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

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

New Zealand is renowned for its clear dark skies free from light pollution. There are many places in New Zealand 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.

There are many fantastic locations in New Zealand. Great Barrier Island, Aoraki Mount Cook, Tongariro National Park, Lake Tekapo, Queenstown, Stewart Island, Shakespear Regional Park and Wellington I would recommend staying at Orama Oasis if you head to Great Barrier Island.

Wellington has a unique landscape that means you can drive just 30 mins from the city center and find yourself in dark skies where you can see the night sky and 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 the Wairarapa South Coast which features places like 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.

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.


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.

Be careful once you get to the top of hill as the drop offs at the side of 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 please use a red light if possible.

There are some relic WW2 bunkers and stairs long 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 to get an idea of your bearings for when you return at night.

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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • F2.8 to F4, F2.8 has softer corners in the image. F4 produces sharper stars and more sharper images. I use either F2.8 or 4 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 F3 or 3.2 on a 24mm focal length 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. 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. In a later blog I will explain stacking and how it is done and why.

  • 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

Full Frame Camera

(500/50) 50mm lens = 10 seconds

Crop Sensor APSC

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

Crop Sensor APSC

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

Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lens allows you to capture more of the Milky Way and foreground in a single image. The flip side is that objects may appear smaller or distorted. I recommend taking maybe a 3 shot panoramic at least when using a wide angle lens. A three shot panoramic can be stitched easily in Adobe Lightroom. Get up close and use the foreground as part of the composition if using wide angle lens.


24mm is what most astro photographers shoot at. It gives a wide enough angle without too much distortion and allows a longer shutter time. I recommend using 20 to 24mm focal length.

35mm and 50mm lens

You can also use 35mm and 50mm Prime lenses for astro photography. 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 max on a 50mm lens. If you exceed recommended exposure time, you will start to get star trails as the earth is rotating. Longer exposure times require a tracker which is specialized equipment.

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 20 to 30 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 luminace .

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

Gradient Filters

I recommend using 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 and 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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