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Ballintoy Church, Elephant Rock, Dunlewey & Mt Errigal Star Trails & Time Lapse

For the third week in a row I was going through my evening ritual of packing my camera gear and clothes into the van in anticipation of another north coast photo shoot with John Fagan. During the previous weeks we had been shooting time lapse and star trails at Dunluce Castle and Beaghmore stone circles and tonight we were once again going to meet up specifically to shoot both, only this time it would be Elephant Rock at the legendary Ballintoy. The forecast for September 30th was excellent with clear skies all night long in slack winds with a narrow dark window for one hour or so before moonrise so the plan was to get on location early and take advantage of that dark window then use the light from the rising moon to illuminate the landscape which would greatly enhance our photographs, we would meet at Ballintoy at 21.30 UT. As of late it has felt like my life has revolved around driving lonely dark roads at night and charging batteries, the latter in particular I could do with my eyes shut, charging my Canon 600D batteries, 450D battery, head torch battery and Go Pro battery, this is a ritual for me, I always charge these devices late at night when I return from a photo shoot then once again top them up the following day, this is more of an OCD thing with me because the routine gives me peace of mind in the knowledge that I will never leave on a shoot with drained batteries, and thankfully that never has happened to date, my check was complete, my dinner ate then a quick check outside showed the sun setting in the west behind the dark slope of the Sperrins, I noticed it was setting further S now, a sure sign that the seasons have changed and that Winter cannot be far away.

I made it to the Antrim coast just as darkness fell however the moon had rose a little earlier than I had anticipated, I didn't mind because the sight of it rising over the ocean horizon was nothing short of spectacular in the form of a giant amber ball creepily rising over the landscape with spectacular 'moon illusion effect' making our satellite look like some massive pumpkin hanging over a bed of black haze. As I drove along the road a chance alignment positioned the moon directly in front of me and for a few min's it looked like it was sitting on the road on which I drove, the visual scene was impressive enough to get my adrenaline going so I pulled over on the side of the road near the turn off for Portballintrae, set my video camera on the dash, then took video footage of the scene.

I arrived at Ballintoy then just as I stopped I got a text from John informing me that he was running late so I had some time to kill and decided to use it as productively as possible by doing photography before John arrived when we would be moving on to our target location for the night. I decided to shoot the old church, John himself had obtained stunning images from here not to long ago with round bales of hay in the field which made for some epic night shoots so I can't take credit for the location, I had taken night images from here before on and off over the years however I had never shot it from inside a freshly cut hay field, the bales were long gone however the field would be enough to add some interesting foreground to the scene. The gate was open so I walked inside and got set up as quickly as possible, I was excited by the view and wanted to waste no time at all so I could use this wonderful light. The moon rose behind the ancient headstones so I moved around to get a good angle while keeping the moon out of frame to the right. I liked this view with the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 at 32mm with Auriga rising behind the church complimented by 'The Kids' and the bright and friendly star 'Capella'. I say friendly because the star sported a warm colour of gold-yellow which instantly equates to warm and friendly, Capella is often seen embedded within Summer time Noctilucent Cloud displays so in a way it reminds me of those warm muggy nights.

I began shooting a short star trail at 24mm on continuous shooting using tungsten white balance with the intention of using the stills for time lapse footage. The night was beautiful, the sky was semi dark and filled with stars and the Milky Way was high in the S with clearly visible dust clouds and dark obscuration nebulae, Bart Bok instantly came to mind. The waning gibbous moon some 2-3 days after full was low in the NE and climbing higher by the minute, in time it would wash the Milky Way from the sky however for now I looked up and admired it while the camera's shutter clicked within the darkness, at times bright iridium flares would break up the familiar constellation patterns like moving supernovae, these 'cosmic fire flies' are most prolific during the first hour of darkness and it has been my own experience that strong moonlight often reveals more of these during this magic hour. The image above is the result of 51 exposures stacked.

