Words by Eva Weber and originally published in The Dominion Post newspaper, Wellington, New Zealand.
Photographer Mark Gee captured some stunning images of Wellington as part of International Dark Sky Week (IDSW). He has shared some of his shots with us.
A clear and star-spangled night sky is a stunning sight to behold, and you would think that something as vast as the Milky Way – of which we can only see some 0.000003%, or 5,000 to 8,000 stars, from Earth – is easy enough to spot by just looking up. But in reality we can only ever see a fraction of those many stars with the naked eye – and the growing light pollution all around us drowns out many more.
And this week it is light pollution itself that is in the spotlight, with International Dark Sky Week (IDSW) aiming to raise awareness of how poor quality lighting creates light pollution with detrimental effects not just for viewing the night sky, but for the environment and potentially our health.
Working with – or despite – light pollution is a phenomenon that Wellington-based Astrophotographer Mark Gee has first hand experience with. In fact, one of the most frequent questions he gets asked is, ‘How did you manage to capture all those stars in your shot? It must be photoshopped – I’ve never seen stars like that.’
His shots are definitely not photoshopped, Gee says, but instead carefully planned and executed. And even with a high quality DSLR camera, which can capture infinitely more light (and therefore more stars) during a 10 to 30 second exposure than the naked eye is capable of, the conditions still need to be just right to get that great shot. A clear night, little or no wind, and a dark sky far from the light pollution of towns and cities are key, and Gee often travels to the most remote skies all around the country, enjoying the challenge of combining New Zealand’s striking landscapes with the ethereal beauty of the night sky in new, creative ways.
But you don’t need to go that far for a first look at what’s up there. Plenty of stars can still be seen in the sky right here in Wellington, if you know where to look. So in support of IDSW, of which Gee is a participating partner, he put out a call for volunteer observers – Chris from Whitby, and Leanne and James from Paraparaumu – and they went out chasing the night skies in different stargazing spots, to find out what they could see, what the camera could see, and the difference that artificial light makes:
8.10 pm: It’s a busy Wednesday night in town, and while the sky is inky black above, here at street level the glare of lights from passing traffic, street lamps, bars, restaurants and lit office buildings illuminates everything. The stars are up there, but barely visible through the yellow, smog-like haze of artificial light that hangs above the CBD. Chris, a fellow photographer and night sky enthusiast, says he can just about make out the Southern Cross constellation. But James, used to the darker, more visible skies around Paraparaumu, says, ‘It’s incredible how much you just don’t see here in town.’
8.50 pm: On the drive up to Mt Vic, climbing above the city lights, there’s immediately a noticeable difference. More stars are becoming visible and by the time everyone’s climbed to the top of the lookout the faint outline of the Milky Way, rising gracefully from East to West, can be seen above. Leanne compares the view to the one she has at home, on three pitch black acres surrounded by pine trees, and says that while the stars are certainly less visible here they are still stunning with the gorgeous backdrop of the city lights below. In his shot, Gee points out a nebula, visible as a whitish blob on the screen. Looking up at the sky, there is nothing but blackness in that same spot, the interstellar cloud of dust and gas still invisible to the naked eye.
9.30 pm: It’s a big difference to Mt Vic, James says immediately on arrival at Lyall Bay, even with the city lights still glowing in the distance there’s lots more to see above us. And for the first time tonight, adds Leanne, she can imagine how much more will be visible out at Red Rocks, the groups final destination. Once Gee has taken his shot, with the Milky Way framed by street lights, but still clearly visible, a discussion ensues. So much detail is visible on camera, Chris points out, especially in the lower part of the Milky Way close to the horizon. Leanne and James concur, but note that higher up above the stars are by now much brighter to the naked eye as well.
10.00 pm: It’s pretty dark at Princess Bay, and a big change from Lyall just a few minutes down the road Chris notes. Gee explains that it takes the human eye some 20 minutes to adjust to darkness and that by then we can actually see quite well without an artificial lights source. If you look closely, you can see the reflection of the stars in water, and in the sky the magellanic clouds (or dwarf galaxies) are now clearly visible to the naked eye. Everyone is silent for a moment, just looking up and taking it all in. A shooting star flits across the sky. ‘This really makes you feel how insignificant earth is,’ Leanne says suddenly, ‘and just what else is out there.’
10.50 pm: A 10 minute drive from the entrance to the reserve (and a mere 10 kms from the CBD), just past the proverbial red rocks, and it’s pitch black out there. Not quite as pitch black as back home in Paraparaumu, James and Leanne think, but the brilliance of the stars is similar. Down on the beach there’s the perfect rock for everyone to pose on, it’s the memento shot with everyone silhouetted in front of a bright and majestic Milky Way. It’s really nice, Chris reckons, and definitely worth the trip, so much so that he wants to come back out and shoot some star trails of his own. As everyone piles into the car for the ride back to town Leanne sums up the night beautifully: ‘People take so much for granted and often don’t appreciate the amazing things up there. We are very lucky, here in New Zealand, to have skies like that.’