The things you can never plan


The things you can never plan

In my recent podcast interview for 'The Photographer's Craic' host Ross asked me about how I planned my shots.

The reality is, I often tend to be more spontaneous than planned. With a family and job, I get out when I can, fitting in around my other obligations. The experience of being out is the main goal. The photos - when the light and conditions are good enough to make them happen - are the overspill of that.


A recent photowalk along the Causeway cliffs was certainly proof of that! I had had my eye on a wee island - Benadanir - in Portmoon Bay on the Causeway Coast. Since i first walked the 5 miles along the cliff tops from Dunseverick to the main Causeway, this little island caught my eye.  Triangular in shape, yet really quite thin, its shape changes dramatically depending on the viewing angle - and you don't need to walk too far to get a completely different perspective on it. On top of that, its western flank is colonnaded with those distinctive basaltic columns. 

But, more that a geological wonder, its history is fascinating too. Benadanir translates from Irish as Peak of the Danes. It appears to have reminded my forebears of that ominous sight - the sails of the Viking longboats, which must have been visible here during the 8th century, when those Danish men of lore roamed the coasts around the British Isles. 

What is must have been like to have stood on these self same cliffs and to have seen that recognisable - and terrifying - shape appear from the distance, and sail along the rugged coastline. Did the eyes of the Irish meet those of the Danes, the former only protected by the hundred feet of sheer basalt between the sailors and the locals...?

Whatever the history, it left its mark - and its name in this stunning location.

I had seen lots of shots of Benadanir at sunrise, lit from the side by the rising sun to the east, mostly as a foreground interest to Portmoon Bothy in behind it. But I had seen none from here at sunset.

But that night, I just happened to be free to head out there in hope. The light had been good all day. There was cloud forecast to come in later. But I thought I'd give it a try anyway.

As I drove to the location, the cloud gathered in and the light began to fade. Ah well, I thought to myself, I'll get a nice wee walk anyway.

The fifteen minutes it took for me to dander round into position saw the light deteriorate further. The milky haze of cirrostratus gave way to the flat grey of lower stratus cloud. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and I felt for sure rain was on the way.

Nevertheless, I took a few shots, thinking I'd get something nice and moody. These locations often suit that anyway. Then I packed up with about half an hour to go to sunset and started to dander back.

Peak of the Danes before the sun 2 (large) WM.jpg

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed it. The cloud that had been a bland, monochrome layer parted ever so slightly. A gap emerged, and a hint of glorious light poked through.

Would we get something after all, I wondered? I got my gear back out, fitted my filters, got back into position - and BOOM!

The sky lit up with the most insane colours. And yet they were soft and diffuse, washing across the sky as if painted by the lightest and deftest of watercolour brush strokes. That meant the cliffs were not thrown into dark shadows against a bright sky. The detail was still there to be seen.

Peak of the Danes pano more contrast (large) WM.jpg

The sea far off acted as a chorus to the sky, echoing the glorious refrain coming from above. And nearby, the aqua colours of the shallows added yet another hue to this polyphonic symphony.

Just goes to show. You can plan, or you can be spontaneous. But the light will do what the light will do. And our job - our privilege - is simply to try to be there when it happens, and to stand back in awe at the glory of creation all around us.


Pillars of light


Pillars of light

There’s a particular photo that most of us who do astrophotography can’t resist. At some point in our nocturnal wanderings, we will give this shot a go. It is the classic; perhaps even the cliche. But, still, we can’t resist the urge to add it to our repertoire. Is it the night time selfie - with a torch!

There we’ll stand, on some promontory, silhouetted against the starry sky, shining our torch up into the heavens above. The powerful beam of the torch reaches up into the sky, vying for attention against the vast array of stellar wonders all around, before gradually fading out high above, lost in the cosmic majesty of the universe above.

There is something of the scale of this one tiny human being and one single torch beam set against the vast, unimaginable distances of space that make this kind of image just so magical.

Enter the sun pillar!

But, as ever, nature can do one better. This time, it’s not the night sky that is the host to this light phenomenon, but rather the last few moments of sunset. And this time, it’s no mere torch that produces the column of light, but none other than our Sun itself.

