The beautiful ugly sister


The beautiful ugly sister

The is a particular vision of astro beauty that I am chasing. Not surprisingly, it includes the aurora, dancing in the skies above me - something I have been privileged to have witnessed many times in Northern Ireland. But this dream involves another ingredient found only on the coldest of cold aurora chasing nights - a snowy landscape below a starry sky above. I have visions of the vivid colour of a large aurora casting its eerie green glow on the gently undulating snow drifts in the fields in front of me. I have come close, once before. But, to me, it was only a taster of what I'm really after. I can see it in my head; and it looks awesome.

So, when there's even the remote chance of realising this dream, I have to spring into action. And so it was on a Monday evening early in December, with the snow lying fresh on the ground, with clear skies forecast for the heavens above, and with the chance of an aurora making an appearance at some stage, that myself and fellow astrophotography buddy Johnny Baird set off towards a favoured hunting ground at Slemish.

The roads were ice rinks. The journey up was challenging and involved more than one spin of the wheels on ground that simply refused to give up any semblance of traction. But carefully and slowly we wove our way to the little brook that flows off the flanks of this ancient volcano. The skies, as promised, were crystal clear and the stars quietly got on with their famous twinkling overhead. The snow was glistening with a sharp frost that had descended with the night, reflecting back so much light that we could see so clearly, even on this moonless night. And there wasn't a breath of wind; the only sound to be heard was the gentle gurgling of the little brook, as the water that had managed to escape the icy grip of winter tumbled and frolicked downstream. All we needed was for lady aurora to come out a dance for us. 

But she was playing hard to get that night. So hard, that it seemed that she hadn't even put her party dress on, never mind started to spin and twirl above us.

However, sometimes when the main act doesn't cooperate, it gives room for another character to emerge into the limelight. For, in the skies above, there was another celestial light display going on: airglow.

Causeway introductions

It was an amazing display in September at the Giant's Causeway that first made me fall for airglow.

Too often seen as the aurora's ugly sister ("That's not aurora, it's just airglow"), in actual fact this is a thing of tremendous beauty all in itself. Okay, so it may not reach the dizzying heights of an amazing aurora display. But that night at the Causeway I got to see what a proper airglow display looks like.

Waves of light, rippling across the sky, with an intensity that was bright enough to light the very ocean itself green in long exposure shots on the camera. I was blown away by the show, and I was hooked

My only regret that night was that I wasn't able to shoot a timelapse video. Just how dynamic are those ripples, I wondered. And I resolved myself to find out the very next opportunity I got!

I don't need to be asked twice

So, when I spotted the waves of airglow in the sky that night, I didn't need asking twice! Up went the camera, the intervelometer was set, and we stood back for the next hour whilst my camera did its work, enjoying looking out for a few early Geminid meteors in the starry skies above.

So here I present my very first airglow timelapse. And, if you've never yet seen just how much it moves across the night sky, then sit back and enjoy the aurora's ugly sister in all her glory!

"Not So Dark After All"

Free eBook on airglow

If you're interested in finding out more about what airglow is and how it occurs, check out my free mini eBook, "Not So Dark After All".


Not everything that is good is fun


Not everything that is good is fun

Not everything that is good is fun.

I must say, that's pretty much how I felt about life last night. I battled to the summit of Slieve Bearnagh yesterday for my first snow of the season. The forecast had suggested the snow line would be around 400m and, with showers expected over Friday night, there was a good chance the summits of the Kingdom of Mourne would be sprinkled in snow.

And indeed they were. The snow was fine. You can walk in snow. It was the ice on the way up that very steep and boulder-laden final push to the summit of Bearnagh. The rivulets of water that cascade down off the side of the mountain had begun to freeze as we pushed on up from Hare's Gap. As we went higher and higher, the froze more and more solid. At first, only the top of the water was frozen; but as we went higher, it all froze. The water, trapped in a never ending moment of time, clinging to the surfaces of the boulders - and making picking your way up arduous and treacherous.

