On December 16th/17th I spent the evening on Glenshane Pass watching light snow showers falling over the crest of the Sperrins where I had been waiting for hours in the hope of catching my first snow on the run up to Christmas and I can tell you I was smiling like an idiot while the wipers swept the windscreen as splat after splat from big wet snow flakes impacted the glass while being blown across the mountain at a 45 degree angle. The sky had darkened so I switched on my full headlights and watched as thousands of flakes fell at crazy angles like a swarm of drunken Bees dancing in silhouette across the beams. The snow was getting heavier so I put down the window and felt the freezing air enter the car while snow flakes stung my face and eyes and soaked the seats and clothes, however I was loving it, it was the countdown to Christmas and I was experiencing snow first-hand at the top of a mountain, I had been driving along Glenshane Pass for hours this day, stopping and waiting, moving position then waiting again until finally success arrived just as I was getting cold and tired and my fuel was running low.
The snow shower passed and the sky suddenly cleared leaving crisp clean air in it's wake, the sun had dropped out of sight into the SW below the Cairn and the inky blue dusk sky begged for attention so I complied with it and got out of the car and stepped onto a carpet of virgin snow. It didn't take long to find what I had been looking for, using averted vision I spotted a tiny silver ball against the dusk sky located NE of the sunset point and at an extremely favourable solar elongation - it was planet Venus - the brightest of all the planets and easily visible with the naked eye in a borderline daylight sky, with little effort I could see it with direct vision and with simple breathing techniques to increase the oxygen supply to my brain and hence eyes (an old observing trick) I could push my visual limitations a little further and observed that Venus was not a disk at all but rather a broad crescent phase. Before I lost all usable light I quickly removed the 18-55mm kit lens and attached the heavyweight Canon 100-400mm USM and with a cold-induced shaky hand I controlled my breathing then stopped entirely like a sniper to steady my hand then I got a respectable 400mm image of the planet.
That was the end of this day's hunt, I had experienced snow, planet Venus, and even convection while on the way up the mountain however just as I was getting in the car I glanced to the NW and saw a very distant and impressive anvil which looked so solid that I was taken back a great deal, how could something like that exist?, I knew there was low-end instability (CAPE) over the ocean to the W and N after dark however my check on the models that morning had been cursory at best so I had paid little attention to the convective potential - which would manifest itself soon in the from of a nice Winter lightning spectacle - however I was completely unaware of this at the time. A last look showed mammatus under the anvil and an educated guess placed the cell somewhere behind Donegal and no doubt over the ocean, nice to see however it was sure to weaken soon so I called it a day feeling content with what I had then began the trip home and soon I was feeling warm and cosey indoors enjoying a well deserved dinner.
I made a warm brew then relocated upstairs to check the latest on the internet, when I logged onto facebook I was shocked by numerous status updates commenting on the spectacular lightning going on and some of these posts were rather excitable with vernacular used to express emotion, however what got my interest were the awesome reports coming in from the NW describing a brilliant light show over Donegal Bay, I almost spilled the brew all over myself, where had this all come from?, I was only in the door 30 min's and this lightning display had kicked off the moment I had turned my back, I felt slightly irritated but also thrilled by the excitement the sky was generating so I gave the radar and models a check. An active trough was moving E on a Wly flow with 200-400 CAPE over the sea with convergence and the sferics charts were alive with red dots plotting all the recent cloud to ground lightning (c-g) bolts, there should have been a red plot over Maghera because the sudden surge of adrenaline which hit me was like a bolt of lightning in itself - it was photography time - but time was running out and I guessed that there was perhaps an hour left before the trough moved through and the CAPE was gone however to get to the coast was a 45 min drive at best, could I do it in time?, would it be a waste of petrol?, my legs wanted to run outside to the car however I felt like a magnetic pull was keeping me in the chair, that magnetic pull was hesitancy, I chatted with Tyler Collins and Owen Anderson who lived near the coast and we all got ourselves worked up about chasing however I talked myself out of it and decided it would be a waste.
I just couldn't settle myself and some inner instinct was urging me to get on the road immediately so I decided that I was going to have one look at the sky and if I didn't see anything interesting then I would stay home. I walked across the landing to the upstairs window, switched off all the lights and peered out the window into the night, then just as I was about to turn away - FLASH - a brilliant lightning bolt lit up the entire sky to the NW from a storm over the sea, I couldn't believe how bright and well defined it was all the way from Maghera and during that brief moment of brilliance I saw the huge tower illuminated from the inside like a blue-white strobe, that must have been a serious cell to be that tall from here!!, my adrenaline hit hard and I rushed to the room, changed into warm clothes in about 10 sec's, then ran downstairs and was out the door. I had sold several aurora prints and canvases over the previous days so I had enough finance for a shoot however I needed to get petrol first so I raced down Maghera street and stopped at the local filling station, I planned to be in and out in min's however there was a car in front of me blocking the pump then another parked behind me waiting on their turn so I was trapped between the two so I waited patiently. I'm not joking when I tell you I was sitting there for 15-20 min's unable to move and as it turned out the car in front of me had just been parked their by an arrogant driver who was taking their time shopping and by the looks of things they hadn't even purchased petrol, yet they were holding up the petrol pumps, I felt furious and knew that this idiot had cost me valuable time.
I eventually got my fuel then drove north feeling free on the darker open roads with the music up loud energizing the atmosphere even more, I was now in fine form and buzzing with excitement. While outside Garvagh two bright flashes of lightning lit up the NW horizon as if the Atlantic Ocean had been nuked!, a rush of panic set in as I kept driving through the darkness hoping I was going to make it in time to catch those on camera. I eventually made it to Coleraine then went NW through Castlerock heading for Downhill, while driving on this road and while cresting over a large hill I could see a beautiful moonlit sky with numerous gently winking stars through the windscreen, then when the car faced down the hill I had a fantastic view across the coast towards Donegal and it was just then that the most beautiful lightning bolt I had seen in months struck down straight ahead hitting the ocean and turning night to day. This was a cloud to ground bolt (c-g) - or rather cloud to sea - which filled the entire windscreen with sharp multiple-branching blue and white forks which made for such a stunning visual scene that I almost drove the car off the road and for a luxurious second I witnessed the entire storm updraught lit up like a Christmas tree with rock hard tower blazing white with dark knuckles along the edges with stars all around, it looked like something from the USA and I admit to being completely blown away by the moment, this was what I was after and this sight alone had already made the trip worth it even if I didn't get it on camera.
The engine revved as I pressed too hard on the accelerator in my mad dash to get capturing this cell on camera. I arrived at Downhill Beach, parked in the sand, then rapidly exited the car and got my camera mounted on the tripod, focused, and began taking images. Above is that storm which had almost caused me to crash moments earlier, this is 10mm ultra wide angle so this is a massive field of view, the moon was bright behind me and it lit the storm into an unreal gleaming white colour, the storm was moving across the ocean from L to R with hard cloud tops with the lights from Magilligan and Donegal in the distance for a great sense of scale. It looked pitch black under the cell behind the gust front - an area with a history of lightning - I crouched low in the sand and began taking exposure after exposure while my legs and hands shook with excitement and anticipation because the next bolt could hit at any moment and if it did it would be close enough to be dangerous. I took images in two ways, one was with a lower ISO with aperture stopped down a little in case there were more sparks and the other was at a higher ISO with aperture wide open to get the proper structure of the cell complete with stars, this is one of the latter kind.
I felt like I was in heaven, the sand, sea and storm were all bathed in alien moonlight while the tide gently crossed a large area of the beach passing over my boots and tripod legs, then it withdrew back towards the ocean with the rushing water generating a rather pleasurable tickling sensation around my feet. The storm had two strong towers building ahead of the main cell however there had been no more lightning, I wondered if I hadn't of been held up at the filling station in Maghera then I could have had those lightning bolts on camera - however I wasn't bothered by this because I had captured the storm itself in full moonlight which was more than rewarding for the drive north, I absolutely love this kind of photography, the thrill of shooting storms and convection over the ocean at night with stars and moonlight is a beautiful experience and I was simply happy to be here taking it all in at this magical location.