For sometimes, when the conditions are right, as the sun slips down towards the horizon, painting the skies with warm washes of orange, you can discern a pillar of light, coming up vertically above the Sun, pushing far up into the twilight skies above. This is called - perhaps a bit unimaginatively - a sun pillar.

But the dull name belies a tremendous beauty. And a fascinating explanation as to how it forms. For these pillars are not the result of someone running off to the horizon with a big, powerful torch and shining it upwards.

Rather, as with most atmospheric optics, it begins with water. Or, more precisely, ice (and so are part of the family of halos that can form around the Sun and Mon).

And so it was, as I was wandering along the cliff tops at the Giant’s Causeway the other night, that I saw my latest sun pillar. The skies were mostly clear, but strands of broken cirrostratus cloud hung over the horizon. These clouds are some of the highest clouds that form, and are made up of ice crystals. As the Sun was setting, the light was passing through the cloud and being reflected by the ice crystals to produce the sun pillar. But how exactly?

Vertical sun pillar.jpg

The ice crystals in the cirrus clouds are hexagonal, plate-like in shape. And, if they are orientated horizontally, they basically act like millions of little mirrors. As the light from the Sun spreads out and heads towards us, some of it travels diagonally upwards above our heads. But that’s where the ice crystals come in. Their shape and orientation reflects this light back down towards us. And it’s this that causes the apparent pillar above the Sun.

Things are not always as them seem...

I say apparent pillar, because the feature itself is actually an optical illusion. The pillar of light is not like the torch light, which forms an actual pillar above the light source. Rather, its the collective reflection off millions of ice crystals that appear to lie in a vertical line above the Sun. These diagrams may help explain things (click or tap on the arrows to move through the images).

The horizontally orientated ice crystals can be jiggled around a bit by air currents, causing the reflection of light to become elongated into the full pillar of light. And this pillar can be seen even after the sun has set, as its light shines upwards from below the horizon and interacts with the ice crystals.

A sun pillar appears in the skies above Inishowen, Donegal.

Nocuturnal light pillars

In fact, this same set of processes can produce other kinds of light pillars too. For us in Ireland, the ice crystals needed for this optical illusion are found typically in the high cirrus clouds. But, in places that are much colder, the ice crystals can form at ground level and can be wafted about, suspended in the air turbulence. These have the much more exciting name of ‘diamond dust’. When this happens, the light sources that are reflected include artificial lights.

This image from Dar Tanner from Alberta, Canada shows the amazing light displays that can be seen when this occurs. These are pillars are formed by reflection of street light, creating these eerie pillars of light reaching up into the night sky. The temperatures that night were below minus 32 C (not including the wind chill!), cold enough for the ice crystals to dance about in the night sky. In fact, Dar tells me that you can see the ice crystals swirling about in the light pillar, very similar to how you can see the tiny water droplets squirm around in fog at night when a light source is shining through them.

Image source: Team Tanner

Perhaps one day I’ll be lucky enough to combine my artificial light beam with the natural light pillars and stand in front of a scene like this with my torch. I can but dream...

Check out some more of my blogs on atmospheric optics here:


Careful plans - and glorious surprises


Careful plans - and glorious surprises

How happy accidents when photographing the ISS can be the making of the shot

Those of us of a certain age, who grew up watching the classic original A Team on a Saturday afternoon, will remember with great fondness that moment when satisfied grin swept across Hannibal’s face as he lit yet another celebratory cigar and we waited for him to utter his catchphrase: ‘I love it when a plan comes together!’ The entertaining thing about this quote was that he usually uttered it after it had seemed like the plan was about to do anything but come together. They made it, just about, in the face of some rather significant bumps along the way.

I’ve always loved Hannibal’s quote much more than the rather self-important motivational poster John Lakein quote: ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’ Apart from its cheesiness, what Lakein’s quote fails to recognise for me is that very often the greatest pleasures in life come from the happy accidents, those moments of surprise blessing that you could never have expected. Sometimes the spontaneous moments are the moments of triumph, not failure.

