Get your head in the clouds #1

A morning above the fog of Belfast

Mist is most definitely the photographer's friend (as long as the photographer is not trying the capture a lunar eclipse at the time!). The wonderful atmospheric light makes for very striking, moody images and I am often drawn up on such misty days in search of an atmospheric shot or two.

But then there are those times that you just have to get up above that self same mist. You have to climb a nearby mountain and get your head above the fog. And, with clear skies above, you look down on the softest cotton wool cloud tops.

That's just what I did last Thursday morning before work. The vantage point was Cavehill. The city below was Belfast - although you most definitely couldn't tell just be looking. As the city was blanketed in a thick fog that nestled snugly in the Lagan valley and out into Belfast Lough.

The Indian summer

We'd been having a run of great days - a veritable Indian summer - courtesy of a high pressure system that was sitting slap bang over the top of the British Isles (the self same system that had given us the clear skies to enjoy the lunar eclipse at the start of the week). 

But, as it was the end of September, although the days were lovely and warm in this Indian summer, the lengthening nights meant that the temperatures dropped away into the hours of darkness. And this was allowing thick fog and mist to form in the valleys and lower ground by morning.

The perfect conditions to climb a mountain and get a vantage point above the clouds!

All it would take to enjoy this sight was to set my alarm clock one hour earlier so that I could be ready to begin the walk to the top of Cavehill at 6.30 am. Sunrise was to be just after 7.00 am, and it would only take me 20 minutes to get to the top. 

I hastened up as fast as I could, wanting to be in place for the sunrise itself. On the way up, I was treated to wonderful views of Black Mountain to the south sweeping upwards out of a thick blanket of fog that was firmly ensconced in the Lagan Valley below. No time to stop, though. I had a goal in mind. And that goal was on the top of the mountain.

On top of the world

As I reached the top of the Plateau, I made straight for the unmistakable outline of McArt's fort, a prominence that juts out from the edge of the plateau, dominating views for miles around. The skies above were crystal clear, and along the south eastern horizon was a band of deep, rich orange. The sun would soon be here.

I quickly got into position and for the first time stopped to allow myself fully to drink in the view. The experience of standing on top of a mountain looking down on the cloud base is one that never ceases to draw a gasp of wonder from me. The fog that is some amorphous when you are immersed in it takes on such a distinct form. The cotton wool structures undulated gently, inviting you to enter into an imaginary world where you could toss yourself onto the clouds only to find the softest of landings that would gently 'boing' you straight back up again into the air. This is the world of childhood imaginations, where giants roam in search on boys named Jack, and faint cries of 'Fee, fi, fo, fum' echo from the far distance across this candy-floss world. But then, in my imagination, the scene would change. In the trees below me that were escaping the grasp of the mist, I would see the top of a diplodocus , rearing its head above the tree line, while the roar of a hungry T-Rex would rumble across the tree tops from somewhere in the mist...

But I couldn't indulge myself for too long in this other world. There was a job to be done in the here and now. So out came the camera and tripod and I started shooting away. I mostly wanted to got for panoramic shots and shots of this size can go somewhere to capturing the sense of scale of the view before you. 

One of the joys of being up for a sunrise shoot is found in watching how the light changes of the hour surrounding sunrise itself. Last Thursday, with the lack of clouds in the sky above, the colours remained subtle and subdued, a peaceful and tranquil moment to enjoy. 

View this panorama in much more detail here - select 2048p for best viewing results.

However, as the sun broke free of its hiding place below the horizon and rose higher into the sky, it bathed the surrounding land in the most wonderful of rich, warm tones. The grass that, moments before, was struggling to emerge from the gloom of night, now was making a vivid statement: the new day had come.

View this panorama in much more detail here - select 2048p for best viewing results.

But as well as panoramic shots that try to capture the full scale of the scene, I put my zoom lens on to pick out some of the detail in the far distance. Although the sounds of the city waking below were drifting up through the cloud, the only visible sign of life down there was far off across Belfast Lough: Scrabo Tower. Its hill cleared the fog, revealing Scrabo standing proud, a sentinel keeping watch over the slumbering city. 

I also wanted to shoot a more minimalist photo, so I zoomed right in to the sun, only including some the top of the fog in the photo. The whole scene had such a wonderful serenity about it - the clouds seemed so soft and inviting.  

As the sun climbed further, the temperatures rose too. I wandered onto McArt's Fort itself to shoot more to the east, up Belfast Lough towards Carrick. 

There I was, on top of Cavehill, at 7.15 am on 1st October, in a T-shirt, feeling pleasantly warm as the sun's rays shone on me. It certainly was an Indian summer! I simply took a few moments to sit back and enjoy the experience - and drink in the view all around me.

But, alas, work beckoned, and I had to descend back to my car. But there was time for one more quick shot as the sun rose ever higher.

I enjoy shooting in fog as much as the next photographer. But on those occasions when I can get my head in - and indeed above - the clouds, these indeed are magical times.

Next time

Talking of which, keep an eye out for part two of this short series when I take you to another mountain, this time in the Mournes, and into the very heart of the clouds as they whipped past me at 40 miles per hour!