And then there was the wind. The Met Office had said that, with the windchill, the temperatures on the summits would be a bone-chilling - 11 C. I had gone up prepared, layered up so much I looked like the Michelin Man! But even with all the gear, the wind was bitingly cold. If I took my gloves off at all to work my camera, my hands were getting numb within minutes. I could feel my cheeks beginning to tingle in the cold. I kept moving around, partly to take various photos, partly to keep warm!

Then there was the cloud. The tops of the mountains were shrouded in cap cloud, formed as the winds were forced up and over the peaks. Sometimes, the cloud gave hints it would clear, and hints of warm light came in from above. But it never did. Instead, here we were, wrapped up in this other world of snow and wind and cloud, enveloped in a land that felt far, far away, despite its familiarity.

Order in the midst of chaos In the cold and wind, the conditions were so harsh it was difficult to concentrate on basic things like composition. And that can be a problme on the top of Bearnagh. It's a very photogenic mountain summit. But, like many of the Mournes peaks, it's strewn with boulders, and the foreground can be very chaotic. Given that, I was very glad to stumble across this pleasing arrangement of rocks, forming an S-curve sweeping up to one of the main tors. One of the main goals of composition is to try ot bring about order from chaos. The apocolyptic conditions up there were chaotic enough - it was great to find this semblence of order!

This was not a time for the grand vistas - we simply couldn't see that far! Instead, I busied myself with trying to capture the mood of sheer brutality we were experiencing. Scenes draped in snow and ice, close up shots of those ancient granite tors, encrusted with ice, as they have been countless times over the millennia they have stood proud and resilient against the harshest of elements.

The Freedom of Constraint

I'm happy to admit that I'm a great fan of the grand vista shot. But, what happens when the cloud that has closed in on top of the mountain means you can'r see more than 30 metres away? There's no chance of any grand vista shots.

Sometimes constraint can be the very thing that bring liberty. In this case, the cloud forced me to look closer, at things that otherwise I might have overlooked. In this case, it was the forst encrusted tors. The patterns and shapes, along with the tonal contrasts of the dar baslat and the ice crystals, made for intruiging subject matter.

So I set about looking for lines and patterns and shapes, details hidden in plain sight.

Then it was time to descend. If the ascent had been hard, the descent was even more so. The icy conditions meant that every foot step had to be placed oh so carefully; routes had to be decided upon to avoid the frozen streams and had to be navigated with great care. We were so relieved to make it back down to Hare's Gap. But, of course, from there, there's still a good hour's hike back to the car. By now, it was getting dark, so the head torches came out. And so did the snow and hail. As our head torches shone into the falling snow, driven by the wind howling up the valley, it was like we were travelling in hyperspace in some spacecraft as the snow whizzed past us, stinging our cheeks for good measure as it did.

And finally we go back to the cars, too tired even to feel much by way of relief. As I sat in the car, quickly processing one of the shots I got on my phone, I was sore. I was cold. I was weary. I was not having fun.

And yet, I felt great. It was undoubtedly one of the most challenging hikes I've had up the mountains. And that's part of what made it so rewarding. Sometimes you can simply drive to a location and great a great photograph. But sometimes you have to push yourself, endure experiences that are painful and hard. And, if you do, the reward is even greater.

Not everything that is good is fun - and I wound't have it any other way!


When it's easy being green

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When it's easy being green

Part 1 of a two part blog on the big aurora display of 7th November 2017.

‘It’s not easy being green,’ opined that insightful philosopher and observer of life, Kermit the Frog. Sometimes misunderstood, often at the receiving end of criticism and complaint, and having the burdensome joy of that on-off love affair with the incorrigible Ms Piggy. Yeah, he had it tough.

Not that I would want to compare my challenges with such a degree of hardship, but sometimes it’s not easy chasing green - especially if you live in Northern Ireland. Cloud hiding a great display, rain keeping us from heading out, weather a constant challenge. Add in the fact that, as we are currently in solar minimum, there just seems to be less activity going on for us to chase, even when the weather plays ball. In fact, the last major display that I had seen, complete with vivid dancing rays that went well up into the sky, was March 2016 (the Mother’s Day aurora). The dance of the night sky was increasingly becoming a distant memory, gathering dust in the corners of my mind.