And so it is with astrophotography.

The plan that needs to come together

Of course, planning is often an important element. If you are wanting to shoot Orion, there’s no point going out in May - Orion never comes above the horizon where I live at that time of year. You need to know what you’re looking for, when it will be in the sky, and the best times of year to view and photograph it. Planning, in that sense is the key to success.

So, when I wanted to photograph the International Space Station, I needed to know when it was passing overhead, where it would track across the sky and for how long. All of those elements needed a little bit of research from me to help me choose my location and my time.

How do I plan to see the ISS? There are various sites and apps you can use to track the position of the ISS. I follow @virtualastro on Twitter - he updates regularly when and where the ISS can be seen. Also, the [meteorwatch website][1] gives lots of details on the precise dates, times and positions of the ISS as it travels overhead. [1]:

With my plan well and truly made, I set off for the reservoirs above Carrick. There would be light pollution from the urban areas to my south, but the clear skies and open expanse of water gave me the chance to capture a long, bright pass by the ISS - and perhaps even get some reflections in the reservoir.

ISS at Woodburn dam (large) WM.jpg

I got into position, used my compass to orientate myself properly to get some of the key elements into the shot that I wanted - the ISS coming across the full frame; the Moon to my top right; and Jupiter to my left. I did a few test shots, just to make sure everything was set and ready. The brightness of the sky and the Moon meant that I was able to shoot at f4.5 and keep the ISO at 600 to control noise.

I had planned to do a series of 30 second exposures to track the ISS in its 4 minute pass overhead which I would then stitch together to create one seamless track of the ISS. I set up my intervelometer in the camera to shoot for 6 minutes to get all the shots I needed. And I waited.

The anticipation

One of the things I love about shooting the ISS is the anticipation. You literally have one go at it. Get something wrong, and everything else has been a waste. So, as I counted down the time to its arrival, my sense of anticipation was rising. About a minute before it was due, I started my intervelometer and stood back to watch it all.

Soon, the ISS started to fade into view below the Moon. Travelling at 5 miles per second at a height of around 200 miles, the ISS can catch the light of the Sun that has long set, making it shine brightly, a burning star-like object streaking across the night sky. As it swept across my field of view, it grew brighter and more intense, gently arching above me as my camera did its work.

My plan was coming together very nicely.

The glorious surprise

And, yet, unbeknown to me, another element was about to appear in my shot - something that would be the icing on the cake. Woodburn Dams lie below the flight path for Belfast International Airport and very often you will see planes fly overhead. But, as I stood watching the scene unfold in front of me, an intense spot of light appeared low to the horizon in the middle of my shot. It was clearly a plane, but one flying directly towards me. The spot of light got brighter as it approached. But then the most delightful of happy accidents happened - the plane started to bank around to my right, sweeping majestically across my field of view, in the opposite direction to the ISS.

It was as if some celestial light dance was taking place above me, the two dancers sweeping serenely and beautifully across the night sky, a counterpoint to each other in terms of height, direction and track.

Over the next few minutes, the ISS tracked up and over Jupiter, and out of the top left corner of my frame, as the plane finished its banking and flew off to the right, over the trees and horizon line as the camera kept snapping away.

A minute later, and it was all done. My plans had worked. But, the most wonderful and unplanned surprise was the thing that pleased me most. Yes, planning is important. But you just can’t beat that wonderful dollop of luck!

I may not have lit a celebratory cigar while watching it all, but I’m pretty sure that in the darkness, I had a satisfied grin on my face Hannibal himself would have been proud of.

I had a similar experience with happy accidents and the ISS in March this year too. This time, it was the ISS that accidentally photobombed my shot. I was actually out photographing Orion at Ballintoy. Here's something I wrote on Facebook at the time about that experience. 

When the ISS photobombs your shot

There are times your plans come together. And then there are times that even your most careful of planning couldn't hope for.

Last night was one of those nights.

I've been on a mission to photograph Orion over various iconic locations in Northern Ireland. Having done Cave Hill and Dunseverick waterfall, next on my list was the arch at Ballintoy Point.