The storm made for a dramatic sight with low level cloud streaming out from the base and bridging the gap between ocean and land with cool moonlit colours on one side and warm colours from the distant lights of Portrush in the distance, that's the famous Mussenden Temple on the cliff to the right with moonlight reflecting off its dome-like top.
The tide was getting close to the car so I got in and reversed back up the beach about 10m then got back out for more shooting, up until this point I had the entire beach to myself however car headlights where now moving across the beach towards me then pulled in beside my car, it had to be someone I knew, it turned out to be Owen Anderson whom I had been chatting with on facebook earlier about the storm potential. Owen got his camera set up and just as he did another active cell arrived, this time over the west coast behind Donegal and in the form of a long cluster of cells or multicell. Here's Owen with camera watching the distant storm, moving L to R - I was taking exposures too with the 18mm lens then decided to set up my video camera on a tripod in the sand beside us and began rolling. Suddenly a distant in-cloud (i-c) flash of lightning erupted in the middle of the storm, it must have been at least 50 miles away, I didn't get it on camera this time however Owen did and ended up with a fabulous shot of the moonlit cell with lightning which made his night, I was delighted for him.
I remembered that I had been recording with the video camera so I went back and had a look at the footage and sure enough I had caught the same bolt too and surprisingly it showed up rather well on this standard video recorder which isn't even designed for night work, you can view the video clip here, however I managed to extract two stills from the footage to show on here. The flash was actually a quick double flash, here's the main one lighting up the skies once more over Donegal, you can see the dark form of my camera and tripod on the left.
This was the next frame with the second flash which nicely showed up the towers inside the multicell, I have to say I was overjoyed with how this night had turned out and it all happened on an impulse and by trusting my instincts, over the course of 12 hours I had experienced snow then captured moonlit thunderstorms then lightning on video so I couldn't have asked for more. Owen and I chatted away for a while on the beach about our passion for storms then the trough passed through and the storms ceased then were replaced by a wonderful clear starry sky. I drove home that night feeling extremely happy and content with Christmas music playing loudly on the radio and for once I made it back at the respectable time of 23.00.
December 19th/20th was another moonlit storm chase. An unstable NWly air flow boasting 600 CAPE and LIs of -2 with freezing air aloft overspreading warm sea surface temperatures behind a cold front was firing showers and isolated thunderstorms over N and NW coastal areas and I couldn't let the opportunity pass so I contacted Omagh storm chaser and photographer Paul Martin who was more than up for the adventure so we quickly made plans and arranged to meet at my house in Maghera. I got the camera charged, packed flasks and snacks, topped up the petrol then after sunset Paul arrived, we got into my car and headed to the north coast. Downhill Beach was close to get to and offered a good flat view across the ocean so we decided to hunt there for the night. We arrived at Downhill at 18.00 UT just as darkness fell with bright stars showing off against a dark velvet sky and by the look of the sky we could tell that it was going to be one of those fun and memorable photo shoots for the night was full of promise and wonder.
We were not just storm chasing but we were comet hunting too, C/2013 R1 Lovejoy was brightening nicely and was fast becoming an interesting comet. It was discovered by famous comet hunter Terry Lovejoy from Australia during a photographic patrol and it had since defied magnitude predictions by surging in brightness with a healthy and active nucleus. I had planned to catch this comet by the tail before it set over the NW horizon and from its predicted position it would vanish over the ocean haze within an hour, we needed to catch it soon and during this short hour of darkness before the waxing gibbous moon rose in the E. Clouds blew in from the NW so we waited in the car, and waited some more, if it didn't clear soon we would loose the comet for the night and that was something I didn't want to happen. I love comets, they have played a major and influential part of my life since 1997 and ever since then I have wanted to observe as many as I could, in fact, I had even hunted for new comets since May 2000 and had logged over 1300 hours in my quest using a variety of telescopes including a 16" Meade Dobsonian (a type of alt-azimuth mount designed by the legendary and late John Dobson) reflector. The crazy hours and nights I put into those hunts were treasured memories and through the act of comet hunting I got treated to many late night denizens - and not just comets - often surprise fireballs would appear and aurora displays which were not forecast and occasionally even lightning.
Comet hunting had taught me the sky in a way I shall never forget and has become a strong foundation for building upon my knowledge of the night sky, because of it I have learned not only the naked eye stars but also the appearance and location of hundreds of deep sky objects such emission and reflection nebulae, open and globular clusters and galaxies located far beyond what can be seen with the naked eye. I owe comet hunting and I comets considerable gratitude for everything they have taught me and because of that intimate connection with the sky I cannot let a single comet pass without catching it in the act, however I now also want to document them on camera. A broad swathe of clear sky appeared to the NW between two thick bands of cloud so we immediately got back on the beach to re-join our cameras which had been waiting on their tripods like faithful companions. I attached my 50mm F/1.8 lens then panned the camera towards that clear strip which looked to be in the rite area then took a short exposure, then I previewed the image on the screen and saw comet Lovejoy, I yelled to Paul to indicate I had it then he took an exposure and caught it too. I took a second exposure which is shown above showing Lovejoy with green coma at mag +5.9 as a borderline naked eye object complete with tail and perhaps 1.5 degrees of tail pointing to the N towards the Key Stone of Hercules where you can also see the globular star cluster Messier 13 or 'M13' for short - named after the comet hunter Charles Messier who is now more famous for his catalogue of deep sky objects than for the comets he discovered.
Comet Lovejoy slipped over the ocean horizon and the sky cleared in spectacular fashion and hours of photography ensued. We were instantly treated to lines of convection far out over the ocean moving L to R parallel to the coastline passing from the N of Ireland to the W of Scotland. The moon had rose and began to light up our storm clouds and the background lights from the shore turned the beach and posts into tones of red, orange and gold which contrasted magnificently with the cool blue tones of the moonlit starry sky. Here where three cells in a row at various stages of their life cycles with Ursa Major and Draco shinning proudly aloft while the row of posts made for nice foreground interest on the otherwise flat and vast beach to lead the eye into the frame.
The record number of deep low pressure systems which were currently affecting us had produced a non-stop barrage of unusually high tides which made for some interesting shooting. Normally you can drive a car onto the beach here and get out to do photography however the tide was so high that much of the beach was covered to a degree I had not seen before at night and the sand was saturated which made it impossible to drive on so we had to leave the car on the concrete entrance then move onto the beach on foot. The thing was that to get the above image composed like this we had to venture out further long the beach close to the sea and closer to the incoming tide, the tide would flow in like a 2" tall mini Tsunami covering much of the beach and flowing over our boots and tripod legs, normally we could put up with this however the flow of water was so keen that it was shaking the tripod during every exposure and once the tide retreated back the flow would suck away particles of sand which caused the tripods to sink further into the beach - the result was crooked stars.
To combat this we came up with a plan which involved waiting for the tide to retreat then we would run across the sand to our position, take an exposure, then run back once again before the tide returned. This was funny at the time and made us laugh which really added to the thrill of the shoot. Our timing had to be perfect and exposures of sufficient length to get the shot without any shake which took numerous attempts, however it paid off in the end. I really like this moonlit oceanscape with stars, storms, and Mussenden Temple with dramatic reflections on the water and sand. Check out that cell to the R of centre, that low topped anvil was extremely well rounded and if viewed from above it would have looked like a large pancake of wind-driven ice crystals.
After midnight we ventured across the beach and climbed the steep stone slope which lead to the railway tracks and tunnel which ran adjacent to the coast and through Downhill and Benone. We climbed over the wire fence at the top and when half way over I almost fell backwards down the steep slope thanks to my camera bag and gear which had affected my balance while standing on the upper wire, my gear really tried to bring me down and the fall would have been dangerous with possible injury had Paul not grabbed me so I could secure my balance once again, jumping and climbing fences is something I'm good at and I have been doing so since I was young but its a different story when you are carrying gear and a tripod which really throws off your balance and muscle memory - thanks Paul!. We landed on the railway tracks among the dark shadows of the surrounding cliff and tunnel then together we walked along the track which was a surreal experience at this hour of the night, it felt like a scene from 'Stand By Me'.
