A big anti-crepuscular surprise


A big anti-crepuscular surprise

You may not be familiar with the grandiose Latin term crepuscular, but you've undoubtedly seen this most wonderful of atmospheric displays. The sun, partly hidden behind a friendly cumulus cloud, seems to send our rays of glory, fanning out in unconstrained abandon across the sky. God's rays, they are often called. And you can see why. You would almost expect a choir of angels to burst into song at any moment in celebration of the glorious display in the heavens above you.

A wonderful crepuscular display in the heart of the Mournes.

As I've written before, they are formed as the light passes through tiny droplets of water and dust in the sky, causing the light to be refracted into the distinctive columnar shapes, similar to the illuminated shards that form when light shines into a dusty room. The regions where the cloud is blocking the light appear as the darker bands between the rays themselves. And, amazingly, they are not actually fan shaped, but more or less parallel. It's perspective that makes them take on their converging appearance - rather like the lines of a long, straight road appear to converge to a perpsective point in the far distance.

Crepuscular rays - and their reflection - at Portrush.

That can be a bit hard to visualise sometimes. But this photo might help. Taken from the International Space Station above the Indian Ocean with the sun setting to the west, it shows how the cloud creates rays of light travelling out to the east - but more or less parallel to one another. The vantage point of the ISS is far enough away and looking down from above that the perspective effect is not apparent. If, however, you were on a ship to the east of the cloud, you would see that classic crepuscular fan shape.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

What are anticrepuscular rays?

But, this blog is not primarily about crepuscular rays, exciting as they are to see and photograph. Rather, it's about the crepuscular rays' more elusive cousin. Fainter and more subdued, these other rays tend to hide in plain sight, coming out when the more effusive crepscular rays are putting on their showy display over by the sun.

And their name? Anticrepuscular rays, of course. While the c-rays are loudly doing their thing, the ac-rays can sometimes be found at the exact opposite point in the sky. The anti-solar point, in fact (hence the name).

How anticrepuscular rays are formed is all to do with that counterintuitive fact that the rays are nearly parallel. As the rays extend out past the cloud that is interrupting the sunlight, they in fact continue on their parallel journey above our heads into the sky above. As they pass overhead, they continue to travel in their parallel lines. But again, due to the effect of perspective, from our point of view they appear to converge on a point on the exact opposite side of the sky to the sun (our friend the antisolar point). That means that, if you want to see them, you'll have to tear your eyes away from the glories of the setting sun, with those dramatic God's Rays, and look to the east, for their fainter cousin to see if he is making one of his rare appearances.

Spotting the elusive antis

I've known about anticrepuscular rays for quite some time, but I've struggled to capture an image of them I like. Maybe its because I've been too distracted by the more dazzling crepuscular display going on by the sun. Maybe because they can really be quite faint and can often go unnoticed.

You will have to look carefully, but to the very right of the picture above Cove Mountain, you may just be able to make out the very faint rays fanning upwards, and continuing at an angle over Donard and Commedagh.

But recently on top of Slieve Bearnagh in the Mournes, I managed to grab a shot of them. Only I didn't realise it at the time! It was only when I got home and processed this panoramic shot that I noticed something towards the east.

At first, I thought it was Photoshop struggling to stitch the images together, producing a banding in the sky. But, on closer inspection, I saw it - that telltale pattern of convergence. I had got some anticrepuscular rays! Okay, so they are faint, and not as dramatic as the God Rays. But maybe their very elusivness made them all the more appealing to me.

So next time you see the heavens put on one of their grandest and most beautiful shows, stop and enjoy the display. But don't forget to take a look over your shoulder to see if the sunlight and perspective is putting on that quiet little display behind you, hiding in plain sight, just waiting for those in the know to notice. Happy hunting!



Jammy Hammy's Astro Workshop


Jammy Hammy's Astro Workshop

To any sane person, it must surely have been seen as more than a little bit mad for me to announce an astrophotography workshop on 26 February this year.

Not, I hope, because I shouldn’t be leading one. I’ve been shooting astro shots for years now - a type of photography I love - and have hopefully picked up a thing or two during that time. And I’ve been a teacher for nearly a quarter of a century - a job I still love - and so surely I should be able to string a half decent explanation together.

Where then was my madness? It was in arranging an astro workshop in Northern Ireland a month in advance - and having any chance of having clear skies at all on the night in question!

