Giant's Causeway Triple Conjunction & Moonlit Cliff Star Trails - Jan & Feb 2017

I was feeling the no photography blues and I needed to do something about it fast. This Winter has been the worst in living memory from my own personal perspective due to a complete lack of weather and night sky action throughout the entire period. No significant storms, no ocean CAPE for moonlit convection, no unstable cold air masses for moonbows, poor aurora performances, the vast majority of aurora displays this entire season have been non events for us delivering nothing more than a glow on the horizon and a few isolated rays which hardly justified fuel costs or long cold nights at the coast. To add insult to injury there were very view clear nights at all so my number of trips outside became drastically reduced, even drone flying hours were not the norm due to an above average number of windy days. I felt I needed my fix, I simply wanted a night shoot as I needed to stay sharp with the camera and get some much needed peace and time to myself and maintain my relationship with nature, she was calling me out and I decided that I would oblige on the first opportunity presented to me.

January 31st 2017 looked to be my lucky night, at least clear skies were forecast behind a frontal system so that was strike one. A beautiful conjunction between Mars, Venus and the crescent Moon was strike two and a low risk of aurora from a solar wind stream and CIR combination was strike three. I packed two flasks, snacks, wrapped up in layers of clothes and during dusk I left Maghera and made my way to the coast delighted to see clear skies to the N and W. I arrived at 19.30 as twilight was fading into astronomical darkness.

Camera bag over shoulder, tripod in hand, a last drink of water from my canteen and I made my away across the legendary Giant's Causeway volcanic rocks with my head torch bright enough to illuminate my path but not too bright to hamper my dark adaption. It was a treacherous crossing here, it often can be when in certain conditions, I've spent many dodgy nights here and have learned to respect the place and know what it's capable off. The tide had been in earlier and it was evident that waves had been covering the rocks with spray which made them as slippery as black ice, it wouldn't be difficult to break an ankle or destroy a keen joint here. I got set up as everything around me turned to eerie darkness, the only sound being the deep rumbling from the disturbed sea. After several test exposures I got an image I was reasonably happy with, the Causeway pyramid with a triple conjunction with the Moon, Venus and Mars arranged in a celestial triangle, Mars can be seen shining through the veil of cloud. To the right the Milky Way can be seen within Cygnus complimented by a subtle showing of green air glow. The landscape was pitch black so I used my head torch to quickly illuminate the rocks to make the scene more interesting, I'm not a fan of light painting as I prefer to use ambient light or moonlight however there are occasions when it can be used, I decided that this was one of those times.

I was in the zone however nature was in charge. With full dark adaption I could see large waves breaking in rolls of white at close range, they crashed upon the rocks beside me with a thunderous boom which quickened the heart rate and instantly got my adrenaline pumping, exciting, but also extremely dangerous, I decided not to chance my arm and took one more exposure before backing off. The waves were alarmingly close and all it takes is a sporadic large rouge to come over the rocks and get me, I trusted my instincts and decided to find a new location. This is a long exposure, 35 seconds at ISO1600 at 10mm F/2.8, the sea was crashing and waxing and waning throughout those 25 seconds as the camera collected light, the resulting exposure shows a smooth sea which hides what it was really like to be here, however I do like this silky smooth effect which added to the scene.

I drove back up the narrow road which cuts through the Causeway and stopped at another favourite location of mine. I needed to climb to the top of a steep outcrop of rock which we call a stack. The side facing me was steep, full of rocks, wed mud and grass, I had to bend over and get my gloved hands on the ground and ascend the face on all fours this way for added security. Not just because it was wet and slippery but also because of the wind which was quite shocking and much stronger than the forecast suggested. I got to the summit while trying to catch my breath, climbing this at a moderate pace was one heck of a work out, my thighs burned and chest panted as the wind whipped my face. I collected myself and got set-up, the effort had been worth it. From this high vantage point the conjunction looked stunning of Venus and the Moon reflecting upon the sea with Causeway coastline on the left and the distant lights from Portrush adding a warm glow to the sky. I decided to shoot a time lapse in the hope that the wind wouldn't buffet my tripod, I set the exposure for 25 seconds on continuous shooting with cable release and began shooting, I stayed for 10 min's to make sure it was taking exposures, took in the view, then began my way back down the stack. I went back to the shelter of the van, had a brew and snacks and listened to music with the lights out.

