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