Again, all I needed was some clear skies. There haven't been too many of those over Easter this year, but last night's forecast gave hope, and to the North Coast I went, to meet up with Steven Hanna and Tyler Collins.

It had been raining all day - the kind of day that would make you think you'd be better to stay in somewhere warm and cosy that evening. But, as we arrived at Ballintoy, the skies were clearing nicely. We were game on!

After a quick sunset shoot, it was time to get into position. As twilight set in, more and more of the bigger stars popped out into view, and it wasn't long until Orion faded into view above the shape of the sea arch.

As I got set up to shoot it, suddenly Tyler shouted out, "There's the ISS!" "Where?" I replied. "Heading for Orion!" was his excited response.

And, lo and behold, there indeed it was. Racing past at 17,000 mph. There was no time to waste. I quickly fired off a series of shots as its bright pass took it right under the stars of Betlegeuse and Bellatrix, through the heart of the Hunter.

I had planned for Orion. The ISS was the most delightful of added extras. Sometimes it's good to be surprised!



Double Exposure


Double Exposure

The artistry and artisanship of astrophotography

It begins in the imagination.

Like any good photography, astrophotography starts with vision. What is the shot you would like to take? What elements would it include? How will they be arranged? What’s the final look of the shot going to be? The shot that we are going to unpack in this eBook started life as a conceptual idea I had. In my mind, I could see exactly what I wanted the outcome to be, even before I went anywhere near the location.

But, more so than regular landscape photography, the technical challenges of shooting in low light mean that you can’t simply jump in the car, turn up at the right place at the right time, press click and realise your vision. All aspects of photography benefit from good technical skills and understanding. But astrophotography especially does so.

So, in this eBook, my goal is to unpack both those elements.

  • The artistry - how you can previsualise your shots

  • The artisanship - how you can use your camera to bring your vision to life.

The vision of the artist

I have come to love this constellation very much this year. Since first photographing it over Belfast’s Cavehill in the snow in January, I’ve been keen to find places to photograph it that provide a real Northern Irish context to it. On my online meanderings one day, I saw someone who had photographed it with a little stream in the foreground. The way the water fell over the rocks created lovely white water in long exposures and I thought it made for a strong image.

But where in Northern Ireland offered somewhere where I could have a go at a shot like this? I wanted a decent amount of water flow, preferably a drop in the water for the long exposures. It had to face south to south-west so that I could get Orion in it. Was there anywhere like this?

Then it struck me: Dunseverick. It had the waterfall there, so the water drop was ticked off. And there was a headland of rock that protruded out past it so that I could turn back south for Orion.

In my head, there was the constellation sitting above the waterfall in the sky, with the fall of the white water set in stark relief against the dark greys of the basalt rock, with white water in the ocean in the foreground. All I needed was the right conditions: clear skies.

But this, of course, is Northern Ireland. So a few weeks went by, with Orion moving more and more out of position. Would I get a chance to grab this shot before the season was out?

Eventually, there was a clear night forecast, and I headed to the coast, straight for the waterfall.

Conditions were perfect. There was Orion, just above the waterfall as I had hoped, with glorious clear skies meaning the Hunter was so very visible, even against the blanket of other stars vying for attention.

I got set, pressed the shutter button, and a few seconds later, this shot appeared on my camera screen.

The technique of the artisan

Except, of course, it didn’t! So, what of the technical settings that allowed me to produce this shot?

Your big challenge in astrophotography is getting enough light to fall onto your sensor. There are two ways you can do this: one is to have a wide aperture lens (such as f2.8 or wider); the other is to leave your shutter open longer.

Think of it this way. Imagine you are trying to collect rain falling from the sky into a jar. If you have a huge funnel you can put in the top of it, you can collect more drops of rain. If you hold your jar out for a longer period of time, you’ll collect more rain. Wider and longer equals more collected.

According this this theory, you can just leave your shutter open for five minutes and boom - job is done!

But it’s not that simple, for two reasons.