After a suitable period of time elapsed I zoomed out to wide angle and began a new star trail including Ursa Major, Draco and Perseus in the frame. I was in my element here and loving every second of this experience, I always love doing photography from a field, especially hay fields, they always remind me of warm Summer afternoons shooting thunderstorms and the scent of the cut hay always reminded me of the fields I used to play in when I was young, only this field was extra special because from where I stood I could look straight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Complete star trail made from 103 x 15 sec exposures, the bright moonlight in conjunction with a couple of sodium lights did a superb job of illuminating the field and church for me, no torches needed here, this was natural light painting using nature and the ambient light, the scene can look almost like daylight when captured with a fast lens.

There was still no sign of John, it was after 22.00 UT so I decided to shoot another star trail, this time at 10mm wide angle with the Samyang F/2.8 taking short 16 sec exposures. Of historical interest, the steeple of this church was severely damaged during the 'hurricane' of December 1894, I'm sure this church has experienced it's fair share of severe Atlantic storms over the years.

This is 74 images stacked, what fantastic foreground this was, I imagined what the scene would have been like with a great comet on view with huge fanning dust tail sweeping up tail-first above the field and adjacent to the church, what an epic shoot that would be, it will happen some time. John arrived so I ended my shoot and after a quick chat we drove down the steep sweeping road around to Ballintoy harbour car park to shoot what we had come here for - Elephant Rock.

John and I began our hike westward across the coastline to a location where Ballintoy and White Park Bay meet, here the view across the ocean is sublime with a multitude of large rock stacks jutting out from the sea which would make for a very dramatic foreground element. This section of coastline goes back 60 million years and is a great place of geologic interest. We couldn't have picked a better night, the sky was 100% clear and calm except for a gentle breeze to ward off any dew, furthermore the moon was now higher in the sky behind us to the E and would light up the coastline for us like magic. I set up the 600D with 10mm F/2.8 lens on a large rock formation in front of me, John mounted his camera on the same rock adjacent to mine and we began shooting 25 sec exposures at ISO800, on another rock formation to my left I set up the Canon 450D with 24-70mm F/2.8 lens, soon all our cameras were shooting the sky in unison so John and I could stand back and take in the view. Above is one of the 10mm frames used for the time lapse and star trail, the constellations on view from left to right are - Ophiuchus, Hercules, Corona Borealis, Bootes and Ursa Major.

Complete star trail from 188 x 10mm exposures complimented by several bright iridium flares, check out how amazing the ocean and rocks look thanks to the bright moonlight and long exposures, the colours captured were beautiful with a combination of purple and azure blue in the ocean and green on the rocks, that's Elephant Rock left of centre, can you see the trunk?

Single exposure from my old 450D at 24mm F/2.8

Stack of 410 x 10 sec exposures at F/2.8 with iridium flare on the right, the trail from which is fragmented because the satellite was recorded on four different exposures.

Mid way through the shoot I stopped the 450D, took off the 24-70mm and attached the 18mm F/3.5 kit lens and began a new star trail/time lapse. This is facing W to NW with Elephant Rock to the right of centre, aloft are the constellations of Capricornus, Aquila and Ophiucuhus.

I was really happy with how tidy this one turned out, a combination of 313 x 13 sec exposures with majestic star trails, I was really delighted to have brought my old and trusty 450D back into service again, this camera still has a lot of life in it and yearns once again to shoot the sky so I have it out with me all the time now to keep my 600D company.

Fourth star trail of the night and this one was with the 600D at 10mm facing N and NW, I absolutely love this scene with these incredible ancient rocks with Lyra the celestial harp, Draco the dragon and Ursa Minor the little bear now entering the frame, these stars would have been visible above these rocks millions of years ago however due to precession the pole star would have been different and the constellations would have been altered too, that's how old this coastline is, old enough for the star patterns to have changed, can you imagine the history which went on below them here during that entire period of time, we could feel it here, the place is more than atmospheric at night, it actually feels very much alive.

My favourite star trail from the night, 188 x 25 sec exposures, check out the beautiful colours on the sea generated by a combination of moonlight and ocean optics. The sea was extremely calm this night and as the hours ticked past the tide went out leaving all these rocks and sand exposed, when you view the time lapse video you will see this movement of the sea in dramatic fashion. Shooting enough stills to make star trails and time lapse video takes hours of constant photography on location with cameras constantly taking exposures during that time, there are no short cuts and it can be hard work and physically and mentally testing on a cold night, although the night started out fine we found that standing on the cold sand tried to absorb every ounce of heat from our bodies so we had to jump on the spot and stand on rocks to keep ourselves warm, however the peace and solitude gained from doing this kind of photography more than makes up for the long hours exposed to the elements not to mention the great chat between John and myself which really kept our morale at a high level. The resulting time lapse video from this location turned out great, in fact, I'm very proud if it indeed. What a stunning starry night from such a beautiful location, I made it back home for 03.30 UT.

