Saturday, 19 December 2015

What a night

It seemed quiet fitting that having just delivered an astrophotography training session to my intermediate photography group in Lerwick , the conditions for astrophotography that night was just perfect.

After a few very cold night with lots of ice about, Monday finally warmed up and it promised a reasonably clear night/ Monday was of course the night for the Geminid Meteor shower so I kept locally and headed down to the coast a short distance away with good all round views.

At 7.00 pm I pulled up and instantly saw the aurora, it was too much of a temptation so I brought out two cameras and mounted them on  tripods. The 18-200mm lens pointing out to the aurora which continued to develop, the second with a 11-16 mm lens pointing towards the sky.

For the second time in a couple of nights it started to rain, but this was brief thankfully, the clouds clearing. The brightness of the aurora began to change and curtains of green waved across the sky , shafts of green reaching high into the sky and also below.

As usual the lights from Cunningsburgh caused light pollution and made the clouds orange but I think this added to the photos. This aurora was the second best I have seen this year, but this one had little other colour than green visible. This wasn't the case further north and west where purple banding and shafts of light could be seen in Unst and Walls

The Aurora can last several hours or a few minutes, this one was visible throughout the three hours I was out. At nearly 10 pm it started to fade, but others saw it well past midnight. I could have well missed the whole events had it not been for the meteor shower which I intended to photograph.

Using multi shooting at 25 seconds I captured many frames but only two with meteor trails, I did however see dozens, some very bright. Most tended to be short in length, but a couple very long trails came through very bright.

Its difficult capturing meteors even with a wide angle lens, even pointing to the source did not really help and looking at what happened last night I will in future point the lens away from the centre. At over 100 per hour the Geminid Meteor shower is the best chance to capture one or more of these beauties.

Normally I am down at this spot by myself but on this occasion several other people including photographer took the opportunity of a still moonless night to see the spectacle. It was good to get out at last but the forecast for the next 10 days looks poor with gales and rain returning so this may be the last chance to get out for some night photography

It was good to see a few of the photography group managed to get some Aurora photos of their own. If you want to come on an Adult learning course either beginners - know your own camera or intermediate course ( 3 different 6 week courses) covering a wide range of photography, then contact Shetland Adult Education in Lerwick . Note the January 2016 Intermediate course is full, only a few left on the Intermediate course commencing end of February. A new beginners course starts in April

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Milky Way over St Ninian's Isle

Its been a very frustrating time missing out on auroras and various conjunctions due to a combination of things, mainly the weather.

I am sure many of you will have the same problems, everything looks good, no moon and cloudless skies, but then - Its gale force winds, the cloud moves in (is any weather forecast correct in Shetland?) and no aurora appears even though it has just forecast a KP7

Astrophotography certainly tests your patience, especially when you see other people posting great photos from cloudless, wind free sites. At least we can dream  a little and when everything does come together it makes for a truly memorable night.

The other night it started foggy in Sandwick but with a high aurora predicted we decided to go to the west side on our way to an event. Just as hoped for the sky was clear and it was fairly calm. My new Gitzo tripod is a big help, it weighs a ton, very handy to stop any movement.

No Aurora activity on arrival, but it can flare up anytime, so we waited and in the meantime the Milky Way looked absolutely stunning. Although its not a true dark site its one of the best sites to visit if you only have a short time period.

I never get tired looking at the Milky way , the cloudy band of millions of stars, perhaps around 400 million  and a 100 million planets arch across the sky from east to west. The width is approx 150 million light years in diameter. It has a low surface brightness and needs a dark sky to see the best.

I set the camera up, the Nikon D7000 and the Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm and started to shot at 25 seconds to avoid star trailing. Instead of the normal ISO 1600 I took it up to ISO 4000 to bring out the star fields which it did. The one draw back is the noise, you wont want a lot of noise reduction as it kills the stars, so its a balancing game.

Its all down to processing and personal preference on how much you want to bring out the Milky way. I don't use Photoshop preferring Lightroom.

Well the aurora never appeared that night as it was delayed, making an appearance the following night, unfortunately for us in Shetland it was thick cloud with fog, so its back to a waiting game.

Would have been due to go out Thursday & Friday night with another high aurora predicted but having seen the forecast and confirmed by me stepping outside for a few minutes, i think it may have been too windy with a Force 10 hitting Shetland, this one called Abegail -or A BIG GALE

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

At Last

Finally a few clear night, which didn't coincide with other events. The first was out west following an excellent night at the accordion & fiddle festival at Skeld. The sky was full of stars and the aurora prediction was for KP5, so on the way back around midnight we stopped off at Park Hall, a venue i wanted to get to for while.

The building is now abandoned, but has all the right ingredients. It is set in ts own grounds, looks good in silhouette facing north with no light pollution. Although it was a bit breezy i set up the Nikon D7000 with the Tokina at 11mm with a faint trace of the aurora.

