Fumbling in the Dark

equatorial-planeI felt like we were fumbling in the dark every time we attempted night photography in New Zealand. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, there are two main reasons we landed back home in Canada with just a few night photographs to share: 1) failure to plan; and 2) failure to practice.

Failure to Plan

On the planning front, we did manage to bring along the essential gear for night photography: camera with relatively wide-angle/wide aperture lens, solid tripod, remote trigger release with timer program, extra batteries, extra SD cards, flashlight, etc.

But we failed on at least two fronts. First off, we failed to familiarize ourselves with the southern night sky. As a result, we ended up with several images of the southern equatorial plane: the invisible “line” along which star trails are straight, while star trails on either side are curved in opposite directions (see photograph above). Every one of these images is created by stacking at least 200 images of between 20 and 30 seconds exposure, so our failure to do enough up front research to figure out which direction to point the camera ended up wasting a lot of time! There’s really no good excuse for this; it was a major oversight. As a result, I’ll be looking for an app to help me identify constellations, which should prove useful both at home and when traveling. I also think a compass would be helpful, to ensure we’re pointing our camera generally north (or south in the southern hemisphere) if we’re after circular star trails.

Second, when we planned our trip we booked all kinds of awesome excursions, but we failed to allocate any time to night photography. Rather than being too tired to really enjoy the planned excursions (or too tired to drive safely the many days we were in transit from location A to location B), we ended up trying to squeeze in a bit of night photography here and there, when it would least interfere with our planned activities. Several such times, the night sky was nothing but clouds, so many of those impromptu opportunities just didn’t work out. The takeaway? If you’re interested in night photography and are heading somewhere with relatively dark skies, incorporate time for night photography into your vacation plans. Options could range from allowing time for an afternoon nap in advance, sleeping in the next morning or maybe even spending an extra night at a location particularly suited for night photography.

Failure to Practice

We really only started developing night photography skills since Christmas 2013, but are reasonably comfortable composing and making a star trail night photograph. One commonly used night photography technique that we hadn’t tried before is light painting, so we ended up learning through trial and error while we were in New Zealand. As a result, we wasted a lot of time with unsuccessful attempts – time that could have been put to better use had we practiced this technique at home.

Limited Success

Despite these problems, we succeeded in making a handful of night photographs that we think turned out okay – a mix of star trails, a moonlit scene and even one that involved light painting!

Our best success with star trails was in Arthur’s Pass National Park, where there’s very little light pollution. (By the way, this is also where I created the star trail photo of the southern equatorial plane, above).

The full moon provided just the right amount of light for this photograph of boats at anchor at Bay of Many Coves in the Marlborough Sounds area. This was also where we first attempted some light painting (all learning, not much success) and where we tried to photograph a small patch of glow worms (and failed to produce anything good).


Finally, we invested a bit of time in night photography during our stay at Cape Kidnappers on New Zealand’s North Island. Our star trails were disappointing (too much equatorial plane), but we did have some limited success with light painting and even managed one exposure that shows part of the Milky Way (at least that’s what I think it is).

Our next vacation is likely to be some time in 2015, so we have lots of time to prepare for more successful night photography during that trip. If you have some helpful suggestions, recommended apps or other resources or related advice, please leave a comment or share a link. Thanks!

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