It wasn't long before the next photo shoot, the following night was also to be clear and I was pondering shooting more time lapse and star trails however where to shoot?, as if reading my mind I got a private message from friend and photographer Paul Martin from Omagh asking if I was up for a photo shoot in Co. Donegal?, I was more than up for it, Paul had Dunlewey church in mind, he had been there several times before and was eager to get in another star trail done, however for me this would be my first visit and the thought of doing photography at a brand new location filled me with awe and excitement. I re-charged all the batteries once again and prepared my gear then hit the road earlier than usual as we had quite a bit of driving to do, the forecast was warning of dense fog which had us a little concerned however we decided to take the chance anyway and hoped that the high ground of Donegal might keep us above any fog long enough to get a good trail done before it moved in for the night. I drove to Omagh, met Paul Martin, and together we drove NW just as the sun was setting, we stopped at a local filling station and topped up our energy with a nice latte - it had to be done - then got back on the road. The drive across the wild Donegal countryside during dusk was nothing short of spectacular with dark hills and mountains against the darkening sky with the first stars on view, it looked like some other part of the world.

We arrived at Dunlewey church located near the Poisoned Glen and entered the grounds, got our gear set up and adjusted our eyes to the developing darkness. This was a beautiful location and full of history and surrounded by a delightful landscape of mountains, valleys, trees and a nearby lake. The moon was 4 days after full and still below the horizon so we had a dark window to enjoy before moonrise. With the exception of a couple of sodium street lights in the village the sky was exceptionally dark and the Milky Way looked incredible to the naked eye like a bright glowing cloud full of enhancements, knots and dark dust lanes, Paul and I did a 360 recce around the perimeter working out angles, the Milky Way was to the right of the church so we had to shoot it before the area of interested set behind the hills and before the moon rose. Here's one of the many 10mm F/2.8 images showing the church and Milky Way together, for the first time my lens picked up noticeable colours within the glowing band with tantalizing structure within southern Aquila, Scutum and Saggitarius, this was a long exposure at 64 sec's in duration however because of the wide angle lens trailing wasn't so bad at all. Check out the bright reflection and emission nebula M24 in Sagittarius known as 'The Sagittarius Star Cloud' and also Delphinus - also called 'Job's Coffin' - directly above the church tower, perhaps a spiritual coincidence. Paul had set up his 6D on top of his new Ioptron tracking mount and was taking long exposure images of the Milky Way, the end result was amazing with pin point stars and zero motion even after several minutes of exposure time, soon the darkness began to wane as the sky brightened in the NE so we moved into position on the grass to shoot our first star trail of the night.

We watched the moon rise above the hills illuminating a suspicious looking high altitude contrail which seemed to last for a very long time among the stars, the contrail looked more like the tail of great comet Lovejoy however for a moment we suspected it could have been associated with a satellite or fuel dump but it was probably just a contrail lit by the moon, we took images of it anyway for the record then sorted out our composition for the star trail. The moon rose further N than we had hoped for, ideally we wanted it at our backs to light the church from the side however tonight it was rising to the right just out of frame and would be illuminating the stone work from an oblique angle, however the light would be contrasty so we used it to our advantage. The wind was slack and patches of mist were forming and fogging up my lens with dew even before the first exposure had ended, so Paul gave me a couple of his hand warmers, these gems are great for battling dew, once squeezed and shaken they can generate heat for several hours so we prepared them and attached two warmers around the lens element with a strip of velcro (elastic bands would also work) and let the lens adjust and finally after a few test images we began our star trail. This was one of two trails I shot from this angle at 10mm, a combination of 177x 20 sec exposures with Polaris 'The Pole Star' located to the upper right of the church tower.

