There are few things on this earth more appealing to landscape photographers than New Zealand, the Milky Way, and Auroras. So, when I came across the work of Jake and Jo featuring all three, I had to find out more. Jake and Jo are South of Home Photography, based in Queenstown, New Zealand. Last winter, they travelled the country photographing the night sky in some of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations.
They captured meteors, the Aurora Australis (“Southern Lights”), zodiacal light, air glow, stars, and the milky way as backdrop to some of the most spectacular landscapes you’ve ever seen. We got in touch with them to get some insight into their work. What impressed me the most is how far they’ve come in photography in such a very short space of time.
Jake spoke with us about when they got started in photography, and what led to them discovering their passion for Astrophotography.
After taking up photography in early 2015, it didn’t take very long for us to become obsessed with it, we would spend all of our spare time shooting or learning about photography. Eventually, we came across Astrophotography and what we were seeing was hard to believe. We wanted to learn everything that we could so we could create our own images.
Astrophotography has a way of doing that. When done right, it can create some of the most beautiful imagery. What stops most of us, and certainly has held me back, with astrophotography is light pollution. Jake and Jo also ran across this inconvenience. So, they moved.
Unfortunately, we lived in an area of Australia which had a lot of light pollution that stopped us from being able to pursue it so we decided to relocate to New Zealand in March this year.
We just wanted to spend as much time as we could exploring the incredible landscapes of New Zealand under the stars and to capture images to share with our families and friends. We also liked the idea of being able to look back on these moments as the years went by and remember all of the good times we had just being out in nature.
I can certainly see that last part. I live near England’s Lake District, and going camping is one of my favourite things to do to get away from everything. No power outlets, no phone signals, no internet, no distractions. Just peace, quiet, beautiful landscapes, and slightly less bright skies. Getting out into the middle of nowhere by yourself or with a couple of friends enjoying the atmosphere and making some pictures is hard to beat.
But I know with my camping trips, there’s a lot of planning involved. And that’s in the relative comfort of what we laughably call the British Summer. Going out to do it in winter, especially when you’re planning to create work like this requires even more.
Planning is the most important part of shooting the Milky Way. In New Zealand the season runs from February to October and it’s position in the sky is constantly changing. We track the Milky Way using PhotoPillsand we always find our locations during the day so we can easily see if there are any interesting compositions.
Once you have your location organised you have to use PhotoPills or similar apps to find out what date and time the milky way will be in the correct position and when there is little to no moon. Once you have your date and time you have to hope that the weather is clear so that you can get the shot you are after.
As there are so many variables at play that are outside of your control it can take months of trying before you get what you want, but in the end it is totally worth it! Just enjoy the experience and have fun being outdoors, even if you don’t get anything!
Not getting anything is usually how my astrophotography trips turn out. But they’re still wonderful adventures.
Besides the light pollution, the other part of my problem is the gear. I simply don’t have the right gear for this kind of stuff – at least, not to be able to really do it justice. DIYP asked Jake about the type of equipment they take with them on their trips.
For our shots we use a Nikon D810 and either the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Series lens or the Samyang 14mm f/2.8. We like to create very large panorama’s which can contain anywhere up to 133 shots, so we use the IPano panoramic head to reduce the chance of stitching errors when we put the final image together.
We like having a lot of detail in our foreground so we use the 35mm at f/1.4 most often. When you combine an aperture that wide with a very high ISO (8000 or above) and a 15-20 second shutter you will be amazed by how much detail you can capture. Quite often, it looks like you took the shot in the afternoon instead of the middle of the night.
Well the technique certainly seems to pay off. The imagery is wonderful, and packed full of the foreground detail they love so much.
I can understand why they use an automated panoramic head to control the camera, too. Shooting stitched panoramics in the daylight can be difficult enough. You have to ensure you have enough overlap in each of the shots for the software to see and process. Miss one, and you’ve either got a tricky time manually lining them up, or you have to patch holes in Photoshop as best you can.
Trying to do that manually at night when it’s pitch black would be an absolute nightmare. But on the subject of stitching, Jake went on to tell us about the post processing used for the images.
Before creating the pano, we make basic camera raw adjustments to the images like, profile corrections and basic exposure adjustments. We use Autopano Giga to stitch our panorama’s but really you could use Photoshop, Lightroom, PTGui or Microsoft ICE which is free. We found that Autopano works best for extremely large panoramas and there are rarely any errors.
Once the panorama is stitched we use Photoshop to adjust all of the tones, the exposure, contrast and colour balance and we also perform noise and star reduction. Finally, we sharpen the image and export it so it is ready to go.
Autopano certainly has come a long way. Most of those I know who use it are doing so for video. In fact, it’s since been bought out by GoPro, and is now distributed with the GoPro 360 Omni rig. For stitching stills or video, it’s an excellent piece of software, although it’s not cheap. For those wanting to look at another free option to get them started, there’s also Hugin.
Jake left us with one final tip on the post processing, and I think this can apply to almost all photography.
I definitely recommend waiting a day before uploading your image after processing it, if you have been looking at the image for too long you can overlook any flaws that you will easily notice with a fresh set of eyes.
I know I’ve certainly woken up the next morning feeling very differently about images I’d processed the night before. “What the hell was I thinking?” is usually one of the first thoughts.
Thank you, Jake and Jo, for taking the time to talk and share your work with us. It’s amazing to see the results of your efforts. I think if I ever make it out to New Zealand, I’m going to have to invest in some fast wide glass, and a good winter sleeping bag.