This was a very nice memory with the stars pulsating softly across the zenith and making for a great scene surrounding the dark mouth of the tunnel. We didn't feel in any danger at all and assumed any trains would have stopped operation at this hour or would at least be too few and far between to worry about so we continued our slow walk along the tracks. We spotted rapidly growing convection to our N and NW which had approached us from the other side of Donegal and which was now making a beeline for the coast on the NWly flow, we were shocked by how quickly these cells were developing so we stopped and set up the gear to shoot, you can see Paul with camera LCD screen glowing with the moonlit convection and anvils which were getting higher by the minute complete with the stars of Cygnus and Cepheus in the clear sector to the upper left.
Further along the train track and above the entrance looking down onto Downhill Beach (no pun intended) at 10mm wide angle. There was only one car in sight and that was mine, I couldn't imagine that there would be many others at this hour of the night wanting to photograph moonlit convection. The cell was now massive and still growing with its base dumping rain and sleet over the ocean close to Donegal and getting closer to the Antrim coastline with the warm lights beginning to reflect on its flanks.
We climbed over a fence and ran down onto the beach with puffs of sand getting displaced with each hurried foot step then ran out to a flat section of beach and continued to shoot the cell before its growing anvil filled too much of the wide angle frame. The icy wisps along the leading edge of the anvil began to cross the zenith and the sky darkened dramatically over the sea, it was so dark out there we couldn't see what was coming, we knew there was something heading our way but what it was we couldn't tell.
We were consumed by darkness with the entire anvil covering much of the visible sky with a hint of mammatus forming, this image was taken facing NE, I had turned 180 degrees to my R with my back against the cell and took this exposure of the anvil devouring every last segment of clear sky then suddenly the train passed across the tracks at a swift pace, you can see the light trail from it just as it entered the tunnel on the left where earlier we had been walking. Paul and I looked at each other nervously, that was scary, we didn't know there would be trains at this time and were shocked by how quickly it had arrived on the scene, it didn't announce its arrival with any noise and once it rounded the corner and came into view it was already in the process of entering the tunnel, we both knew then that we had been extremely lucky for had we been on those tracks the warning would have been little and we could have been in grave danger, I'm sure we would have spotted it, reacted swiftly and cleared the tracks in time however what if we had got stuck with a boot caught in a rut?, it didn't bare thinking about, we were glad we didn't go in that tunnel, Paul and I then burst out laughing which helped ease the tension - never walk on train tracks - ever. Cold air rushed across the beach as the downdraught from the cell associated with the gust front hit us then a flurry of rain then sleet lashed at us so we took shelter back in the car and got the heater on to warm up.
The long hours of photography and the constant concentration behind the camera and exposure were taking their tole on us and soon we found ourselves drained of energy, we needed an energy boost and something warm to eat so we drove inland and found a late night shop and takeaway that was open in Castlerock which was made just for us. The area was covered in frost and ice from the rain and sleet which had frozen under the colder temps inland and we suspected that the drive home later could be interesting. Paul had a chicken fillet burger and I had a large portion of chicken goujons which were absolutely delicious, this was followed by a warm brew and bar of chocolate which gave us the energy boost we needed then we were back in full photography mode.
Things seemed quiet on the convective front for the time being so we had to explore new territory and discussed places we could shoot at night in the local area then I remembered a cool waterfall I had seen during the daytime earlier in the week close to Downhill Beach in a forest area which might be cool with the moonlight, Paul liked the sound of that so we drove back in the direction we had come from then made a turn down a steep road into a dark creepy forest, the car tires were sliding on black ice along the downward gradient which was a little unnerving so I had to slow down then select a lower gear and let the engine control the car until we reached the bottom then rounded a bend on the road and parked deep inside the forest. As soon as we opened the doors we could hear the rushing and rumbling sound from the waterfall and as soon as I saw it I couldn't wait to get shooting in a mad panic in case it clouded over at any moment for the naked eye scene was epic!, the entire waterfall was flowing fast from all the recent rain and hail storms for days and nights on end and the whole waterfall and surrounding trees were illuminated entirely by intense moonlight, this image was at 10mm.
Paul and I crossed the road then navigated over the grass verge and made our way up closer to the waterfall. It was treacherous going with slippery grass and rocks with hidden dips and large holes which yawned open into a dangerous drop onto large rocks and flowing water below, if we tripped or slipped down those we were in serious bother so we moved carefully checking each foot step and surveying what was ahead of us with our head torches. After a lot of testing we both found our own compositions we were happy with, Paul was out of frame to the right shooting from the top of a large rocky overhang while I kneeled at the edge of the bank and parted the long grass to get an unobstructed view. I used my 50mm F/1.8 lens to get closer and to collect as much light as possible, this was at F/2.0, ISO1600 for 20 sec's, this exposure time was sufficient to expose the scene and capture the smooth effect of the flowing water, this was as close as I could get without falling in, at one point we contemplated sliding down the bank and getting into the water or at the edge to get a dramatic close capture however we decided that would be incredibly foolhardy so we made the most of where we where.
This was awesome!, it felt like time had stood still and that we were adventurers in some magical land far from civilization, we had no idea what time it was, it felt like the middle of the night yet we could have stayed here forever, the sight of that beautiful waterfall in moonlight was nothing short of breathtaking and we were loving every second of it. Everything was still and quiet, Paul and I were lost in our own worlds as we absorbed the wonderful energy while feeling a wonderful sense of connection with the universe, this experience alone made the night regardless of anything else, the only sound was the rumble and flow of the water, it was hypnotic, peaceful and dream-like. When I broke from my trance I glanced overhead, above the tall trees the waxing gibbous moon cast eerie light and shadows through the stirring branches and everywhere else there were stars shinning brightly.
Suddenly a brilliant blue flash of lightning lit up the sky, I shouted ''lightning'' over the sound of the waterfall and Paul immediately got excited, it was coming from the N from over the ocean, Paul was in the middle of an exposure so we decided to wait then another flash lit up the heavens, we looked at each wondering what to do, should we stay here since it took so much effort getting into position or go to the beach to see this storm?, we decided to hold our ground as those flashes were probably all that pulse storm would do. There was another, another and another - five brilliant blue flashes like powerful blue strobes overhead between the branches and among the stars, it was a riveting sight, a moonlit waterfall and now lightning, this was turning into a memorable night. We quickly climbed back up the bank and made our way swiftly along the road and into the car, we left our tripod legs extended to we could get them in action within sec's, then we went storm chasing again.
We drove back to Downhill beach then ran across the sand and low tide not caring for the water and got our camera's focused and began taking exposures. There was the culprit storm many miles distant over the sea, moving L to R and lit entirely by the moon with the bright stars of Draco, Ursa Major, Bootes and Canes Venatici on show above the cell. This was utter perfection, all we had to do was take exposures and catch lightning within the cell which would have resulted in fantastic images with this nice foreground with Mussenden Temple in the distance. The air was electrified with energy - not from the storm - but from us, we took exposures non stop while leaning forward in a stance with our eyes aligned with the camera and storm like soldiers on a special forces operation waiting on our orders to fire. We both went quiet with just the sound of sea water lapping against our boots, I'm pretty sure I was holding my breath as we waited with heightened anticipation for the lightning. We waited and waited and took exposure after exposure, the storm was getting more distant so we needed those sparks any time or our moment was lost, we tried to console ourselves and remain positive by saying that it could happen any time so we kept shooting, after all, it had been flashing away min's before this. It never happened, the storm had obviously died out and never produced a single spark, Paul and I were gutted, we couldn't believe it, after all the effort we had put in tonight and we end up missing the magic moment by min's.
We lost our composure and began venting our extreme frustration by yelling at the top of our voices towards the storm and cursing furiously like mad men, ''is that all you can do?'', ''call yourself a storm?'','' your 'e pathetic'' and a lot of other words which I won't quote on here. We looked behind us and there was a car at the entrance to the beach, we hadn't heard it arrive and it was strange to see one at this hour of the night then we realised that they had been watching us the entire time and heard our demented outburst at the sky, all they would have seen were two weirdoes on the beach with cameras shouting profanity at a cloud!, the car turned around and left, Paul and I looked at each other then burst into hysterical laughing.
