It's always interesting to look back over your photo record from the past year. Partly because (hopefully) it's a record of some progression as a photographer as you have tried new things and experimented a bit with your craft and technique.
But mostly because it is somewhat autobiographical for me as a photographer - looking back over older photos brings back memories of early starts, or of late nights; of familiar places visited, and of long hikes to discover new locations; of occasions of disappointment, when the light just didn't deliver that time; and of times when all the variables that need to align for a good landscape shot fell into place and that thrilling joy overcomes you that it has all worked this time.
For me, landscape photography is often a very sociable activity and I am blessed indeed to enjoy the company of many wonderful fellow photographers. You'll find a few of them name checked here, an acknowledgement of just how thrilled I am to share the pursuit of that perfect shot with them.
So here's my selection from 2015. I've restricted myself to choosing one photo from each month - which inevitably means that I have to leave some other favourites out. But I've put them together in a longer retrospective video here.
January was snow month up the Mournes. Three of the four weekends had snow and sun - the prefect conditions to continue my explorations of these magnificent mountains. So, of all the many snowy photos to choose from those trips, which one?
There can be only one trip - that magnificent day when I first went up Trassey Track and over the wall into Narnia, before summitting Slieve Bearnagh for the first time in the snow. The views from the top were like nothing I had ever seen in Northern Ireland before. The climb was breath-taking - the vista before me, even more so. But I've chosen not to include the photo from the top! And it pains me greatly to do so, as it's a particular favourite of mine.
But that amazing day was capped off at the end by a dash down Trassey Track, into the car and to Murlough Beach to try to capture a sunset. When I'm down this neck of the woods these days, I want to be up a mountain. So I'm rarely on this beach. But, that day, I wanted to try for the sunset. The skies had been quite clear in late afternoon and there were no guarantees of anything spectacular. But, as I approached the car park, the skies lit up amazingly. There's a short walk from the car park to the beach. But the light from a sunset can go in minutes, so I had no time to spare. I coaxed my tired legs into one last run - and made it to the beach just in time!
This trip also say me meet a couple of really decent guys on the way up Bearnagh - and it saw the power of Facebook to help my track them down too to share the photo with them!
[Photo trip with Ryan Simpson and Stephen Wallace]
January was also the month when I released my first eBook on night photography. There are a couple more in the pipeline, including on on aurora forecasting, so watch out for them in 2016!
By the start of 2015, I had seen four auroras in my entire life. Little did I know that 2015 would be the year I finally got aurora forecasting licked and have managed to trip over an embarrassment of aurora riches ever since, averaging out more than two northern lights viewings per month in 2015 (including New Year's Eve for 2016!)
But back in early February 2015, I wasn't quite the polished aurora forecaster just yet. And this night I just happened to stumble upon this display. I had been out at Dunluce doing some star photos, when the aurora gradually appeared before my watching - and excited - eyes! I spent the rest of the evening chasing it around various locations along the north coast., but this shot at the Causeway was my favourite of them all.
Read more about that night here.
I also got another snowy fix on top of Cavehill, capturing a photo I'd been planning for a while - a twilight shot of Belfast from a snowy Cavehill. I've got a 60 inch canvas of this one hanging in my house!
If February was my first aurora taster of 2015, little did I know what the main course would be like, only one month later. The St Patrick's Day aurora remains to this day the most stunning display I have ever witnessed. At its height, the aurora covered a dome of about 180 degrees of the sky, with the pillars of light disappearing towards a vanishing point above my head. The sky danced, shimmered and sparkled with flashes of brilliant light. I gasped and hollered and jigged for sheer delight, in awe of the sight I thought I would have to travel to Iceland to see.
It was also the start of my discovering that you don't need to go to the north coast to see the aurora in Northern Ireland - I enjoyed this view in the beautiful picturesque village of Glenarm on the world class Antrim Coast road.
For once, the photos I took of that night didn't do it justice. But, there are times when you've just got to set your camera aside and dance for joy at the sight you are privileged to be witnessing.
I also was able to produce my first guest blogs for the fine folks at WalkNI in March, prompting one person to provide what I think is probably my favourite comment of the year on one of my photos: "Dramatic, beautifully coloured, and as moody as Roy Keene being interviewed by Sinead O'Connor."
And who could forget the partial solar eclipse! I was fortunate enough to find a gap in clouds to get these photos. A wonderful sight to see.
I suppose it's time for a non-aurora shot (although there are more than a few different aurora shots I could have shared from April, for I was indeed getting on an auroral roll by now!) Instead, let me take you back up to the north coast.
By April, the clocks have changed, the evenings are extending and tend to draw people to the north coast after work for an hour or two's enjoyment. Alongside us photographers chasing the golden hour, that hardy breed known as surfers are often to be found, drifting out into the breakers in the last of the light, searching for that one last big wave to catch.
