astrophotography

Midnight in the Ogwen Valley

A look at the forecast for the Bank Holiday weekend suggested it would be a good time to head up North to Snowdonia so I did just that and the conditions didn't disappoint. Wall to wall sunshine and warmth by day giving way to clear moonless nights. Trying to combine hobbies doesn't always work out too well. I went walking and scrambling with friends during the day and in such circumstances I rarely get in the zone or position to take photos. I managed some phone snaps in the blazing sunshine but by the time the light began to turn golden, we'd headed down to get a well deserved ice cream and collect our medals. No complaints from me. But as I've discussed here before, going to take photos requires solitude which is usually for the best as it can be a maddening process getting a good shot; Many minutes pass by experimenting with different angles or walking back and forth and around and about trying to get a composition just right, often followed by curses before walking off then returning to the same spot because a more attractive cloud has drifted into the scene when my back was turned. It's not that enjoyable for someone who expects a walk in the style of a normal person especially as more often than not, the results don't please and never see the light of day. This is the only picture worth sharing here after a few days spent in Snowdonia.


At night I said my goodbyes and found my solitude in the Ogwen valley. Stood opposite the grand peak of Pen yr Ole Wen, waiting until nearly midnight before the last of the days light had faded away and let all those stars shine in the deep blue darkness. Adding to the magic of that night, as the last cars headed home down the valley, the aurora lent purple to the palette and a green smudge across the horizon above Bethesda and Bangor.

This shot is taken only a hundred metres or so away from where my last Snowdonia picture was taken in my post from 12th February. Promise next time I'll go somewhere else!

A trip to Iceland and thoughts on solitude in landscape photography

I've not long returned from a short trip to Iceland. We only had 6 days start to finish and with the limited daylight time on a trip towards the arctic regions in Winter it meant we were crossing our fingers for good conditions and also for clear night skies coupled with some geomagnetic activity to give us a chance of seeing the aurora... not too much to ask surely! We got lucky: although we had conditions ranging from blue skies and sunshine to a raging Atlantic storm, we had good windows of weather and crucially some of these windows came at night. Also, we were blessed with some intense aurora activity coinciding with the periods of clear skies. A miracle!

Given our limited time on the island we made our way to the Snæfellsnes peninsula as we'd read that it was a great way to see plenty of the features of the island in a relatively small area. Lava fields, fishing villages, rugged coast and mountains are all packed into this small finger of land on the West of the island. We stayed at Grundarfjörður and arrived after a sunny drive but the following day brought brutal winds which meant sightseeing was abandoned in the afternoon after the wind had made us question how strong a gust was needed to flip our vehicle off the road. The following day brought more settled weather and that evening we ventured out to have a look to see if there was any aurora action.

We headed for a view of Kirkjufell, the iconic hill that rises out of the sea just west of the town and which can be nicely framed with a waterfall in the foreground. We weren't disappointed and the first time I’ve seen the lights properly aside from some horizon-anchored smudges in the skies of Pembrokeshire was a special experience. It’s a strange event that people will often describe in bombastic terms but it’s really a very serene phenomenon. Aside from the noise of the tumbling waterfall the lights appear silently as what appeared to be some wispy light cloud against the night sky but soon developed into a cord of light that crossed the sky and slowly undulated and swayed around the heavens. We had a good chance to gaze skyward and enjoy the moment whilst also taking some photos as the lights remained for a while until gradually fading away.

In the next couple of days we explored the area around the Golden Circle of attractions. Geysars, huge waterfalls and volcanic terrain all make for a fascinating landscape but were mostly viewed quickly after a scamper from the car in full waterproofs!

On our last night in Iceland we ventured out on the West coast of the Reykjanes peninsula where the intensity of the aurora really was awe inspiring. The increased level of geomagnetic activity meant there was really powerful curtains of light across the sky and at times, directly overhead a corona where green gave way to red and yellow shades that seemed to be falling from the sky. This time the soundtrack was the pounding waves upon the rocky shore and the sweep of the beam from the nearby lighthouse added to the atmosphere.

