Astrophotography Guide for Wanaka

With naturally clear, dark skies, very little light pollution and a spectacular landscape as a backdrop Wanaka is a great place to capture night sky photographs of the stars, Milky Way and, if you’re lucky, the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights).

Remember to share your photos with us on social media @LakeWanakaNZ #LoveWanaka.

What you’ll need

A camera that has a manual exposure setting and a high ISO range - all DSLR cameras will have the required settings and many modern compact cameras are also capable of taking great night time imagery. A tripod is also essential.

Camera settings

The optimal settings will vary slightly from camera to camera so you’ll also need to adjust based on the light and conditions at the time -  a bit of trial and error is always needed.

1. Change your camera settings and focus to Manual (M). It can be hard to focus at night (its dark!), so set your focus to ‘infinity’ which will be marked ∞ on the lens ring. Some lenses do not have infinity marked, so before you head out for the night focus the camera in daylight on a distant object and then tape down the focus ring ready to shoot at night.

2. Ideally use a lens with a large aperture, minimum of f/3.5, or as wide as your camera allows. Wide angle lenses are great, but not essential.

3.Set your camera to a high ISO. Somewhere between 4000 – 6400 is a good range to begin with. The higher the ISO the more sensitive your images will be to light, and be aware that a high ISO and long exposure can also create more ‘noise’ which gives a grainy look to the photo.

4. Experiment with the exposure time, somewhere between 15-25 seconds is likely to be about right but this also varies based on aperture, ISO and outside light conditions.

Note: longer focal lengths can result in ‘star trails’ (i.e. capturing the movement of the stars as the earth rotates), so use a shorter exposure time if you’re using a zoom lens to avoid star trails. Focal lengths of 14mm-18mm are generally best.

5. If you have a remote control or shutter release cable that’s great, but you can also set the cameras’ timer to a 2-second delay which prevents shaking the tripod when you press the shutter button.

When & Where to go?

You can capture great night sky images year-round in Wanaka, but late autumn to early spring are good, simply because it gets dark earlier in the evening and you don’t need to wait until midnight to take photos! The colours of autumn also make for good composition and in winter or spring the snow on the mountains adds nice context to your images. 

Clear, cloudless skies with limited or no moonlight are best for capturing photos of the stars and Milky Way. There are websites and apps which you can use to calculate where the Milky Way will be sitting in the sky to help you plan the best location; Star Walk or Sky Guide are both good apps.

A great place to practice in Wanaka is around the lakefront. The famous Wanaka Tree is a popular spot which offers little light pollution when shooting towards the mountains, but you can also practice capturing reflections of the town lights in the lake. Eely Point and Bremner Bay are also easy to access and offer good context and composition for astrophotography.

Aurora Chasing

Wanaka is located far enough south that occasionally the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) can be seen. There’s not really an optimum time of year to witness or photograph the Southern Lights, which are caused by the random solar activity of the sun, but Autumn-Spring seems to be the best. The Aurora lights are rarely visible to the naked eye, but through a long exposure some remarkable images can be captured. The Aurora Service has a great website which provides Aurora alerts and forecasts, check out their Facebook page too.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Wanaka when an Aurora is happening then you’ll need to find a location with a clear, unobstructed view to the south (directly down the Cardrona Valley) and away from any light pollution in town. The base of Mount Iron, Dublin Bay Road or Lake Hawea are good spots to try.