Astrophotography, the art of night Africa

African sky at nightRobin Stuart is Marketing Director for Bushtops, a trio of ‘Wild Luxury’ camps straddling the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. Here he reveals how a superstar has helped him see – and film – the night skies as never before

I have been blessed to grow up and make my living in the heart of the Bush. Many happy
days have been spent watching the greatest show on earth, before relaxing in the evenings gazing up at an extraordinarily rich tapestry of stars filling the unspoiled black cloth of the African night. Awestruck, I asked myself how I could capture at least a sense of this majestic vision. The answer took me to a new word (for me at least): astrophotography.

One of the fastest-growing types of photography, astrophotography seemed fascinating, but I needed to find out more. I spent months on research and night shoots before realising I needed expert help, face to face. That’s when I got lucky.

Mark Gee
I discovered astrophotographer Mark Gee, whose online images blew me away. By day, Mark is a visual effects artist based in Wellington, New Zealand. Having worked on high-profile, Oscar-winning movies, including The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes – he decided to develop new skills.

Today he produces some of the best night images in the world. In 2013 Mark became astronomy photographer of the year, thanks to stunning work, epitomised by his winning image ‘Guiding Light to the Stars’.  Connoisseurs and celebrities alike have bought his stunning prints. Now I wanted to see if I could persuade him to visit Bushtops, to capture the night skies above our African home.

If you visit Mark’s Facebook page, the first thing you’ll notice is that he has more than 250,000 followers. So I didn’t really expect him to respond to my Facebook invitation; I doubted he’d even see it. But he replied within 24 hours! To say I was excited is an understatement – and it got better: after brief discussions, he agreed to come out to Mara Bushtops to spend a couple of weeks photographing our truly amazing starscape. As a result you can see the works of the master and apprentice illustrating this article.

Giraffes By Starlight, by Mark Gee
When I came to Mara Bushtops, I had a certain goal in mind, and that was to photograph the wildlife under the night sky. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but after three nights of driving around we found giraffe resting in the grass who were happy to stay relatively still for the entire exposure of the shot. The camera setting for this photo was a 30- second exposure at f/4.0 with a 6400 ISO setting.

A wise son makes a glad father, by Robin Stuart
A Maasai warrior and his son enjoy the vastness of space together. To get this shot, I visited a manyata (home) and found my perfect spot: it just happened to be completely covered in dried-up cow excrement. It was a novel experience, lying in the dung with my camera! I shot this just weeks before Mark’s arrival in the Masai Mara, using a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with a 6400 ISO setting and some subtle light painting on the foreground.

Starry Safari, by Robin Stuart
Mark and I were out nearly every night capturing the stars. It was almost always clear and perfect for astrophotography. We owe a lot to a fantastic piece of machinery – a modified Bushtops land cruiser perfectly designed for safari excursions, captured here at midnight in the Masai Mara in a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with a 3200 ISO setting.

A selfie with Mark Gee, by Robin Stuart
It was amazing being out under the Milky Way with Mark. While he was preparing a time-lapse image in the company of a Maasai warrior, I set my camera on a ten-second timer to capture the moment. We were completely surrounded by wildebeest and could hear lions roaring nearby. This was a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with a 3200 ISO.

Migration Aftermath, by Robin Stuart
The famous wildebeest migration had just left the Mara, but this carcass beneath the Milky Way showed that not all of them made it back to the Serengeti. I shot this on a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with a 3200 ISO setting, using my headlamp to illuminate the subject for a second or so during the exposure.

Maasai Nightlife, by Mark Gee
In this photo a Maasai warrior poses outside a traditional hut under the night sky, with the Milky Way overhead complete with shooting star. The huts are traditionally constructed by the women and are made with timber poles interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, and then plastered with a mixture of sticks, grass, cow dung and ash that bakes hard in the hot sun. The foreground of this photo was illuminated by a nearby campfire. The camera settings for this photo were a 30-second exposure at f/4.0 with an ISO of 6400.