So, with the chance of an aurora on Tuesday 7th November and with clear skies being forecast, it was more with hope than expectation that I set out on the chase once more. The batteries were charged, the memory cards cleared, the geared packed, and off I went.

Little did I know that, before the night was out, I’d be seeing auroral blobs, waves rippling across the auroral arc, and the best and most dynamic pillar display I’d seen in 18 months. Enough, no less, to prompt my famous (and as yet unobserved by any other human) aurora jig, in the cover of darkness, whilst the sky froliced above me!

I’m going to break this blog into two parts: the first will map the aurora display across to the data that was coming in from the satellites and magnetometers - forecasting the aurora, if you like. The second will take us through in much more detail the various structural and morphological features that were on display that night - observing the aurora.

Part 1: Forecasting the aurora

For this, we’ll use my usual three questions.

1. Is it possible?

As we approached Tuesday, some minor alerts were coming in from Coronal Hole 39

Coronal holes are cooler areas of the Sun’s surface which have open magnetic field lines. This allows plasma from the Sun to escape out into the Solar System, enhancing the solar wind and producing what is known as a Coronal Hole High Speed Stream (CH HSS). This takes typically 3 days to reach the Earth and, when it does so, it may produce more enhanced auroral activity here.

Satellite images showed this region had rotated into a geo-effective position (i.e. it was pointing towards the Earth) and a fast stream of charged solar plasma was headed for us. That meant that activity was possible on Tuesday night - enough to get me planning for heading out, anyway.

CH image.jpg

2. Is it probable?

Whether the CH HSS actually brings enhanced aurora depends on the characteristics of the solar wind as is arrives at the Earth. The ACE satellite data that was coming in during the daylight hours of the 7th was hopeful.

A. The magnitude of the solar wind

As the CH HSS approaches, ahead of it is what is called a CIR (Corotating Interaction Region).

You can think of a CIR as being like the bow wave of an approaching ship. As the HSS speeds through space, it pushes into the slower ambient solar wind, causing it to gather up like a ship’s bow wave. This causes an increase in density of the solar wind as the HSS arrives; then, with the arrival of the HSS itself, the density drops again and the speed picks up.

The ACE satellite data was revealing that the CIR seemed to be here. The density had gone up to 10/cm3 and the speed was not yet elevated much (sitting around ambient levels of around 400 km/s).


And, as we moved into the late afternoon, the density dropped and the speed started to climb up to around 500 km/s. It looked like the HSS had arrived, and that something big was about to slam into our atmosphere and stir things up enough that we might get some aurora.

B. The orientation of the solar wind

But the magnitude alone is not enough. For good aurora activity in the mid-latitudes, we need the magnetic orientation of the solar wind to be aligned in such a way that it allows the aurora to travel further south. Again, the ACE satellite data looked hopeful.

The Bt (a measure of the strength of the magnetism of the solar wind) was sitting in the high teens - a good level for the mid-latitudes. As the CIR approaches, the Bt often increases, before decreasing as the HSS arrives.

Even more significantly, the Bz (a measure of the orientation of the magnetism of the solar wind) had been mostly negative - this allows the auroral oval to move further equatorwards, increasing our chances of seeing the aurora in the UK.

The Bt acts as a cap on the Bz. The Bz numerical value, whether positive or negative, cannot be a greater number than the numerical value of the Bt. So, a higher Bt with a negative Bz is good for possibilities of sightings in the UK.

This allowed me to say as we approached mid to late afternoon that there was a good probability of some action that night. In fact, having fallen a bit around midday, the Bt rose again slightly into the late afternoon - a good sign. And with the clear skies we were expecting, I was going out with a good level of expectation of at least some action.

3. Is it here?

In the second part of the blog, I’ll cover in more detail what it was like observing the aurora, so this section will be shorter, but I’ll include some material for completeness’ sake.

Once we’re out observing, the next set of data that we want to use are the magnetometers.

Magnetometers record the disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field. The Norwegian line mags are the ones I mostly use. The graphs show a series of magnetometers at different latitudes running down through Svalbard (80 N) down through Norway and down into Denmark (55 N). There are two things we want to see in these graphs: (1) a greater amplitude of disturbance on the graphs (2) extending as far south as possible - the further south the deviations, the further equatorwards the aurora activity is extending

Once we see the mags responding, we know that enhanced activity is likely very soon. When we look at these mags for the 7th November, we can see that there are two periods of greater activity, both corresponding to what we were observing across the UK.