Later we did a recce of the haunted Hazzlet House for photo opps and couldn't find much in the way of angles then the radar lured us back to the beach for the third time that night only to be suckered by a decaying shower so we called it a night and headed back. The drive home was not a relaxing one, I could see frost glittering in the moonlight on the untreated roads and periodically the car would hit patches of black ice causing the wheels to loose traction and slide so it took all my concentration to get us home without incident and when we arrived in Maghera during the early morning hours I was absolutely exhausted. Paul's car was covered in a layer of clear glaze ice and the ground was so slippery we had trouble walking on the footpath, Paul got his car heated up then began the careful drive back home to Omagh, he would be back home within an hour or so. Despite not catching that lightning at the end it had still been an amazing night of photography, we came back with many images of moonlit cells and waterfalls not to mention all the adventures and emotions experienced in between, it was a top class night and I slept peacefully once my head rested on the pillow.
During early December I was contacted through my website by director Reuben McNutt who works for Alleycats TV - a Derry/Londonderry based film and television production company with offices also in London - who were working on a new television program called 'The Longest Night'. Reuben explained that Alleycats wanted to make an exciting and innovative new documentary following people with unusual jobs that involved working during the night time hours, my website was discovered during the research and once they found out that I specialised in night time photography they were eager to have me onboard for the show. My mind was far from television work however, in fact, I had just finished a series of long night photo shoots under the stars and in snow and was in the process of going through images and resting with the intention of gradually easing down on the run up to Christmas, however when I was contacted by email, then phone calls, I was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust in a new direction.
Reuben kindly explained everything to me over the phone, the plan was that he and a cameraman would spend a good deal of the night filming me during one of my photo shoots, it wasn't just me, the company would be filming a selection of different people in N. Ireland during the course of their night duties then six or seven of the best would be selected for the final television program, the date of filming was December 21st/22nd - the Winter Solstice - or simply the longest night of the year which was the basis of the show's name. Normally I would have jumped at the chance to do something which involved my passion for photography however I didn't feel ready for it and besides I had already done two days and nights in a row for the BBC's 'The One Show' which was an exhausting experience (report) and quite frankly I just didn't want to end up sick with exposure and lack of sleep which was how I felt during The One Show filming - it was not their fault and it was an awesome experience which I'm glad I did - however I just wanted to relax while Christmas beckoned.
The next day Reuben rang again and convinced me to do it - he's a very positive and persuasive person and I reluctantly accepted. However towards the end of the call before we hung up he dropped in that it would be all night long and specifically from sunset to sunrise which would be approximately 16 hours of filming and when I heard that I got very cold feet (another pun not intended) and backed out, I had almost gotten away with it until Reuben once again talked me into it and once I had given my word there was no turning back and it was on. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly no stranger to all-night photo shoots, I have done this many times over the last 19 years of observing the sky under stars, clouds, rain, gales and snow and had only just done so recently again but it's very different when you are doing this yourself because you are driven entirely by passion and can choose to end the shoot at any time you wish however when you are under contract you are essentially hired by someone else so you cannot break that contract, so in essence Alleycats were my employers and this was my job which made things more intense with additional anxiety and pressure. Reuben reassured me that all would go perfectly well, he was so calm and confident about the filming that he immediately made me feel at ease and explained that there as no pressure, all I had to do was do what I would on my own and they would document it and also - Rebuen explained - that the show would be amazing publicity for me as a photographer, for my work and for my website and that if he were me he would not turn the opportunity down.
Reuben was absolutely correct, my mental attitude changed immediately, this was the universe providing me with an opportunity and when doors open like this it would be foolhardy to close them for who knows what could come of this show and what it might lead to in the future. Now I didn't see it as an annoyance to get out of the way but instead I saw it as an exciting challenge and I felt the excitement boil inside of me which stirred up all those feelings which lead up to past photo shoots, radio, newspaper and television interviews which I had enjoyed so much, I was now buzzing, the filming was two weeks away so I had time to recuperate and get focused on this exciting new project and meeting exciting new people.
Once the green light was given the wheels went into motion with astonishing speed and there was a real sense of purpose and goal seeking which was very tangible both in words and in energy. I would get phone calls at random times of the day and evening when I was out and about informing me of the latest developments, Reuben and the team were doing their part and now I had to do mine. Then the question asked was where would I want to be shooting and what would be happening in the sky? - I was thinking of Glenshane Pass since it was close to home however there would be noise pollution and lights from the busy road which could affect filming then I decided to think a little bigger and decided on the north coast since I have made countless trips there at night and it would be more exciting. I was asked if there was any chance of the aurora however based on the low solar activity it looked extremely unlikely in the near future so we ruled that out, then Reuben said that it didn't matter as long as I was doing what I would normally be doing anyway. I went into full 'chase mode' and looked ahead using the online weather models to see if there was anything of interest, my check was very disappointing indeed, models showed that on the 21st there would be an intense cold front over all of Ireland and it would be strongest over the north of the country with heavy rainfall all night long with extensive cloud cover and gales over the sea, this was not good at all, I informed Reuben and he said we would have no choice but to stick it out anyway and that the craic would be good and the night would go in fast - he was so optimistic, he won me over even though the thought of standing on an exposed location all night under cloud, wind and rain made me shudder, I had a feeling it was going to be a very long night indeed.
A week later I got three visitors to my home from the Alleycats team in the form of Reuben himself (above left), another member of the production whose name I can't recall and cameraman Gerard Stratton (above right) from Belfast who had is own film making company called Triple Vision productions, it would be Gerard who would accompany Reuben and I on our all night shoot. We all sat in the living room and my mother served us a pot of tea and a tray full of festive goodies including short bread, mince pies, cake and chocolate biscuits and I noticed I was eating more than anyone else and made a mental note to stop before I showed myself up! - perhaps I was subconsciously filling my body with energy for our up and coming big shoot - or more likely that I was just plain greedy. It was a nice atmosphere with the Christmas tree lit up while we chatted and got to know one another, it was good to put faces to the names and for everyone to get comfortable with each other which made for a better team. We had a long chat about sky phenomena and photography and the local area then they checked out the interior of the house and my room for film space then we got everything sorted.
I then said I had good news, during the week since my last check on the models things had changed dramatically for no longer had we to spend the night under cloud and rain for the latest update showed that cold front moving faster and clearing through during the daytime of December 21st then introducing exciting new phenomena for us to shoot. Behind the cold front an unstable post-frontal air mass would be introduced over the N and NW Atlantic during the evening and night hours with freezing air aloft over warm sea surface temps (SSTs) with 700-800 CAPE and LIs of -3 with an active trough moving through our area from W to E during the course of the night. What this meant in layman's terms was that there was a very good chance of ocean convection and thunderstorms and with the cold air there was an equally good chance of hail, sleet and even snow showers and squalls with a risk of rare thundersnow, furthermore there was good speed shear for storm organisation and the moon phase would be a bright waxing gibbous only two days from full so cells would be illuminated by the moon and hence easier to see and photograph, I also threw in about the moon height and the two window periods of the evening and pre-dawn when moonbows were also possible (they had never heard of those before) and because of the air mass we would also have clear skies between convection suitable for stars. They seemed delighted with the news and I was 'in the zone', I was now getting very excited about what lay ahead because this night was so potent that I would be there anyway regardless of the filming, this all-night shoot was not just a job - it had purpose - and I could now do my own style of photography during the course of the night which made me extremely happy.
As our target night drew closer our communications increased in frequency. Reuben informed me that I could not use my own car so they had to a hire a car out for me for insurance reasons, I didn't like this one bit at all and really wanted to use my own car because if this night was to work out and for me to be in top form I needed the freedom to do my own thing and use things that make me more comfortable, Reuben tried to convince me however this time it wasn't happening then a day later he rang me to say we could use my car as long as my insurance company was informed and updated with the plan - the call was made and everything was ready - I now had the use of my own car and everything felt like it was falling into place and I was ready. Filming began during the daylight hours of the 21st, Rueben and Gerard did some sunset filming in a blustery overcast sky with light patches indicating that the clearance was on its way later then once darkness fell the filming got serious, the guys explained that out of all the locations and people being filmed tonight across N. Ireland this one was technically the most difficult because it was at night and outside in the elements, they would not have the sensitivity of night vision cameras so they would have to rely on moonlight and their own artificial lighting to film outside which was a major challenge so there would be a lot of hard work and improvising to be done.