Maasai Living, by Mark Gee
During my visit to Mara Bushtops, I was lucky enough to have been invited into a manyata. In this manyata lives one family – the parents’ bedroom is seen through the doorway to the left,  the fire here is where they do all their cooking and is also their heating, and I was basically sitting on the children’s bed when I was taking the photo. It wasn’t the easiest photo to get due to the lack of light, but it’s one of my favourite shots from the trip. Camera setting: 1/6-second exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO of 6400.

A leopard’s midnight feast, by Robin Stuart
Just after Mark had returned to New Zealand I took this image near Mara Bushtops. It was one of more than 2000 in all, using a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with a 3200 ISO setting. I was trying to capture the leopard eating its impala kill. I took an exposure every 37 seconds for four hours over four nights, yet the leopard showed up really early in the morning when the Milky Way had set and all my batteries were flat!

Moonset At Simba Rock, by Mark Gee
Simba Rock is one of my favourite locations in the Serengeti, and it’s located within a 15 minute off-road drive from Serengeti Bushtops in Tanzania. I went and set up a time-lapse on top of the rock to capture the moon and Milky Way setting, and this image is a single frame from that time-lapse. Camera settings were a 15-second exposure at f/4.0 with an ISO of 3200.

Milky Mouse, by Mark Gee
This image is from my first night out photographing in Africa. We found this beautiful tree not far from the Mara Bushtops Camp, and when I first took a shot of it against the night sky, the silhouette looked very much like a mouse, so we called it ‘Milky Mouse’! The camera settings for this photo were a 30-second exposure at f/4.0 with an ISO of 6400.

Mark Gee

Award-winning astrophotographer talks about his work, his home and his love of Africa

Q What was your favourite moment on your Africa tour?
There were so many incredible moments on my African tour, but my favourite was when we headed out on the night game drive in search of giraffes to photograph under the night sky. It was certainly a challenge to find giraffes who would stay still enough for the long exposure, but we finally came across some resting in the grass. I carefully set my camera up trying not to disturb them, clicked the shutter button, and 30 seconds later I had the perfect shot of the giraffes resting under the Milky Way.

Q Would you say you have fallen in love with Africa? 
To be honest, Africa wasn’t on my list of go-to places, but when I got the opportunity to come to Bushtops Camps, I took it. From the day I arrived I really fell in love with Africa – the landscape, the wildlife, and the people really warmed my soul. I’ve been having African withdrawals since coming home – I can’t wait to get back!

Q What inspired you to start astrophotography?
Fourteen years ago, I moved to New Zealand and noticed how amazing the night skies were. I began to go out to remote locations and just sit under the stars for hours. I wanted to be able to photograph the night sky but just didn’t know where to start. Finally in 2009 I saw the winning entries of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year and was amazed by the beauty of the images, so I began to do research on how to photograph the stars. After many failed attempts, I began to have some success with my photos, and that’s when I became hooked on astrophotography.

Q What’s it like in New Zealand?
As far as I’m concerned New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The landscape is stunning, and differs greatly between the North and the South Islands; it has been shaped by volcanic and geothermal forces for thousands of years. There is more than 15,000km of coastline around New Zealand, and the beaches vary from pristine white sandy beaches to the more rugged and rocky coastline with black iron sand. The weather systems develop deep within the southern oceans and can be quite extreme, but after those storms pass you usually get the perfectly clear days and the amazing night skies. New Zealand is certainly a photographer’s paradise.

Your turn?
And here’s the brilliant news: you can meet Mark and share his expertise at Bushtops. Mark loved his trip so much that he has decided to come back in June 2016 – this time, to host astrophotography workshops at Mara Bushtops in Kenya and our sister camp Serengeti Bushtops in Tanzania. So if any aspiring photographers want to combine wildlife safaris with astrophotography, use the links below to learn more.

Mark’s Facebook: The art of night – photography of Mark Gee

Mark’s Instagram @theartofnight

Robin’s Facebook: Robin Stuart

Robin’s Instagram @galactic_safari

Bushtops Facebook: Bushtops Camps

Bushtops Instagram @Bushtops_camps