotographer the easiest time to take photos of the main part of the Milky Way is around June about an hour after sunset to catch the rising Milky Way to the east, and in October at around the same time to see the setting Milky Way to the west.

The easiest way to determine where the core of the Milky Way is at any time is to find the Southern Cross ( which sits within the band of the Milky Way ) and whichever side of the Cross has the 2 Pointers on it is the same side as the core of the Milky Way.

Settings / Equipment

Getting good shots of the Milky Way, or the night sky in general, is unfortunately one area of photography where the gear does matter to a degree. The average phone or ‘point and shoot’ camera doesn’t have the range of adjustments to allow it to capture good photos in the dark, so normally a DSLR / Mirrorless camera will be required, and coupled with that a lens with a large aperture ( a low f number like f1.8 or f2.8 ) is preferable to let in as much light to the camera as possible. Also because you will need to shoot photos which take a few seconds to exposure a tripod is also essential to hold the camera steady.

The technicalities of choosing a camera, setting it up and shooting the Milky Way is a whole other topic in itself, which I am planing run some workshops on in June, so feel free to check out the workshop page on my website, www.ankh.co.nz, for more information.



South Island : March / April 2019 : Days 3 and 4

Day 3 - Geraldine to Dunedin, Fine, 24°C in Geraldine, windy and cloudy in Dunedin

Up at 7:30am and drove back to near Woodbury to shoot the sunrise. No clouds in the sky so not the most exciting shoot, but it was pleasantly warm ( about 15°C ) so it was nice to have a wander around.

Back to camp to pack, have some breakfast and check out. Drove west through the back roads then joined SH1 and south again, turned off at St Andrews and headed up the Esk Valey to St Mary’s Church for a look. Church was locked so looked around then back to SH1 at St Andrews and carried on south.

Stopped at Oamaru for lunch ( cheese rolls ) at 12:30 then onwards to Dunedin, and checked in at the Dunedin Beach Camp in St Kilda ( $60 for a small basic cabin ). Rested for a bit then headed in to town to the Meridian Mall for a coffee and then back to the camp. Headed back into town at sunset to shoot the Railway Station then to a Turkish restaurant for tea and then back to camp.



Day 4 - Dunedin to Middlemarch, Cloudy, breezy, 14°C

Up at 7:15am and drove along to St Clair beach to shoot the poles ( the same ones I shot 6 years ago ) which are now in bit of a sad state. The weather wasn’t great ( windy and cold ) but we met a few other photographers ( some chattier than others ), then we grabbed breakfast at the Esplanade Cafe, then back to camp. Packed and left at 10am, and drove into town to get some clothes at Kathmandu then headed south ( after a brief petrol stop ), turned off at East Taieri and then through Outram and up into the hills towards Middlemarch. Really rugged country through here, full of rock stacks, tussock and Marino sheep.

We arrived in Middlemarch at 1:00pm and checked into the Middlemarch Holiday Park ( $50 for a cabin ) and relaxed for a bit ( we were both feeling a bit poorly with colds ). Out for lunch at the Tap & Dough at 2 and then a wander around town. Grabbed some supplies at Maggies ( seems to stock everything ) then back to camp.

Went for a drive at 3pm to Hyde, stopping at the Rail Disaster Memorial ( where 21 people died in 1943 due to a train derailment ) on the way then back on the back roads east of the Taieri River, and back to Middlemarch at 3:30pm. More rest. Amazing landscape with piles of schist scattered everywhere.

I headed out at 6 to shoot the landscape before the sun disappeared below the Rock and Pillar Range to our west. I headed down some of the back roads around Middlemarch, nearly collected a few stray sheep, and got back to camp around 7pm.

We headed to the Strath Taieri Hotel ( the only option in Middlemarch ) for a couple of steaks then back to camp at 8:30pm



South Island : March / April 2019 : Days 1 and 2

We are on another road trip to the South Island, but this time we do not have a camper van, we just have got our nomal car and no real plan, except that we are cycling the Otago Rail Trail from Day 5 to Day 9.

The other decision I have made is to shoot all photos in B&W just for a challenge; this doesn’t effect the final photos that I process, but it means that all the photos in these blogs will be black and white ( and being straight out of camera they may be slightly off the level too!)

