Tell us a bit about you and how your passion for Astro Photography started.
I have been interested in photography for many years but only really dabbled until I caught the photography bug properly in 2018 while I was on a boat trip around Svalbard in the arctic. There were a couple of professional wildlife photographers from Jackson Hole onboard who infected me! On the way home I stopped off in Singapore and bought my first professional grade DSLR which upset my bank manager!!
Later that year I attended my first workshops where Richard Young and Shaun Barnett of NZPW taught me how to ‘drive’ my gear properly. While it was wildlife that first inspired me, I really came to love landscapes and the sense of presence, mood, and awe that I felt on location. Next year I saw there was a workshop with Richard and Mark Gee – landscapes by day and Astro by night in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. It sounded interesting so I researched Mark Gee’s The Art of Night work and I was totally gobsmacked. Such amazing and inspirational work with both nightscapes and timelapses - I wanted to do that! I signed up for the workshop and we were blessed with the most amazing clear skies in one of New Zealand’s most stunning locations. I learned heaps from Mark on that workshop and I was totally hooked.
The next year I went and lived in Twizel for 4 months or so - just me, the dogs, and the Mackenzie Country. The sky is so amazingly clear and free of light pollution there. I practiced every clear night that I could, and I became more and more inspired by the beauty of the night sky and worked on my processing skills during the day. I found myself wanting to get closer and closer to the stars so I started increasing my focal lengths up from the 14mm which had been my standard. With that came the need to compensate more for the earth’s rotation with the longer exposures so I began using a star tracker.
I still needed to learn more about capturing and processing so I signed up to some workshops here in Auckland with Charles Brooks’ High Res Tours and sponged up as much of what Charles had to teach me as I could. Can you tell I was getting hooked on this genre of photography?!
There was a lunar eclipse coming up and I decided I wanted to do a timelapse of that so I fell another step down the black hole and purchased a proper GoTo mount so that I could precisely track the moon throughout the eclipse. I put my 600mm wildlife lense on and I was reasonably pleased with the result.
I found lots of wonderful, free information and instruction on YouTube from the likes of Trevor Jones’ Astrobackyard.com and I fell deeper and deeper down the blackhole. Next thing I knew I had a telescope on order and a guidescope and guide camera and all sorts of other paraphernalia. Totally hooked!
What inspires you to keep on capturing our marvellous night sky?
As I’ve got further into Astro photography and in particular as I am starting to image Deep Space Objects like Nebula, I get inspired by the astonishing science behind these objects – thousands of light years away, amazing colours and shapes. Hints of terrestrial scenes and faint objects that appear even bigger than the moon when you image them.
The failed electrical engineer in me loves the techy part of the process of setting up, focussing, tracking and imaging these distant objects. And after all the time under the stars capturing and then processing – to see the beautiful image jumping off the screen is fantastic, and then seeing it printed out large is so rewarding – I love it. A perfect mixture of art and geek :)
Do you plan each shoot in advance?
I look to see if there are any interesting events coming up, like eclipses, or comets etc. Also, I often see a beautiful image on FB or Instagram or on sites like Astrobin.com and wow! I want to find that thing and take its picture and see what I can make of it. There’s quite a bit of planning needed - If it’s an Astro-landscape I’ve been inspired by I have to find where is the mountain, bridge, tree etc; where do I need to travel to? Where do I need to set up my tripod to get that composition? Or how can I create what I have imagined in my head?
If it’s a Deep Sky Object (DSO) then you have to work out when it will rise, where in the sky it will be, what the moon phase is, if it will be lost in the city light pollution. Often a visit during daylight is a good idea so you can plan your walk in and see any hazards that might not be obvious after dark. Saying that, DSO’s are good for lockdowns – this can be done from the backyard with no need for a facemask!
It all boils down to opportunity though – mostly provided or taken away by clouds and the weather! It it’s clear outside, just go!!
What equipment do people need to be able to take shots like yours?
To get started with Astro-landscapes you don’t need any special equipment. That’s a myth. Any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera and a wide lens, say either side of 24mm, and you’ll be good to go. A sturdy tripod is essential though, and either a remote shutter release (or mastery of the in camera shutter delay) to avoid any camera vibration as you will be shooting long exposures – 10 seconds and up.
