Pursuing Perseids

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Pursuing Perseids

This blog is split into two parts - one which I wrote before the Perseids display of August 2017, and one after, showing what I managed to capture.

Before

Tonight is the peak of the annual Perseids meteor shower, and with clearish skies forecast for Northern Ireland tonight, we might just have our best chance in a few years of viewing them!


Locating Perseids

This meteor shower is the result of the Earth passing through cosmic dust left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle. As we pass through this debris stream, the tiny particles of dust burn up as they enter our atmosphere, travelling at nearly 60 km/second! As we are moving in to this debris stream, they come at us quite quickly and, at the peak, we could be expecting perhaps one or two per minute. But, they don't come at a regular intervals, so keep youe eyes peeled - you don't want to blink and miss one!

They radiate from the area around Perseus constellation, which is rising in the North East this evening, but they can appear at any point in the sky. The best way to see them is to find somewhere away from light pollution, get a blanket and lie back and stare up at the sky. The fainter ones will be fast. But if you're really lucky, you'll get to glimpse a fireball, a particularly bright and longer lasting meteor. They are pretty amazing to see.

Wrap up warm, bring some snacks, and lie back and enjoy the show!

Photographing the meteors

A fireball tracks across the sky whilst I am standing still for a 30 second exposure, whilst the Mother's Day aurora of 2016 dances in the sky above!

If you want to try to photograph the meteor shower, here are some tips.

  1. Use a camera with some form of manual control which allows you to set a longer shutter speed. Place it on a tripod.
  2. Focus - focus on a distant bright light or the moon, and set your camera to manual focus to keep that focus locked in.
  3. Aperture - set this as wide as you can on your lens (lowest f number) to let as much light in as possible.
  4. ISO - set this quite high. Start around ISO 2000.
  5. Shutter speed - keep this between 5 to 10 seconds to try to capture some of the fainter meteors.
  6. Do a test shot and check your histogram. If the exposure is too dark, increase ISO; too bright in the sky, pull the ISO back a bit.
  7. Use an intervelometer to take lots of photos! By the time you see most meteors, they''ll have gone before you can press the shutter. The best way to try to catch them is to let your camera shoot away and to check later when you get home what you have caught! Don't forget to turn off the in-camera noise reduction. This will cause a delay between each expsoure. And, of course, while you're waiting, that's when the big fireball will track across the sky!
  8. Charge your batteries well, and have a clear SD card for all the photos you'll take!

The Moon

The one challenge we'll have tonight is the bright Moon. It will wash out the fainter meteors, and it might cause the sky to be very bright. Experiment with your settings when you first arrive to balance the exposure with whatever light there is from the Moon. And you're probably best to point away from the Moon towards the darker portions of the sky.

This test shot from earlier this week shows just how bright the sky can be with the Moon shining. I've included the camera settings and histogram for this shot to show you how I set my camera. In fact, I think this sky is a bit too bright! Watch out for that tonight.


After

And so, it turned out that the skies did clear quite nicely, allowing for the best viewing conditions I've had since I started chasing after the annual Perseids display!

I started at Dunluce where I shot a timelapse. As I mentioned above, I simply set the camera to shoot by itself for an hour and a half whilst I lay on blanket, with a pillow, gazing up at the skies above. Some clouds were passing over, but the sky was pretty clear, and the clarity was amazing. Before the Moon rose, the sky was still dark enough to get great views by eye of the Milky Way.

And the clear skies and our vantage point allowed us to zoom a few dozen meteors, including two fireballs strong enough to leave an ionised vapour trail behind them. You have to deciude to point the camera in one particular direction, of course; and it's only by chance if you manage to catch any of the fireballs in that direction. During the hour and a half, I appear to have captured the princely sum of - one fireball! Still, one is better than none, and it was above the castle, so I called that a result.

 Close up of the main meteor I was able to capture. This one streaked across the sky, leaving behind a trail that fizzled in the atmospherte for a few seconds. Note the green tinge on the end of the meteor trail.

