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The Art of Night – The Photography of Mark Gee

Under the Milky Way: Girls by Starlight

Levitation Under the Stars - a composite image consisting of Sarah in the foreground and the Milky Way and the night sky as the background.

Levitation Under the Stars – a composite image consisting of Sarah in the foreground and the Milky Way and the night sky as the background.

About a year ago, a photographer friend of mine, Kaveh Kardan, approached me with an idea to collaborate and shoot a couple of models against a starry sky. Finally on Friday 7th March 2014, the stars aligned and all involved were able to make the trip out to the location – a 2 hour drive from Wellington, New Zealand.

The location, Cape Palliser, is a favorite of mine, and where I’ve shot many of my astrophotography images before, including the award winning Guiding Light to the Stars.

We all met at 9pm just out of Wellington to car pool it over the Rimutaka Range and onward to Cape Palliser. Our first carload got there at 11pm, but the others had to search for fuel, so ended up getting there closer to midnight. On arrival, the Cape was shrouded mist and fog, and it wasn’t looking promising for photographing the stars. By the time the others had arrived, the fog had lifted and we were ready to go. It’s the first time I’ve taken another photographer and models out to Cape Palliser with me, and they were by no means disappointed. The Milky Way was shining as brightly as ever and rising vertically to the south east.

Setting up for the shoot. Softbox - check, camera - check, awesome location with Milky Way as backdrop - check!

Setting up for the shoot. Softbox – check, camera – check, awesome location with Milky Way as backdrop – check!

The idea was to find a position for the models to pose, and then attempt to shoot the entire shot with one 30 second exposure, lighting the model with a short burst of light from a softbox, and then exposing the rest of the shot for the Milky Way and the stars.

The technique worked a treat and we were able to capture both the foreground and background in one exposure. The tricky part for the models, Sarah and Kat, was to remain as still as possible in their pose for the 30 seconds of exposure.

Kat against the night sky of Cape Palliser - the light part of the Milky Way towards bottom of frame is the center of our galaxy.

Kat against the night sky of Cape Palliser – the light part of the Milky Way towards bottom of frame is the center of our galaxy.

Kaveh and I shot from different positions, sharing the flash from the soft box triggered from Kaveh’s camera during the 30 second exposure. The girls were framed against the night sky with the Milky Way as a main feature in the background. We used Canon 5D MkIII’s with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 during the shoot. The Canons perform really well in low light scenarios, and we had no issues taking the ISO as high as 3200 for most of the shots.

Sarah striking a pose with the rising Milky Way making for a stunning backdrop.

Sarah striking a pose with the rising Milky Way making for a stunning backdrop.

It was getting close to 3am and I wanted to do one more set up. I had a shot in my mind of a girl levitating off the ground in front of the Milky Way. To get this shot, we had our model, Sarah jump and the idea was I needed to capture her at the top of her jump. Using the same technique we had been using before wasn’t going to work with this setup, so we decided to capture it in two shots. The foreground shot with Sarah jumping, and a background shot of the night sky and Milky Way. Once we had these, we could composite them together in Photoshop.

Sarah mid jump - this was the take I used for the foreground element of 'Levitation Under the Stars'

Sarah mid jump – this was the take I used for the foreground element of ‘Levitation Under the Stars’

I framed Sarah against the night sky and did a few test shots, setting the flash off to capture her mid jump. I had to increase the shutter speed to 1/200th of a second to freeze Sarah’s motion for the foreground element of this shot. Once I had a successful take of that, we turned off all the lights, and I slowed down the shutter speed to 30 seconds to capture the background elements of the Milky Way and night sky. The aperture and ISO remained the same during the two shots at f/2.8 and 3200, as did the framing and position of the camera. For this shot I used the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 lens. I never really do composite shots with my night sky images, but had to resort to it this time to capture what I wanted, and I was really happy with the result.

Same camera position and lens as the foreground element of Kat, except I kept the shutter open for 30 seconds to capture the Milky Way and night sky.

Same camera position and lens as the foreground element of Kat, except I kept the shutter open for 30 seconds to capture the Milky Way and night sky.

By the time we wrapped, it was 3.30am. We had a 2 hour drive back to Wellington still to go, but after a successful shoot, the drive was totally worth it. We left the dark skies of Cape Palliser and headed towards home. On our way our we spotted a penguin crossing the road. We stopped and watch for a minute as it made its way to its nesting area, and then drove off – it’s one of those nights I’ll remember for a long time.

A big thanks go to all who came out with me that night making it a successful shoot – Kaveh, Kat, Sarah, Eva, Derek and Liam, you all were amazing!

This was a test shot where Kat was keeping warm in her onesie in between shots. I really liked this shot so decided to keep it.

This was a test shot where Kat was keeping warm in her onesie in between shots. I really liked this shot so decided to keep it.

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7 Responses to “Under the Milky Way: Girls by Starlight”

  1. Eddie Griffiths says:

    Beautiful, but how about focusing. Was that done twice too??

    Thanks
    Eddie.

    • markg says:

      Hi Eddie, focus for all the shots was on the model for all the single exposure shots. When using a 14mm, the hyperfocal distance is quite short, so there was only slight blurring on the backgrounds. With the one composite image of 2 exposures, I first focused on the model and then on the background.

  2. I have taken many pics at f1.8 and iso 3200 of the milkyay but i never get the color in the milkway, the orange to brown hue, is there a technique you use to bring it out? do you have a modified camera to pick up the color?

    • markg says:

      I’m not doing anything special, just using a stock standard Canon 5D MkIII. The galactic bulge (brightest part) was fairly low to the horizon and rising this night, so there would have been some influence to the colour from the atmosphere. Other than that, I don’t really do much with my colours and processing apart from adjusting the white balance.

  3. Magníficas todas las tomas Mark!!! Hice algo parecido el año pasado en varias sesiones de post bodas en la isla de La Palma, Canarias. ¿ Conoces el lugar?
    Saludos Mark
    ( Sorry, I don’t speak English)

  4. Simon Williams says:

    Hi Mark

    I have always loved night photography, but I have only really dabbled in it over the years. Your work is totally inspiring though. Thanks for sharing it, as well as some of your technical details and methods.

    I’ve recently splashed out on an 6D. Not as good as a 5D III, I know, but still a far better camera than I feel I can currently do justice to, plus it has great low-light capabilities. I’d like to try a bit of astrophotography, but I’m not entirely sure how and where to start. For example, is it really necessary to go as far away as Lake Palliser to be sufficiently far away from light pollution? (I’m in Kapiti).

    Cheers

    Simon

    • markg says:

      Hi Simon – nothing wrong with a 6D, would love one in my kit myself, and it’s great for astrophotography. Plenty of places to go around Kapiti and get some great shots. Down on the beach away from the lights, or to the west of the highway up in the hills. The darker places the better, that’s why I head out to the Wairarapa a lot, but the Kapiti coast has lots of areas to shoot astrophotography too – I just haven’t explored there at night much.

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