  • Due to the spin of the Earth, if you leave your shutter open that long, the stars will begin to trail. And, instead of having those wonderful spots of light, you’ll have lines. Not exactly what our vision was now, was it?

  • If you keep your shutter open that long, you are likely to blow out the highlights of the stars, losing those lovely colours that the stars and nebula of Orion bring.

So, keep the exposure shorter then. For a 16mm shot like this one (on a Fuji camera with a 1.5 crop factor) I can go for 30 seconds before getting star trails (Google the 500 rule for more information on how to calculate your maximum exposure time). But, when I do that, I end up with a foreground that’s far too dark and underexposed.

Here’s our dilemma: expose for the stars and the foreground will be too dark. Expose for the ground, and the stars will trail and have blown highlights.

Double exposure

The solution is simple: take two exposures, one for the stars and one for the ground. And that’s exactly what I did here. This technique is a very powerful one for allowing you to get well balanced night time shots. I've included the two jpgs straight out of camera so you can see what I was working with (although, I was shooting in RAW, of course, to give me greatest flexibility in post production).

The first shot (below left) is the shot for the sky and I set the camera to the following settings:

  • ISO 6400

  • f/2.8

  • 30 second exposure

As you can see, the stars are acceptably sharp and the sky is well exposed. You can make out the foreground, but if I were to pull out any of the shadows in Lightroom, it would quickly become very noisy.

Here’s the second shot (below right) for the foreground, with the following settings:

  • ISO 400

  • f/2.8

  • 600 second exposure

The foreground here still looks quite dark, but as I was shooting at ISO 400 instead of ISO 6400, I knew I could pull out the shadows whilst controlling noise much better. You’ll also notice just how much star trailing there is in this exposure time (although the lower ISO actually allowed me to retain colour in the stars).

Post production

Image 1: the ground

The first step was to battle the light pollution. A sodium street lamp to my left was spilling in a lot of orange light onto the scene - and that’s even with me shooting with a White Balance of 3200 Kelvin!

The first job then was to make some global adjustments in Camera Raw to do two things:

  • Reduce the oranges in the foreground (by making localised adjustments to White Balance)

  • Reduce the overall saturation of the foreground.

This ended up with me being able to use the sodium light as a pleasant side light to the image, rather than this horrible orange glow.

I boosted the shadows in Camera Raw too, and used a Brush tool to bring out the white of the water in the falls and the sea.

I've shown where I painted the Brush Tool on this image here, with the adjustments I made shown to the right. 

Image 2: the sky

Then it was on to the image of the sky. This was much simpler and basically involved the adjustments shown below.

This screen shot shows how I used two Gradient Adjustments: (1) one vertical for the sky, with the settings shown (2) one horizontal one to try to reduce the light pollution from the street lamp.

Finally, it was over to Photoshop to blend the two images. This was quite straightforward and just involved the use of Layer Masks to gradually blend the sky into the foreground. There weren’t too many stars trailing into the fence at the top, so that job wasn’t as difficult as it might have been! I did other noise reduction techniques there using Nik Dfine, and added some final global levels adjustments, and the image was ready.

So, from imagination to realisation. The vision - and the technique. The two sides of the creative coin for astrophotography.

Other examples

Here are a couple more examples of this double exposure technique in action. 

The first I took just after the Dunseverick one. I headed to the Causeway cliffs to capture this one. Again, I had previsualised this shot, as I knew from a former photo I'd taken here that it can work very well if you have a person posing on the headland!

This time, I took an hour's worth of shots of the sky to produce the star trails image (see my previous eBook for more details on how to produce a shot like this). This gave me this image:

Causeway cliff aurora star trails (Large).jpg

As you can see from this shot, the foreground image comes out quite noisy. So, again, the double exposure technique can be used to good effect here. In fact, to realise my vision for this, I took a series of 6 portrait orientated shots and stitched them together in Lightroom to create a panorama for the land. The reason I did this was because I knew that I'd be face with a dilemma here: shoot to get the full sweep of the bay in, and I wouldn't get many stars for my trails. Shoot for the stars (as I have done) and I wouldn't get the full sweep of the bay.

