Taking an Astro Photography Workshop

Written by Vanessa Patea
Photographs by Vanessa Patea (Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III)

I woke up at 6.00am on Saturday to get to the airport on time; rushed around like a maniac double-checking my camera and camping gear and made a mad dash for the airport. I noticed the famous Wellington wind had picked up overnight and was apprehensive that the plane would be able to take off at all. After checking in and going through security the wind speed was gusting at 90kmph and the plane was delayed by seven hours. The panic started to set in that I might not be making the workshop at all.

Lens: Canon EF 24-105mm F4 L IS USM     ISO 400    Shutter 1/125 sec     Aperture f 10

Our tutors were Mark Gee and Rob Dickinson – both photographers who are experienced in shooting both landscapes and astro-photography. They have shot the area many times before and they showed us some good spots. Tekapo is the largest dark-sky reserve in the world, which means it is free from light pollution. As  the sun retreated below the horizon, the majestic southern skies came alive with cosmic lights.

I arrived at Tekapo one hour late so only missed the meet and greet session which was a great relief. The workshop members and I hit the Church of the Good Shepherd at sunset. I had never taken photos in a group before and the experience was a strange one for me. Every man and his tripod was there and it was difficult not to get them in shot. I decided to embrace the situation and started shooting the photographers in the scene.

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM          ISO 1600    Shutter 8 sec     Aperture f 2.8

It was a strange experience taking a workshop in the dark and not being able to see anyone; you had to be aware where you pointed your torch and where the other photographers were so you wouldn’t ruin their shots. It was difficult to tell who the tutors were in the dark or what anyone looked like.
We were lucky to witness an iridium flare which occurs when a satellite reflects the sun and glints. I happened to be taking an exposure at the time so I captured it. The results were quite surprising, the path of the satellite is in the image (below) and the stars appear to be dripping out of the sky.

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM         ISO 3200    Shutter 30 sec     Aperture f 2.8

We shot at the church for a few hours and it felt strange to shoot the same thing for this long. But it turned out well as focusing on stars was trickier than I thought and it took a bit of practice. Focusing in the dark is like shooting blind. Rob gave us a few tips, like turning on the camera’s live view option and zooming right into a star to focus. Any movement is unwanted, so lots of people had their packs hanging off their tripod to weigh it down and keep it steady in the wind.

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM        ISO 1600    Shutter 30 sec     Aperture f 2.8

The next stop was out the back of Tekapo at the hydro station. It was even darker out there and the stars were more impressive again. I could spot Orion’s belt (The Pot), Pleiades (Seven sisters, Matariki), Taurus and the Southern Cross easily. It was so cold by then and the wind was up so we wrapped in blankets and trucked on.

After shooting there for an hour we jumped into our cars and travelled half an hour in a midnight convoy to Lake Pukaki. We arrived there around 1.00am in the morning. I was happy to see some dramatic clouds snaking over the lake. I experimented with an LED light which had adjustable brightness and a diffuser and used the inside of my sleeping bag to bounce the light onto the rocks.

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM       ISO 1600  Shutter 25 sec     Aperture f 2.8

This third site ended up being the last stop as the cold and wind were getting too much and the long travel from Wellington had taken it out of me. So I crashed out right there at the lake in the car.

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM    ISO 3200    Shutter 30 sec  Aperture f 3.5

Tekapo is a stunningly gorgeous place surrounded by the snow-capped Southern Alps, lakes and, at the right time of the year, flowering lupins. If you go there I recommend taking a good DSLR camera, a wide angle lens with a large aperture (1.8 – 2.4 f.stop) and a tripod. Try to time your trip with a new moon and pray for clear skies!

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM      ISO 400    Shutter 1/180 sec     Aperture f 8

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II USM       ISO 800    Shutter 30 sec     Aperture f 3.5

See more photographs on my Flickr site here.