After an hour and a half I began the ascent up the stack once more, this time I felt fitter, or else I knew what was ahead of me and hence the mind and body were prepared. As I reached the top and looked to the N, I saw an aurora!, my first aurora in a long time, and although it was nothing jaw dropping it looked rather beautiful in it's own way as it felt like it was meant just for me. The auroral band was a very vivid green with the naked eye and after a patient period of watching I observed several clusters of faint ghostly rays streaming upward among the stars, it was a joy to watch. Then I spotted a ship crossing the sea below me heading N, it was buoy laying vessel Granuaile which I had filmed earlier in the day, only this time it was in pitch black and lit up like a Christmas tree with orange and yellow lights as it silently crossed the glowing sea with green aurora and beams above it, the scene was stunning and tranquil. To my left the triple conjunction was setting over the ocean horizon, what a sight the entire combination was. I took images however the camera didn't come close to capturing the visual experience so I will decline from posting them. When I made it back to the van the cloud had increased along with increasing fog so I called it a night at 23.00 and began the drive home feeling very content with my first night shoot of the season.

On the morning of February 6th I was fast asleep in bed oblivious to a sunrise spectacle taking place. However much to my delight Roisin was awake and spotted a sunning skyscape unfolding. She woke me up and said there was an amazing sunrise, I had to be sure if it was worth getting out of a warm bed for and I asked her, ''is it worth it?'', and she said ''yes''. That was good enough for me and I didn't doubt her instincts for a second, Roisin knows me well enough to know what I like and my standards so I immediately got up, went to the window and saw this. I opened the skylight window and began taking images with the 24-70mm F/2.8 lens. This was the view from Cookstown facing directly east while the birds sang outside, the entire under deck of cloud was lit into stunning orange and red colour with high contrast complex structure, I'm glad Roisin woke me when she did for a few min's later the sun had rose further and the colours had faded so this was indeed a lucky record.

I was now in the flow and it wasn't long before another night shoot was planned. This time during the late evening of february 7th when Dungannon photographer John Fagan and I decided to meet for a moonlit shoot, my favourite kind. The moon was three days from full and high in the SW adding the perfect natural light for a nightscape, we decided to take full advantage of its light and spent a night on the cliff tops of the Giant's Causeway shooting star trails and time lapse. We had never tried this section before as most of our shooting here had taken place far below where the first images of this report where taken. Now we would be trying new territory which made the night feel even more adventurous. We walked along the path for 30 min's before finding the location we wanted however we kept getting distracted along the way as there were so many stunning views to shoot during the course of our trek. We stayed here for an hour, I shot a star trail and time lapse, the bright moonlight was jaw dropping turning the landscape into eerie daylight tones, the white moonlit waves below were jaw dropping, this was a perfect night for what we wanted, there wasn't a cloud in sight.

Further along the cliff, single 25 second exposure with aperture stopped down one click. Venus and Mars can be seen on the left with the Square of Pegasus above, left of this is Pisces. A line through here and crossing the planets marks the plane of the solar system projected onto the celestial sphere called the ecliptic, it is here where the moon, planets, zodiacal light, short period comets and asteroids can be found in the sky. The ecliptic passes through twelve of these constellations during the course of a year hence the term 'Zodiacal constellations' or '12 signs of the Zodiac' often used in astrology, although Venus being near Pisces and at a favourable eastern elongation from the sun will not affect your daily life as astrologers would like you to believe. I should make it clear here for those that don't know that the sun, moon and planets actually move through 13 constellations of the zodiac and not 12, astrologers don't want to mention Ophiuchus the serpent holder, perhaps it doesn't sound so good in the papers.

Our final location of the walk, facing W along the moonlit cliffs and ocean towards Orion and Sirius the dog star. There is a lot of glare from the sky as the moon was located above the top of the frame so I was shooting directly into moonlight here.

This was the climax of the night and I honestly admit that this image is single handedly the most dangerous night exposure I have ever taken in my life. I've been shooting near cliff edges at night in the past which have been a hairy experience which still give me nightmares when I think of them however this one gets gold. You can't appreciate how dangerous it was here from looking at the image. I had to get the tripod mounted on the edge of the cliff, however the edge of the grass does not indicate that there is a vertical cliff face, John and I had studied it from another angle and could see that the cliff curved inwards as it dropped, so this grass area was an actually an overhang of rock with rough grass at the edge, where the cliff actually ended and where clear air began was difficult to ascertain. I had to lay my body down with boots near the edge and feel my way slowly like a snake in the grass to test how solid it was. Once satisfied I set up the camera and began taking exposures.

I gently sat down on the grass for a while as the exposures ticked away, John was somewhere behind me on the other side shooting out west. This moment was complete peace, solitude and wonder. This was the fix I needed, up close and personal with nature illuminated by moonlight with the stars aloft, it was heaven. We spent another hour and a half here, admiring the view, feeling the connection with the land and sky and chatting among ourselves. There is a major difference between a landscape during the day and the same one at night. In daylight there is seldom a deep connection, most likely because there is too much external noise and distraction which stops the mind from relaxing.

