Stars in his eyes

Mark Gee frequently ventures out under the darkest, most remote skies in New Zealand. The multi-award-winning photographer has been short-listed for Astronomy Photographer of the Year every year since 2012 and his short film, Full Moon Silhouettes, has been broadcast by NASA. Francesca Emms asked him about his fascination with the stars.

By Francesca Emms
Photography by Mark Gee

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Mark wants you to go out and spend time under the night sky. He says it’s a great place to sit back and ponder, and think about life in general. “Once you begin to think about the incredibly vast distances in space, you quickly start to realise just how small we are in the grand scheme of things, especially in this world where technology usually keeps us company. So get back to nature, head out to the darkest location you can find, and spend the night looking up at the stars − it can certainly put life in perspective.”

Breaker Bay, Wellington

The first time Mark really saw the Milky Way with his own eyes he was putting the rubbish out and happened to look up. “It was one of those perfectly crisp and clear winter nights. I had never seen so many stars in my life.” It was 2003 and he was visiting Castlepoint for the first time. He grabbed his camera and tripod, pointed the camera up and took a shot. “The photo was disappointing, as I could see more stars with my own eyes than what was in the photo itself!” But that night ignited Mark’s passion for astrophotography.

Rimutaka Forest Park, Wairarapa

By day Mark is a digital visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, with a number of feature films under his belt (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Avatar and King Kong, just to name a few). At night he grapples with astrophotography, which he describes as one of the most frustrating forms of photography there is: “It’s an environment where the weather is constantly changing, and you’re photographing in remote areas, in the dark, where a lot can go wrong.” In addition, the night sky is continually rotating. “When trying to compose the landscape with the Milky Way positioned perfectly over it, you don’t have long to get the shot. In some cases, if you miss that shot, you’ll have to wait another year until the night sky lines up perfectly to your composition to try again.” Planning ahead is crucial, he says.

Mark does all his location scouting during the day, and uses apps on his phone to visualise where the Milky Way is in relation to the landscape. Focus is critical, and a difficult process as you can’t use auto-focus at night time. The next morning he processes the images on his computer. This can take from two minutes to a few hours, depending on the complexity of the shot. “Putting a large panoramic night sky image together can take days. I try not to over-process an image. I like to keep it as natural looking as possible, the way I perceived the scene on the night.”

Red Rocks, Wellington
Makara, Wellington

Mark’s got a few favourite locations. He mentions the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, where “the skies are dark and the landscape is spectacular with towering mountains, lakes and glaciers surrounding you,” and Great Barrier Island, which is officially recognised as a Dark Sky Sanctuary, where “you frequently get bioluminescence which glows blue in the crashing waves at night, which looks surreal when photographed under a starry night sky.” Closer to home, he says Wellington’s South Coast is surprisingly good as the hills block a lot of the light pollution, “and rugged coastline is great for photographing against the backdrop of the night sky.” Cape Palliser in the Wairarapa is an absolute favourite. “It’s the first real dark sky location I shot at. I love going there and finding new interesting compositions, and the Cape Palliser Lighthouse is always great to shoot against the night sky.”

The Martinborough Dark Sky Society is campaigning to become an International Dark Sky Reserve, something Mark is in favour of. Chairperson of the society, Lee Mauger, says the council controlled streetlights were sensitively selected to meet all the criteria needed, including being compatible with a dark sky reserve. The next hurdle is to convince the New Zealand Transport Agency to switch to favourable highway lighting. The Mayors of Carterton and Masterton have said they are keen to participate too. If a dark sky reserve were created across all three Wairarapa districts it would be almost 6,000 square kilometres, the largest in New Zealand. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year, is only 4,300 square kilometres. Mark says a Wairarapa reserve would preserve and protect the dark sky and surrounding environment for future generations. “There will also be advantages for businesses in the area with the growth of astro-tourism, and that is certainly something that I and other local astrophotographers could get involved with, as well as having world-class dark sky locations, where we can continue to photograph and develop our art.”

But it’s about more than these practical considerations. Beyond the photography itself, Mark says spending time out in a dark location under millions of stars is something he never tires of, “and I truly believe it’s also great for the soul.”



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