Behind The Shot

Happy Trails

Lake Moke
Nikon D850, Nikkor 14-24mm lens
x30 10s exposures for the sky @ F2.8, 10s, ISO6400, 16mm
x1 exposure for landscape @ F2.8, 180s, ISO800, 16mm

with Simon Williams

Simon, what’s your background in photography?

I feel like there has always been a camera somewhere in my life. Gaining my BSc (Hons) in Physics with Astrophysics taught me about the technicalities of cameras, lenses and light. In the mid-’90s, I started making skateboard movies which I digitized and edited electronically, providing the gateway into the quickly emerging digital post-production world.

After finishing my Masters, I worked in the corporate front-end web design space during the dotcom boom, strengthening and extending my knowledge and experience using a variety of Adobe Suite Products. Finally, not so long after arriving in Aotearoa in the mid-2000s, I invested in a DSLR replacing the faithful 3MP point-and-shoot.

That’s when photography became forefront and centre in my life. I used it to assist my work within Education for Sustainability - a mix of commercial, event and portraiture work. Living in Wānaka, I inevitably photographed the landscape and continued my passion for sports photography within the mountain bike community.

Around 8 years ago, I finally pointed my camera toward the night sky, where I feel almost everything I’d achieved up until that point came together in the most beautiful way.

Tell us about this Astro photo…

It was the night of April Fools, 2022. There was a new moon, and there was promising activity on the space weather satellite readings, so I spent the evening exploring spots facing the South not so far from home (I’m a massive fan of making Astro photography as easy as possible!).

I’d worn the right clothes and not forgotten my merino socks on this night, and because I moved between a few different places, I could warm up in the car a few times. I had food and drink with me and made sure I didn't stay anywhere too long to keep my stoke high and to ensure I had feeling in my fingers and toes.

Moke Lake was the last destination and capture of the evening. The spots I’d visited previously that evening had been quieter than I expected; in fact, I hadn’t encountered anyone else all evening, which made me think that perhaps the lake would be nice and quiet too.

There wasn’t much planning for this shot; more a case of turning up and the conditions providing the goods. I had my Nikon D850 with a Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8. mounted onto a fairly hefty Manfrotto tripod with a 3D ball head and a Phottix intervalometer / wireless remote to take the shots allowing my hand to stay in my pockets. The composition almost took care of itself, which put the focus on the technical side of the capture.

I love working with what I’m offered at a particular time and place. Straight away, it was the mist and the strong Auroral glow that captured my attention, both quite subtle to the naked eye and certainly moving more slowly than the stars in the sky.

I’ve been spending more time stacking astro images this season, so I really wanted to capture multiple frames of the sky as well as some long exposures for the landscape, being ever mindful of the light from a solitary camper van left on overnight, illuminating the lake to the left.

The process of shooting at night for me is one of meditation. I take many different exposures of the same scene, collecting light in different ways to give me as many options in post as possible. So behind the camera is very still and focused.

However, there was still a reasonable amount of yawning, wiggling of toes and crossing of fingers that a car didn’t come down the road, that the mist stayed just out of the way, and that my lens didn’t fog up. Other than that, it was a very serene end to a fulfilling evening. I could hear other people in the mist further around the lake having a good old laugh at being engulfed in freezing fog.

What does this image mean to you?

I’ve listened to one of our kaumātua tell kõrero about our place a few times now. He often tells of Hinepūkohurangi (the mist maiden), and on this evening, I felt like I had a ringside seat to the action as she moved down the mountainside and across the lake, engulfing the group of people further along the shore.

It felt mysterious and intriguing at the time, almost unbelievable, and as I’ve sat working this piece together, it keeps on drawing me in and soothing my thoughts.

What post-processing did you do?

A fair bit for this one. I’ve been learning how to use SiriL to stack images to get the best quality for the stars. It’s a slow process, which I’m enjoying, and the results are pleasantly surprising. After a fair amount of tinkering, I exported a TIFF from there into Photoshop.

I used Lightroom to process the longer exposure RAW images of the landscape and sky, which I also exported into Photoshop so I could begin to combine all the elements together with various layers and adjustments.

Once I was happy, I saved it as a PSD and then gave it a final tweak with Lightroom. When it looked good on screen, I soft-proofed it for Ilford Smooth Pearl - my current favourite paper to print Astro images onto, made slight adjustments and then printed it.

If I get the same feeling when it’s in my hand as what I see on my screen, I know the image is finished.

What would you do differently if retaking this shot?

I’d tilt the camera 30 degrees upwards and go through the whole process again so I could extend the field of view to include more of the sky. I would also log what I did during post, especially whilst stacking - this needs to become more scientific within my practice.

Can you share some Astro photography tips with us?

Practice and experiment as much as possible.

At night in low light, you really do need to slow down. It helps me to think of the composition in my head, imagining the field of view of my lens with my mind, and then trust I’ve got it right. Sure, do a couple of quick checks on the screen, but otherwise, spend time getting the exposures right, all the while connecting further to what’s around you.

Ask yourself; Where is the light coming from? How fast is it moving? What exposures do you need to capture what’s around you? Change shutter speeds, ISO and sometimes even aperture if there’s a strong source of light, as well as considering if you can introduce any light yourself to help.

Explore places near where you live, and don’t discount places you see photographs from often, there’s always a different way to view the familiar, and no one place ever looks exactly the same at different times. In my case, I wanted to get my take on the classic Moke Lake Aurora photograph. If you’re visiting new places, try to go during daylight hours to check your compositions. It's always easier when the lights are on, and use tools such as Photopills and Stellarium to see what you’ll see in the night sky when you plan to return.

Don’t forget your merino socks, and if you know or suspect others are out there photographing, be as considerate as you can with the light you emit and the noise you make.


Simon owns and operates AuthenticAs with his partner Emma in Queenstown. AuthenticAs create unique adventures for visitors to Queenstown, day and night. When he’s not out and about with his camera or clients, you’ll find Si at home, often making things for their garden, slowing down, enjoying family time, or out enjoying some of the world-class mountain biking trails on his doorstep.