City buildings lit up like beacons, rural landscapes aglow in moonlight, stellar-studded skies and blazing Aurora Australis: they're the stars of a new book by photographer Grant Sheehan which highlights striking vistas many of us rarely see.

Why? Because we're asleep but while we've been sleeping, Sheehan has spent hours capturing a new perspective on local landscapes by working under cover of darkness to photograph New Zealand at night. He uses hi-tech equipment, including a modified camera purpose-built for astro-photography, to craft pictures which are simultaneously familiar but strange.

He shares an extract from The Night Watchers - New Zealand Nightscapes:

The Castlepoint Lighthouse caught under the light of a super moon.
The Castlepoint Lighthouse caught under the light of a super moon.

Why am I standing here?
"The icy breeze has dropped away and a light frost is starting to form on the grass around me. It's two hours after sunset, and now that my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I can make out the faint soft glow of the Milky Way core as it appears to slowly rise up and over the horizon to tower above me.

Advertisement

As I stare up at it, the blackness around me affords no point of reference and I experience a slight sense of vertigo. Then the thought occurs to me that it is the sky that is moving, not me. In spite of the reverse being true, the vertigo disappears.

My location is the cliff top above the glacier-fed Tasman Lake, near Mt Cook. The cold air is completely still and looking east to the mountains that comprise the Liebig Range, I see there is a dim red glow in the night sky, compliments of the Aurora Australis manifesting some distance to the south.

The thought strikes me that on any clear night, in locations away from light polluted towns and cities, countless photographers around the world — alone as I am, or in small groups — armed with cameras, tripods or telescopes, are gazing out and up into the night sky, hypnotised by the power of an ever-expanding vista that reaches out into infinity.

And, whether photographing, or simply watching and visually exploring, I remind myself that however tiny and unimportant we may be in the scheme of all this, we are still a part of it, both physically and emotionally. As photographers, earthbound we may be, yet through this medium, we can reach out and touch the universe, with our eyes and our minds."

Even under a night sky, there is a haunting beauty about old cars in Horopito.
Even under a night sky, there is a haunting beauty about old cars in Horopito.
New Plymouth's free TSB Festival of Lights brings out crowds enchanted by seeing their town lit up.
New Plymouth's free TSB Festival of Lights brings out crowds enchanted by seeing their town lit up.

Darkness, the colour of infinity:
"It is rare now that we experience total darkness while out in the landscape at night. There is usually some light in the distance, a glow in the sky from a distant light source, either artificial or natural. But on those occasions we do, it can be both exhilarating and disturbing. In total darkness one can feel cloaked, invisible, a sense of having stepping outside one's self, both unseen and unseeing. Alternately one can feel lost, trapped and disorientated, disconnected and sometimes fearful.

As we all know, fear of darkness is embedded in our DNA, a nod back to far distant times when home was a cave or flimsy hut, and when hungry predators came out to hunt after nightfall. When moving around at night was hazardous in rough terrain or unpredictable weather, when enemies could attack without warning, when tales of evil spirits were told and believed.

But even in our modern world of science, logic, knowledge and general cynicism of all things supernatural, a subtle sense of "night time in the wilderness paranoia" can flicker to life from time to time and, for me anyway, add an additional layer of texture to one's night time experiences.

Sometimes, standing alone in the blackness, especially on an elevated point or cliff edge, you can almost imagine you are afloat in the night sky. A little like the amazing scene in the film The Life of Pi, when Pi, the tiger and their boat are becalmed in the Indian sea, the water so still it reflected perfectly the star-filled night sky, giving the impression they are floating in space. Stars above and stars below ...

On other occasions, in a different mood, the dark sky can seem to press down on you, as if it has weight. Maybe it does; the weight of the mysterious elusive dark matter that theoretically permeates the universe. Then there are locations that feel lonely and desolate, or even hostile, for no reason you can fathom, and others that have some historic tragedy attached to them."

LOWDOWN

Text and photography by Grant Sheehan
(Phantom House Books, $165; releases November 7)