Mike White is an award-winning professional photographer and former commercial pilot. He recently launched a new book called Come Fly With Me, which is a “rare invitation from the cockpit to share the wonder of flight from a pilot’s perspective”.
Where are some of the best places to go and see the stars in New Zealand during the summer?
Anyone looking for dark skies to enjoy the stars should check out lightpollutionmap.info. The map gives a quick visual reference on the best places to enjoy the stars in your local area.
We’re also lucky that local communities are embracing the importance of dark skies and we have several areas already recognised by the International Dark Sky Association for their quality of the night sky – with hopefully more to come.
- Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.
- Wairarapa International Dark Sky Reserve.
- Aotea Great Barrier Island Dark Sky Sanctuary.
- Stewart Island Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary.
- Wai-iti Dark Sky Park.
In general though, it’s hard to beat star-gazing from any of our beautiful coastal beaches where you can lie back and enjoy the sound of the waves as you watch the stars above.
It’s obviously a very different time of year to winter, any tips on catching the best snaps in summer?
Star gazing in summer has the advantage of not needing to rug up like an Antarctic explorer (most of the time!) and I can often be outside in a t-shirt and shorts during these warmer nights. It can sometimes get surprisingly cool though, even after a scorching day, so don’t forget to take an extra layer or two with you to keep yourself warm. If you’re warm and comfortable, you’re much more likely to enjoy a stargazing/astrophotography experience.
The downside of summer night sky viewing is having to wait for the sky to get truly dark to enjoy the full celestial show.
As we move through January though, the nights get a little longer and as the Moon progresses to a New Moon phase (January 12), its effect on the sky will lessen with each night. Timeanddate.com is a great site to check all the details around sunrise/set, moon rise/set, hours of twilight etc for any location you might be at.
Download a night sky map for your phone – there’s plenty to choose from – and this will help you navigate your way across the sky.
There’s plenty to see in the night sky throughout summer. Throughout the summer break, our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter will be clearly visible as a bright object in the north-western sky. Because it’s so bright, it’s one of the first objects to appear after sunset.
As you move your gaze towards the right, you might note a small grouping of stars glowing faintly – this is the Matariki star cluster, now visible throughout the night. (If you get to a brighter orange star that forms the top of a sideways “V” grouping of stars, you’ve found Aldebaran, the fiery eye of Taurus the Bull. Matariki is back towards the left and a little lower in the sky.)
Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Aside from a general preference for clear skies, you’re looking for calm to light wind conditions.
It’s not the cheapest hobby in the world, but what would you recommend to a newbie?
It’s really quite incredible how far smartphone camera technology has come and those with the latest flagship phones should experiment to see what sort of night sky images they can take. A long exposure, using the camera’s night mode, and a small tripod (or sturdy DIY substitute) will yield surprising results and can produce images that will no doubt wow your friends on social media. However, smartphones still have their limitations due to the physical size of the optical elements and sensors involved.
Moving up from a smartphone, you’ll be wanting a: DSLR or mirrorless camera, a fast (wide aperture) wide-angle lens, and a sturdy tripod. (Incidentally, you could most likely buy yourself this gear for less than the price of a new flagship phone if you keep an eye out for a good second-hand bargain through a reputable source). If you’re not sure where to start, join a local camera club or ask for help at your local dedicated camera store.
A dedicated camera, either a DSLR or mirrorless with a fast (wide aperture), wide-angle prime lens, operated in manual exposure mode, will yield the best results for most photographers. Learn to use your camera during the day and become fully conversant in how to operate all its features and change any setting. Even practice setting your gear up at night in a dark room or outside. Doing this makes things a whole lot easier when it comes to taking photos at night out in the field – the last thing you want to be doing is turning a light on all the time to change settings – it’s not good for your night vision and it will frustrate anyone else nearby who is also taking photos.
Full frame cameras generally produce better results than a crop sensor model due to their low light capabilities. Beware though, this hobby can be a real rabbit hole and it’s best to work with what you’ve got until you’ve exhausted its capabilities and you’re sure it’s your gear that’s limiting your photographic talents, and not you!
Lens choice: 14mm (full frame) is a popular focal length for wide-angle nightscape photography (photos that include foreground features and the night sky). 20-24mm lenses are also quite popular for this sort of photography. Third party lenses from manufacturers like Samyang are incredibly popular for those delving into astrophotography as they have pretty good optical qualities and are very affordable. Faster lenses, that is lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.2 to f/2.8 will make it easier to capture images of the night sky. Still, kit lenses in the f/3.5-f/4 range will still produce acceptable images, especially when taking photos with a bit of moonlight.
Shutter speed: generally the aim of nightscape images is to avoid turning the stars in streaks as they move across the sky during your exposure. With modern cameras, I suggest starting with the “300” rule of thumb. Take your focal length, say 14mm, and divide it into 300. Our rounded answer is pretty close to 20 seconds (20” on your camera, not 20 which is only 1/20s). This assumes fully dark conditions, if the sky is brighter, then reduce the shutter speed accordingly to maintain a correct exposure.
Base exposure settings for a nightscape image taken in dark sky conditions with a 14mm focal length lens:
- Aperture: f/2.8
- Shutter speed: 20”
- ISO: 1600-3200
- Manual focus: learn how to use live view to manually focus on the stars.
- Self-timer: 2-5s (avoids camera shake from pressing the shutter button).
Take a test shot and make adjustments to settings as required. Learn what works best for your combination of gear. Also learn how to use your camera’s histogram feature to avoid losing too much detail in the shadows or highlights due to clipping.
Don’t forget to take some spare charged batteries and memory cards just in case you run out mid-shoot!
If you’re headed out on a solo mission, don’t forget to tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back.
Tell us about your new book
Come Fly With Me is really a project that bridges my former life as an airline pilot and my new life as a landscape photographer. As a pilot, I’d indulge my interest in photography by taking advantage of quiet moments on the flight deck to capture photographs of scenes from “the best office in the world”. My camera was an ever-present companion in my flight bag alongside aeronautical charts and manuals.
The book is a self-published collection of more than 60 full-colour photographs that capture the essence of what it’s like to fly in the skies above the land of the long white cloud. It’s a carefully selected collection reflecting 20 years and over 5300 hours in the cockpit.
And finally, what four non-camera-related things do you always bring with you when you are doing astro-photography?
Headlamp for walking in to and out from my shooting location. It has a red-light function for when I need to dig something out of my bag on location or for fine-tuning gear set-up.
Extra clothing layer including beanie and gloves.
Chocolate in both edible and drinkable forms! Hot chocolate in a thermos is great in the wee hours of the morning.
PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). I always have it, but it’s essential if you’re heading out into a location that has no cellphone coverage (not uncommon when hunting for the best dark sky areas!)
Come Fly With Me is available in both a softcover format ($59) and a hardcover format ($119) from mikewhite.co.nz with free NZ shipping. The hardcover book also includes a limited edition, signed A4 print.