Are you anything like me? I love photography, but I have no idea how to use my camera. I mean, point and shoot is pretty easy, but my camera has all these settings that obviously help you to make your pictures better. The problem is that I lack the confidence (and ability) to play around and work out what all of them really mean.
I’ve read so many different articles and guides on what each button or setting means and what that means for the image I capture, but none of it sticks in my head. I’ve watched youtube video after youtube video and asked every passing person with a decent camera if they can help me out. And when I’m in the conversation, it all seems so clear. But the moment the conversation stops, it all becomes a jumble of terminology in my brain.
And so, I’ve carried my DSLR around the world for the past 5 years – it is only an entry level camera, but when you use it on auto the entire time, it doesn’t need to be anything flashy.
This week I decided to change all that
I have been obsessed with the works of a particular photographer for a long time now. His specialism is astrophotography (pretty pictures of stars), and he is based in New Zealand. And you can see why I am obsessed with his pictures, right?
Alone. Well, not entirely alone, there was that seal that waddled past me while I was napping inside a cave… But alone is how it felt, watching this storm migrate North as the Milky Way graces us with her presence. Scary? Not at all. After spending countless hours under the stars, one really starts to appreciate how insignificant we are on this planet. The best time to ponder! This is a 15 image stack using Starry Landscape Stacker, have to say this software does a pretty decent job of removing noise – even when clouds are present! Captured on a @canon.nz EOS 6D and a @samyanglensglobal XP 14mm ƒ2.4. 25 sec, ƒ2.8 and 10,000 ISO. #milkyway #samyang14mm #samyangxp14mm #samyangpassionate #whararikibeach #astrophotography #selfie
When we moved here, I told Sam that I wanted to learn to shoot astro, partially because NZ is a brilliant place for it (lots of dark sky zones) and partially because I know this photographer runs workshops and courses to learn the skills. And last weekend, I attended one such workshop.
Mack Photography Astro Workshop by Mike MacKinven
Mike runs several workshops throughout the year, ranging from one-night to 7 day (with varying costs and experiences involved in each).
One day, I would love to join the 7 day workshop, which includes heli-hikes and glacier camping, but for now, as I am totally unemployed and poor a fledgeling digital nomad with no income stream, the one night workshop shall have to suffice. And you know what? It was incredible!
I learnt so much. Not just astro, but camera basics that I’ve never been able to really understand and remember, I get them now! I remember them and I can apply them.
The one night, small group workshop was based north of Auckland, in at Pakiri beach. The roads to get to the beach are long and winding, and in some places, they are not tar-sealed, but I have found this to be pretty normal for NZ, especially in areas that are not high on the tourist trails.
Sadly, on the drive up to the beach, the heavens opened and a storm began. The rain came down in sheets, the thunder became louder, and the lightning brighter. But all was not lost! After a short delay, the storm passed over where we were and we met with Mike. After the normal introductions of any course, Mike took us through how to set up for astro – useful settings, how to focus properly, general shooting etiquette and useful apps for preparing for an astrophotography shoot. And we headed out to the beach.
Although the storm had passed over us, the clouds were still above, so shooting stars was going to be difficult at this point. But several apps showed the clouds would clear later in the night, so we did not worry. Instead, Mike set us up to shoot the storm that had just passed over.
Mike left us to shoot our pictures and came round to work with us each individually, helping with things that each of us were struggling with – from initial set-up to settings, focusing and even composition (and in my case, everything). He was patient, informative and worked with each individual skill level, ability and camera type. And because of this personal teaching, the workshop helps you to get the very best you and your camera can achieve.
And I know my skills aren’t anywhere near what Mike can do, and my camera isn’t powerful enough to achieve what I want it to, but my attempts as astro prior to this looks something like this:
So when I got my first actual star picture, I was beyond excited! I’ve not edited it, and I’m fully aware that it won’t win any awards for its brilliance (it isn’t even focused) but hey, I CAPTURED STARS and I have never been able to do that before!
Through the night, the clouds rolled through several times, the rains came back, but that actually made it more interesting. We got to learn different skills, not just astro, but general low-level light skills and how to capture lightning strikes (although it felt like my own personal running joke that every time I pressed the shutter to start my 2-second timer, the lightning would strike just between that and the picture starting to take. And only during that time). But I did capture one strike – although it is less strike and more ‘entire sky turned white’.
Mike being the artist that he is, managed to get this shot, and is even in the picture making the wire wool light (can you see why I wanted to learn from him?)
Improving my focus
Throughout the workshop, I worked on focusing my images (which is really difficult in the dark!) At times, the items in my foreground were sharp, but that lost the focus on the stars, and at others, the stars were focused, but the foreground became blurry. And at others, I simply could not focus on anything. But this is half the fun!
I’m fully aware that my photos don’t hold a candle to anything by Mack Photography, but for a first try at astro, I am really, very happy.
Things I have learnt
- I can take astro pictures.
- I can push my camera further than I knew I could.
- Although I don’t remember what the whole aperture/iso/etc. things mean, I know how changing each of them will affect my pictures, and that is probably more important!
- Astro photography isn’t as hard as I thought it would be – it takes a bit of skill and knowledge, and a lot of time and patience (and warm clothes).
- Mike is insanely good at his craft.
- He is also a brilliant teacher. He is patient, funny, knowledgeable and a genuinely nice guy.
- Although my camera can take astro pictures, it isn’t powerful enough to get the shots I want.
- I want a new camera. And new lenses.
- I can’t afford the camera I want.
- Everyone should try out astro photography; the pictures you take are insanely beautiful.
Would I recommend an astro workshop with Mack Photography?
Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. If you are in New Zealand and want to learn to shoot astro, then Mike should be your go to; he is after all one of the best astro togs in New Zealand (if not the world).
My #Happy Place. Our #beautiful #Galaxy rises behind #AlmerHut, way up above #FranzJosefGlacier. We’ll be heading back here next week (fingers crossed) with another 7 nights checking out the sights the West Coast has to offer, can’t wait! Captured on a #Canon6D + #Samyang14mm ƒ2.8 lens. Single shot for the sky, and a 10 image Median Stack for the foreground. One of many spots we go to on our Epic 7 Night Workshops! #astrophotography #milkyway #nzmustdo #canonnz #nooneseesitlikeyou #starsandshit
See, he is really, really good! And passionate about teaching others to be as good as he is.
He works with you at your pace, getting the best from you and your camera, and this individualised teaching makes his courses fantastic value for money. If you are on the fence, then hop right off and sign yourself up for an astro workshop with Mack Photography.
There is also a downloadable astro guide available for a small donation (scroll down the page) – this is the bomb for handy hints on shooting and editing your astro pics and is most definitely worth getting. (Plus it supports Mack Photography as a business, and we always like to help out local businesses.)
*I am not affiliated with Mack Photography; I loved attending the workshop and paid in full. I simply had a great time, learnt a lot and will always highly recommend his workshops to all.