Behind the Milky Way

What’s behind the Milky Way? I received a query as to how I go about creating the Arc, so I thought I’d explain the process behind one of my favourite images…

Lake Rotoiti by night

It was the middle of June, 2015, and my family and I were about to embark on a one night break at Lake Rotoiti. The sojourn was an excellent opportunity to capture some images of the night sky, and with a 3 week old baby in the house I figured I wouldn’t have any problem waking up in the middle of the night. Nelson Lakes in particular is an excellent location for night photography due to the lack of light pollution and cold, clear atmosphere.

In the lead up, I researched the position of the Milky Way and the moon cycles using specialised software (Stellarium & Google Earth). Once we arrived I spent the day scouting compositions. As usual with this wide field astrophotography, I was looking for strong simple foreground subjects that would act as anchors to both ends of the Galactic Arc.

After much exploration, I settled on 3 locations, all conveniently located along the lake front. I set my alarms for 4am, deeming the infant child not 100% reliable. (I had determined the arc would be in the appropriate location at around 0430).

It was the coldest night in the year so far, with the temperature dropping to -11 degrees celsius at St Arnaud. When I arrived at the jetty, I set about readying my tripod and camera for the 10 shot vertical panorama. The jetty was covered with ice, and more than once I almost skated off into an inky black Lake Rotoiti.

The sequence of exposures took about 6 minutes, in which time my chemical hand warmers came in very handy. Despite this, I found the waiting not at all difficult. The heavens are endlessly fascinating, and the stillness and silence of the environment feels almost otherworldly.

Once the image capture and checking of focus and exposure was complete, I proceeded to create another two sequences of panoramas at other locations around the lake front. I returned to our cabin just before dawn, and could immediately tell that the first image had the best composition. The arc was a little lower in the sky than I had expected (although I feel the image is stronger for it).

Post production

Back home in the digital darkroom, I colour corrected the images, removed distortion from the ultra-wide lens, and merged them together. I was surprised to notice a greenish pink hue to the sky in the south (beyond the jetty, towards the Travers River). I later learnt that there was strong aurora activity on this morning, which may explain this colouring.

Camera Settings

Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Samyang 14mm 2.8 lens

Focal Length 14mm, Aperture f2.8, ISO 5000, Exposure duration 30 seconds.


  1. Dear Sarnim,

    How breathtaking it is! it’s truly beyond my words to describe how amazing this photo is. My partner and I are going to spend a weekend there in 3 weeks and it will be great to take a photo of the beautiful starry sky, unfortunately late Nov is not a good time for the milky way though. As you mentioned, you have chosen 3 locations which are all suitable, do you minding sharing them with me? Especially the small pier one shown on this photo, the structure is so cool. Much appreciated your help.

    Thank you in advance 🙂


    1. Thanks Sussi. It’s at Lake Rotoiti.
      You can still get some good compsitions in November. Just research via Google Earth/Stellarium/TPE and you will be able to work the galactic arc into a composition.

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