And what activity is was too, with many of the features of an aurora display that it’s possible to observe in the mid-latitudes actually being observed. In the next blog, I’ll do a field report of what I was seeing, matching it in closely to the magnetometer activity, and cover some of the main morphological forms the aurora can take for us here in the UK.

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Promoting the Causeway Coast


Promoting the Causeway Coast

It's funny how sometimes something can be right under your nose and yet you don't notice it. The keys you've set down that you can't find, that someone else can come in and see straight away. As my wife will tell you, all too often that is me. The glasses you're looking for that you've out on top of your head. Yes, guilty of that one too.

And what about the glorious volcanic cliff top walk, full of stunning reveals of epic precipitous columnar cliffs,  that was right along the north coast all your life, but that you never really knew about?

To my shame, I was guilty of that - up until about 18 months ago when I got an invitation to photograph a walking tour along all five majestic miles from Dunseverick to the main Causeway. It was then that my eyes were opened, and I realised what had been hidden there my whole life, just waiting to be explored.

Since then, I've tried to make up time exploring this amazing coastal walk way. And it has never failed to disappoint!

Belfast Telegraph Walking Guide


So I was delighted to partner with the good folks at Walk NI to help spread the good news of this amazing place, just round the corner from the famous Causeway that attracts people from all over the world.

In today's Belfast Telegraph, Walk NI have produced a walking guide for ten great autumn walks across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. My beloved Mournes features, as do places for across the Province.

But I was particularly pleased to have one of my photos from that first tour featured to help promote the Causeway Cliff top path - deemed to be walk number one (of course!)

Do why not grab a copy today and find out about it and the other places that perhaps you haven't quite yet discovered?

Walk NI Guide to the Causeway Coast and Antrim Glens

In fact, this wasn't the first time I worked with Walk NI to promote this path. Last summer, Walk NI produced a pdf guide to walking the Causeway Coast and Glens. And this time, it's a picture of yours truly gracing the front cover, enjoying an epic sunset at Hamilton's Seat (I feel a whole new career as a back model opening up!)

We are very lucky in Northern Ireland. There are so many gems out there waiting to be explored - and perhaps uncovered by you for the first time...

Now, as for those car keys. Have you tried looking on top of your head for them?!


How to shoot star trails


How to shoot star trails

Top tips that will get your world spinning

What kind of mad man hikes up into the mountains in the deepening twilight, only to sit for an hour half way up a mountain, shivering with the cold as the temperatures plummet under the clear skies above?

The kind of mad man who gets likes to take time out from the manic busyness of life just to lie back and stare up at the stars above for an hour, watching our planet spin its way through the cosmos, that's who. Oh, and to shoot a set of shots to make a star trails photo in the process!

After spending an hour the other night perched on the flanks of Slieve Binnian, I thought I'd share with you how you could capture a shot like this for yourself.

If you'd like to take time out to star at the stars - and to get a cool star trails shot in the process - read on!

1. The gear you will need

  • A camera that allows manual control e.g. DLSR or a mirrorless camera (although many smart phones have a star trails function these days too).
  • A sturdy tripod - you'll be taking shots for about an hour, and any movement in your tripod over that time will ruin your final photo.
  • A wide angle lens - to get as much of the sky in as possible and to get as big a spin of trails, you'll need to go as wide as you can - preferably at least 12mm on a crop sensor camera or 16mm on a full frame.
  • Intervelometer - this will allow you to take shot after shot without having to touch your camera (again important for maintaining the camera position, as well as allowing you to lie back and look at the stars!). Your camera may have this built in; if not, you can buy a cable release that will allow you to do this too.
  • Well charged batteries
  • Warm clothes - you'll get cold sitting around for an hour!

The hardest thing about this shot was standing still for an hour...