Once you want to get closer and deeper into space, as I did, you need more specialised equipment. Fainter objects require longer exposure times (60 seconds and more) so a tracking mount becomes a really important part of your kit. As your focal length becomes longer even a tracking mount might not do the job so a smaller guidescope with its own little camera is needed to fine tune keeping the object centred in the frame for say 4-minute exposures. So this requires some software to operate, meaning either a small on-rig computer or connection to a laptop in the field in which case you need to provide power and so it grows.
While there are specialised, cooled astro cameras, you can take amazing pictures with a good quality DSLR or mirrorless camera and fast telephoto or zoom lens – I use a standard Canon mirrorless – without the need to invest in the specialist optical gear. There are filters you can use to reduce light pollution if you’re in the city or to emphasise particular colours – like reds and blues – that certain types of nebulas emit. Again, you can get wonderful shots without these.
Apps like Photopills are brilliant in location planning and even allow night-time artificial reality views of where the Milky Way or the moon will be at any time, anywhere in the world. Other apps like Stellarium or Sky Safari are great for planning where your deep sky object will be, again with night AR and can even connect to your telescope mount to direct it to go to that location.
Part of the reason I love astro is the post processing which allows you creative licence to make the image what you want. There are software tools, many of them free, that allow you to stack images to remove long exposure noise and improve signal to noise ratios, and calibrate shots to remove hot pixels, noise and other optical artifacts. I have found many wonderful free tutorials on processing on YouTube. The amateur astro community are really friendly and keen to share knowledge, answer questions and offer advice. I started off using Adobe Photoshop for post-processing and I’m now on the learning curve for PixInsight – a specialised piece of astro processing software, but there are many others available and wow they are so powerful, allowing you to realise the image you had in your mind or that you saw online. The opportunities for creativity are endless.
Don’t be intimidated by all the specialised gear available! If you’ve got a good camera, a widish lense and a sturdy tripod you’re good to go. Have a look on YouTube to get some ideas, then get outside and practice. Enjoy it, have fun with it and revel in the wonder above you.
Do you follow any particular process when taking photos?
When the weather looks good (I use an app called Clear Outside that forecasts cloud cover) I get my gear set up early, before dark, so I can maximise imaging time. Once I’ve polar aligned (with the axis of the earth’s rotation) and focussed, I begin an imaging sequence using capture software that operates the camera, controls the mount and guide camera, and records the images directly to the laptop. I use free software called NINA (Nighttime Imaging ‘N’ Astronomy). When I have enough images I use the same setup to capture calibration frames like darks, bias and flat frames) ready for post- processing.
Do you have any favourite photos? Tell us about them!
Every new image I take is my latest favourite but there is an image of the Milky Way over a rock at Waimatuku on the Awhitu peninsula that stands out - Just me alone on the beach 45 minutes from home. I love the colour transition as you move up the image. There’s the whole Milky Way arch over Lake Pukaki on a magical Mackenzie Country night. It’s a panorama created from 28 separate images stitched together. You can even spot Aoraki/Mt Cook on the far right.
Then there’s an image of the moon during the November 2021 partial eclipse. It looks translucent as if the red glow radiates from inside. Then Comet Leonard shot from the park 50 metres from home on boxing day night. It was the first time I’d ever seen a comet, let alone photographed one!
And lastly the Rosette Nebula, sometimes called the skull nebula. The light captured in this image left there when the pyramids in Egypt were built, 5,000 years ago! Amazing! Travelling in your speed of light spaceship it would take you 130 years to travel from one side to the other. The beautiful red colours come from a bubble-like molecular cloud. This is the signature colour of hydrogen alpha. It occurs when intense radiation from about 2,500 young stars near the centre excite the hydrogen atoms causing them to emit this beautiful red light. The image has a fantastic 3D aspect to it as you gaze into its centre, I love it.
What else should we know about you and your photography?
While I’ve rabbited on about astrophotography here, I still love New Zealand landscapes, especially mountains. For the last couple of years, I’ve put together an A2 size calendar with a mix of landscapes and space which people seem to like. They’ve ended up in about 6 countries around the world. There are a few 2022 ones left (plug plug!) which can be found at www.grolabotography.com plus selected other images are there too. Or on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/grolabotography/ plus Excio of course!