I have a funny relationship with some of these shots as one or two feel tainted in several ways. Anyone who follows landscape photography accounts online will probably know Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain on Iceland. It’s easily accessible and a popular spot with photography groups so I’ve seen the view countless times. On the night we went there, further up the path a workshop leader was barking instructions at his students who were all gathered in the same place to get the same shot. I’m not exaggerating when I say he was like a drill sergeant so I shuffled past in disbelief, into the darkness and found a quiet spot further down the falls. He was the complete antithesis to why I enjoy this kind of photography. For me, solitude is important when engaging in landscape photography. It gives a chance to fully immerse yourself in your surroundings and although I'm trying to capture a particular moment, there is also an appreciation of the changing scene in front of me. I also find it sad that people wish to only collect their version of a shot they have seen countless times before. It feels to me like social media has reduced the planet to only these iconic sights. Like Bruce Lee said... “it’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you miss all the heavenly glory”. But at the same time; the spot was on our doorstep, it was an amazing night and maybe this is the most incredible shot I’ve ever taken so I have to try and accept the positives!

Anyway, here are a selection of shots from the trip...

Anatomy of a photo - Night time at the coast

Pembrokeshire is a great place for night and astro photography because of the relatively low levels of light pollution. A number of sights have been designated as Dark Sky Discovery Sites but many other places are dark enough for good photos too. People sometimes ask how I go about creating images at night assuming that some kind of specialist equipment is required. Although I don't consider myself an expert and make plenty of mistakes myself, here are some notes on producing the image below including equipment choices as well as logistical challenges.

This picture was taken in March last year. I noticed that it was a clear night but checked the infrared satellite imagery online to make sure it would stay clear. I also checked where the moon would be on the Lunafaqt phone app. It looked good and I saw it was pretty much a half moon which would be high enough in the sky to shine light down on the scene avoiding any shadows from the cliffs. The half moon meant that there would be plenty of light but not so much that the stars would be invisible. In full moon light you aren't able to see many stars and the scene can look like slightly weird daylight.

For long exposure (slow shutter speed) shots you need the wind to be fairly light. This night was roughly 10mph ENE wind and cold at around 4 degrees C. As anyone in Pembrokeshire knows... the wind is rarely light so I was in luck. For night photos of the sea you want some swell so you get all those nice white bits around the rocks and the state of tide will also have a bearing on how much rock is exposed to the waves. Occasionally it's possible to see the Northern Lights in Pembrokeshire. Due to our dark skies we have a good chance of seeing something if it is there so it's always a good idea to check the Aurora forecast. If there's a chance then you definitely want to be looking at a composition that faces North. So there's quite a few elements you need to align before you bother making the trip out. No cloud, light wind, right moon phase, some swell. So the usual requirement to be in the right place at the right time is true but design and some good fortune are needed to make sure you're in the position to succeed. Often you'll get to a spot and realise it isn't going to work for one reason or another, or you might shoot for a couple of hours and get home to find you haven't got a decent shot; but as with a lot of photography, by learning to to visualise what you want before you go blindly into the night and getting familiar with the technical challenges, you can improve your chances.

For decent night photos you need a good DSLR that won't produce too much 'noise' (grain) at high ISO levels when taking long exposure shots. You also need a lens that allows as much light in as possible because it's dark! F2.8 or faster is good. I shot this on my Canon 5Dii with a Tamron 24-70 2.8 lens. You also need a decent tripod because the shutter is going to be open for at least 20 seconds and you don't want any movement whilst the shutter is open. Hanging your rucksack off the tripod is a good way to stabilise it. You may also want a shutter release cable so that touching the camera doesn't cause any camera shake. You're also going to be standing around in the cold for at least an hour so best wrap up warm and maybe consider a flask of tea or port!