At night it's a different story, the rhythm of the brian is different, the distractions and noise from earlier are gone and the mind is relaxed and absorbing the subtleties of its surroundings like a sponge. The natural world creates a meditative state, you can hear the rhythm of the sea, the sound of night birds and sense the ancient energy from the rocks, the experience is nothing short of complete emmersive happiness and peace. This was already a memorable night for John and I. Standing on this world famous site in bright moonlight felt like standing on a lunar landscape, the Causeway cliffs could well have been the Taurus Mountains (Montes Taurus). The resulting image of numerous single exposures created this star trail, getting a composition was extremely difficult for despite using a 10mm lens the field of view was not wide enough to take in the entire scene, so I had to sacrifice the stars to get the landscape in frame.

Single 25 second exposure of the same spot where I shot the star trail from, the tripod was actually mounted on the lip edge in front of me however I wasn't going to stand there for a selfie. John and I will visit this location again another night and next time we will venture further along the cliff to the far chimney stacks in the distance. A word of caution, never walk this path or go near the edge if the ground is wet, muddy or slippery in any fashion and never venture up here in strong winds, especially if the wind is coming from the land.

February 28th presented me with another photo opportunity. The evening conjunction would still be prominent and the oval was growing a little with the main solar wind speed impact expected on the following night which would be cloudy so with clear skies forecast for this night I decided to chance my arm and see what happened. I met photographers Nigel McFarland, John Fagan and Glen Miles, our first plan was to shoot the conjunction over Dunluce castle, however the tide was coming in fast stopping us from getting to our location, however I went down anyway because I wanted to get this angle during twilight. I stayed away from the dangerous area which was now getting cut off by the sea and instead stayed near the rocks on the main shore. The view and light was amazing, twilight blue reflecting on the sea and rocks with Venus and Mars above the castle ruins, Venus looked like a celestial diamond. The moon was hidden by the castle itself however I wasn't too annoyed as I wanted this specific angle. To my right waves where crashing and rumbling as the tide quickly powered in making the experience quite intimidating. This became my favourite image from the night, imagine a great comet brighter than Venus with sweeping dust tail to the right of the castle, what a scene that would be, some day perhaps.

I spent a solo hour or so down here while the guys shot the triple conjunction from the rocks above, I could see their glowing LCD screens in the darkness. This is Dunluce and a large stack filling the wide angle frame. You can imagine the history that went on inside this castle, both towers on this side are said to be haunted, in fact, one eye witness claims to have seen the ghost of a lady walking along the very shore I was standing on now, perhaps it was Maeve Row who is reputed to haunt the NE tower. In the twilight I could discern the glow of the Zodiacal Light glowing across the ecliptic where it intersected the moon and planets, this light is caused by sunlight reflecting off dust partials along the plane of the solar system which originated from the tails of ancient comets, some of them long before any humans existed on Earth.

Venus above the ruins, as I sat back on the grass hidden from the wind by the tall cliff I felt a sense of peace and quiet contemplation. I observed a very faint aurora in the form of several short colourless rays which manifested above the horizon then blended into the base of the Zodiacal Light pyramid. By the time I ascended these steep slopes and the countless steps to the top I was exhausted. The guys had moved to the car park where many other photographers had arrived so we decided to move to a new location.

We relocated to Ballintoy harbour, I consumed a brew and had a great chat with the guys about the weather and photography while putting the world rite. At midnight the sky cleared once more so we decided to shoot Ballintoy church. The church looked proud on the high ground surrounded by the stars with the Milky Way glowing accompanied by a weak aurora on the horizon. I shot at ISO1600, F/2.8, continuous 25 second exposures with the intention of making a star trail later.

All exposures stacked for a final trail using startrails.de free software, I was very happy with the way this turned out and for once cloud and dew didn't destroy the end result, perhaps and tables were turning and nature is going to be kinder to us on the months ahead.

DSLR time lapse of the triple conjunction between Venus, Mars and crescent Moon from on top of the stacks at the Giant's Causeway. 1.5 hours of exposures combined in rough wind conditions.

Night lapse of the Causeway moonlit cliff top scenes using the same frames used during the making of the star trails. I use Adobe Lightroom 3 to render these time lapses at 1080p and 28 frames/sec. Thanks very much for reading, this is my first image report of 2017 and with luck as the year goes on I will have a bounty of thunderstorms, beautiful cloudscapes, sunsets, NLCs and aerial phenomena so stay tuned for updates.


Martin McKenna

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