And yet, the time had come to make the step into astro workshops - so I had to take the risk. Up went the advert, over the next few days, the places were filled. All we had to do now was wait - and hope!

As we approached the week of the workshop itself, I studied the long term forecasts. And they were good. Very good. If someone else had been running the workshop and come to me for my thoughts, I’d have told them to be confident, the weather was looking great.

But I just couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. I hoped - but I couldn’t quite think that I’d be quite that jammy!

So the morning of the workshop came and I looked out the window - clear skies! That afternoon, high cirrus began to build. Would it clear or not? Still with nervous anticipation, I set off to meet the folks who were going to be chasing the clear skies with me. Little did I know at this stage that, not only would we get the most wonderfully clear skies, but that a number of other elements would come into alignment to make for the most perfect of evenings with the most wonderful group of people. Read on to find out more...

The most perfect Sunset

We met and headed along the Causeway cliff top path to our first location. The sun was low in the sky; the clouds above were thin. ‘Our best situation,’ I said to them on the way, ‘is for the cloud to hang about for sunset for us to grab some nice colourful shots, then for it to clear for the rest of the night, so we can get the stars. But, can we be that lucky?!’ I asked them.

The answer? Yes. Apparently we could!

We got a glorious sunset. Then the clouds cleared, and we got six hours of unbroken clear skies, twinkling stars, and the majesty of the Milky Way. Jammy Hammy, my photography buddies often call me. I earned that nickname that night!

Now that's what I call a sunset! The colours were insane - but would the cloud clear in time for the astro fun later...?!?

We started at Roveran Valley Head, on top of the cliffs overlooking Port Noffer bay and the Grand Causeway. I wanted to show the folks some of the basics of composition, and this location gives some great potential. They got into position to put into practice some of the tips I’d given - and the sky went ballistic! The clouds were lit a glorious pink, set against the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky. What a great start!

One of our team, having a moment of contemplation on the Causeway Clifftop.

After the sun had set, it gave us a chance to move on to the next part of the workshop. Now the light was quickly fading, I wanted to show the folks how to adjust your camera settings as we moved from daylight, to twilight, to darkness. I chatted to them about the exposure triangle and set them a challenge of adjusting the three elements that control exposure to keep their exposure balanced as the light faded. And they all did great! Oh, and in the meantime, the cloud cleared. All of it!

Nebula hunting

Then, it was time for the first of our astro projects. One of the things that amazes me when I’m out photographing the stars is what I’m actually looking at. Yes, twinkling stars, all around. But some of those stars aren’t quite what they appear to be.

So I showed them where Orion constellation was and got them to put on their zoom lenses (we chatted about the 500 rule and how long their shutter speed should be). We pointed them towards the three stars of Orion’s Sword - only to discover that the middle ‘star’ isn’t a star at all. It was wonderful to hear the gasps of amazement as the red gases of Orion Nebula popped into view on their camera screens. This was what I wanted my workshop to be about. Yes, getting the grips with the technical side of shooting in low light. But, more than that, the sense of wonder that quite literally takes your breath away when you see things you never thought possible with nothing more than your camera and a tripod.

 Is it a star? No, it's Orion's Nebula - captured by nothing more than a 200 mm zoom lens!

To the Causeway

By now, it was well and truly dark, and it was time for us to head down to the Causeway itself. We had a lovely wee stroll along the clifftop path and down the Shepherd’s Steps (designed by Squinty McGinty himself, apparently) and towards the main Causeway. The air was still, the chat was good, and it was lovely to see my wee group really beginning to gel. This was starting to be ‘our’ experience now.

At the Causeway, we gathered together and I told them some stories of how I’d given myself a good dose of the heeby geebies on more than one occasion on my own in the dark at places like this. My stories were building to the big reveal - in unison, I got everyone to turn their head torches off - and once again, there was that gasp of wonder.

It was as if someone had reached over and flicked a switch - and turned on the lights of a hundred billion stars above us. A myriad twinkling spots of light glistened and shimmered above us, their light cascading down like the gentlest of snowflakes as we were shielded from light pollution by the grand cliffs of the Causeway Coast behind us. For everyone on the trip, this was their first time at the Causeway in the dark - and it was a moment they would remember!