First off I drove 4 miles before I realised I had brought the wrong lens (a lesson learnt), so I went home, got the right lens and drove the 6 miles to Abercastle.  To get into position is roughly a 20 minute walk along the coast path to the spot I had considered in the daylight a few days before. Being careful not to fall off the cliff in the dark I set about taking a picture. The first problem is trying to focus a camera in the dark. In this instance the best way was to do it manually using Live View and the moonlight to get as close to sharp as possible. Other techniques can work well such as placing a torch in the scene where you wish to focus as it gives you a bright spot to focus on. You can also focus on the moon or stars depending on what you need to be in focus. 

To get a decent exposure you need to keep the shutter open for around 20-30 seconds. If you leave the shutter open too long you risk picking up the movement of the stars so instead of points of lights you get streaks of light (an effect you sometimes want to exploit for 'star trail' pictures). So you take a few pictures until you get the focus dead on which means standing around for 20 seconds, checking the picture, making any adjustments and repeating until you get it sharp. A bit of trial and error is needed.

As each exposure takes a good amount of time to create, it's important to make sure the composition is as you want. When you're happy you can start watching out for elements that might make a better image. For this one I waited until a big set of waves came into the bay. The whitewater produces nice borders around the rocks so it's worth trying to time it right but often you can just stand around pressing the button every 20 seconds and watching the nocturnal world go by. Keep an eye out for shooting stars, the ISS or UFO's to make the picture a bit more exciting. On the coast in North Pembrokeshire you can enjoy the rhythmic sweep of the Strumble Head lighthouse (visible on the left of the picture), consider the tankers in the bay, listen to the gulls and other sounds of the night or listen to some Leonard Cohen on your ipod whilst jumping around to keep warm.

So on to the results... On this night I took my first picture at 21:14 and took my last shot at 22:55. An hour and 40 minutes from first to last shot. I walked back to the car, got home, downloaded the pictures and had a look through what I'd got. I'd taken 57 pictures in total and realised that on this occasion I'd been ever so slightly out of focus on many of the shots, I singled out several that were A: In focus B: Nice. I then spent about half an hour processing the image using photoshop. First, eliminating some dust spots on the lens. Second, the colour balance. Moonlight has a colour temperature of around 4000k. Sunlight is around 5800k and colours will appear differently depending on your settings but you can experiment to get the best level in post processing. Needless to say I am shooting in RAW to allow these changes to be made. On Photoshop I generally use curves to add contrast and depending on the image I'll use several layers and masks to make changes to particular areas. For example, the whitewater around the rocks will require different processing than the sky or the cliffs.

And so, after leaving the house at 20:05, I returned at around 23:00. After processing I had one image I was happy with! One image in 4.5 hours! So here it is... I hope you think it was worth it.

Whitesands Bay under the Milky Way

Scroll down for image...

I always enjoy heading outside at night when the skies are clear. In Pembrokeshire we are lucky to have plenty of places where there is little in the way of light pollution and in fact, there are several areas that are designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites http://www.visitpembrokeshire.com/explore-pembrokeshire/gazing-at-the-stars/ Whitesands Bay is not on the list but is still a great place to see the stars when there's a gap in the clouds. 

I often only decide to head out when I happen to look out of the window and notice the stars are out, or when putting the bins out. Bin bag in hand, I look upwards and realise I need to get my camera out and wrap up warm for a couple of hours stood in the dark gazing upwards and attending to the technical challenges of photography in the dark. Sometimes I curse the lack of clouds if it's late and I'm ready for bed but I rarely regret making the effort to get out there.

I heard this Kafka story read on the radio recently and although I rarely slam doors or speak curtly on my departure, the story struck a chord somehow! I rarely stop by to see any friends either, it's usually a solitary practice unless I bump into the odd nocturnal animal; A fox spent a good deal of time barking at me in a cemetery once. 

If you enjoy my night photography there are some more images on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ThomasBownPhotography/

The Sudden Walk

by Franz Kafka

Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when, besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets - then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.

All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.

From... http://www.franzkafkastories.com/index.php

And so to the picture...