There was a storyboard to be followed and both Reuben and Gerard knew what shots they wanted to tell the story and that story began in my home. My home had suddenly transformed into a film studio, the front and back doors were open and the team were in a constant state of purpose bringing in equipment of all kinds and chatting among themselves until finally they were ready. Filming began with me at the computer in my room looking at the charts and explaining the set-up and my intentions for that night then they moved into the backgarden where Gerard set up a massive and highly impressive dolly system with bars and a heavy television camera mounted on top. They did some panning footage of the back of my house then Reuben would stand in the street with a large lamp and reflector to re-direct the light onto the wall of the house and directly at my bedroom window. I was in my room with Roisin waiting on directions, the window was open then they would shout up to me and I would follow their instructions. I had to turn the lights off, then when they yelled action I had to walk into the room, switch the light on then open my bedroom window and lean out and look at the sky as if studying the stars - which I was doing - I had to repeat this segment quite a few times then re-do it all again filmed with a zoom lens with my face at different angles to find the best light. It was hard to keep a straight face at times and when the lights were out Roisin and I were giggling together like school children then I would be back at the window again doing my 'performance' with a serious face while trying not to laugh. However it got less funny with time due to the constant repetition which showed how much of a perfectionist these guys were which I really respected and admired.
During one of these takes I had to wait outside the open window while they prepared the gear and I got a chance to take in Orion and M42 with blazing Jupiter high in the E within the twin stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini and it brought me back to the nights when I had first looked at these constellations and put them to memory, to think how much things had come on since then made me feel humbled and blessed, if only I had known back then that this would be the second time a film crew would be filming me at my home because of my interest in this subject - it's a surreal feeling I can tell you. Filming continued for a number of hours indoors of me sitting at the kitchen table with camera lenses arranged on view while I chatted about my gear and general photography and safety in the elements, they filmed me packing the lenses away into my camera bag and even recorded me putting on my second layer of trousers, jumpers and coat. While all of this was going on Roisin and my mother had to chat among themselves while making tea in the kitchen then Mum and Roisin were separately interviewed about what they thought of what I did and how they felt when I was out at night - I have to say they both did an excellent job for being put on the spot like that (there was no mention of them being in the show) - they spoke extremely well and made me proud and I hope these scenes make it into the final edit.
It was nearly time to leave, actually we should have left hours ago however filming these important scenes held us back and I was getting nervous and excited because I was missing action. I had time to check the radar and I was impressed to see a rich number of lightning strikes over the NW coast, I was delighted to see this because even though we were not on location yet it felt satisfying to see my personal forecast had been verified, I had been rite and at least my reputation had remained intact. During the rush to get things packed away Gerard slipped and fell down the stairs from the second floor to ground level however with great fortune he was not hurt and was more concerned about his lenses (like all good photographers do) which had fallen down onto the hard tiled floor and rolled under the table near the front door. Most of the lenses survived however a lens cap was missing so no harm was done. More filming commenced outside my house on the road of the estate where I lived, I had to start the car up and pretend to drive away into the night down the estate then drive back again and repeat the process several times, God knows what the neighbours were thinking.
I asked Roisin if she wanted to come with me, she had just got off for her Christmas holidays and I was certain she was very tired and I didn't expect for one moment that she wanted to spend an entire Winters night at the coast with no sleep, however she did want to go along for the experience, I asked the crew if this was OK and they had no problem with it, I can tell you that I felt absolutely delighted to have Roisin with me, this made me feel even better and more motivated than ever, now it was both Roisin and I who would experience this night together, I was blown away by her support, there are not many other women who would want to do that. I had been in communication with Paul Martin, he was also very excited by the storm prospects and had already left Omagh earlier and was now located at the north coast at Downhill Beach where we intended to start our adventure. I was once again overjoyed to know that Paul would be there too, we had been through a lot of sky action and photo shoots together since 2010 and every time we meet something cool always happened in the sky so having Paul there AND Roisin was simply awesome, this was going to be a fun night. We hit the road and drove north under clouds and rain with Roisin and I in the Fiat Punto in front while Gerard and Reuben followed in the car behind.
We arrived at our first location - Downhill Beach - and the place was exploding with atmosphere with a wild sky, wild ocean and wild beach. We spotted Paul's car, flashed the lights at him, then parked up nearby on the concrete slipway while Reuben and Gerard parked behind us. I ran over to Paul - opened the door - and had a quick chat with him about the latest, he was buzzing as much as I was and had a good look at the radar then informed me that the ocean was packed with cells moving W to E across the coastline and they looked to be doing so all night long and that something would be wrong if we didn't get a few flashes of lightning from them so our spirits were high, I left Paul to it and said I would chat with him in a while because now we had to get back to filming. The TV camera and sound gear were made ready and filming began from this location, I was asked to walk along Downhill beach on my own carrying the camera and tripod, turn around, then walk back towards the camera, there looked to be sufficient ambient light from the street lights on the road behind us to illuminate the sand which made for a cool scene with my figure against the lights, I had to repeat this scene several times and while doing so I saw a flash of lightning over the ocean, then a few seconds later another flashed from some unseen source away over the sea - it was happening, the lightning triggered my instincts and for a moment I forgot I had a job to do and almost ran away towards the sea to set-up the camera and shoot lightning, however I couldn't, we had to film this scene and some close up profile filming with talking clips about what was going on.
I saw Paul leave his car and venture across the beach closer to the ocean to shoot lightning and at that moment I felt really envious of him, when there is sky action happening I do NOT like to be tied down, I need to move and act quick and get shooting before the moment is lost, I feel such a rush that I can't think of anything else, but now I couldn't do that and I craved my freedom, all I wanted was to meet up with Paul and shoot lightning together and enjoy the moment. However I fully understood where Reuben and Gerard were coming from - I really did - this wasn't some kind of party - it was a serious job and these guys were under pressure to produce the goods, keep in mind that more than seven other crews were also out this same night filming and all of them wanted their projects to be the best AND wanted their own night to be selected for the final edit of the program and furthermore our night would be one of the most difficult of all because it was out doors in harsh elements with people and gear exposed to the unforgiving weather, they had to work extremely hard to get the footage they needed, I had to hand it to them, Reuben and Gerard were working non stop filming and sorting gear and talking angles etc, I loved their passion and dedication for their work.
This was the view looking across the beach to the W towards Magilligan and Donegal, a large squally shower was advancing straight towards us, it looked mean with long mottled curtains of precip falling on the beach reflecting the lights and making a bee line for the crew while distant lights were extinguished one by one as the cell neared, we covered everything up and took shelter in the cars just as sleet and wind-blown sand rushed passed us, it was rough out there and this kind of squally cold weather looked to be our companion for the rest of this long night. I didn't know how long we had been here, I didn't dare look at the time as it could make the night drag so I remained ignorant of such things and forgot all about it and simply blended in with the night and opened myself up to whatever nature wanted to produce for us. The squall cleared then the sleet stopped and we had a moment of improved visibility so we were once again back out in the elements.
Lightning erupted yet again over the ocean to the N and it was bright enough to light up the beach and illuminate Reuben and Gerard who were busy sorting out their gear and talking through their next scene on the storyboard. I saw an opportunity and I took it, while they were doing their thing I decided to do some shooting to take advantage of every moment I could. I squinted through the airborne sand and salt and studied Paul's car, there was no sign of anyone inside, so I scanned across the beach towards the sea and sure enough there was a dark form kneeling in the sand with an LCD screen which would glow then vanish into the darkness, sure enough that was Paul shooting out towards the N in the middle of the action so I quickly changed the 10mm to the 50mm F/1.8 and turned the camera towards Paul because he made for more dramatic foreground interest as he did his photographic hunt for storms, I got my exposure and ISO worked out then began taking patrol images non stop in the hope of getting a lucky flash of lightning with Paul in the frame.