After I had finished the timelapse, the sky had cleared even more, so I decided to head for the Causeway. I had a shot in mind that involved the vertical columns (which I knew would be lit by the Moon) with the Milkty Way in behind it - and we me on top of the columns too! Using the intervalometer technique I've used before (and explained here), I grabbed some shots.

But it was only when I got back to the computer that I realised I'd managed to capture a Perseids going throught the Milky Way in one of the shots. I was delighted. But even more so when I zoomed in to that shot to discover not just one but two other fainter meteors in the same shot!

Once I was done here, I went back down to Dunluce to capture one more shot. By now it was 3.00 am and I had one final location I wanted to visit - down by the shore, looking back up at the castle! I love being down here at the best of times - but especially at night, when the dark cliffs close in all around, sucking in the light, and the castle stands proud above silhouetted on the headland. By this time, the moon had risen high enough in the sky to light the castle and to pick it out. I was tired, but very happy after a great night's astro photography. And the best Perseids chase I've had since I first started doing it 5 years ago.

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Revelation through Creation

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Revelation through Creation

1. Experiencing the aesthetic

  • Learning to see
  • Not just seeing, but experiencing
  • Not just experiencing, but being transformed

2. Worshipping through the aesthetic

3. The Apologetic of the Aesthetic

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The village at the end of the world

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The village at the end of the world

Day 2 (part 2): Tindhólmur & Gásadalur 

Read about Day 1 here.

Bøur & Tindhólmur

 

One of the consequences of the intense glaciation of the Faroe Islands during the last ice age are the stunning fjords that dominate the island. Mountain peaks sweep suddenly and dramaticall down into deep, steep valleys, carved out by the lumbering ice giant glaciers that scoured out the fjords. It makes for dramatic scenery, of course. But it can also make for some very remote locations; villages of a dozen or so people may find themselves on the wrong side of an imposing summit ridge, requiring hours worth of hiking, in what must have been pretty inclement conditions at times, simply to reach the next village.

And, after our feed in Sirkis, we were headed for one such village - Gasadalur, on the extreme western end of the island of Vágar. Thankfully for us, especially after a big feed, we wouldn't need to hike, thanks to an incredible piece of engineering just over 10 years old.

But, on our journey there, we were to enjoy another piece of Faroese engineering: the road northfrom Torshavn, over the summit of Húsareyn (the 345m high mountain to the north of the capital). Most of the roads across the islands follow the coast, weaving in and out around the inlets and contours of the fjords. But this one bucks that trend and takes you up. And what views it affords. It's one of half a dozen 'buttercup routes' in the islands, route that are 'particularly scenic for visitors'. When the rest of the island is jaw-droppingly good, it would take something to make these routes stand out. But stand out this one certainly did. On the two occasions when we drove this road, we got views of the islands unlike any others we had been enjoying. To see the grand sweep of the fjords from such an elevated vantage point is to appreciate in a unique way something of the majesty of the islands. First, Kaldbakfjordur came into view, a slow reveal of this immense valley as the car headed north. And, given that the skies above were dotted with cumulus clouds, the valley below was decorated in dappled light, picking out all the features of the steep rock-stewn slopes, the waterfalls cascading down the hundreds of metres to the valley below. The views were beautiful - and the conditions, yet again, were so perfect for us to enjoy them. 

We didn't have time to stop and take photos as we had to get to our destination in time for sunset, but the panoramic views it offered were something else, and well worth enjoying if you visit these islands.

Down we dropped again to sea level and through the undersea tunnel under Vestmannasund to Vágar, our destination island. But, on the way to our second waterfall of the day for sunset, we stopped off at the village of Bøur (population 75) for views of the amazing island of Tindholmur. This was another one of those locations that had caught my imagination from the photos I'd seen before we left. We certainly have plenty of imposing cliffs that stand proud against the ocean in Ireland. But nothing quite like this. One side takes you up a heart-churningly steep slope that rises to the five peaks that give the island its name, before it then mercilessly plunges you over a precipitous vertical drop into the ocean, over 260m below, like some wild geological roller coaster ride.