Day 1 - Wellington to Kaikoura, fine 23°C

So day one of the trip started n Saturday 30 March from Wellington. We had driven down the night before from Napier to Wellington and stayed overnight.  We were up earlyish to catch the 9am sailing of the Kaitaki, which meant a 8am checkin with the car.

Wellington Harbour and Cook Straight were as calm as possible ( not a common sight ) and the sailing was very pleasant, and heading into Picton through the Marlborough Sounds was stunning.

We arrived on time at 12:30, jumped in the car and after a wait in the queue we hit the road and headed south.

After stopping for petrol and supplies in Blenheim we carried on south on State Highway 1. We turned of to have a look at Marfells Beach at 2:30, a stunning piece of beach, then back to the main road and carried on.

Our destination for the night was Kaikoura, which after a major earthquake in 2016 had been completely cut off by road for a while. So the roads on all sides of Kaikoura are open but still undergoing major road works to repair the damage.

We stopped briefly at St Oswalds Church in Wharanui but it was closed due to earthquake damage so we took some photos and moved on. The road between Clarence and Kaikoura was still undergoing major roadworks so it was a bit slow, and we stopped to watch the baby fur seals on the rocks below the road for a while, before carrying on.

We arrived in Kaikoura at 5pm and checked in to the Top 10 camp and got a basic cabin for $95. We dropped our bags and walked in to town ( about 5 mins walk ) and had a look around the place. Again there had been a bit of damage in the quake so things are still being repaired in places but the main area of town is full of life and some new buildings.

After walking back to the camp we rested for a bit then headed out at 7 o’clock to shoot the sunset. We went around to an area of rocks which faced west to the setting sun and the mountains that lie just to the west of Kaikoura. I managed to find some rounded boulders ( similar to the Moeraki Boulders in shape and size ) and we stayed until nearly 8pm shooting.

We drove back into town and grabbed dinner at the Garage Groper bar and then back to camp at 9:30pm.

Day 2 - Kaikoura to Geraldine, fine 26°C

Up at 6:30am to catch some sunrise only to find a thick blanket of fog over Kaikoura.  We headed around the coast to see if we could find anything to shoot, then up onto the peninsula to see if we could get above the fog ( it was actually thicker on top of the hill ) and then back to the spot we shot the night before to wait for the sun to come up.  It came up but we couldn’t see it at all so we headed over the hill to look at the boat harbour then back to camp for breakfast.

We packed up and checked out at 9, then went exploring Kaikoura and up to Hapuku ( the fog was patchy away from town, with patches of clear blue sky, but thick fog in others).  At 10am we went to visit a local photographer Neil Protheroe, who we had randomly bumped into on a previous South Island trip.  We had a quick coffee and a chat then headed back through Kaikoura at 11am and then south on SH1, again along the broken coast road and then up through the hills and eventually we dropped down into Cheviot, where we stopped for a bit of lunch, and then onwards down to the Canterbury Plains and then bypassing Christchurch and off south again.

We turned off SH1 after about an hour and a half and headed north into Geraldine, which was our stop for the night, at 4pm

We checked into the camp ( Top 10 , basic cabin $75 ), then went for a walk into town, then through the gardens and river walk, and back up to town.  Grocery shopping again then back to camp.  Time for a rest.

Out again at 6:45, drove to Woodbury to shoot another stunning little country church ( this area seems to be full of little villages with churches ) which has the dual names of “St Thomas Church” and “Tripp Church”. We were wandering around for a while outside when a head popped over the hedge and said that the church was unlocked and we should go in and have a look; so we did. Wow.

After shooting for a while we headed back into town for some tea at The Village Inn, and then back to camp at 9pm



Shooting Somewhere New Pt 1

So over the last couple of months I have had 2 weddings to shoot outside of Hawke’s Bay, both of which  provided me with opportunities to shoot some new landscape locations in New Zealand.  Both of these areas were places that I knew reasonably well, but I approached the capture of landscape images quite differently for each of these locations.

I will cover the second location / area in a followup blog post, but I will start by telling you about my recent trip to the central North Island region around Taihape.

I was booked to shoot at a wedding near Pukeokaho on a Saturday in February, and as is normal when the wedding is out of Hawke’s Bay I chose to stay over in the area after the wedding.  And as the coverage of the wedding didn’t include the reception it meant that I was going to get the chance to shoot a sunset and sunrise session in the area.  The nearest town to the wedding was Taihape so after booking my accommodation there my thoughts turned to what to shoot for myself after the wedding coverage was done.

