How to photograph the Milky Way - Wellington, New Zealand.

Updated: May 8

New Zealand is renowned for its clear dark skies free from light pollution. New Zealand offers many locations where you can just drive 30 minutes or an hour or two (depending on location) and you will be in some of the darkest skies in the world.


Some of these great locations in New Zealand include Great Barrier Island, Aoraki Mount Cook, Tongariro National Park, Lake Tekapo, Queenstown, Stewart Island, Shakespeare Regional Park and Wellington South Coast https://www.wellingtonnz.com


Wellington has a unique landscape which means you can drive just 30 mins from the city center and find yourself in dark skies where you can see the milky way with the naked eye. The best known locations in and around Wellington are the Wanuiomata Coast, Red Rocks Reserve (10 minutes from central city), Breaker Bay and Makara Beach. If you drive for an hour out of Wellington, you then have access to even darker skies of the Wairarapa District which features places like Cape Palliser https://wairarapanz.com/cape-palliser.


A quick Google search will easily provide driving directions on how to get to these locations. Some walking will be required so pack accordingly. Because the Milky Way is predominant in New Zealand winter, its important to pack the right gear as the nights are cold and the southerly wind can be chilling.


The best time of year to photograph the Milky Way in Wellington is between the months of May until October. I personally use the Android app called PhotoPills to plan my shoots. It is a great program for planning where the Milky Way will be in the night sky on the chosen night. You can buy it from the Google Store for $20 NZD at the time I purchased. https://www.photopills.com/


Breaker Bay - Frank Hopfler
Breaker Bay Milky Way

Here is one of my friend Frank Hopfler that we took on the night. This was single shot at 3.2, ISO 3200 and 20 seconds. Processed in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.


Equipment

  • Camera - APSC of Full Frame, any brand will work. Full Frame is the recommended type.

  • Batteries - Take more than one battery as long exposure and the cold will quickly drain your batteries.

  • Lens - that has a focal range from at least 16mm to 50mm. Its ideal that the lens can at least have an F-Stop of 2.8 or lower. Most lenses are capable of 2.8. A 24-70 2.8 lens is ideal.

  • Tripod - sturdy and light enough to carry as you need to walk a little. https://www.photowarehouse.co.nz/shop/shop-by-product/tripods-and-supports/tripods-head-combo/mefoto-a1350q1-roadtrip-white/ or https://www.photowarehouse.co.nz/shop/shop-by-product/tripods-and-supports/tripods-head-combo/manfrotto-mt190xpro3-tripod-kit-bhq2-ball-head/

  • Lens Warmer - these can be purchased from EBay for $40 NZD.

  • USB Portable Power Bank - I would also highly recommend. Required for your Lens Warmer and also useful to charge your phone. I have attached my USB power bank to the upper leg of my tripod so I always know it is with me.

  • Warm Clothes - make sure you take adequate clothing as the wind in Wellington can be deceptively chilling after being exposed to it for 15 minutes or so. Be prepared. A good wind proof jacket, hat and fingerless gloves are a must.

  • Torch/Head Lamp - with both red and light light. A head lamp is far more convenient as it keeps your hands free.

  • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Take your mobile phone.

  • Be Careful. Wellington has a lot of hills with steep drops.

  • Food - you will be surprised how hungry you get standing there in the cold. I sometimes take a thermos with hot chocolate and a few snacks.


Breaker Bay

In this blog I will write about my trip to Breaker Bay. I drove from Lower Hutt which took about 30 mins.


At Breaker Bay you can park at the Breaker Bay car park and walk up the road on the left hand footpath, continue up Moa Point Road to the entrance of Wahine Memorial Park. It is just before the first house. You will see some stairs. I have included a map for convenience.


Be careful once you get to the top of hill as the drop off on the cliff faces are steep and would be fatal. Use your torch and err on the side of caution. As it is a popular spot for photographers so please don't wave your torch around aimlessly. I use a white torch when walking then switch to red when at location ready to set up.


There are some relic WW2 bunkers and stairways along the way that make for a great backdrop to the milky way. Take your time to explore the area as there are a lot of great foregrounds and compositions to be found here. I would suggest that if you have time visit the area during the day, use PhotoPills to check possible compositions and to get an idea of your bearings for when you return at night.


Breaker Bay - Wellington

Camera Settings

There is a lot of information on the internet about camera settings to use for Milky Way photography.

Here are the settings I use. Please note other settings can be used. This is a guide only. You need to be comfortable using your camera on full manual mode.


Camera

  • I set my camera settings before I head out. I few times when starting out learning astrophotography I ended up with the wrong white balance and low iso. The less you have to fiddle with your camera in the dark, the better.

  • Ideally you should shoot in a white balance range of 3200k to 4200k. Lower is more cool and higher more warm. Darker skies I tend to use around 3900.

  • 3200k is used by many Astro photographers as a starting point. This will make the image on the blue side and more natural. However some like the the vibrant slightly artificial milky way so I would recommend 3900 to 4300 if you prefer that.

  • Avoid using Auto White Balance if possible. You can use Auto White Balance if you forget to change before shooting however I find colours and tones are better if you start with a correct white balance.