 

In contrast with this amazing geometric geological shape is the town of Bøur from which we photographed this island. With its turf-roofed cottages, it was a picture postcard Faroese scene, and worth a quick stop for a shot or two.

  

Gásadalur and Mullafossur

 

Time - and the light - were quickly passing, though, and we soon packed up once more and made our way to that most iconic of Faroese waterfalls, Gásadalur. And its name? Does it go the way of Torshavn - dramatic and imposing? Or of Fossa - everyday and pretty much 'does what it says on the tin'?

There is a myth about a woman, Gæsa, who fled to this valley after having eaten meat during a lent feast. And apparently some spirits and elves were involved in the tale somehow too. But, in reality, it's much more likely that this was name after the slightly more mundane topic of geese. Because apparently some geese were found here. And so Geese Valley it is, then. Yet again, this Irish boy felt at home.

But, although the everyday naming may be familiar to those of us from Ireland, this location is classic Faroe Islands. The tiny village of Gásadalur, with a population of only 18 people, lies in a remote and very inaccessible valley to the extreme north west of Vágar. It is surrounded by tall and imposing mountains, the tallest on the island, including the towering 722m high Árnafjall to the north and Eysturtindur, rising 715m to the east. More than that, yet another precipitous black granite cliff edges the valley, lifting it well above sea level. In fact, the fishermen who lived here had to keep their boats on the other side of a 400m mountain in the little village of Bøur. What an impossibly hard life - days spent out in the raging Atlantic in the arduous task of open sea fishing for your livelihood - then facing that mountain hike back home after your time at sea.

It was only in 2004 that the government blasted out a tunnel through the solid rock to bring a road to the village - and the 18 people who live there. What a life line for them. And also what a boon for the visiting landscape photographers. For, instead of this being a difficult and time consuming hike, this valley, its mountains and waterfall are now a short drive away from the airport.


The night before

In fact, this was the second time we came here. So excited were we at the prospects of arriving in the Faroes, we had taken the short journey here the night before, straight from the airport. We arrived just after sunset that night. Which, in the Faroes in July means around 11.30 pm, of course. This was to be our first proper taste of that landscape and scenery that we had been anticipating with such relish over the past few months. In fact, we had thought of going straight to our accomodation from the airport to get ready for the hike to Sorvagsvatn. But the forecast of possible cloud breaks and the prospect of actually seeing one of the iconic Faroese locations for ourselves was too much. So, as we left the airport, we turned left and headed west for the short 20 minute drive to this location.

Although it wasn't exactly dark despite the late hour, still a moody gloom hung over the Faroese landscape as we drove along past the waters of Sorvagsfjodur fjord, as we got our first sense of what this landscape was truly like. Given the mystic in which I had held this place in my imagination, it seemed fitting that my first glimpse of it in conditions like this. A low cloud hung over the tops of the fjords, further adding to the gloom. And the place was deserted - not another car on the road, not another person in sight. Just us - and this incredible view. And, as we drove along the coast road, at the end of the fjord, there appeared the majestic sight of Tindholmur, that impossible island rising proudly out of the ocean. We five guys were giddy with excitement, like five little boys who had just been given the present they had been waiting for for months. We were here!

And then we were plunged into the first of our many experiences of Faroese tunnels, as we drove through Knukarnir mountain that had for so long been the imposing 400 m barrier between Gasadalur and the rest of the known world. It felt like the perfect way to reveal this valley, keeping us in suspense as we drove along this single track road for its 1.4km length, hoping the deserted roads would stay deserted until at least we reached the end.

Eventually, a light began to appear at the tunnel's end, as we emerged from our entombment into the most glorious of freedoms. As the car veered left to follow the road, there was Goose Valley, the natural ampitheatre, ringed by the most imposing of moutains on all sides, their summits carving out the most sculptural of shapes, set in dark, stark relief against the grey skies above in the twilight gloom.