Milky Way hunting

We carefully made our way onto the stones in the pure darkness for the next on our target list: the Milky Way itself. No one had photographed it before - but tonight was going to be the night. I showed them how to locate it using the stars, and we got our cameras set up. It was Patsy who nailed it first - her little squeal of delight echoed gently across the stones as she managed to capture something that had so far eluded her. And what a joy it was for me to hear her joy! One by one, with some help and tips, everyone managed to capture the beauty of our galaxy, stretched out above us. And still not a cloud in the sky! I showed them how to produce an astro pano - the best way to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible - and managed to get what, to date, is my favourite Milky Way photo.

Light painters extraordinaire

We were about to head over for some lesson in light painting, when something else happened. Remember my nickname? And that I told you I earned it that night? Well, just as we were about to move, a couple of guys arrived and set up to ourstrip any light painting I was planning - they lit up their wire wool and started spinning it. And, of course, we were there to capture the moment! Another stunning first for all of us.

Image taken by one of the workshop participants, Patsy Ma Reavy. If you look carefully, you can see the wire wool spinner standing in the centre of the circle!

Comets, planets and head torches

As we neared the end of the evening, we had a few other things to try to get. Comet Tuttle was hanging about in our skies, conveniently located right in the middle of the Plough. Boom - there was another astro image caught! And we did our own little bit of light painting at the end, and Jupiter had just arrived over the top of Aird Snout behind us - time for another photo op!

Comet Tutle, shining green in the midst of the Plough.

Image taken by one of the workshop participants, Patsy Ma Reavy, while I painted the stones with some light for her. And there's Jupiter just above the headland!

Image taken by one of the workshop participants, Patsy Ma Reavy, while I painted the stones with some light for her. And there's Jupiter just above the headland!

Our happy team of intrepid astro photographers!

Dean spotted this great composition, with Jupiter sitting about the cliff tip, looking like a fairy light on top of a mountain!

Dean spotted this great composition, with Jupiter sitting about the cliff tip, looking like a fairy light on top of a mountain!

Eventually, after nearly 7 hours, it was time to head back up to the cars. We dandered up the pathway, chatting and full of the joys of the evening spent together.

We had been lucky with the conditions. And we managed to grab some great shots. But what made the night for me was the experience we all shared. The opportunity to lead such a lovely bunch of people and to witness their joy and delight in experiencing and capturing the night sky in ways they had never done before was wonderful for me. They had a blast - and that made me very happy!

So was I mad? Probably. And was I lucky? Undoubtedly. But you wouldn't expect anything less from Jammy Hammy now, would you?!?

Feedback on the workshop

Super, Alistair! Amazing night! Thank-you very much for a really super, informative and enjoyable workshop! And I’m still laughing at all the random things that fell into place!!!
— Sheryl-Anne
Fantastic night, couldn’t have worked out better. Thank you so much Alistair I learnt so much. I can’t wait to get home and have a look in the computer to see what I got. Must say thanks to the wire wool guy for the display. Thank you again, and I definitely Won’t Be Afraid Of The Dark anymore. Lol!
— Patsy
What a brilliant night, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment, there’s nothing quite like spending a night under the stars, and we couldn’t of asked for any better conditions. Those guys with the wire wool were fantastic. The mind is in overdrive this morning, after breakfast and a cup of tea obviously. It was great to finally meet you Alistair, you have a real passion for photography. Your planning, knowledge and enthusiasm really made for an enjoyable evening. And let’s just say it won’t be 20 years until I’m at the causeway again! Thanks Alistair
— Dean


Heroes of the hills


Heroes of the hills

You've got to respect the mountains, I always tell folk. By all means, get up and enjoy some of the glorious views the Mournes are just waiting to offer anyone prepared to put a few hours effort in. But you've got to respect them. That's why I'm always careful and as prepared as I can be when I head up.

That said, even for the most prepared and experienced hiker,  things can go wrong. One moment of carelessness or an accident, and you can find yourself stuck - and in need of help.

And I must say knowing that there is a stirling team of volunteers there to act as guardians for us all is of tremendous comfort to me as I make my way over the craggy granite of the Kingdom.

And never more so than a few weeks ago when Ryan Simpson and I witnessed the most amazing of rescues in the heart of the Kingdom of Mourne, deep into the dark, rich blues of twilight.

