Breaker Bay Aurora Australis

Over the weekend of the 22nd/23rd April 2017 there was heightened Aurora activity and Wellington was treated to two nights of Aurora Australis displays. I was working Saturday night so couldn’t get out and had to make do with watching the excited reports appearing in the Wellington Aurora Hunters and Aurora Australis Facebook groups. On Sunday night I was able to get out and found my way to the Wellington south coast to find that apparently half of the population of Wellington had also thought the same. Turns out that the chance of seeing the Aurora had been mentioned online and on the evening news and this information quickly spread via social media leading to unusual crowds. After nearly getting stuck in gridlock at the Red Rocks Reserve carpark I drove east along the coast road and eventually found a quiet spot above Breaker Bay to take some photos.

Even above Breaker Bay I wasn’t alone with three University Students joining me to sit and watch the horizon. Ferries entering and leaving Wellington Harbour and aircraft flying in to Wellington Airport ruined any real chance of seeing the Aurora by eye and it didn’t help that I’d arrived and started shooting as the display was peaking but the camera captured some good images. I got enough photos for a short timelapse movie and I finally figured out how to use Lightroom to put the video together (using the tutorial here).

Canon 5D Mark IV, Samyang 14mm @ f2.8, ISO 3200 / 25 seconds (first 12 frames) & ISO 6400 / 13 seconds (the rest)

Cloudy with a chance of Aurora Australis

The last couple of weeks have had a few opportunities for some interesting night time photography. There have been a few nights with a good chance of Aurora Australis activity and on clear nights there have been some final chances to capture the brightest part of the milky way low in the night sky before it disappears below the southern hemisphere horizon until next year.

Viewing stars and aurora is heavily dependant on the weather and specifically a lack of cloud. When I got out to try and capture aurora action I knew the weather forecast wasn’t great but if I stayed at home then I’d definitely not see anything. As it happened I got to see almost no aurora but viewed a lot of cloud and frequent bouts of rain so there was plenty of time spent in the car trying to predict when it would be safe to take the camera out for some photography.

Stormy viewing from inside the car

Stormy viewing from inside the car

Once out of the car it was then a patient wait to see if the cloud would clear enough for some star and aurora viewing. The sky did mostly clear for a brief period but not long enough or at the right time for the aurora to show. Better luck next time perhaps.

Waiting for the cloud to clear at the Red Rocks carpark

Waiting for the cloud to clear at the Red Rocks carpark

Another night saw me driving north to try and get a photo of the milky way over Kapiti Island. Initially I stopped at the lookout on the Paekakariki hill road and then the beach at the north end of Paekakariki but in both places the bulk of the milky way was sitting to the left of Kapiti Island. Driving further north I settled on a spot at Peka Peka beach, deserted and mostly free of any lights. It wasn’t perfect and there was a haze of thin cloud in the sky but I got some interesting photos and was able to try capturing a panorama or two as well.

Viewing the milky way and Kapiti Island from Peka Peka beach

A panorama of the milky way over Kapiti Island from Peka Peka beach

A longer exposure over Kapiti Island

A longer exposure over Kapiti Island

The reverse view looking back towards the Tararua’s was also good and I spent some time watching the International Space Station moving across the sky. Next time I try this I’ll have to try this earlier in the year and go further north. Better preparation! By this time next year we might even have helpful applications like Photopills and the updated version of TPE available for Android (both containing useful tools for visualising the location of the milky way for photography amongst other things).

Stars over the Tararua's from Peka Peka beach

Stars over the Tararua’s from Peka Peka beach

Supermoon and Mark Gee

Facebook has certaintly helped increase my knowledge of all things astrophotography, largely through membership of different groups and seeing the photos others share and their stories about how the images were captured. One of the stars of the New Zealand (and world) astrophotography scene is Mark Gee and as luck would have it he’s a Wellington resident and a member of many of the groups I frequent. Recently a new group was created for Wellington Aurora Hunters and last weekend Mark posted a message looking for some volunteers to help him with a little project he had planned. I checked with Keryn and then volunteered us (actually it may not have happened in that order…).

Sunday evening saw us arriving at a secluded car park on the Miramar peninsular to find half a dozen people standing around. Shortly after our arrival Mark took the group on a short walk up to a couple of water towers and he explained his plan. We were to be walk on photographers for a short movie based around the rising of a supermoon. With everyone understanding what we needed to we had 45 minutes or so to wait. It was a beautiful and calm evening so Keryn, Alayna and I headed down to Miramar and grabbed some fish and chips which we then consumed on the hillside while we waited for the moon to appear.