Later we relocated inside the church ruins and began a new series of star trails, this one was with the 24-70mm F/2.8 with the main church tower in the frame, this was looking high above us, I was zoomed in to 28mm for this one, the final result was made from 120 exposures, it was pretty cool seeing the stars through the old window.

It was getting late in the night so we decided we had time to shoot one more star trail before changing location. The night was now dead calm and cold however the sky was so beautiful with not a cloud in sight, it was quite an experience watching the stars from inside this church, stars were visible through all the windows and overhead for the old roof had long since gone. Paul and I really liked this scene, we set up our tripods side by side and began a portrait 10mm trail of the stars from inside, we where standing where the old altar would have been, talk about atmospheric, as our cameras faithfully took exposure after exposure we had plenty of time to absorb the ambience and wonder what it must have been like years ago with people kneeling and praying on pews and priest saying mass on the very sport on which we stood. The original designer and builder is said to have been buried beneath the stone floor here, it was impossible to say where however knowing this fact really added to the experience of being here. At one stage we climbed out through the window behind our cameras and jumped down onto the grass and watched the stars, the night was silent except for the distant sound of moving water which became more audible as the night went on, then in the distance was the sound of an animal making strange loud moaning and groaning noises, it was probably a restless cow however at this hour of the night our imaginations we stirred so we decided that Jurassic Park was nearby and each time the strange moan echoed through the night we said 'there's that Brontosaurus again' - the chat kept our spirits high and took our minds of the cold.

This is the final image, 100 x 15 sec exposures, the time lapse video of this scene turned out amazing with the stars moving past the tower and the moonlight casting shadows through the windows onto the floor and as the moon moved so did the play of light and shadow across the inside of the church which really gave a heightened sense of movement and depth, my only regret was that the time lapse was too short, it needed to be much longer to do the scene justice, perhaps I will re-shoot it again on another night.

We then drove down into the Valley and stopped to take a peak at Mt. Errigal before heading home however the view upon arrival captivated us so much that our drive home was delayed, we just had to get images in this amazing light, this was my first encounter with this mountain and I instantly fell in love with it. Banks of moonlit mist and fog where meandering across the dead calm lake and over the mountain itself, the scene looked stunning with the moon sitting over the landscape below the Pleiades with the constellations of Auriga and Gemini in the clear air to the NE, Castor can be seen above the mountain peak. Brilliant white banks of fog where forming in the valley behind us over the river and blowing in over the road on which we stood, then over our heads and across the lake and mountain, the stars were not on view for long so I immediately began shooting a time lapse of the scene while Paul walked further down the road to shoot from another angle.

For most of the time we were engulfed by cloud and couldn't see anything else, then after a while the fog would break, the moon would come out and a selection of stars would appear at random intervals, the few clearances which did appear were epic, check out the moonlit fog on the summit of Errigal here like a cap cloud.

My favourite scene with the peak of Errigal sticking up above the moonlit fog, what a way to end this photo shoot. Make sure to check out the time lapse of this scene on the video below. We spotted a low lunar fog bow behind us in the valley then we decided to call it a night, we had done well and had acquired a rich bounty of images which would keep us busy for sometime so we were more than happy with the way the night turned out, this was my second time shooting in Donegal and I have to admit that I love the place, there's nothing better than shooting from a fresh location and beginning a new adventure. The drive home was deadly due to dense fog, Paul had his work cut out for him all the way from Donegal to Omagh and I didn't relish my own drive home after this, I knew it was going to be just as bad if not worse on the Omagh road. My own drive from Omagh to Maghera was an experience to say the least, I would rate it among my top five most dangerous drives because the fog was so dense and unrelenting, it never eased once for the entire drive home, the lights never seemed to penetrate through and for much of the time I couldn't see the edges of the road or the white lines, it was stressful driving through this at 04.00 in the morning when you are tired with the constant danger of driving into someone, it took every ounce of concentration to stay on the road and stay alert the entire time and when I finally arrived home at 05.00 I was mentally exhausted, what a drive that was, finally I was able to get my head on the pillow and drift off into a well earned sleep.

Time lapse video of the stars at Ballintoy church at moonrise, elephant rock and Ballintoy coastline, outside and inside Dunlewey church then the amazing fog at Mt. Errigal. Best watched at 1080p HD, thanks very much for viewing.


Martin McKenna

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