The highlight of my photography career happened to me recently. I not only won two categories in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013, but I also won it overall. It is something I never dreamed of 4 years ago when I first started out, and it’s quite ironic that it was the images I saw from the 2009 Astronomy Photographer of the Year that inspired me to give astrophotography a go.
Since then, I have spent many hours under the stars attempting to perfect my skills in one of the most frustrating forms of photography there is…I don’t think I will ever perfect my skills as I find myself continually learning every time I go out.
Planning, patience and persistence are the name of the game – believe me, some of my planned shots have taken me over a year to get right. Constant obstacles from bad weather and bad timing to landslides and equipment failures all make it a very frustrating pursuit. But in the end, after all the failures when you finally do nail the shot, it then becomes one of the most rewarding forms of photography there is…it has certainly been one amazing journey of self discovery for me.
I’m very fortunate to live in the Wellington region on the bottom of the North Island of New Zealand. Whilst it is where the capital city of New Zealand is, the region is blessed with dark skies and beautiful landscapes. You only need to travel 15 minutes out of the centre of Wellington city to the south coast, and you can easily see the glow of the Milky Way with the naked eye. A 90 minute drive to the east over the Rimutaka Ranges and into the Wairarapa gets you amongst some of the darkest skies in New Zealand, where the southern sky shines at night with thousands of stars above the remote and rugged landscape.
This is my playground where I chase stars as often as I can – I am not religious, but standing under a starry sky with no one around for miles can certainly seem like a spiritual experience. I think this and the challenge of capturing the night sky is why I keep trying for the ultimate shot. Nights of no sleep, just to get the shot that I imagined in my mind beforehand with the stars and the Milky Way aligning perfectly above the landscape. The rewards of that successfully capturing that shot keeps me coming back for more.
It hasn’t always been like that though. There was a period when I was first starting out where I was failing miserably. I couldn’t get results anywhere near the quality I was seeing from others, but after trawling the web for the secrets of astrophotography I came across a Vimeo tutorial from Ben Canales which helped put me in the right direction. From there on it was trial and error, I had lots of ideas in my head and I put plans into place to capture them.
Some of those ideas I wanted to capture was the Milky Way hanging low over the city of Wellington. It wasn’t the easiest to pull off, and took me 6 months to get it right. I also had a fascination with lighthouses and the stars, so a lot of my ideas were based around that. But the idea that got my work out there and noticed, was I wanted to video the moon rising and revealing silhouettes up on a lookout in Wellington New Zealand. This idea proved a lot harder than I had anticipated, and there were a lot of failed and frustrating attempts. But finally after a year of trying, I managed to pull off something that exceeded my expectations. I stayed up until 3am the next morning finding suitable music for my newly captured clip which I put together and uploaded it to Vimeo. I called it Full Moon Silhouettes (even though technically it was captured a day after the full moon) and when I awoke later that day, my email was full of hundreds of emails from people all over the world writing to me and thanking me for making the video. It had touched the hearts of people in ways I could have never imagined, and here they were sharing those moments with me. This was certainly a very humbling experience for me, and one I will never forget.
After that, I tried to capture a still image of the same set up as Full Moon Silhouettes. Again it took a few attempts to get right, but I was happy with the results. And with that image, I entered the People and Space category of The Astronomy Photographer of the Year. I had no idea how well it would go as it didn’t compare to what I had captured in the video, but in the end the judges loved it, and it was awarded the winner of that category!
And again, with my fascination of lighthouses and the stars, I set out to capture a pano of the Milky Way low in the sky with the lighthouse below. As it turns out, the early morning I did manage to capture it wasn’t planned at all. I awoke after a few hours sleep at 5am to see the Milky Way low in the sky above Cape Palliser. The only problem was my camera gear was at the top of the lighthouse. I had set up a time-lapse there a few hours before, so I had to climb the 250 plus steps up there to retrieve my gear before I could take this photo. By the time I got back the sky was beginning to get lighter with sunrise 2 hours away. I set up and took the pano and then crawled back into my car for some more sleep. It didn’t register at the time as I was quite tired from the night, but after stitching the pano together, I realised I had captured something special.
I entered that image, Guiding Light to the Stars, into the Earth and Space category of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013. In July I got word that the image was short-listed, so I was quite excited by that. But I got the shock of my life when I woke up early morning on the 19th September, New Zealand time to find out the image had won the Earth and Space category of The Astronomy Photographer of the Year. Not only that, it had also won overall! So I had won two categories and the overall Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013! That day was spent in a state of disbelief, but I couldn’t be happier with the result. And after all that time and effort that went into getting those images, I had my most satisfying day of my photographic career.
I tell this story because I hope to inspire others, just as I was inspired 4 years ago by images of the night sky. Images that I now capture myself, sending me on a wonderful journey of discovery and fulfillment. Our lives have become so busy, and we often forget the simple things in life that give you more value than the material things in our society. The night sky is free for everyone – all you need to do is to stop and look up…