We had spent the day having a gentle ramble through the hills, summiting Binnian in mid afternoon, with cloud inversions coming and going throughout the day. The light was gentle, the temperatures were decidedly mild, and the scenery before us was amazing.

After enjoying the most tranquil of sunsets from the north tors of Binnian, we sat on into twilight and blue hour, soaking in the view, chatting about life, the universe and everything, and waiting for the full moon to make an appearance for some moonlit photography to cap the day off.

We had just packed up our gear to head for Buzzards Roost, when we heard that unmistakable sound - a helicopter was approaching. As it got louder and louder, we could see the lights come into view. It was clear then that this was a mountain rescue helicopter - and that someone was in a bit of bother.

The chopper circled around the summit of Slieve Bearnagh, one of the steepest peaks in the Mournes. And for the next half hour we were witness to some of the most amazing skills by the pilot and crew of Rescue 999 from Prestwick as the helicopter got into position, perilously close to those unforgiving craggy tors that sit atop Bearnagh, and winched their man down to the casualty below. It then circled around, holding position while the injured hiker received treatment, before coming back in again to winch them all to safety.

Meanwhile, there I was, over 3 km away on the summit of Binnian, watching - and photographing - it all. Given how dark it was, I needed to go for longer exposures. But, when the helicopter was in winching position, it was locked rock solid. The chopper in my 2 second exposures was pin sharp. Boy, those pilots are good!

After about half an hour, the helicopter left, silence returned to the mountains, and Ryan and I were left wondering who was injured and hoping that they were okay. And, after seeing all of that, we picked our way down off the summit just that wee bit more carefully, I can tell you!

Next day, I loaded the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team page on Facebook to find out more about the rescue. And this was their post.

I posted my photo in the comments, only for somebody called Conor to reply, saying he was the guy lying below at the time with the broken ankle!

As someone who spends a lot of time in the mountains, I have been very thankful to know that, should the worst happen, there is a team of people - volunteers - who would be there for me. I am always as careful as I can be, of course, checking the weather, having the right gear, letting people know my route, travelling with others when I’m going to be hiking in the twilight or darkness. You have got to respect the mountains. But it’s great to know that these heroes of the hills are there, just in case.

My good buddy, Ryan Simpson, poses in the moonlight, with Bearnagh behind him. We picked our way down very carefully that evening after witnessing the rescue...!

So it is my great honour and privilege to partner with Mourne Mountain Rescue Team to help raise some funds for them. There are three prizes on offer: a framed A3 print of the rescue taking place, plus two other A3 prints taken earlier that evening from Binnian. To enter, you simply have to leave a £2 donation on our fundraising page https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/FramedPrint and you will be entered into the draw which will take place on 2nd June.

So head on over to that page now and enter - and help spread the word so that we can raise as much as possible for these heroes of the hills!


Heading up Hen


Heading up Hen

As the evenings draw out more and more, it gives us the chance to squeeze in a cheeky mid-week hike up into the Kingdom of Mourne. And, with the forecast looking good for Wednesday evening and sunset around 6.15, I couldn't resist a quite scoot up!

I originally had thought of heading up into the High Mournes to the east. But, as I drove closer, seeing the sun already low in the sky, I realised that that plan was decidedly over-ambitious. A change of plan was needed. So I headed for the lower Western Mournes, and for a summit I have not visited before: Hen Mountain.

I vividly remember driving past Hen on my way to start my first hike into the mountains a couple of summers ago. Acting as a sentinel watching over all those who drive from Hilltown up the steep road to Spelga Dam, the small yet perfectly formed peak is striking and beautiful. It's sides are conical just the way a mountain should be. And the top of the summit is crowned with three summit tors, trusty outcrops of rough granite, the photographer's friend when looking for foreground interest.

Since then, I have driven past it many times on my way to the High Mournes. And I have gazed down at it from the other side, from Pierces Castle, looking down the Rocky River to the umistakable shape of those trusty tors.

The summit tors of Hen, as seen from Pierces Castle

But this week it was my turn to visit the summit for myself. And what a pleasant hike it is too. In under thirty minutes, you can be from the car to the top - perfect for a quick after work hike.

When I arrived at the top, the peak didn't at all disappoint. I reached the West Tor first. I followed a well trod path up onto the coarse-grained granite and paused to take in the view all around. The sun was now very low, bathing the whole vista around me in ever warmer and softer light. As I came down off the tor, the sun was just about poking over the rock - and I had to squeeze in a quick photo.