  • Aperture F2.8 to F4, F2.8 has softer corners in the image. F4 produces sharper stars and more sharper images but you may need to increase ISO to 6400. I use either F2.8 or 3.2 depending on how dark the sky and foreground is. F2.8 if very dark to allow more light to the sensor. I normally shoot around F2.8 or 3.2 on a 24mm lens and F1.8 on a 50mm lens.

  • Manual Focus. To focus, first set your lens to infinity, magnify to the maximum zoom on Live View on a single bright star in the sky. Any start is a suitable target. Once you have a bright star, manually turn the focus dial to make the star as sharp as possible. Adjust lens slightly until star is in focus. Auto focus will not work.

  • ISO 3200 to 6400 recommended. You can start at 1600 if you so desire but 2500 to 3220 is what most photographers and myself recommend.. I normally take a shot at highest ISO 10k plus for a few seconds to check composition before starting to the main shoot.

  • 3200 is recommended if just single shots, non stacked. 6400 if you are stacking images because in post you can remove noise excess noise.

  • Crop sensor cameras tend to get quite noisy images over 3200. I would recommend ISO 1600 to 3200 on crop sensor. ISO 3200 to 6400 can be used on Full Frame or Medium Format cameras.


The 500 Rule

The 500 rule is a guide to your maximum shutter duration allowed. For a full framed sensor it is 500 divided by the focal length.


Full Frame Camera

(500/24) 24mm lens = 20.83 seconds

(set camera to 20s)


Full Frame Camera

(500/50) 50mm lens = 10 seconds

(set camera to 8 or 10s)


Crop Sensor APSC

(500/24/1.5) 24mm lens = 14 seconds

(set camera to 10 or 15s)


Crop Sensor APSC

(500/50/1.5) 50mm lens = 7 seconds

(set camera to 7 or 8s)


Wide Angle Lens

A wide angle lens allows you to capture more of the Milky Way and foreground in a single image. The flip side is that foreground objects may appear smaller or distorted. Get up close and use the foreground as part of the composition if using wide angle lens. Wide angle lens is also more forgiving regarding star trails starting to appear.


Lens Selection

16 to 24mm is what most Astro photographers shoot at. It gives a wide enough angle without to much distortion and allows a longer shutter time. I recommend using 20 to 24mm focal length. However if you have a 16mm lens, use it and see what results you get.


35mm and 50mm lens

You can also use 35mm and 50mm Prime lenses for astrophotography. Remember to shorten your exposure time when using a larger lens to avoid star trailing. So when using the 500 rule, this would equate to a 10s exposure maximum on a 50mm lens. If you exceed recommended exposure time, you will start to get star trails as the earth is rotating and the stars are static. Longer exposure times require a tracker which is specialized equipment. More on that in another article to come.


Lightroom Editing

  • Adjust the exposure if needed. Be careful not to make the image to bright as this can show artifacts in the shadows.

  • Adjust the white balance to give the photo the desired “feel” 3200 is very cool and 4200 is warm.

  • If you feel the need, you can adjust the second white balance slider to fine tune.

  • Add some more contrast, I find around 20 to 30 percent works well.

  • Increase the whites and decrease the blacks. You may notice this may darken the foreground. This can be corrected later.

  • Decrease highlights, increase white and decrease blacks


Saturation and Contrast

One of the best tricks that I have learned for getting a neutral white balance is to temporarily increase the Vibrance and Saturation adjustment sliders all the way to +100. This will make the image look completely over saturated but should make it easier to balance our temperature and tint. Once you have achieved the desired neutral white you can set the sliders back to 0


  • Adobe Lightroom by default adds sharpening to an image. Make sure you set this back to zero 0 . Do not use sharpening.

  • Add luminance, a good range is around 10 to 25 percent.

  • Think of you target audience when editing. If Instagram or Facebook then you need to not worry so much as the image is compressed and resized for smaller screens. If printing then you need to be more exact with sharpness and luminance .

  • Increase the clarity. I find no more than 20 percent or starts to look fake.


Gradient Filters

You can use gradient filters to help make the sky “pop” You can use a either grad filters or radial filters. Recommend grad for the foreground and radial for the Milky Way. You can use Dehaze as part of your filters to further enhance and help the Milky Way “pop” Don’t go overboard. Remember a little goes a long way. Do not “over cook” your image. Fake Milky Way images may first impress but quickly lose their appeal. Keep it natural.


Shadows and Highlights

When using a gradient filter on the foreground, be careful not to get colour noise is caused by trying to brighten shadows too much. Its better to be slightly darker shadows than have colour noise. Reduce the highlights by 20 percent. Do not try to hard to lift out the shadows. It can destroy the image.


Once you have finished your editing, simply export to JPEG and enjoy!


Stacking and Advanced Techniques.

Stacking is the process of taking multiple images at higher ISO and stacking them on top of one another to reduce noise. Learn to master basic Milky Way photography first. In a later blog I will explain how to stack images.


Breaker Bay Milky Way (stacked 50 images)

Break Bay Milky Way

Have fun and stay safe. Wellington has a lot to offer both novice and experienced Astro photographers. You can also subscribe for future blogs.

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