Taihape is a place that is well known for a few things: it is the Gumboot Capital of the World, it is on the main trunk railway line through the North Island, and is also on the main highway that runs through the North Island.  So most people in New Zealand know the town as a place you go through to get somewhere else, and while it sits in a region of pretty dramatic hills and rivers it is not renowned as a photographic destination.

As I had been to or through this area many times before I knew that there weren’t that many locations that I wanted to shoot.

But just north of Taihape is a little church on a hill that I have been facinated with capturing in photographs ever since I first saw a photo, by the legendary New Zealand photographer Andris Apse, which had the church viewed from a distance across a field ( you can find / buy a copy of the image here: https://andrisapse.photoshelter.com/image?&_bqG=0&_bqH=eJzzcwwO8s1KD03OijIJyvTOcg4xMnP0qwxPdzKwMrUyMrUyNAACK894l2Bn2.SM0qLkDDUwJ97Rz8W2BMgODXYNivd0sQ0FKTS29DAuSMkMKwiLVIt3dA6xLU5NBGoBACLOHto-&GI_ID= ). 

And as is often the case when a town is on the way to somewhere else I had never managed to try to photograph this church in anything other than mid-day light, and had always come away disappointed with my efforts.

So with a sunset and a sunrise shoot available to me, and a subject available just a short drive from my accommodation I decided to really try to get some nice shots of this church this time.

And I certainly got more than I hoped I would.

So after finishing up the wedding shoot I drove the 1/2 hour into Taihape, checked into my motel and immediately headed north to the church. It was probably about 1/2 hour before sunset when I arrived, but given the topography of the area I knew the sun itself would dip below the hills to the west of the church well before the actual sunset time.  I shot from the roads around the church for a while ( the church is slightly below the main road level, at the junction of 2 roads, but at the same time sitting on a small hill ) with a soft hazy sunset happening behind the church.  There were very few clouds in the sky so I knew I wasn’t going to get a specular sunset in that respect, and I decided to make the most of the golden glow on the horizon, and also try to pick out details in the landscape behind the church as well. 

After shooting from the road for a while I walked down the drive to the church itself, and entered the surrounding cemetery. As I was waiting for the sky in the west to darken enough for the ‘blue hour’ tones to appear I had a scout around the church to look at locations to shoot the next mornings sunrise from, and to see what compositions I could see. I find it is always good to plan some compositions the night before if you are planning to arrive in the dark the next morning.

After capturing the last of the amazing colours in the sky as the suns light finally faded away I walked back to the car at about 9pm and headed back to my motel to rest.

After driving for 3 hours to get to the wedding from Napier, shooting the wedding and shooting for a couple of hours at the church I was understandably a bit tired. I still had the job of downloading the wedding photos and video off the cameras to be done before I turned in for the night, and had my alarm set for 5:30am in the morning.

When I poked my head out the door after my alarm went off I could see that it was cloudy, but there was a strip of blue sky to the east which might yield a nice sunrise. So I grabbed my gear and headed out to the church again.

There is something about shooting in the still predawn hours that keeps drawing me back to it, despite the fact that I hate hearing the alarm go off when it is still dark outside. And this morning was so peaceful with very little wind and mild temperatures ( Taihape sits about 500 metres above sea level, is about 70kms from the nearest part of the coast and is only 40kms from a mountain which has a permanent snow cap, so it has been known to get a little chilly even in February ).

I walked down to the church and set up a composition that I had seen the night before, looking to the east, and awaited the rising sun to light up the clouds overhead. Despite what I thought were ideal conditions for a colourful sunrise it never happened. The gap in the clouds to the east stayed there until after the sun had cleared the horizon but the clouds just refused to catch any predawn colour.

The one bonus of not having a colourful sunrise is that there is not the pressure to capture as many angles / compositions as possible during the short duration of the colour, so instead I just left my camera in one place and enjoyed the sunrise with my eyes and ears instead.

I managed to capture a few long exposure shots that morning, which I thought would look nice in black and white, but were essentially the same composition, and left soon after sunrise.

So despite not getting many shots in the sunrise session I captured more than expected during sunset.

So overall I had achieved my goal of capturing this little church in a way that befitted it’s location, and I drove home happy.