It was my lucky night - a searing white flash lit up the clouds during my exposure, I quickly previewed the image and when I saw the result I said ''Yes!'' to myself - I had caught that bolt of lightning complete with Paul and his kit bag in the frame, you can actually see the c-g striking the ocean, the blue glow above the clouds near the top was the light from the same bolt reflecting on the clouds, it must have been 50 or 60 miles away at least. Also check out the dark wave to the R of the bolt, that wave was massive!!, we could see them visually cresting high above the horizon and blocking out the stars while looking rather frightening in appearance however they were not something we could pick up in our long exposures which tended to smooth movement out but this time it was back-lit to perfection by the lightning, this was fast becoming a very interesting night so I took more exposures.
FLASH! - a blazing c-g struck the ocean once more and this one was much brighter and for a moment the beach and ocean were illuminated as if nature had flicked on her full headlight beams then switched them off again just as fast, the lightning can be seen reflecting on the tide in front of Paul with the c-g itself burnt out in the exposure, mammatus can also be seen above the lightning, I love this shot for it captured a treasured moment in time that I shall never forget. There is nothing more exhilarating than experiencing lightning at night over the ocean from a beach, there is nothing to get in the way between you and the bolt, whether it be distant or close range its just you and it, there's a direct connection and communion with nature which is difficult to explain however you can feel it when you are there, it makes you feel alive, there really isn't anything else like it. Nature was doing me proud, she was verifying my personal forecast and providing me with a great photo opportunity from the moment we had arrived, everything was going to plan and I was on a natural high. I ran over to Paul and I could see from his face that he was enjoying himself too and had also succeeded in capturing the lightning on camera, I held my fist in the air and yelled ''Yesssss!'' once more then I made my way back up the beach for the next section of filming.
Filming continued well into the night and at times nature reminded us that she was in charge with random attacks of rain, sleet, and hail accompanied with a squall then the moment would pass and we would be back out under a dynamic world of stars and dark clouds rushing overhead powered by the jet stream. Gerard set up his camera on the beach filming my car to get footage of me looking out the driver's window with the head torch then the guys asked what I wanted to do next so I suggested that a change of location would be good, I wanted to see what the view was like from Dunluce Castle and never one to miss a moment of shooting Gerard suggested that he would come along with me to film from inside the car while Roisin and Reuben followed us in the other car, all seemed to be going well until I turned the ignition and nothing happened. I couldn't believe this was happening, a week earlier I had drove five miles on a frosty night into the Maghera countryside before dawn in the hope that I would catch a glimpse of comet C/2012 S1 ISON which was then a naked eye object that was visible in the morning twilight, this was a bright sungrazing comet that was expected to become a spectacular sungrazer post-perihelion with a huge tail and I had been following every detail of information I could about ISON ever since the news was announced in 2012, I had never in all my life been so excited about a comet as I was with this one and I tried my best against the stormy weather in the hope of seeing it before it dived into the solar glare, however that became the last of my worries when the engine suddenly died out that morning, the steering turned heavy and I couldn't turn the car, I was stuck in the middle of a dark country road in the middle of nowhere. I pushed the car off the road and tried to start it but all I got was the dash lights weakly illuminated and a strange sound as if the car had no energy, then it went dead and I was stuck on my own with no credit on my mobile phone (yea I know).
I'm an optimist by nature so instead of feeling sorry for myself I used the opportunity to hunt for ISON so I spent the last hour of darkness sweeping the eastern sky with my binoculars however I never saw that sneaky comet at all. I sat in the car wondering what to do, I was tempted to approach a house in the country and ask for help, maybe a farm, however I wasn't fond of disturbing people and my presence in their yard at this hour of the night could spell trouble for me so I decided that there was only one thing to do - walk back home. I locked up the car, grabbed my gear and began the five mile pre-dawn walk home carrying my kit bag, tripod and heavy telephoto lens over those big hills in the frost, however I was far from cold due to the exertion and by the half way point I was dripping in sweat and panting like a mad man with steam rising from my body. I arrived home at dawn then watched the sun rise in my sweat-drenched clothes, had a brew, then rang my Dad to whom I explained the story. Thankfully my Dad came to the rescue and although he was going to work he happened to be passing through my area anyway so he got out of bed early then drove to Maghera, picked me up, then we headed out to find the Punto and there it was - thank God - exactly where I had left it. We attached a rope then Dad towed me out the road and once I went downhill I went into second gear and pumped the clutch and the Punto came back to life!. However just to be sure I drove out to a local mechanic with my Dad following and we left the car there to be fixed then I picked it up several days later, the mechanic had replaced the starter and apart from that he said it seemed to be working fine however if there were any problems then come back immediately, then all was back to what it should be and the incident had been forgotten about.
I had explained this incident over the phone to Reuben on the run up to the shoot and I reassured him that everything was fixed, then now at the worst possible time when I needed the car most it let me down in front of the film crew and I was absolutely devastated. I tried to keep my composure and with mock confidence I tried to start the engine over and over again however it wasn't happening and it was the exact same symptoms I had experienced during the comet ISON morning. This night had been going so perfect up until this point and now everything was in jeopardy, how was I to 'chase' if I couldn't move?, how would it affect the filming of the show?. In an instant I didn't want to be here at all and wished I had been home, inside I cursed the world for this sudden problem and the situation was made worst when Gerard decided to document it on camera by sitting in the passenger seat with the TV camera rolling and asking me how I felt and what my plans were.
At this stage I think I did become a real actor because inside I was fuming, I was pist off at the situation and needed help yet I hadn't a clue what to do, I wasn't a mechanic, I only knew how to drive the thing, I felt flustered, angry and close to loosing the plot and letting my mask of sanity slip, I needed to get outside and scream at the sky and kick the sand in a fit of rage to get it out of my system but I couldn't do that in front of a TV camera (although I'm sure it would have made for amusing viewing) and somehow amidst the internal madness I managed to keep my resolve and remain professional and I answered Gerard's questions with such coolness and confidence that I even surprised myself, maybe I had been possessed by Tony Robbins because I couldn't understand were I was getting all this positive energy from, it seemed to flow from me when I opened my mouth. As I sat in the driver's seat I was so nonchalant about the predicament as if it was an every day occurrence and I explained that this was all part of the experience and that things like this happen for a reason and that I would get it sorted one way or the other, I wondered if Gerard believed me and I wondered if this moment would get used on the actual program - if it does - see if you can detect the panic in my voice.
I then remembered that Paul was still here so I went to his car and explained the situation and he came over to help, he checked under the bonnet then suggested that we push the car back up the incline as far as we could then let it go and try and start it that way. Paul and I pushed the Punto uphill as far as our strength would allow, then we let it roll downhill with Paul pushing behind then I started the engine in 2nd gear and IGNITION - the engine came to life and the dash lit up with renewed energy, I didn't dare turn it off so I kept it running and all seemed to be fine again so thanks very much to Paul for saving the night!. We continued with the original plan with Gerard in the passenger seat filming me driving with Roisin and Reuben in the other car, Paul decided he would stay at Downhill and watch for more lightning however we would keep in touch via text if anything kicked off. We drove through Castlerock and Coleraine late in the night with Gerard asking questions and I did my best to answer while the rain drummed off the car roof and the wipers whipped across the windscreen, doing an interview while driving was quite tricky which demanded all my concentration however Gerard did a fantastic job of filming and asking interesting questions which really engaged my brain and kept me focused, I was feeling rather philosophical with my answers and the drive seemed to fly in as we entered the Antrim coastal route and made our way along my favourte section of coastline into a world of darkness, mystery and excitement.
We arrived at our new destination and both cars came to rest in Dunluce castle car park. It was the early morning hours and we still had many hours to go however a break was needed and Gerard suggested we all take a rest for 20 min's then meet up again. Roisin and I used the chance to warm up, we got the flask out and Roisin made us a nice hot brew each while I got the warm air going in the car then the ignition was turned off and all went quiet. After five min's I heard a pattern of deep breathing, I looked and saw Roisin asleep and a glance in the rear view showed a dark car behind us so Rueben and Gerard were closing their eyes also. I was now exhausted, the effects of the non stop concentration, the filming, the photography and exposure to the elements were taking their tole and I desperately wanted some sleep, even if I could get 10 min's of solid sleep that would be enough to revive me and keep me operating through the remainder of the night, I closed my eyes but it wasn't happening and from what I could see I was the only one awake. I relaxed my head against the head rest of the seat, turned 90 degrees and watched out the window beyond the castle towards the sea. Clouds scudded past the moon and as the min's ticked by the clouds seemed to be opening up then suddenly the landscape around me was bathed in glorious bright moonlight and transformed into a place of utter beauty.
