Chasing the dark: Mark Gee

Astrophotographer Mark Gee talks to D-Photo's Point-Shoot blog about his latest video production, City Lights to Dark Skies. Produced to help promote the cause of Dark Sky Week in raising awareness of the affects of light pollution, the video takes us from the vibrant city streets of Wellington to the rich night skies of the surrounding countryside.

D-Photo: What compelled you to put together the City Lights to Dark Skies video?

Mark Gee: Every year during International Dark Sky Week I try to make some sort of contribution to the week through my photography. This video is something I really wanted to do last year, but even though the idea was there, I didn't have enough good footage and it would have been a rush job. So I put the project on the back-burner and worked towards it for this year.

How long did it take you to create?

I'd been thinking of the actual idea for over a year but didn't really start shooting most of the footage until the end of January this year. The last few weeks of the project were crazy as I still needed some key shots, and I knew I couldn't pull the shots off with the upcoming full moon. So I was doing four-hour return trips to the dark sky locations from Wellington every chance I had. One night I got to one of the locations and shot four time lapses with two cameras going at a time, and then drove back to Wellington at 4am so I could go to work that day.

We're familiar with your beautiful stills work, is video work a new skill for you and was it difficult to learn?

I've been working with video for many years now in the film industry, so it's not really a new skill for me. But it's great to be able to use it with my photography to put my images in motion and, like with my photography, I'm always learning with the whole video process.

What sort of gear did you use?

I used Canon 5D Mark II and IIIs for the time-lapses and video at the start of the film. Most of the time-lapses were shot with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 lens, but I also used a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8. For the motion-controlled time-lapses I used a Syrp Genie on a slider setup.

How was your experience with the Syrp Genie?

I love the Syrp Genie — it's just so versatile and portable. I can easily fit it in my camera bag! The guys at Syrp in Queenstown have done an amazing job with the Genie, and are continually working on improving the functionality of it.

Where's your favourite spot to get away from light pollution for astrophotography?

The Wairarapa is definitely my number one location to get away from the city lights for astrophotography, although during the filming of the project I got a helicopter to drop me off at the top of the Tararua Ranges just to the north of Wellington for an overnight shoot. It was amazing up there — you could see all of Wellington down to the Kaikoura Mountains on the South Island, and all of the Wairarapa to the east. I'm definitely going to head up there again sometime, except next time I will probably have to hike in as the helicopter was certainly a one-off luxury for the project.

What do you hope people take away from the City Lights to Dark Skies video?

I spend a lot of time photographing the night sky, and have seen many of the negative effects that light pollution can have. So I thought one of the best ways for me to educate people about light pollution would be to show them the difference between a light-polluted city sky and a dark sky with little or no light pollution. I do hope that the video sparks people's interest enough to look further into the effects of light pollution and ways they can do their bit to help. I'm not saying we should go back to the dark ages and turn our lights off, but rather just be a little smarter and plan the way we do light our cities. The guys at the International Dark Sky Association have some great resources and tips on their web page at darksky.org

What's up next for you?

I've just run an astrophotography workshop in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve at Lake Tekapo on the South Island with Rob Dickinson, and we filmed a whole lot of behind the scenes stuff on that. So we are putting together a mini doco on the workshop, showcasing the amazing beauty of the area around Lake Tekapo. Beyond that, I'm hoping to pull together an epic astrophotography trip around the South Island with a few special astrophotographer guests, and also document that for all to see. I'm also planning another northern lights workshop in Europe at the end of the year.

To see more of Mark Gee's work head to his website, or pick up a copy of D-Photo no. 56, in which Mark lends his considerable knowledge for our beginner's guide to astrophotography.