If you know anything about me, you know how much I love the Milky Way—not only to photograph, but also just to look at. And by the Milky Way (since pretty much everything we see with the naked eye is part of the Milky Way), I (especially) mean the galactic core.
I think it’s pretty cool to realize that the galactic core photons that tickle our retinas actually bubbled up 26,000 years ago, rushing at light’s speed limit for 152,844,259,702,773,800 miles without so much as a bathroom break—a feat any dad would envy (anyone who has been on a family roadtrip knows what I’m talking about). Many of the galactic core’s photons don’t make it past its abundant dust and gas molecules—remnants of stars past, and the building blocks of stars future—that create the dark gaps marbling the white starlight. So distant is the Milky Way’s core that all we see on Earth is the glow of countless stars and the surrounding dust and gas—the pinpoint stars we see are all much closer than the core.
When Don Smith and I started considering a New Zealand workshop, the Milky Way became a huge factor in our decision to hold it in winter. Not only is winter when the mountain ranges spanning New Zealand’s South Island are blanketed with snow, in the Southern Hemisphere winter also happens to be when the Milky Way’s brilliant core is opposite the sun and highest in our sky. This, combined with New Zealand’s clean air, relatively sparse population, numerous mountain-lined lakes (for foregrounds), and winter’s long nights, make it one of the best places on Earth to view and photograph the Milky Way.
Of course winter comes with a couple of complications too—nights can be cold, but that’s usually manageable, with lows most nights in the 30s or low 40s. The bigger winter concern is clouds, which as you might imagine are quite common. While clouds make for wonderful daytime photography, they can totally wipe out a night shoot. Because of this, we’ve gotten pretty good at monitoring the weather just prior to the workshop and strategizing our night shoots to (fingers crossed) ensure that the group gets at least one quality Milky Way shoot.
In this workshop’s 9 nights, we stay in 5 locations. Over the years we’ve identified good Milky Way spots for most of them, but it wasn’t until our last pre-pandemic workshop that we found a good spot near Queenstown. Queenstown, on the shore of Tahoe-sized (but not shaped) Lake Wakatipu, has to be one of the most beautiful towns in the world. But between poor viewing angles and city lights, I’d all but given up finding a good Queenstown-area Milky Way spot until the 2019 workshop, after clouds had wiped out all previous opportunities. Down to our final night, I pulled out the map one more time to look one more time looking for a place that might work, and found this spot right on the lake, just opposite 6,000 foot Cecil Peak.
Fast-forward to this year. We usually don’t do a night shoot on the workshop’s first night (also in Queenstown) because people are just settling in, very much dealing with jet lag, and we haven’t had much chance to get everyone up to speed with Milky Way photography. But since the forecast for the next 10 days didn’t look great for night photography, we decided to give it a shot just in case it turned out to be our only opportunity.
After a nice sunset shoot we beelined straight to our Milky Way spot to wait for the stars. The night was chilly, but not too bad. One of the things I love most about night photography with a group is the fun and camaraderie it fosters. This night was no exception, and despite the chill (or maybe because of it), I felt like this cohort that had been complete strangers just a few hours earlier had already started to bond wonderfully. (In other words, we had a blast.)
Don and I spent much of our time bouncing between participants, answering questions and checking on their success, but we managed to find time for a few shutter clicks on the way. We also had one guy in the group whose winter clothing and tripod were in his suitcase, which unfortunately was still in Sydney. Though Qantas was still trying to locate it, he’d attached a tracking device to the suitcase that allowed him to monitor its location with his phone, but he couldn’t reach a human at Qantas to educate them. (It took them 3 days to find it and finally get it to him.) He was doing okay comfort-wise with borrowed clothes, but it’s pretty hard to photograph the Milky Way hand-held, so Don and I traded off loaning him our tripods.
As you can see, the clouds stayed away and we had a very successful shoot. Turns out Don and I are geniuses because this was indeed the workshop’s only Milky Way opportunity. The clouds that arrived the next day stayed in one form or another for the rest of the workshop, bringing some off-the-charts photography with them—making it even easier to appreciate knowing we already had a successful Milky Way shoot under our belts.
One more thing
When I’m leading a group, I’m not really able to focus on my own photography. Because we started shooting before the sky became completely dark, I started with my Sony a7SIII at ISO 1600 instead of the ISO 6400 I usually use with my Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM wide open. But it wasn’t until we were wrapping up that I realized I’d never increased my ISO once the sky darkened completely. I ended up taking just 2 or 3 frames at ISO 6400 and was concerned the other images might be too dark. When I finally checked my results on my computer, I was thrilled with how clean my 1600 ISO images were, even after increasing the exposure. There will always be noise in a 20-second high ISO image, but Topaz DeNoise AI was able to clean it up beautifully.
If you scan the gallery below, you may notice that I already have a similar composition from a previous shoot. I’d identified something different from this night to process, but when several in the group asked for a demo of my night processing one rainy afternoon in Twizel, I pulled up this one and confirmed that ISO 1600 was fine. After finishing processing this image for the group (maybe 10 minutes), I liked the results enough to keep it. I’ve been so busy since returning that I haven’t had much processing time, so when I sat down to write this blog, I was happy to have this one ready for action.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.