There was no point forcing sleep so I quietly got out from the car with the camera gear and climbed over the wall of the car park and dropped into the grass facing the castle, I was really impressed by the moonlit convection now crossing the sea so I put the 50mm back on and began taking exposures of the castle in the hope that I might catch a sudden c-g behind Dunluce however there was no joy yet, I wondered what Paul was doing now, had he seen this convection?, was he already back home after calling it a night? - suddenly I got a text message, it was from Paul, he was commenting on the convection and had recently seen lightning!, he was still at Downhill Beach watching the sky and taking images, this was 03.30 in the morning so I was highly impressed, hearing from Paul made me feel a lot better and I began to get focused again, if there was potential for more action then I needed to stay sharp, I had perhaps 5 min's before the crew were up again so I got back in the car and put my head down then I felt the warm peaceful glow of sleep envelope me and it was just then that the window was knocked, it was Reuben and Gerard and they were ready to go so I got back out into the chilly night air.
The three of us walked along the ancient wall at a crazy hour of the night while filming me, asking how the night was going and what my plans were, my brain was in zombie mode and I don't even know what I said in response, we crossed the wet muddy grass which slopped downward to the barrier beside the castle, filming commenced of me looking at the castle then I got the camera ready, the clouds over the ocean suddenly yawned open revealing crisp stars however more clouds looked to move in within a minute or two so I chanced my arm and took a 25 sec exposure of the sky with stars and amazingly during that exposure a brilliant Iridium Flare appeared above the castle within the stars of Cassiopeia, it was easily mag -5.0 and on par with planet Venus at its brightest which made it a shadow casting object, talk about being lucky catching that in my first exposure in the only clear gap in the sky. The above image shows the flare, stars and ocean lit by the moon, this catch perked my interest again and my motivation soared so I took another image just in case.
The second exposure revealed a wonderful moonlit night landscape then the clouds swallowed up the stars once more, however the Iridium Flare had stirred up much interest with the guys so they did more filming of me talking about the flare and how I caught it then took footage of the image on my LCD screen in pure reality-documentary fashion, Gerard was a man of great detail and never missed a genuine opportunity on location. The sky darkened and sleet blew hard through the air slapping us with big wet snow flakes while the wind picked up and within sec's the weather had turned truly horrible and we all felt bitterly cold in the wind chill and truly exposed on this cliff. We decided to move back up hill over the grass which was now soaking and I yelled over the wind to be careful as it was slippery then no sooner had the words left my mouth when Gerard slipped and fell a hard slap onto the mud. It looked like a bad fall too and although he seemed OK I could tell he was feeling pretty darn low and the look on his face said it all - 04.00 in the morning in the middle of the night on a cliff getting beaten by the cold wind and sleet when he should have been in his warm bed, he was raging because he was covered in mud and soaked rite through and must have felt awful.
We made our way back to Gerard's car and helped him lift his gear into the boot when I noticed that his hand was dripping blood, I don't know how that had happened but he was bleeding from his fingers and the blood was mixed with mud, however Gerard - like any good photographer - was more concerned about his camera. His expensive television camera had also impacted the grass and all the electronic buttons and switches were caked in wet mud and soaking, he immediately tried to clean the lens and casing however he said that the camera would have to be sent away and professionally cleaned at considerable expense and paid for out of his own pocket and furthermore there seemed to be damage to the eye cup too, I have to say I really felt for Gerard tonight, he was working so hard and had fallen twice during this shoot and here he was covered in mud and wet, cold and tired with bleeding fingers and a camera needing serious care, I could tell he was about to explode and needed to vent his anger and curse but like a true professional he hid his pain and kept his cool and cleaned up the camera as best he could, I had nothing but pure respect for him and his dedication to the job and care for his equipment.
Gerard said he needed a break so we took 10 min's to calm down and centre ourselves once again then when everybody was back on form and focused we decided that a change of location was needed so I suggested we try Ballintoy Harbour which is my all time favourite location on the north coast, this night had began well however at this stage everyone was on a thin line, I felt that we needed to get our buzz back again and enjoy ourselves and savour every last minute of this exceptional night out in the elements. Gerard and Rueben drove ahead of us to Ballintoy while Roisin and I sorted out some gear and had a quick refreshment then it was game on, I had a feeling Ballintoy Harbour would turn the tables for us, it had never let me down and I had high hopes it would deliver.
As Roisin and I drove along the coastal route in the pre-dawn hours of this dramatic Winter's night we really did feel like we were in a dream world, was this really happening?, was I actually driving the car?, what where we doing here at 05.30 in the morning?, it had been a busy night and tiredness clutched at us with vengeance as we battled against the desire to sleep however the thought that our long night would soon be over was what kept us going, if we could just hold on for another couple of hours then we can retire to bed with smiles on our faces. As we approached the entrance to Ballintoy Harbour I glanced to the NW and saw a brilliant white moonlit cell sticking up from the ocean like a white ice berg and as I watched that very Cb (Cumulonimbus) was lit up from inside by a bright white flash of lightning!!! - nature was back in action!, I pressed down harder on the accelerator and with a jolt of adrenaline induced by that lightning bolt I was as keenly focused as ever and the time of the night made no difference to my excitement, I suddenly felt awake and as energetic as I had during the previous evening when we had arrived at the beach. I wanted to get to the harbour as quickly as I could, there was an active cell in range and the sky was clear so I went straight into combat mode complete with tunnel vision.
The headlights caused the road to sparkle as a frost formed however the Punto was doing me proud with great traction and I felt safe and in total control, I took a left turn onto the road which led to the harbour and there was Reuben and Gerard in their car waiting at the entrance however I wasn't going to stick around as my convective prey was in sight and nothing was going to get in my way, I drove on past them in a rush then made our way carefully along the frost-covered twisted roads and finally we arrived at the harbour, drove to the far left end then parked up, at this point Roisin was near the point of exhaustion so she stayed in the car to sleep however I was out of the car like a rocket getting the camera mounted to the tripod, focused, composed the shot then took exposures. This was the view facing N across the wild Atlantic Ocean with the beautiful Roark's Cottage on show adjacent to the roaring sea which was frothing with large waves and geysers of sea and foam blasting against the rocks and spraying into the air and all lit by the magical moon with stars aloft and in the distance behind the cottage and located between N. Ireland and Scotland was that Cb which had flashed just min's earlier, it was behaving itself now however I had it on camera then noticed more lightning flashing to the NW/W as new bigger cells appeared on view and this time I had the perfect front row seat and was ready for them as they drifted across the ocean horizon like massive vessels of water droplets and ice crystals moving in perfect position from L to R across my lens, it was happening and every second counted.
I felt that close connection with nature again and I also felt as sharp as a razor due to all the previous nights shooting here so I don't think I could have been better trained than I was rite now, I almost felt like I could read what nature was going to do next. It was 07.00 in the morning and still night time and morning twilight was not far away and here I was in my element loving every second of the experience feeling the wonderful energy from the sky and ocean. The pre-dawn landscape was a place of indescribable beauty with the ocean and coastline lit entirely by the moon with a deep blue clean night sky with glittering stars with Aurgia and bright star Capella, Perseus and Taurus with my old friend planet Jupiter to the upper left. Fifty miles away over the ocean where two big thunderstorms with long anvils blown downrange by the bitter Wly winds and both cells looked like elongated mountains of snow in the dazzling moonlight, the ocean itself was a place of frightening beauty with a high tide covering the entire beach which churned menacingly at the rocks below where I stood, the place was alive with wild sounds - all of which came from nature - the background blow of the wind along with the constant loud rumbling of the sea and the crashing and roaring of giant waves. Gerard and Reuben arrived on the scene, maybe they had seen the lightning or perhaps they sensed the urgency in my driving, whatever the cause they were also in full shooting mode and were out of the car and organised within min's, I was sure that they too were amazed by the beauty that we were witnessing.