And there was the little village, perched resiliently below Árnafjall, the little houses huddled together as if to find comfort and warmth in this most isolated of locations. As the road swung along and around the contours of the hillside, we got our first glimpse of Mullafossur waterfall, as it fell off the edge of the valley side towards the sea. Only a glimpse, mind you. Like all great reveals, this road will only give you a hint of the real glory that is to come.

The road swung back around a contour and headed for the village. About 50m before the village itself, we pulled in by a gate that takes you to the path to the cliff edge and the real view we had come to see. Out we jumped from the car, wrestled our camera gear out from the bags (which were still very tightly packed as we hadn't even got to our house at this stage to off load anything). We were here - or at least just 200m or so from here. So, in the gloom, we set off as fast as our tired legs would carry us over the rough terrain of the stony path towards the sea. We approached the cliff edge - and there it was.

The cloud had closed in, but there was still a twilight glow visible along the horizon. And what a scene. There were all the elements: the mountains, the cliffs, the little village, the sea - and that magical little waterfall, a pillar of pure white against the ragged grey of the basalt cliffs, an angelic sentinel standing guard over this remote, quiet hamlet.

I still have this weirdest of feelings when I'm standing in front of scenes like this. When you're a landscape photography planning trips like this, you spend a lot of time looking at image after image of the locations you are going to visit. You see all the elements, represented for you, visioned by the various photographers who have visited there before. I a sense, therefore, you already know the scene quite well.

Or you think you do. For, to stand there for yourself is to experience it in a whole different way. To feel the cold wind on your face, to taste the salt in the air from the Atlantic below, to hear the wind and the roar of the vast ocean in its unrelenting battle against the cliff face below. That is, quite literally, to get a visceral sense of the place. Then throw in the sight, the ulimtate immersive 'reality' reality, as your eyes wander all around, trying to take in the sheer scale and glory of the view around.

It was the weirdest sense of the familiar and the exotic to me. I have felt cold like that many times in Northern Ireland. I am well used to cloudy and gloomy conditions when I'm out shooting. And, when I looked down, the rocks and grass beneath my feet looked for all the world like so many locations I have visited on the Causeway Coast (hardly surprising, as the rock of the Faroes is exactly the same as that of the Causeway). And yet, when I looked up, I was confronted with a geometrically alien landscape. Nowhere in Northern Ireland are the mountains quite this shape, is the coastline quite in this form, are the islands quite so ... strange. 'Toto,' I thought to myself, 'I have a feeling we're not at the Causeway anymore...'

And so, for the first few moments, I drank it all in. Yes, there were photographs to take. But first, there was an experience to savour, a moment in which to live deeply and richly, and a landscape to savour.

We didn't have much time here the first night. So we lined up along the edge of the cliff and got about the business of trying to capture something of the essence of the view in front of us. I went for a long exposure, using my polarizer and 6 stop ND filter. There was quite some movement in the cloud, and a mist was licking around the summit of Árnafjall, and the long exposure allowed me to freeze those seconds of time and for the clouds to streak across the sky. Against the backdrop of the static and imposing peaks in front of me, I quite liked how this created a sense of dynamism in the shot.

All too soon, it was time to go. We had a sunrise to be somewhere for, and when sunrise is around 4.00 am, you don't have any time to waste.


The night after

The next night, and we were back, this time with more time to use to explore this location. One of the things we were quickly coming to realise about the Faroes is that the weather in one fjord is no guarantee of what it will be like in the next fjord, never mind the next island over. When we left Torshavn, the road over the top of the mountains took us through some of the most picturesque scenery I've ever witnessed, and the intermittent cloud above dappled the fjords with shadows and light, the perfect way to enjoy the views from our vantage point high above. Would that light hold out for us by the time we had travelled the 60 km to the west to Gasadalur? Even the light Bour had looked promising, with gaps in the cloud that hinted that colour could break through as the sun set. In fact, as we emerged from the end of the tunnel at the village, there was a shaft of light, a single crepuscular ray, an atmospheric tease of what might be revealed.