I picked this particular night as I needed the car headlight to hit the building and with a steady stream of cars heading back from the festival it provided a good opportunity as normally the road is very quiet normally.

While the stars looked good the aurora failed to get brighter, later i found out the it was the best around 8 pm. I also lit the building with a powerful LED which shows just how blue the light is compared to a better looking light, via the headlights.
The milky way looked good as well with little light pollution the stars really stood out

Then earlier this week another alert of KP5 with the forecast of a mainly clear night. i headed over to Bigton and set up at the top of the hill overlooking St Ninians tombolo. It was completely still, very unusual in Shetland but the cloud was the main problem, the forecast completely wrong again. The aurora hidden by the cloud.

This was a good time for astrophotography as the moon was new so no light pollution.

After this I headed up Scousburgh Hill with great views north, it was just a shame about the cloud, but it did have some breaks. Again this is normally a windy place but not on this night . I did include the giant bucket left after construction of some buildings which provided some foreground interest.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Sun Spots

With the long summer !! nights here in Shetland there has not been much chance for night photography.

So its all down to photographing the sun- Please use a special solar filter

Sunspots with a solar filter can be photographed  when its sunny of course. Setting up on a tripod, a 500 mm lens and using a cable release is all that is needed. Don't look through the viewfinder it is very dangerous but instead use live-view which is safe. If you did view the sun with your naked eye you will feel no pain because your retina has no nerve endings, you will become blinded almost instantly. Even after a short while the lens end temperature will reach 500 degrees, so as soon as you have finished photographing move the camera away from the sun

After focusing in live view you can fire away, the sun is always a superb target. With  a 500 mm zoom lens its best to go down to a 150 mm , find the sun then zoom in, the sun doesn't stay in view long but it can be easy to find. The solar filter cuts the light down so I use ISO 400 and shoot around f/8.

Sunspots add interest, these are small dark markings in the sun's photo sphere, large storms not of rain and wind but of intense magnetic activity. Because they are magnetic they always appear in pairs with opposite magnetic polarity.

The dark spots are in fact cool areas in a very hot mass. These move left to right across the suns surface (northern hemisphere) , normally lasting no more than 14 days. Some don't make it across the whole surface.

Every 11 years sunspots reach a peak and within a year 100's can be seen. But every 5.5 years after the peak very few or none will be visible. The peak activity for sunspots also occurs with other activity, which include mass ejections, called corona.

Some people also have concluded that in periods of little activity, very cold weather occurs on earth. Like wise in years of very active sunspots the sun temperature will rise could this be Global warming ??. The last peak activity was back in 2011, so you would expect less sunspots from mid 2017 on.

The other good thing is in periods of high activity there is a greater chance to see the Aurora (Northern Lights) .

Auroras can be superb colours but when they are around KP3-4 they look dark on the horizon and sometimes you have to use your camera to tell they are actually showing as the eye cannot detect low activity.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Tingwall Aurora

`No colour and no brush is able to paint it;no words can describe it in all its grandeur' - Karl Weyprecht

If there is one thing people would like to see, its the aurora. These magical lights are very elusive but you can increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora) by living in an area that is as far north as you can go.

Shetland therefore has to be the best place, especially as a lot of auroras are dim even from Shetland, around KP4 and are therefore not normally seen further south.  These last few days however have been better with KP6.5 recorded, but as luck would have it we had been out and missed it. Just as we headed on holiday a KP8 hit and people in Shetland had some amazing colours- and clear skies.

On Thursday we went up to Asta to listen to some music and looking through the window about 9pm i could see stars and a clear sky. The temptation was too strong, especially as there was no moon (Light pollution) so we decided to go up to the boat shed further up the valley.

We pulled up beside another car where two other people stood watching the sky to see whether any aurora would be visible. Both these people were German and had the spot recommended by their B&B.

The glow in the sky revealed that the aurora was present, but weak. I took a photo which showed a green glow, visible to the sensor in the camera but not to the untrained eye. They seemed quite amazed that they had been looking at the sky for over an hour but didn't realise that they had been seeing the aurora.

They left soon after and missed a stronger aurora quickly developing , along with the green glow (the normal colour) a layer of purple sat on top, curtains and pillars of light began to form and moved across the sky. It was an amazing sight, the best aurora we had seen since moving to Shetland. You cannot witness such a beautiful phenomenon without the sense of awe.

It just confirmed to us how quickly the aurora can develop and then recede, easy to miss especially if you have to travel a distance

The location was reasonable, a dark site but with a steady stream of cars coming down the valley. The red glow coming down from the wind turbines looked spooky. The International space station and a meteor added to the scene.

When photographing the aurora you need to ensure you have a strong tripod, one that doesn't get blown about in the wind. Be prepared to change settings when the aurora starts to develop. I usually start with around ISO 800 - 1000, with 20sec exposure using a Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, at f/2.8

On Friday aurora alerts kept coming through the day, no good for seeing anything in the night sky, and as darkness fell the strong winds F7 and cloudy skies did nothing to encourage me to go out