2. Setting up your camera

i. Put your camera on full manual mode

ii. Focus on a bright light source far away and turn your camera on to manual focus

iii. Shoot in RAW

iv. Set the aperture first

  • If it's a Moonless night, it'd be best if you had a lens with a wide aperture - at least f/2.8 is preferable - to allow yourself to capture lots of light.
  • If the Moon is out, a narrower aperture would do, but don't go much above f/4 as you don't want your image to be too dark.

v. Set the shutter speed to 30 seconds.

You are shooting for more than 30 seconds, so why 30 seconds? Because if you shoot for much longer than that, your sensor will heat up and you will start to get spots of white on your image which are caused by the overheating of the sensor. Lots of 30 second exposures are better than one exposure of 15 minutes. Additionally, 30 seconds is the maximum your camera can shoot before going on to bulb mode, so 30 seconds will allow you to sit back and enjoy the view whilst your camera does all the work!

vi. Set the ISO after this and test your exposure

Start around ISO 2000 or so and see how the photo comes out (different cameras handle higher ISO settings differently, so you'll have to experiment and see what's best for you).

vii. Check your histogram to make sure the exposure is okay

Don't rely on your eyesight and the image on the back of the screen. Your eyes will dark adjust and the backlit screen may mislead you into thinking that your exposure is okay. But, when you load it into your computer when you get home, you may well find out that it's too dark. Make sure the histogram isn't too bunched in to the left (too dark) and watch out for highlghts that may be blown.

3. Taking the shots

Framing the composition is vital in star trails shots. Because, once you've started, you cannot move your camera for the next hour! So it's worth experimenting with a series of test shots to make sure you've got it right.

i. Get your foreground set up pleasingly, with the elements composed as you would with any photo.


ii. Then think about how you want the stars to be placed. In the Northern Hemisphere, the stars spin around Polaris (the North Star). You can find it by locating The Plough and following a line up from the two stars on its rght. Move up along this line, and the next bright star you come to (just slightly off this line) is Polaris. If you include it in your shot, it will remained fixed, and the rest of the stars with spin around this like a celestial vortex.

I stood far enough down the steps at Dunluce so that my camera was abot to point up and get Polaris too (shot at 11mm on a crop sensor Nikon DSLR).

This is where the wider angle lenses come in handy - getting the ground and Polaris in the shot can be tricky without them. If you don't have a wider angle lens, think about doing a portrait oriented shot.

The portrait orientation here allowed me to get Polaris in as well as the river in the foreground.


iii. Once you're happy with your composition, set your intervelmeter up to take about 120 shots. At 30 second exposures, that's an hour's worth of shooting, long enough to make for decent length star trails.

iv. Then, let your camera do all the work for the next hour. Your job now is to lie back in the darkness and gaze up into the skies above, and let your imagination run riot as you think about the 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, never mind all the other billions of galaxies out there. Moments like this are good for the soul, I can tell you...

4. Post production

When you finally get home and warmed up, the next stage is putting the fruit of your labours all together.

i. Batch process your shots in Lightroom (or some equivalent software). Work on a single shot to address things like:

  • Noise reduction
  • Bringing up shadows on the foreground
  • Perhaps adding a darkening gradient to the sky to bright out the contrasts so that the stars pop a bit more (this will depened on your overall exposure, and will probably be more necessary if you shoot on a night with lots of moonlight).

ii. Once you've exported them as jpgs, then you can use a program to make the star trails for you. the one I use is Starstax - it's free, easy to use, and it does that one job very well. Simply drag the images in and watch the stat trails appear before your every eyes. Hey presto, and your work is done!

5. Time lapse video

Or, maybe not quite! One of the added benefits of shooting 120 images is that you;ve got a bunch of images that you can put into the likes of Moviemaker and produce a time lapse video, showing the stars spin. In fact, you can get Starstax to output a photo each time it adds a new shot you've taken (rather than just one single image at the end). So not only can you have a time lapse video of the stars spinning, but you can get the trails to appear before you too. All you need is some suitably epic music as a backing track, and you're ready to be the next Steven Spielberg!

So there you have it. Now you're all set to join this mad club with us astro photographers. To get cold, to be out late - and to have the chance to lie back and gaze off into the eternal wonders of the night sky for an hour. Who needs feeling in your toes anyway...?!?