Quickly, we stopped the car and headed down the now familiar path to the vantage piont. But the cloud had closed in. And from where I was standing, the setting sun was just around the headland. There was to be no dramatic sunset glory tonight, but with the Faroes, the landscape is so dramatic and structural that that doesn't really matter. And, in fact, as the sun set, the stratocumulus clouds above took on that subtle but beautiul colour that they sometimes do when the colour above tries its hardest to squeeze its way through any gaps in the cloud that it can find. The gentle undulations of the cloud got picked out in beautiful watercolour serenity of pinks and purples. Given that the sea below was calm and gentle, perhaps this was the best setting to enjoy this scene. Drama doesn't always have to be dramatic.

I tried for a panoramic shot this time, taking in the setting of Gasadalur valley itself along with the most easterly of the Faroese islands, Mykines.

But, amazing as this vantage point is, it's not the only place to enjoy views of the waterfall from. At the end of the path lies an arch way and a set of steps. From the path, it looks like they disappear into nothingness - from the top of the steps, even more so! They are steep and in bad repair. Which is no great surprise, as they were constructed at first during the Second World Way by British soldiers that were based there to allow access from the shore to the remote village above.

If you visit here, you must go down the steps. Be careful when you do - they are very degraded and there is a precipitous drop beside you! But the views from down below are amazing too and well worht exploring. By the time I had got down, the light was fast fading as we approached midnight, but the architectural shapes of the mountains still stood out so strong and dominate, and the white sentinel of the waterfall stood is stark relief against the imposing dark basalt cliffs. It was not hard to imagine how awe struck those British soldiers must have felt when they first saw this view and how remote the village was. And it's not hard to be impressed at their feat of engineering in building a set of steps up a cliff as imposing as this!

Just before I left, I turned once again to the island of Mykines. This dark, brooding shape rose out of the sea along the horizon and there was just time for one more photo. And this time, my mind drifted to the first visitors to these remote island, understood to be some Irish monks. As they sailed through the uncharted waters of the North Altantic, with no notion that they would find any land, how must they have felt as shapes like this started to appear above the horizon line. Overjoyed, no doubt, that they had found land. But there must have been some feeling of apprehension too. If you were sailing towards this shape for the very first time, would you even fancy your chances at all of being able to land anywhere and even get on to the island?

A glorious, majestic and humbling remoteness. That seems to summaries Gasadalur - and much of the Faroes. And what an amazing privilege to be able to visit and stand in these places. And this was only the end of our first full day in these islands. Next time, we are going to hike up a mountain ridge in deepest dusk of morning twilight, to the most incredible views of sunrise over the most glorious of Faroese fjords...


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Astro selfie - how I made the shot

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Astro selfie - how I made the shot

The shoot

  1. Camera settings: the Samyang 12mm lens (on Fuji XT-10) allows me 30 second exposures before I get significant star trails. I opened up the Aperture as wide as it goes (f/2.0) - with no foreground close by, I knew the stones in the shot would be in focus, even wide open). I set at ISO 800 (it was quite bright due to the near full moon, so I didn't need to go higher), did a test shot, checked the histogram - and we were good to go!
  2. I knew I'd need a few photos to make this final shot I had in my mind work. So the next thing to do was to set the camera onto the intervelomoter mode. That would give me enough time to make my way up to the stones for the selfie. I set the camera up to shoot for 3 minutes, and set about creating the three shots I was going to need.
  3. Shot 1 - light painting the foreground. I simply used the torch on my phone, but I moved around a bit during the 30 seconds to give a more diffuse and less directional light.
  4. Shot 2 - the selfie. While the camera shot away, I headed for the vantage point I had picked out, carefully climbing up the stones in the dark. To ensure that I was included in at least one complete 30 second exposure, I stood as still as possible for 60 seconds. Not easy in the wind!
  5. Shot 3 - as I came back down, I light painted the little gap to pick out more detail there.

The processing

Back at the computer, I selected the three images I wanted to use. As I had got the images pretty close to what I needed in camera, I just used the Fuji jpgs - I didn't need to look at the RAWs at all for this. I love Fuji jpgs!

