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Impressive Winter Convective Cells At Benone Beach - Dec 27th 2017

I've had a great Christmas, I ate turkey galore, indulged in countless portions of Christmas pudding with warm custard, over indulged in chocolate and spent quite a few days in the warmth feeling cosey and content. However there is only so much sitting around one can do and it isn't long before the skies are calling and the hunger for a chase becomes to irresistible to ignore. In short I wanted to get shooting and furthermore I was craving fresh air, exercise and nature and it wasn't long before an opportunity arrived. A potent cold front crossed over Ireland and the following day a very cold and unstable air mass would advect across the N and W of the country sporting 200 CAPE in an environment supporting good vertical wind shear for organization. This cold air with -40C uppers would be overspreading a warm moisture laden sea surface, the net result would produce enough instability for scattered heavy showers with the risk of isolated thunderstorms over coastal areas, the presence of wind shear would aid with convective organization and perhaps increasing the chance of localized severe weather, this I decided was reason enough to spend a day out in nature, the goal would be to catch photogenic storm clouds and if this didn't happen then Roisin and I would get plenty of exercise and fresh air on the beaches, and perhaps I might just get a drone flight in too despite the forecast windy weather.

On the morning of the 27th Roisin and I were up early, warm clothes were selected, a flask was filled and we hit the road from Cookstown and arrived at the north coast for mid morning. The drive down had been pleasant under cold clear air with blue skies, a classic winter morning which felt invigorating to be out in. I wasn't expecting to see much to be honest, many of these cold core set ups produce little in the way of photogenic cells, most are either weak or hidden by low cloud or rain so the chances were low of seeing anything special, even though I was optimistic I was fully expecting to spend the entire day at the beach waiting and perhaps come home with one or two acceptable images at best, however what I wasn't expecting was to arrive and meet face to face some of the finest storm clouds I have seen all year.

Roisin and I drove onto Benone beach and or rewards were immediate, I couldn't believe our luck. We watched as a line of tall towers appeared over the ocean which began to rapidly grow and move towards us riding the on-shore Nly wind, within five minutes this shower went from a tall tower to a massive winter cb. I immediately got out from the car and began taking images, the air was cold and raw outside blowing from sea to beach, smarting the eyes and senses, it felt wonderful, the wind chill got me in the zone within seconds. If you read my last winter report you will have learned that my Samyang 10mm F/2.8 lens was destroyed after my camera fell onto the road while shooting a cell back in December, as good fortune would have it Santa Claus replaced my lens with a brand new Samyang 10mm F/2.8, the lens was straight out of the box and attached to the camera body, it was like seeing an old friend once again and other than a few test shots in doors that morning this lens had yet to be used in the field so today became first light, and what a fitting first light it was, the lens ended its life with a storm cell but now has been reincarnated with an even better cell, the timing couldn't have been better, this was a very good omen.

Check out the size of this monster cell, filling the 10mm frame despite the base still being miles away over the sea, it was drifting from L to R while advancing towards shore at the same time, it was already out performing some of the convection I had observed during mid Summer. A large anvil stretched across the sky like a canopy casting shadows on the beach while to its flank back-building updraughts were developing fast in true multicell fashion, the base was developing a well defined line of precipitation which I suspected would become the main photogenic feature of the cell, once it got closer and the sun broke out from cloud to our S I anticipated a great photo opportunity, Roisin was eager to get out walking on the beach so we both got ready and headed out into the elements to enjoy this scene.

It wasn't long before the flanking region arrived, and when it did so it was showed off big time, check out the great structure to the winter precip curtains and the contrast between storm clouds and clear polar sky to the NW, I asked Roisin to stand for a moment to get a sense of scale.

Roisin added a tremendous sense of scale which really helped to do this scene justice, just look at the size of this thing dominating the wide angle field all the time while the other half of the cell extended far beyond the FOV to the R.

Huge cascading curtains of hail, sleet and wet snow were blowing across the sea forming these majestic structures which greatly stirred the sea and sent sand particles blowing across the beach as the downdraught arrived on shore.

Panning to the NW brought fantastic contrasty light, the cell was barrelling in fast so I stood my ground to get as many images as I could before it hit, for all I knew this could be the highlight of the day so I made sure to make the most of it.

