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My Astrophotography Journey - From Novice to Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013

Published September 22nd, 2013

The highlight of my photography career happened to me recently. I not only won two categories in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013, but I also won it overall. It is something I never dreamed of 4 years ago when I first started out, and it's quite ironic that it was the images I saw from the 2009 Astronomy Photographer of the Year that inspired me to give astrophotography a go.



Since then, I have spent many hours under the stars attempting to perfect my skills in one of the most frustrating forms of photography there is…I don’t think I will ever perfect my skills as I find myself continually learning every time I go out.



Planning, patience and persistence are the name of the game – believe me, some of my planned shots have taken me over a year to get right. Constant obstacles from bad weather and bad timing to landslides and equipment failures all make it a very frustrating pursuit. But in the end, after all the failures when you finally do nail the shot, it then becomes one of the most rewarding forms of photography there is...it has certainly been one amazing journey of self discovery for me.



I'm very fortunate to live in the Wellington region on the bottom of the North Island of New Zealand. Whilst it is where the capital city of New Zealand is, the region is blessed with dark skies and beautiful landscapes. You only need to travel 15 minutes out of the centre of Wellington city to the south coast, and you can easily see the glow of the Milky Way with the naked eye. A 90 minute drive to the east over the Rimutaka Ranges and into the Wairarapa gets you amongst some of the darkest skies in New Zealand, where the southern sky shines at night with thousands of stars above the remote and rugged landscape.



This is my playground where I chase stars as often as I can - I am not religious, but standing under a starry sky with no one around for miles can certainly seem like a spiritual experience. I think this and the challenge of capturing the night sky is why I keep trying for the ultimate shot. Nights of no sleep, just to get the shot that I imagined in my mind beforehand with the stars and the Milky Way aligning perfectly above the landscape. The rewards of that successfully capturing that shot keeps me coming back for more.



It hasn't always been like that though. There was a period when I was first starting out where I was failing miserably. I couldn't get results anywhere near the quality I was seeing from others, but after trawling the web for the secrets of astrophotography I came across a Vimeo tutorial from Ben Canales which helped put me in the right direction. From there on it was trial and error, I had lots of ideas in my head and I put plans into place to capture them.



Some of those ideas I wanted to capture was the Milky Way hanging low over the city of Wellington. It wasn't the easiest to pull off, and took me 6 months to get it right. I also had a fascination with lighthouses and the stars, so a lot of my ideas were based around that. But the idea that got my work out there and noticed, was I wanted to video the moon rising and revealing silhouettes up on a lookout in Wellington New Zealand. This idea proved a lot harder than I had anticipated, and there were a lot of failed and frustrating attempts. But finally after a year of trying, I managed to pull off something that exceeded my expectations. I stayed up until 3am the next morning finding suitable music for my newly captured clip which I put together and uploaded it to Vimeo. I called it Full Moon Silhouettes (even though technically it was captured a day after the full moon) and when I awoke later that day, my email was full of hundreds of emails from people all over the world writing to me and thanking me for making the video. It had touched the hearts of people in ways I could have never imagined, and here they were sharing those moments with me. This was certainly a very humbling experience for me, and one I will never forget.



After that, I tried to capture a still image of the same set up as Full Moon Silhouettes. Again it took a few attempts to get right, but I was happy with the results. And with that image, I entered the People and Space category of The Astronomy Photographer of the Year. I had no idea how well it would go as it didn't compare to what I had captured in the video, but in the end the judges loved it, and it was awarded the winner of that category!



And again, with my fascination of lighthouses and the stars, I set out to capture a pano of the Milky Way low in the sky with the lighthouse below. As it turns out, the early morning I did manage to capture it wasn't planned at all. I awoke after a few hours sleep at 5am to see the Milky Way low in the sky above Cape Palliser. The only problem was my camera gear was at the top of the lighthouse. I had set up a time-lapse there a few hours before, so I had to climb the 250 plus steps up there to retrieve my gear before I could take this photo. By the time I got back the sky was beginning to get lighter with sunrise 2 hours away. I set up and took the pano and then crawled back into my car for some more sleep. It didn't register at the time as I was quite tired from the night, but after stitching the pano together, I realised I had captured something special.



I entered that image, Guiding Light to the Stars, into the Earth and Space category of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013. In July I got word that the image was short-listed, so I was quite excited by that. But I got the shock of my life when I woke up early morning on the 19th September, New Zealand time to find out the image had won the Earth and Space category of The Astronomy Photographer of the Year. Not only that, it had also won overall! So I had won two categories and the overall Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013! That day was spent in a state of disbelief, but I couldn't be happier with the result. And after all that time and effort that went into getting those images, I had my most satisfying day of my photographic career.