Now, in Photoshop, it was a simple matter of blending the three shots.

  1. I started with the selfie shot as my base layer. It was also the shot I was going to use for the sky.
  2. Then I added in the other two photos as more layers in Photoshop.
  3. I used the Magic Wand tool to select the sky in my second image - the light painted foreground. Given that the ground was very dark and that there was a clear bondary between it and the sky, this was very easy. I inverted that selection (Select>Inverse) and added a new layer mask. Photoshop defaults to making the selection white and the non-selected part black. So that meant that the foreground from the light painted image showed along with the selfie and sky from the base image.
  4. To make the sky pop a little bit more, I added a couple of adjustment layers between the base layer and the light painted layer (a curves adjustment and a gradient layer).
  5. Finally, to add the second bit of light painting, I used used the Magic Wand tool again to select the sky, inverted the selection, added a layer, and used the Brush tool set to black to paint out any other parts of that shot that I didn't want.

Three shots, blended in a few minutes. Job done!

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Good weather for ducks - and photographers!

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Good weather for ducks - and photographers!

So on the day that it was announced that Northern Ireland has just had the UK's wettest July, it seems like August is determined to follow suit - with more rain and lots of storm clouds.

Now, whilst most sane people may well be complaining about the awful weather whilst looking jealously at those who are off in sunnier climes at the moment posting on Facebook about the baking temperatures and the clear blue skies, that strange bred called the Northern Irish Photographers are spending most of their time checking the skies - in hope that a dirty big storm cloud may just be about to pass over. Oh, how we love our dramatic weather!

In keeping with my fellow togs, I want to share a few images taken over the past couple of days in the midst of all this glorious horrible weather. I got thoroughly soaked on both occasions to bring you these shots - and I loved every minute of it!

Dunluce Castle

When I arrived, a great big storm cloud was passing over to the North.

And then the rain came for me! I beat a hasty retreat for the car, only for the rain to quickly clear - and for me to quickly get into position for a shot I'd been after for a wee while now. All I needed was the right light - and that evening delivered! I'd spotted the remains of the wee wall, dangling precariously over the edge of the cliff (who even builds these things?!). The sun broke through the cloud, giving me the side light I wanted. And the remains of the storm clouds lit up pink. I was one happy photographer, if a little on the wet side.

With the sun now casting a long reflection on the water, I changed position for some other shots as it set.

With the sun still shining in the sky, the grass picked up some highlights of light. Within 5 minutes, the scene changed once more, as the sun dropped below the horizon. The warm tones disappeared from the grass, and the whole scene became more subtle and subdued.

All these photos, taken in the same location within one hour of each other. Courtesy of our lovely awful weather!


Belfast

You don’t always have to be on the north coast to make the most of our dramatic weather. The centre of Belfast can do too!

Cue another day of dramatic weather, and a wee journey to the River Lagan, in the hope of being treated to the right conditions at just the right time.

And again, there was a wonderful variety of lighting conditions within a short space of time. A deep and intense storm cloud came past just after I arrived, its leading edge literally rolling through the sky behind the Obel Tower, while the light from the low sun underlit its leading edge. In conditions like this, my FUji XT-10 really comes into its own. I set the Film Simulation to Classic Chrome, perfect for the steely grey/blues in the skies above, and shot away.

Soon after, the roll cloud rolled away (but not before dumping a veritable deluge on me for all of 3 minutes), leaving behind a more gentle cloudscape, still being underlit by the setting sun.

By the time the sun had set, the storm clouds had pretty much passed over, leaving whispy tendrils of cloud strewn across the sky, perfect to be painted in a riot of warm colours by the sun that had disappeared behind Belfast’s Hills.

So, we may not be getting our classic barbecue and sunbathing weather. And that might make most of you quite disappointed. But us photographers are seeing more than enough of our silver linings (an pink, and purple, and gold linings too) to keep us happy!


PS My buddy Stephen Wallace decided he'd had enough of my photographic good luck with light, so he sent me a version of one of these pics...!

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