Matariki is a star cluster of around 500 stars that is visible at this time of the year in the lower North Eastern sky, just before dawn. Although there are 500 stars in the cluster, with the naked eye, you will only be able to make out up to 9 individual stars tightly packed together.
To spot the Matariki cluster, you will need to find a good vantage point. You will need a location with a clear view of the North-Eastern sky: ideally somewhere where you can see the horizon. Any beach on the East Coast with a North Eastern outlook would work, but if you are further inland, or on the West Coast, you will likely need to get to the top of a hill with a view out to the East. Some preparation will help here, and it would be a good idea to go and visit the site a few days early, during daylight hours to check out your viewing location and ease of access.
Keep your eye on the weather, as you are looking for a clear dawn, without cloud cover. If the morning of June 24 is looking like it’s going to be cloudy, try a couple of days on either side of the 24th, as the night sky will still be very similar, and Matariki will still be visible.
Depending on where you are viewing the sky in Aotearoa, the timings may be slightly different, but approximately on June 24th, the Sun will rise at 7.30 am. However, to see Matariki, you will need to be up and looking at the North-Eastern sky somewhere between 5.30 am and 6 am before the sun’s light starts to dim the starscape. It’s going to be an early morning for you, perhaps even getting up at 4.30 am to get a warm drink, put some warm clothes on, grab your camera and head out so that you are set up at your chosen location by 5.30 am.
Looking to the North East, one of the most striking constellations that many of us are familiar with is Orion’s Belt, commonly referred to as ‘The Pot’. Once you locate Orion, cast your gaze left and down slightly, to where you will see a bright reddish star, known as Taumata-Kuku. Follow the same path further left, and as your eyes adjust to the night, you will be able to see the star cluster Matariki. It will help if you rest your eyes before viewing, no bright lights or phone screens to distract you, and let your eyes adjust to the night sky.
To photograph Matariki, you will need a camera that you can operate manually. You will need to set your shutter speed manually, somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds in length, and you will need to have your camera on a tripod to keep it steady for the duration of the image. Choose a wide-angle lens that will be able to get in some of the foreground and a decent amount of the night sky.
If you expose them for longer than 30 seconds, the stars will noticeably move through your image, and will not be defined as points of light; they will start to become star trails. If you have a telephoto lens, this movement will be even more pronounced in an even shorter timeframe. This is why the wider the lens the easier it is to make images of the night sky. On a full-frame camera, anything 35mm or below with an aperture of 2.8 or below would be ideal. On an APSC camera, anything 23mm or below, with an aperture of 2.0 or below would be ideal. If your lens has an aperture of 4.0 or above, you will still be able to make an image, but your image will be much darker and not be that satisfying. Your ISO will be higher than you are used to shooting with, and I would start around ISO 3200. If your aperture is not super wide, you might need to bump that up to ISO 6400 or even higher.
You will also need to set your focus manually. A good way I find is to digitally zoom into the stars of Orion with your manual focus assist, and turn your focus ring until the brightest star is a small defined point, rather than a fuzzy blob. Then when you take your photo, all the stars should be nice and defined. When starting out it may take a little bit of fine-tuning, as it can be difficult to tell sometimes if your focus is spot on. But once you have your focus set, away you go, composition is now your key focus.
Composition is ultimately a personal choice, but I find it is the choice that can have the most dramatic effect on your image. So get out there, and go hunting for something interesting to include in your frame. A prominent tree, or distant ridge line, even the waves breaking on the shore of the beach. Find a great location that you feel comfortable in to take in the beauty of the night sky and the season of Matariki.
Half the excitement is experiencing it with your own eyes, but if you can come home with a great picture, that’s definitely a bonus that will leave you keen for more. Astrophotography is a fascinating pursuit. The changing seasons, moons, skies, weather and your location mean you will always encounter something new. I would encourage you to also do a bit of research, as finding out the depth and meaning of Matariki in te ao Māori might just make this season that little bit more special.
About Mark Russell
Kia ora, I'm Mark Russell, a professional Photographer and Videographer, who runs our company Renegade Peach with my wife Sophi. I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in my life on Aotea / Great Barrier Island, and as the island has some of the best dark skies in the world, two of my favorite things collided. I have been taking Astrophotography images ever since.