I tell this story because I hope to inspire others, just as I was inspired 4 years ago by images of the night sky. Images that I now capture myself, sending me on a wonderful journey of discovery and fulfillment. Our lives have become so busy, and we often forget the simple things in life that give you more value than the material things in our society. The night sky is free for everyone - all you need to do is to stop and look up...



markg.com.au
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Full Moon Silhouettes
The Art of Night

Guiding Light To The Stars

I'm happy to announce that this is the winning photo for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013

I recently spent a night out at Cape Palliser on the North Island of New Zealand photographing the night sky. I awoke after a few hours sleep at 5am to see the Milky Way low in the sky above Cape Palliser. The only problem was my camera gear was at the top of the lighthouse as seen in the right of this image. I had set up a time-lapse there a few hours before, so I had to climb the 250 plus steps up there to retrieve my gear before I could take this photo. By the time I got back the sky was beginning to get lighter with sunrise 2 hours away. I took a 360 degree pano, with this being crop of around 180 degrees of that.

From Novice to Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013

copyright 2013 | markg.com.au

Moon Silhouettes

I'm happy to announce Moon Silhouettes has won the People and Space category in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013.

People usually gather on Mount Victoria Lookout in Wellington, New Zealand to take in the view of the surrounding city below. But on this particular day the moon rose right behind the lookout revealing the silhouettes of the onlookers. This photo was shot from over 2km away on the other side of Wellington city the day after full moon at the end of March 2013.

I used the same technique to shoot this image as I had done with my Full Moon Silhouettes Video

From Novice to Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013

copyright 2013 | markg.com.au

Star Gazing In Solitude

This image is shot only 15 minutes from the central business district in Wellington, New Zealand. The south coast of Wellington is dark and remote, but easily accessible, and it's a place I spend a lot of time at night taking photos and watching the stars. I was shooting a time lapse this night and decided to climb up the rocks and stand there watching and admiring the sky above. For me, star gazing really puts into perspective just how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and just how vast the mind boggling the universe really is.

copyright 2013 | markg.com.au

The Milky Way above Wellington, New Zealand

A cold and crisp winters night as the Milky Way rises high above the glow of the capital city, Wellington in New Zealand.

copyright 2012 | markg.com.au

3am At The Gap

Around 3am the Milky Way shines brightly above The Gap at Castlepoint, as the nearby lighthouse illuminates the surrounding landscape. Castlepoint is on the south east coast of the North Island of New Zealand just a few hours from from the capital city of Wellington.

copyright 2012 | markg.com.au

Tree Under the Stars

A lone tree stands in silhouette against the night sky with the milky way rising overhead on the south east coast of the north island of New Zealand.

copyright 2012 | markg.com.au

The Heavens Above Palliser

Cape Palliser Lighthouse on the south eastern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, lights up the surrounding landscape as the Milky Way shines ever so brightly behind.

copyright 2012 | markg.com.au

The Art of Night

The Art of Night is a short film of highlights from my astrophotography journey. It contains imagery from when I first seriously started photographing the night sky until recently when I won the 2013 Astronomy Photographer of the Year.

Images, time-lapse and video were shot over a period of three years around the Wellington region on the North Island of New Zealand. This region is blessed with relatively low light pollution and has some of the darkest skies in New Zealand once you head out to the remote areas of the Wairarapa.

Overall I shot more than 20,000 individual images for the time-lapse with the final edit consisting of just 3,000 of those. This equates to approximately 25 hours of real time footage within the film.

copyright 2013 | markg.com.au
The Art of Night

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GRoyer
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Gilles Royer  over 1 year ago
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Mark - what a great portfolio and congrats on the awards - fully deserved.
markg
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Mark Gee  over 1 year ago
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Thanks Gilles - much appreciated!
leannebouvet
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Leanne Bouvet  over 1 year ago
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Mark, truly beautiful photos and an inspirational story. Congratulations on your amazing achievement and here's to that continual learning!
I work with your sister Kat, who has been thrilled to say the least!
Leanne
markg
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Mark Gee  over 1 year ago
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Oh nice Leanne - yes I was very lucky she was in London and able to represent me at the awards. I had no idea she'd have to get up on stage 3 times!
glbolt
Gregory Bolton  over 1 year ago
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Beautiful images. Congratulations!
markg
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Mark Gee  over 1 year ago
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Thanks Gregory!
glbolt
Gregory Bolton  over 1 year ago
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USKestrelPhotography
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Pete Miller  over 1 year ago
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Awesome write-up and images! While I am focused on Landscape photography, I have been out in the great outdoors where the night sky is perfect for astrophotography, so I have been dabbling in night-photography!
markg
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Mark Gee  over 1 year ago
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Thanks Pete - yes astrophotography can certainly be addictive once you get into it!
gwest51
George West  over 1 year ago
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Thank you for sharing your story as I found it inspirational for me to learn more about Astrophotography.
markg
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Mark Gee  over 1 year ago
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You're welcome George - good luck with the learning!