The rising supermoon

The rising supermoon

Soon enough Mark was recording and directing via a 2-way radio and I was the 5th to walk into the scene. Alayna wasn’t impressed with me leaving our little picnic and expressed her displeasure so a quick conversation was had over the radio and Keryn got the go-ahead to bring Alayna into the shot. And that’s how our little family became part of the film.

Photographers Moonrise from Mark Gee on Vimeo.

Naturally we got to meet some fellow members of the Wellington Aurora Hunters group. Keryn had a good chat with Sally while I chased Alayna around the sealed area next to the water towers.

Ready for the chase

Ready for the chase

Then Sally made a friend for life by showing Alayna her bubble gear and producing a succession of giant bubbles for Alayna to marvel at and chase. The bubbles also became the subject of many photos as the evening turned to night.

Giant bubble!

Giant bubble!

Bubbles over the harbour

Bubbles over the harbour

I also got a few shots of passing aircraft, the fading sunset and the glowing lights of Wellington. All in all it was a great afternoon and evening.

Coming in to land

Coming in to land

Looking South

Looking South

The sky moves at night

Last weekend the signs were looking promising for a show of the Aurora Australis so I was able to get out for a spot of stargazing. Arriving at the Red Rocks Reserve I was quickly out onto the beach and then as usual I walked up the hill to get an elevated viewpoint. It was a less than clear view to the south with clouds scudding across the sky. There was also a distinct lack of aurora. I took a few photos of what stars were visible and then moved around the hill looking for a different angle.

A few stars and a lot of cloud

A few stars and a lot of cloud

I decided to try a timelapse, something I’ve been meaning to have a go at for a while. It was fairly simple, I close a viewpoint and started taking photos with the assistance of a remote timer set to continuously take photos. Over nearly an hour and half the camera was taking photos with the shutter open for 15 seconds a time. Two hundred and sixty three shots later I was done. There were a couple of moments where I was previewing shots and that led to jumps in the resultant video so I won’t be doing that again. This particular aurora was only visible to the eye as a pale glow between the clouds but still came out quite well in the photos. So here it is, 11 seconds of video and the probable start of another obsession.

I took a few final photos as the remains of the show were hidden by increased cloud and then it was home to bed. Next time I’ll need to take a seat, there is only so much you can do when waiting in the dark on a damp hillside.

A final look

A final look

The stars from Makara

We had a weekend of wonderful weather with clear skies and little wind. The moon was rising late on Sunday night so I headed out to Makara to shoot the stars. It was a glorious, a little cool but calm and only a few people about the beach. Heading along the coastal path I could see a torch swinging in the distance but otherwise I was alone. With no moon it was very dark and the myriad stars were clearly spread across the sky.

The milky way over the Makara hills

The milky way over the Makara hills

Walking partway up the hill I stopped at the point where the path met the cliff. In the darkness I could just make out two guys in sleeping bags and another standing with a guitar in hand. They were simply taking in the view and chatting so after a short conversation I left them to their stargazing and I took the path north to overlook Makara beach.

Driftwood, lights and the stars

Driftwood, lights and the stars

From there it was back down to the beach and time for some experimentation with a flash and the torch function on my phone. There were a few driftwood constructs along the shoreline so I used one as a focus point, placing a flash inside and lighting the outside with a short burst of torchlight. It look a while to figure out exposures that worked but I got some acceptable photos. Next time I’ll need some gels (or something simple like cellophane) to add some colour.

Shining a light

Shining a light

Walking back to the car I took a few more photos using my actual torch to add some interest to some portrait shots. With the camera on my tripod and the timer set I’d hit the shutter button, run down the beach (trying not to lose anything from my pockets) and then stand looking skyward and pointing the torch upwards. How else was I meant to spend a Sunday night?

The kiwi jumped over the moon

On a clear and still night last week I headed out for some astrophotography. Driving north I ended up at Paekakariki and parked near the surf club before walking north up the beach. There was a minor issue in that moon was bright in the sky and the light was not helpful when photographing stars but I figured I’d give it a go anyway.