I was aware of Reuben and Gerard behind me with the television camera set-up, they were filming me while I was taking exposures of the storms and they could sense that I was in my element and at this moment in time I truly was in every sense of the word for nothing else existed, the tunnel vision finely focused my concentration and my hearing became subdued as I made this scene before me my only world and for a moment I had forgotten that the guys were behind me including the fact that a television camera was also watching my every move. On some instinct I sensed these cells were going to spark so I adjusted the settings based on the appearance of the sky and took a new set of patrol images in the hunt for lightning - then it happened - FLLASSHHH!!! - a big c-g lit up the inside of the main Cb which was directly in front of me and for 50 miles distant it made an impression on us all as Ballintoy Harbour was lit up like a light bulb and I had it on camera, the crew were filming me intently and I have to say that I had never felt more alive and happy as I did during this magical moment rite now.
This is a deep crop of the same image showing big waves far out to sea rolling high into the sky with tops sheared off by the low level wind and all back-lit vividly by that awesome flash of lightning. I looked behind me and saw the guys watching me then Reuben genuinely said ''you really do love this stuff don't you?'', I guess the look on my face must have said it all, I replied ''oh yea'' with a big smile then I was back taking more patrol images for more bolts, I was on a roll.
Since the previous lightning capture was slightly burnt out I dropped the ISO and stopped the lens down a little more then continued my patrol taking continuous 6 sec exposures at ISO800 with the 18mm lens without stopping for breath. I was in my world and as I took image after image I was talking out loud to me myself and talking to the storms saying...''come on come on come on'' - ''you can do it'' - ''give me another bolt'' - ''come on'' - ''now''...suddenly FLASH-FLASH as two bright c-g bolts hit the sea one after the other in a dramatic two shot burst and during that burst I could clearly see the two blazing bolts each with their own glitter paths reflecting on the churning sea, it was amazing to witness and I was on another high, Gerard took his head away from the eyepiece and informed me that he had seen that flash of lightning reflect off the skin on my face and they reckon they had it on film.
A crop of the double whammy c-g which lit up my face, you can see both bolts striking the ocean against a foreground of dark breakers once again back-lit by the surreal lightning, this moment was the climax of the night and feeling on top of the world and content with my last two catches I changed by settings and went back into night landscape mode to convey what it was like to be here in person.
Ballintoy Habour had done it, the place was insanely alive and exploding with natural energy and there was no one else here but us four taking it all in, the tables had turned and the harbour had made me a very proud and satisfied man, I was so happy and so thrilled by the sky that I could have easily stayed here another 12 hours. Here's that storm which made my night with anvil and ocean all bathed in moonlight with planet Jupiter and the Giant's Causeway in the distance, there where two more flashes of lightning behind that cliff out to the W from other storms.
I absolutely love this place, being here in close proximity to this 60 million year old coastline with raging sea and remarkable light and atmosphere at 07.30 was beyond words and after being out all night long the impact from this location was even more potent than words can describe. This was 10mm ultra wide angle with moonlit ocean, Capella, Jupiter with Castor and Pollux and the moon surrounded by a yellow-orange corona glowing through a patch of ice-crystal rich cirrus clouds which no doubt were once connected to a storm cell far out over the ocean. The foreground was lit by the warm colour of the harbour lights while above the sky took on a more blue tone as morning twilight appeared and rapidly advanced. The Cb which had brought me so much joy was spent and had dissipated with its anvil beginning to break away from the main body of its parent cell.
Morning twilight at 07.40 with stars, cottage and that spent anvil called an 'orphan anvil' or 'cirrus spissatus' which was now adrift across the sky like the ghostly apparition of the thunderstorm. The filming had waned down now and the crew left me to my own devices as they relaxed and took in the amazing view of the harbour during twilight.
Dawn, I think Reuben and Gerard where in awe just as much as I was. The blue glow of morning twilight lit the sea into a bizarre half-light somewhere between night and day. The wind direction had veered to a Nly and now all the convective beasties over the ocean where heading straight towards us for the shore. This black-blue squall looked menacing stirring up huge white waves against a back drop of blackness which seemed to race towards us.
At 08.20 it was almost upon us, I was holding the camera on the tripod for these taking very short exposures of 1/4 of a second then a roar accompanied by horizontal sleet and wet snow blew through the air so we took shelter in the cars as the squall hit. It was now daytime and the sun was in the process of rising unseen behind the clouds to the E which brought our all-night shoot to an end - we had did it!!!!!!. Roisin was awake and she too had been in awe of the pre-dawn view here and was now ready to go home, she had been a real trooper and I was so proud of her. Gerard began his drive home towards Belfast however Reuben had to get back to the studio in Derry/Londonderry which happened to be on our way home so he came back with us as we began the journey home from Ballintoy to Maghera.
The excitement of this epic all nighter had suddenly hit us like a bullet then complete exhaustion set in, I could tell because all our voices sounded different as if we had been drugged and our throats seemed dry and course with face muscles too sleepy to work properly and eyes like those of a zombie's. I don't think I have ever felt so tired as I did at this point however relaxing was not an option until I covered the 40 miles back home because the road was covered in frost and patches of ice which demanded all my attention and what little energy I had left, I could feel the wheels loose traction at times and I battled to keep my mind on the road because it wanted to drift off and leave my body behind. For a moment a scene from 'The Simpsons' entered my head when Homer was driving then feel asleep at the wheel with his dreams showing his car floating on fluffy white clouds in the sky with angels playing harps then suddenly he wakes up to see he was dragging a garden fence from the back of the car - that felt like the state I was in rite now and I could tell that Roisin and Reuben were getting a little concerned because they kept asking me if I was OK, however I was grand, I had made it this far and had done many a late night drive home and I wasn't going to give up now, I put the window down a little and breathed in the pure December air and gave the rest of the journey everything I had.
I was smiling on the inside because the night was a complete and utter success in every way, we had spent the entire night out on the coast in wild December weather conditions and were blown away by the moonlit waves and storm clouds not to mention that shadow-casting Iridium Flare and of course the show stopping lightning not to mention the fact that it was a great photo shoot for me on a personal level and to experience it all in the company of exceptional people made the night an unforgettable experience, and it certainly was an experience and a unique shoot that bonded us all together, there is no better feeling than doing what your'e passionate about and being filmed at the same time by a camera crew to be featured on television - that is such a rush. It was all over and done with then as we approached Garvagh it began to snow heavily which felt like nature wasn't letting up with its wonders for me and with Christmas only three days away the atmosphere couldn't have been more festive and atmospheric as it was now and I felt on top of the world. We arrived home by late morning and entered my warm house with glowing Christmas tree then enjoyed our first real brew of the day before falling asleep for a couple of hours, we were up again just as the sun had set and darkness fell to be greeted by the car covered in 6" of wonderful snow, we then drove to Cookstown and had a wonderful dinner to celebrate then drove back through sublime moonlit snow scenes then retired for the night with our Game of Thrones box set for company.
It snowed on Christmas Eve then I had what was quite possibly the best Christmas an adult could have then when January arrived I received a phone call from Reuben who informed me that they were very pleased with the footage they had viewed followed by the good news that our night was selected for the main program which was a brilliant success for all of us and a testament to all our hard work and dedication. The program would not be aired until November 3rd 2014 so I had a full year to wait to see it on television and furthermore due to my contract I could not share a single image from the night on my site and especially not on social media sites which meant that I could not post these images or present this report online for almost an entire year. This is the completed image report, it took me months getting the images prepared at my own pace and two weeks to write up, yet as I type these words I feel like it was only yesterday due to the vivid and cheerful memories I have from this all-night adventure. I have yet to see the program myself and will get to do so when you see it too and I'm quite certain the section with me in it may only be four or five min's long at best and exactly what clips will be used and what will be left in the editing room is also unknown to me, however whatever way it comes across I hope you enjoy it and furthermore I hope you enjoyed this detailed report because this documents everything that happened and what it felt like for me to make this program a success - this is my own personal perception of our 'longest night', thank you very much for reading.