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Matariki rising: How to get the perfect star photograph

Travel Journalist/Digital Producer

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Once upon a time, astrophotography was left to the domain of only professional photographers with expensive equipment.

But as camera technology develops and our interest in the night sky increases, even amateur photographers can learn to capture striking images of starry nights.

Mid-winter is one of the best times of year for star photography because of the dark nights, made even more special by the reemergence of Matariki in Aotearoa's skies.

Matariki is also known as the Pleiades star cluster, or the less-romantic IAU designation Messier 45 (M45).

While Matariki can be seen throughout most of the year, this treasured star cluster disappears for about a month, before rising again - which is what marks the Māori new year celebration.

Astrophotographer Mark Russell, who is leading several astro workshops during this month's Bay of Islands Matariki festival, says nighttime photography is profoundly different to any other type of photography.

"You can spend a couple of hours at a time out in the middle of the night and it's a really meditative experience," he says. "The night time is so different to the day in terms of how the weather operates. It could be a cloudy day and then all of a sudden the night opens up and it's still."

The inaugural Matariki Festival runs from July 2 - 11 in several locations throughout the Bay of Islands. Festival goers are encouraged to feed their mind, body and soul with events that include story-telling, cultural experiences, Matariki inspired feasts, vineyard tours, music, and of course, star-gazing opportunities.

Russell says he's noticed a significant rise in interest in astrophotography over the last four to five years, which appears to be driven by better camera technology, phone apps and social media sharing.

The night sky as seen from Aotea/Great Barrier. Photo / Mark Russell, Supplied
The night sky as seen from Aotea/Great Barrier. Photo / Mark Russell, Supplied

"It's really growing in popularity and people are getting very specific in the types of photos they make and very detailed in their imaging."

And when an amateur photographer sees what they are capable of capturing with a simple understanding of their camera, a sense of awe and surprise almost always follow.

"It gives you that immediate feeling of 'Wow! I can do that'".

Russell has spent the last ten years taking photographs on Aotea/Great Barrier, and worked closely with the island's campaign to become a Dark Sky Sanctuary. It's rare for an area so close to a major city to have such clear dark skies, making this status incredibly unique.

Astrophotographer Mark Russell's photo of the night sky taken from Aotea/Great Barrier. Photo / Mark Russell, Supplied
Astrophotographer Mark Russell's photo of the night sky taken from Aotea/Great Barrier. Photo / Mark Russell, Supplied

"I spent a lot of time there growing up. That's what started me off. Because it's an island, you've got all these compositional choices - you can shoot east, you can shoot west, you can shoot on top of Hirakimatā. You can shoot all these different aspects.

"So you can see the moon rising out of the ocean, or see the moon setting behind distant Auckland, where you get a faint glow. You've got pristine skies."

Now based in Kerikeri, Russell is helping others learn the craft and discover the joy of capturing our night sky.

Mark Russell's tips for photographing Matariki rising:

There's only a short window to capture Matariki rising of about half an hour before the sun starts brightening the sky, so you've got to be out early.

"Look east. Have a tripod and set your camera up in time. You want a clear view of the horizon if you can because it will be low in the horizon."

Ideally, you'll have a wide angle lens which allows you to capture as much of the sky as possible.

Set your shutter speed for 20 to 30 seconds to see what your camera can pick up.

You'll also need to focus your camera manually. "The light is not bright enough in the stars to auto focus, so switch your camera to manual focus and focus in on the infinity end of the scale. You can sometimes zoom in on a star on your screen to focus."

The other factor you may wish to consider is light pollution.

"If you're in the middle of the city and you've got street lights around you, you're going to diminish your view by 70-80 per cent. If you get 15 minutes out of the city or into the country anywhere, it's as good as it gets in this country. There are some beautiful dark skies."

Finally, consider composition. "Anywhere where you can get mountains, or close to oceans to get some contrast. It's a bit hard to take photos like this in the bush. A clear horizon, a mountain or a lake or body of water - and you're away."

Mark Russell's astrophotography workshops:
Friday 2 July, Bay Light, Russell 6.30pm - 9.30pm
Weds 7 July, Plough and Feather, Kerikeri, 6.30pm - 9.30pm
Full details at matarikinz.com

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newfinder.co.nz and newzealand.com