This evening, the light was perfect as the sun slipped down behind Inishowen, and this lone surfer caught my eye, a tiny speck in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
Enjoying views of the landscapes of Northern Ireland often helps to give perspective. Whether it's standing on top of a mountain in the Mournes, of being battered by the winds and waves of the north coast, it's good for the soul to be inspired by the glory of creation all around and to be reminded that the things that seem to overwhelm us so much of the time perhaps aren't quite so big after all...
Read more about how you can use people in your landscape photography here.
Okay, one wee aurora shot to link to - but only because it's me and my Dad, with him witnessing his first aurora in his later 70s!
"Do you ever sleep?" is a question I'm asked by my friends quite a lot these days. The answer is simply this - I have perfected the art of the afternoon nap! Which means I can hang about into the wee small hours to enjoy views like this. Slemish has been very good to me aurora wise this year. But of the many shots I could have chosen from there, this one stands out for me. The display had begun to die back a bit by this stage (at around 0100). But in this pano I was ale to fit not only the mountain itself and the tail end of the aurora, but also the arc of the Milky Way, stretching across the sky from NW to SE. Sure who needs sleep anyway...!! Here are some more photos from that night.
May also saw me being interviewed with Gilbert Lennox about out photography by the BBC - for one of their radio shows! Photos on the radio? The perfect combination, surely! Listen to the interview here - and see the pictures I'm referring to!
Let me bypass the stunning mid-summer's night aurora from 2015, amazing as it was, and take you back to the north coast. This is my brother and his son, enjoying the last few moments of the day at the Giant's Causeway. There was no dramatic sunset that night. The skies didn't glow with gold and orange. But there's something about the primal, raw energy of this shot that appeals to me.
It is, of course, tied up with the memories of being there: of my nephew's first time down at the Causeway at this time of night and his amazement at the scenes he was seeing; of the fact that we were only three down here; of me being privileged to witness the the beauty of the simple father and son moment.
Sometimes the glory you witness comes courtesy of vast oceans, of cosmic plasmas sparking the skies above to life, shooting dozens of kilometres into the dark starry skies above. Other times, the glory is simply that of a moment shared, a love exchanged, of memories made. And that is no less glorious than the most stunning aurora.
Oh what to pick from July! Maybe my first photo trip to the glorious county of Sligo? Maybe one from the long, late nights chasing the noctilucent clouds? Maybe one of many glorious north coast sunsets? Or the nights where you can stay out till 2.00 am and still be looking at the twilight sky?
In the end, it could be only one thing - my return trip to the summit of Slieve Bearngh, with my trusted hiking photography buddies Ryan Simpson and Stephen Wallace. This time, we were going for a wild camp, hiking up with only our gear, food/water and a sleeping bag. It was early July and the forecast was good and we set off for the summit late into the evening. Most of the night was filled with photographing the mist and cloud that was sweeping over the top of the mountain as it raced up from the Silent Valley to the south. It was a surreal experience to stand on the mountain top - one moment the mist swirled all around us, obscuring all but the a vague hint of the granite tors on the summit of Bearnagh, the light from the full moon diffused through the droplets of water suspended in the air. The next, the cloud cleared, and the silvery landscape all around us opened up - there was Binnian, itself covered in mist; and the long thin line of the Silent Valley Reservoir glistening in the darkness.
We slept for about an hour and a half under the stars and mist, before waking up again before sunrise to catch the Mournes in all their morning glory. If you've never woken up in the mountains after camping under the stars, let me recommend it to you for your 2016 bucket list!
June kind of sees the end of the aurora chasing season in the British Isles - not because the aurora stops necessarily, but more because it doesn't quite get dark enough to see the aurora (unless you get a cracker display like the mid-summer's night one!). So it was the perfect moment for me to pause and produce my aurora opus magnus so far: A Year in the Life of an Aurora Chaser. It documents the thirteen auroras I saw in 2014/15, including my first aurora time lapse video. I was interviewed by UTV for this one - but this time for their website and not for radio!
August 2015 was a bit on the wet side overall, and so chances to get astro shots clear of cloud were few and far between. But the middle of the month provided a chance, and photographer Tim Swart and I made the most of that opportunity to get a shot we'd been planning for for a while. Cue a careful scramble down the grassy slope to the bottom of Dunluce Castle in the dark, before we carefully picked our way over the rocky foreshore to get into position.
The clouds were streaking across the sky, ruining our chances for clear shots. But, at last, a break appeared and we manged to fire off some shots of the silhouetted ruins of the castle, along with the Milky Way thrusting up into the sky above . And to cap it off, wasn't there a faint auroral glow to the north! It was perfect - or so we thought. It actually was about to get even more perfect, without us even realising it.
We were chatting about this or that as we went about out business of taking the shots. Both of us had our cameras pointed towards the castle when we took a 30 second exposure. We turned to chat while we waited. And it was only when we looked at our screens that we realised that we'd captured the streak of a meteor fireball above the castle, heading towards the Milky Way. Despite August's bad weather, this was indeed a bit of a Carlsberg moment!
