A journey begins: the making of “the Milky Way, Milford Sound”

For quite some years now I’ve had a concept in mind to photograph the night skies above New Zealand’s national parks.  I can imagine this might be the sort of project that becomes a lifelong endeavour, but it’s early days and that story is only just beginning.  For about as long as I’ve had that idea though, I’ve never been quite sure where or how to start.  An impromptu winter trip to Milford Sound in 2019 planted the seed of the idea that was to become the first completed photograph of the project. 

Planning

Planning began in earnest almost immediately – nearly a full year before I made my first attempt at the image.  I use an Android app called PlanIt! Pro which has a multitude of features that help you work out where the stars are going to be relative to features on the ground.  It also does a whole lot more than that, but that might be the topic of another post.  Though I still like to pull out a map and trace my finger across points of interest, there really is no substitute for the ease and level of detail achievable with today’s apps.

It might sound clichéd but the stars really did have to align for it to work: tides, moon phase, Milky Way position, weather and of course the one thing no one anticipated in 2020 – a global pandemic and ensuing national lock-downs.  In researching and planning the image, I discovered various attempts to capture the Milky Way above Milford Sound, but I found I wanted more. The missing ingredient, for me, was moonlight.  I prefer naturally lit scenes which means the only way to show some of the detail in the deep valleys surrounding Milford Sound is to wait for the Moon to appear.  Moonlight renders the background night sky blue and provides the necessary illumination to bring out that foreground detail that remains hidden in the shadows of a moonless night.  Too much moonlight though, and the result is an exposure that appears as if it might have been recorded in daylight if it weren’t for the stars scattered across the sky.  The trick, therefore, is to get the balance just right.  It might come as a surprise to learn there are only a handful of nights each year where the conditions are suitably balanced to make the image I envisaged possible – and that’s not counting the variables such as weather!

The Trip

As 2020 dragged on, it was beginning to look like we might still be in lockdown by the time I needed to be in Milford Sound.  Fortunately, the lockdown finished a few weeks before the trip and I managed to book accommodation in Milford Sound for the duration of the trip.  There is nothing better than having accommodation right next to where you plan to shoot.  It saves a lot of travel time and contemplating weather – a quick look out the window is all the forecast you need.  It was somewhat fortuitous that at the last minute, I reviewed the long range weather forecasts and decided on an extra night at the start of my week in Milford Sound.  This image was made late on that first night in the early hours of the morning.  While there were some pleasant conditions on and off for the remainder of that week, the skies were never quite as clear as they were that first night.  I’d originally planned to have a little less moonlight than the third quarter moon I ended up shooting with but all things considered I’m still very pleased with how the photograph has come together.

Setting up

Noticeably fewer tourists in Milford Sound meant I had the place almost to myself a lot of the time – especially at night.  As it was such a clear night, I set up my equipment in the cool evening air and lay back to relax and do a spot of stargazing while the camera dutifully recorded exposure after exposure.  These would later be assembled to reveal the apparent motion of the stars travelling across the sky above Mitre Peak. 

I’d only been shooting for about half an hour when I heard a distinct rumble and I felt a vibration rolling under me causing the trees to wave and the leaves to rustle in the still night air.  Knowing it was an earthquake and feeling slightly “rattled” I radioed my wife who was staying at the nearby lodge.  It was prudent to check that there were no tsunami warnings – though by this stage it’s fair to say my thoughts had fallen squarely back on my ability to remain outdoors, on location, and attempt my shot later that night!  I was however poised to grab my gear and get off the foreshore until the all-clear came back. (Though we couldn’t communicate with cellphones, our lodge provided wi-fi so checking internet sites for the relevant information was no challenge at all and our radios gave us the ability to talk to each other while I was “out and about”.)  What I did observe for perhaps the next hour after the quake, was the thunderous rumbling of several avalanches echoing around the surrounding valleys.  What a night!


Show time!

The landscape at Milford’s freshwater basin is constantly changing underfoot due to the tide (gumboots essential!)  Somehow I got lucky enough to have calm conditions and only the slightest trace of movement in the water.   So, with still some hours to go before dawn, it was time to set up for my first real attempt at imaging the Milky Way arch above Milford Sound.  I’d identified an area along the foreshore that gave a nice (not quite) symmetrical composition and the potential for reflections.  The third quarter moon was above the horizon but had not yet cleared the mountain tops to the east, so it was simply a matter of waiting it out – would I be able to wait long enough for the Milky Way to sink into its optimal position before the moon rose too high in the sky and started to wash out the detail in the sky.  By the end of the session, the plan had come together as well as any landscape photographer could reasonably ask for (the earlier rumblings of the night long forgotten) and I now had a memory card full of images from an incredible first night out.

The colours of the brighter stars can be seen reflected on the water’s surface. The familiar constellation, the Southern Cross hangs upside down and just visible against the Sheerdown Hills (left of frame). Across the Arthur Valley, Mt Philipps rises into the centre of the frame. As we continue right around the image, we cross Sinbad Gully and recognise the iconic outline of Mitre Peak rising up to 1683m. Milford Sound makes its way to the Tasman Sea at this point with the Lion and Cascade Peak completing the landscape. The view of the stars is towards the core of the Milky Way while the two brightest points of light at the top of the scene are Jupiter and Saturn. The Moon is just out of frame to the right.  It was below freezing on the night I made this image so to me the blues help to bring forward that feeling of a cold winter’s night.

(Turns out that earthquake measured 5.2, was just 5km deep and centred just off the coast from Milford Sound!)



Image Details

Camera: Canon EOS 6D
Lens: Sigma Art 40mm f/1.4
Exposure: f/2, 6s, ISO 3200
Number of frames used in final image: 52
Technique: multi-row, panoramic stitch of 52 frames (4 rows with 13 frames per row).


The Milky Way, Milford Sound

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