But, really, with the sun quickly setting, I had no time to lose - but where to shoot? When you visit somewhere for the first time, you need a bit of time to take in all the possibilities and options for shots around you. And Hen provides plenty of these for sure. I'll scope the place out as quickly as I can, I thought to myself, heading on up to the slightly higher Summit Tor. By now, warmth was streaming into the valleys below, so I paused to take a shot from there with the craggy tor featuring in the foreground.

I quickly looked over at the South Tor - it looked great too. But I had made my mind up. Tonight was going to be about the West Tor. And I had to act fast. I wanted to set my camera well back from the tor, to take it in, a slab of granite on the ground, and as much of the valleys beyond as possible. But I wanted to have me standing on the summit of the tor!

So the camera was set up on the tripod, I connected my phone app to the camera, and set off the 50m or so to the tor itself. This was testing the range of the remote control to its limits. Would the connection hold? With the light quickly fading, I had to nail it fast. I scrambled up to the top of the tor, holding my phone aloft in the hope that the connection would remain. I took position and tried for the shot and - it worked!

Down I came again and back up to my camera. By now, the sun had nearly disappeared below the horizon. But there was one more shot I wanted to fit in before it finally went. This time it was shooting the tor from the north and featuring its reflection in one of the summit ponds. So, take two: camera in place, connection with phone made, quick scramble to the top - only to discover the connection had gone! Back down again, quick as I could, reconnection, back up and - boom, got it! By now the streaky clouds in the sky had taken on a great colour, underlit by the sun.

Having got those shots, I relaxed and watched the ever deepening twilight sky take over, while I enjoyed a quick sandwich and drink, resting back against the tor, sheltering from the wind. A quick scoot back down before it got finally dark, and the job was done.

Much as I love getting into the true heart of the Mournes in the High Mournes to the east, the western Mournes are stunning in and of themselves. And just perfect for that quick dash up at this time of year after work. And especially so when, as with Hen, you are rewarded with such wonderful interest on the summit!


Adrift on a sea of cloud


Adrift on a sea of cloud

Normally, if you see a mountain peak emerging from the clouds on my page, it'll be a summit somewhere up the Mournes.

But not this time! This shot is from a few Sunday mornings ago and the mountain this time is St Patrick's own: Slemish.

While much of the rest of Northern Ireland was basking under clear skies that morning, Co Antrim was blanketed in a thick, cold fog. I had got wind of the fact that Slemish was poking up out of the gloom. But where to photograph it from?

I headed up the Collin Road. The road there goes quite high. And, as I came towards the brow of the road, where it opens up to an amazing vista over towards Slemish, the sun began to illuminate the fog. Would it break by the time I reached the brow?

No. It would not! No views to be had from the car park. So there was only one thing for it: head up the nearest mountain in the hope that the sky would clear.

Known locally as 'Big Collin', the summit sounds a bit more romantic in its original gaelic: Collann Mór. And that seemed all the more fitting as I headed up over the bog towards the summit.

The fog lifted and fell, bathing me in light one minute, wrapping my in a misty veil the next. As as it undulated up and down, I was treated to fog bow after fog bow - itself, a glorious sight.

But, when the mist dropped and I got clear views, there around me were the surrounding hills, rising grandly above the fog, while the clearest of blue skies rose up, up and away above me.

To the north, the huge wind turbines of the nearby wind farm turned slowly in the light wind, as the mist enveloped their bases, making them rise up as if connected to some structures in Cloud City from the Empire Strikes Back.

To the east, there were the hills above Larne, with the trees in the valleys below just about poking their leafy heads up out of them mist.

To the south, there was Cavehill, my frequent early morning vantage point, McArt's Fort standing proud as the cloud rolled and billowed between us.

And there, to my north east, was the unmistakable outline of Slemish, adrift upon some ephemeral cloud-sea. The rock outcrops of dolerite were catching the low morning light, streaming up from the south east.

I spent the next hour or so there, enjoying glimpses of the landscapes below everytime the cloud cleared from my vantage point. And, eventually, I succumbed to the cold of ever increasingly numb fingers, and headed back down.

I have photographed Slemish on so many occasions. But never before have I seen it looking quite like this. It just shows - you don't always have to be in County Down to get your head above the clouds!