The icy wind whipped at my bare hands and it wasn't long before my fingers were red and cold from the exposure, I have to admit that I was a little shocked at just how cold it was at the coast this morning, and the fact that there was already pockets of snow laying on the beach was a testament to this. The left edge of the cell was so large I couldn't get it all in the frame without sacrificing some foreground.

Panning 45 degrees to the R and shooting again, what a dramatic sight, the only thing missing was a surfer on the sea, this was a beast of a cell, I was amazed there was no thunder as the cloud tops were most certainly high enough and cold enough. The cell arrived on the beach with a barrage of sideways hail stones bouncing and rolling across the sand followed by wet snow flakes accompanied by a striking drop in temperature, Roisin and I used the chance to retreat to the Sea Shed cafe and treat ourselves to two lattes then returned to the beach for another walk, the cell had passed through and had already made my day.

The clean sky offered superb visibility and in the distance winter multicell clusters where lining up to deliver hail, sleet and snow to the Co. Antrim coastline sporting incredibly low cloud bases and lit by the low winter sun into pristine white mountains of ice and air, Roisin added to the scene once more.

A few hours later and it was nearing the end of our chase day, we had sufficient walks at various locations along the coastline then decided to once again return to Benone beach since it brought us so much luck earlier. We parked on the sand being mindful of the incoming high tide then watched in awe as a line of eye catching convective cells formed on the ocean horizon and began moving in partially hidden in shadow, behind me the sun was obscured by a curtain of hail and cloud associated with an orphan anvil however I knew that the sun would appear in approximately ten minutes or so, and when it did it could possibly generate the best photo opportunity of the day. The convection was now very close, the sun was low, and the sky was already transformed into warm colours behind me, it was just a matter of waiting, I was out on the beach, camera at the ready. The curtain of cloud behind me parted letting the sun shine through turning the cell into a beautiful golden trophy with such vibrance it reflected vividly on the water generating beautiful light and dark reflections.

We couldn't have asked for a better end to the day then this, sunset convective cell over the beach reflecting on the sea with the rising moon in the sky, you can also see subtle mammatus under the anvil sheared downrange by the stronger winds aloft.

The light was getting low, I was hand holding shots at ISO200 however I had to up the ISO to 400 for this one, the beach walkers really added to the scene, I reckoned I only had minutes of this warm light left and I thought to myself, what about the drone?, it had been sitting inside the car all day and hadn't been used so this would be a good chance, after all I wanted to test it out as I was having a few gimbal issues on a previous day.

I had time to give the battery a quick blast with the car heater to prevent any cold temp issues then got in the air, I double checked the battery temperature and voltage which were acceptable, checked the area for persons, none where close to me, then I brought the drone up facing the cell. The wind was gusting 15 mph and was rather blustery however the VS read out was showing no drift so I was good to go. The light was low however the last moments of day had lit the upper fringe of the anvil into pink and red colours which contrasted dramatically with the deep blue of the shadowed base where a clear gust front feature was forming, I hovered at 63m altitude, let the drone settle, took several still images then several minutes of video then brought the drone down again just as the local wind field increased significantly in a squall blowing from the cells downdraught. What a fruitful chase this had been with beautiful photogenic winter cells complimented by a healthy day of fresh air and exercise, now I felt I had earned another round of Christmas pudding, and that's exactly what I had when I returned home!

Quick DSLR 10mm video clip of the first Benone cell followed by drone footage of the dusk cell, I wish I had taken more video this day however I seemed to be more focused on wide angle stills, perhaps on a subconscious level I wanted to put my new lens through it's paces and for that reason I'm glad I did. My only regret was not getting DSLR time lapse of the first cell, I was just about to do that, I was thinking the motion of the sea and those huge hail curtains would have made for an epic time lapse, however when I checked my camera bag my intervalometer was gone, I must have lost it during a previous photo shoot, I will order a new one soon as I intend on doing an abundance of storm time lapse during 2018. This is my last image report of 2017, I hope you enjoyed the chases and photo shoots this year, I would like to thank all my website followers for your support and wish you all a happy healthy New Year filled with stunning sky action, have a good one, keep looking up and never give up.


Martin McKenna

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