But, with the pano for the ground merged with the sky shot above, I had the best of both worlds! All that remained was the final element - me standing on the headland with my torch. I used the wifi remote for my camera to see where I was positioned on my phone screen, triggered the camera - and stood very still for 30 seconds!

I therefore ended up with three images to be blended: sky, foreground and person. Again, this was done using Layer Masks in Photoshop, with a few final Curves adjustments to make the images blend nicely. 

The final image was taken just a few nights before the other two, when I managed to capture this image at the Causeway, again using two exposures to get the overall shot. I had actually hoped to capture those two images that night - but clouds stopped that fun! That allows me to say that there is another quality, alongside vision and technique, that you need for astrophotography: patience! But that's the subject of a whole other blog...


The ill wind part 1


The ill wind part 1

A three part mini-series on the visit of the Beast from the East this winter

‘Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good’ goes the well known saying. This is, of course, totally true. Metaphorically speaking, you are indeed unfortunate if there are no positives in a set of initially negative circumstances.

The tabloid's nightmare

But it’s also true literally - especially if you are a tabloid headline writer. This winter in the UK, we’ve had not one but two visits from that illest of winds: the Beast from the East. Cue reports of end-of-the-world like apocalyptic outcomes - a veritable Snowmageddon - for the UK from the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Of course, they are over-exaggerated nonsense, supported by supposed ‘experts’ who are nothing of the sort. But we lap them up. We click on the click-bait links. They get the revenue from us doing so. And the ill wind brings them plenty of good!

The photographer's dream

But it’s not just tabloid headline writers who rub their hands with glee at the prospect of the Beast from the East. For, us landscape photographers also find ourselves wishing for the good that accompanies this dreadful draught. We, you see, long for ‘proper’ winter in the UK. Not just the drab, damp overcast stuff that just makes you long for summer. But cold brings frost and snow - and these two things can transform our landscape into the most photogenic of beauties. Whilst we too may be sceptical of the extremes of the tabloid headlines, deep down there’s a part of us wishing that they were even a wee bit true.

The Beast visits the Mournes

Ryan Simpson surveys Trassey Track, with the cap clouds beginning to build over Bearnagh...

And so, it was with great anticipation that we awaited the first visit of the Beast in February. When first the winds swung round to the East, but before they had really taken hold, Ryan Simpson and myself headed for the Mournes. Placed as it is in the south east of our country, it’s one of the places that can benefit most from the easterly winds, as the air gets recharged with moisture over the Irish Sea, then rises, cools and condenses over the mountains to bring cloud and often snow.

The top of Bearnagh, as seen from the top of Slievenaglogh

This time, the air wasn’t yet quite cold enough for snow. But the east wind brought an amazing cap cloud over the top of Slieve Bearnagh. As we hiked up Slievenaglogh, we were treated to the most beautiful of cloud and light patterns. Glorious crepuscular rays of light danced across the top of the mountain all afternoon as the most gentle of soft light draped itself across the mountains in front of us.

Detail shot of the summit tors of Bearnagh. The line of the Mourne Wall is traced out by the snow from a previous fall that was yet to melt.

The soft light rests gently on Ben Crom reservoir

The lady of the lake...??

The whole display, courtesy of the east breeze, hung around all afternoon and into the sunset. It meant that our photoshoot was relaxed and unhurried. We were able to wander bewteen Slievenaglogh and Corragh, looking for the best angles and positions to allow us to make the most of this scene.

We even had time to jump over to the western side of the Mourne Wall for some shelter as we enjoyed a cup of coffee from the nicest of locations for coffee in the whole of Northern Ireland that day as we watched the most tranquil of sunsets. The sun even managed to settle down for the night in the saddle between Meelmore and Meelbeg, throwing off a little sunburst as a last hurrah in the process.

The wind may have been cold; it may have been flexing its muscles, a portent of what was to come. But, for that afternoon, for those moments, seeing the kind of light we have never before witnessed in the mountains, it was the most blessed of breezes indeed.

Next time, I’ll talk about what happened when the full blast of the Beast set in.