Oh I also managed to get the Milky Way shot I've been chasing for a couple of years in August! And that month also saw me have my first hike up Errigal in Co Donegal. Its twin peaks make it a truly wonderfully photogenic mountain and it has become a definite favourite of mine (shhhh, don't tell the Mournes that!!)
September is a wonderful month to get up the Mournes. Before the clocks change and the nights draw in, there's just about enough time to get up in the evening after work to enjoy a moment of zen or to pretend you're flying while you get your head in the clouds on top of Doan.
But in terms of picking a photo for this month, there can be only one - the lunar eclipse. Being in Ireland, there are no guarantees of clear skies of course. But little did I know that night that, as I was tweeting pics of what I was seeing, that folks in the USA who were clouded out were living vicariously through my photos and tweeting back! This picture in particular took on a bit of a life of its own and I ended up being interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph for about it. Read more about my experiences photographing this astronomical delight with photographer Peter Lennon here.
I did get a bit more aurora action in September, both at Slemish as well as a gloriously tranquil and balmy evening down at Dunluce with Chris Ibbottson who wa shooting a wonderful star trails video at the time. Read more about that lovely evening here.
Okay, so I might have captured another amazing aurora or two in October, but there was not contest when it came to selecting my shot of the month this time. It had to be that stunning morning standing on top of Cavehill as the sun rose over the fog that blanketed all of Belfast below. There is a particular sense of reward that comes with capturing a good sunrise, more so than a sunset. It's probably to do with the extra effort it takes to set your alarm for stupid o'clock. It's definitely something to do with the fact that the early rising is entirely speculative and you've no guaranteed that you'll be rewarded for all those efforts (which makes it all the more magical when it does pay off, of course). And no doubt in large part it's the realisation that you are one of the few people actually witnessing this view. That makes it special.
But this morning especially felt that way. As the sounds of the city awakening drifted up through the fog below, and as the sun poked his head above the soft cotton wool condensation before me, I knew this indeed was a special moment. And particularly as I'd been up the morning before, trying for the same shot, only to discover that my camera battery was flat after I'd lugged the gear up to the top of the mountain!
Weather-wise, November 2015 started as it definitely didn't intend to go on - dry and sunny! Sunday 1st November saw Ryan Simpson and I head up the Trassey Track once more to try for a sunset shot from Slievnaglogh in the Mournes. It was cloudless, clear and close to 16 degrees when I set off. I stood on top of the mountain in a t-shirt on the first day of November! Some great shots resulted, both on top and on the way back down as the mist enveloped the valleys below.
But the shot I have selected is my first (and so far only) snow of winter 15/16. A dusting had fallen on Cavehill the night before, and I knew I had my chance. So, once more, the alarm was set for early, and I set off in the semi-darkness for the mountain top. There is something very satisfying about the sound of crunching through the snow and I walked up with tremendous anticipation. At the top, I could see the snow showers charging all across counties Down and Antrim. That meant banks of cloud and mist sweeping in and over me, all as the sun was rising over the city - perfect conditions for a landscape photographer! One moment I was whited out in a blizzard - the next, the clouds cleared and the golden morning sun shone through the mist to light the view all around me. A glorious morning - and I'm hoping for more snowy adventures before winter is done with us this year!
December 2015 continued the way of November - mild and wet. Very wet. That, combined with me having a truly awful dose of the flu (actual flu, not the man variety!) meant that chances to get out and a bout were very few and far between. I did manage a short Mournes excursion, meeting with Ryan Simpson, to try out my new Fujifilm X-T10 camera just before the dreaded lurgy took hold, and I had a trip or two up Cavehill again with Stephen Wallace and Stuart McChesney.
But the review of 2015, the year of all those aurora shoots, could only finish with one last aurora photograph (with photographer Alistair White): of the famous Dark Hedges, lit by the light of a full moon, with car trail lights passing through, and with a wonderful aurora arc hanging majestically in the sky in the background. What a way to finish off yet another wonderful year of photographic fun, adventure and discovery!
Only , it wasn't quite to be my last aurora photo of the year. Because, as I write this on 1st January 2016, I'm still reeling from the most amazing of aurora displays either side of midnight on New Year's Eve! I've plentyy of photos to work through from last night, but I'm going to finish this review with one last photo - one of the first I have taken in 2016 (I hope you don't mind me squeezing it in here!). Let's hope this is a good sign for many more chances to photograph the aurora in 2016!
So thanks to all of you who have journeyed with my in 2015. Whether fellow photographers with whom I quite literally have walked and hiked much of this year. Or followers of my work on Facebook and Twitter. I deeply appreciate all the time you take to encourage me and leave those very kind comments. Living in Norhtern Ireland as a landscape photographer, I sometimes feel like a little kid in the biggest, wildest most wonderful sweetie store. There is so much to enjoy in such a small area around me - and it is my delight to share some of the sweeties with you all. Enjoy!