The moon and the milky way

The moon and the milky way

See if you can spot the galactic kiwi in the above photo. For an hour or so I was wandering around the beach taking photos. The moonlight lit up the landscape leading to some interesting foreground illumination. A nearby stream provided some good subject matter with piled up driftwood and logs though the occasional slap of sand collapsing into the water left me a little jumpy.

The stream leading to Kapiti Island

The stream leading to Kapiti Island

At times the long exposures rendered the night time landscape looking more like day time with a starry sky. I’ll have to head out again and experiment some more. It will also be good to return with a new moon to see what its like without the brightness of the moon.

The bridge

The bridge

Easter Weekend

Easter weekend has been quite relaxed so far. My football was postponed on Friday due to the preceding week of rain so we were able to head out for a walk. Kaitoke was the chosen destination. We had lunch at a picnic table in the glade where a lot of the filming of Rivendell was shot for the Lord of the Rings movies. Since our last visit there has been some new information panels and posts installed and there is a large archway being constructed as well. Looks like it’ll be a good spot to come back to for some more photography once the arch is completed. Alayna sat on the table for her lunch, happy to sit in the sun.

Picnic at Kaitoke

Picnic at Kaitoke

After lunch we did the easy loop walk with Alayna installed in the backpack. Before heading into the forest proper we stopped to put some warmer clothes on Alayna and then had a little modelling session on the pipes for the old waterworks. Alayna’s hat and cardigan were knitted by her Nana and did a good job of keeping her warm.

Modelling Nana's knitting

Modelling Nana’s knitting

Over the bridge, stopping to look at the full brown flow below swollen after the recent rain, and then into the forest. It didn’t take long for Alayna to fall asleep so we walked quietly through the trees. There were a few other people around as well doing the same track so it was never completely quiet but Alayna didn’t notice.

Over the bridge

Over the bridge

Swinging over the river

Swinging over the river

The final crossing was over the Kaitoke swing bridge and Keryn got some photos of Alayna and I heading across. Back at the car Alayna was still fast asleep if looking uncomfortable. I unfortunately woke her by dropping a lens cap on the ground.

Fast asleep

Fast asleep

On Saturday we had a morning at home before heading into the city. There was another signing event at the Weta Cave which I wanted to attend so off to Miramar we drove. Weta was releasing a book dedicated to the design process behind the creation of Smaug for the Hobbit movies and there were three Weta Digital staff who would be signing. We arrived early so I joined the small queue and Keryn took Alayna for a walk to a nearby cafe.

As usual those signing were friendly and happy to chat. In attendance were Joe Letteri (Senior Visual Effects Supervisor), Myriam Catrin (Senior texture Artist) & Eric Reynolds (Animation Supervisor).

Signing for Smaug

Signing for Smaug

With books signed (I had our Hobbit book with its ever growing collection of signatures) we then drove to see Catherine and Paul at home in Newtown. Catherine was cooking up some pikelets when we arrived and shortly afterwards we’d all sat down to have a nice afternoon tea. Kim, Thomas and nearly 3 Jemima turned up a little later and got to eat those pikelets that remained (I was very restrained). Catherine and Jemima made lego animals as Alayna rolled around on the couch and we learnt about babies kneecaps (which are present but only formed of cartilage for the first few years).

At home we quickly got some dinner prepared (thankfully we’ve got a good stock of frozen meals at the moment) and then I headed back into the city to attend a Mark Gee photography workshop at Carter Observatory. Mark Gee is a respected photographer specialising in astrophotography and in conjunction with the Observatory he has been holding a series or workshops where he explains the ins and outs of photographing the night sky. This workshop had already been postponed once due to bad weather and we didn’t get the best conditions for seeing stars once we got outside to put to use some of our new found knowledge. Still we tried a few things and I’m keen to head out again chasing stars in the near future once the clouds and rain have departed.

The gun at night

The gun at night

Looking down over Wellington with the wind blowing through the thick cloud cover

Mark Gee Photo Workshop

Sunday has been largely a day at home. We did head into Porirua for a spot of shopping but had forgotten that nothing is open on Easter Sunday so were home quickly. Keryn has been sewing for most of the day getting the quilted back prepared for attaching to her crochet zoo play mat. Alayna is getting better at keeping herself amused and to assist with this I set up a play-pen come fort in the living room that she was safe to roll around in while playing with some of her toys.

The first couch fort

The first couch fort