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Dunluce Castle Night Photography & Time Lapse - September 2015

Autumn is beckoning, the nights are getting longer, and darkness is arriving earlier each evening. For some this would be a topic of complaint with thoughts of cold weather and a long Winter ahead however if you an astronomer or elemental photographer then I am certain that like myself you will be relishing the dark and eagerly scanning the skies in the hope of glimpsing Orion on the rise with anticipation of big aurora displays, meteor showers and a host of night sky wonders. After such a quiet cloudy Summer I was eagerly waiting to get out for some proper night landscape photography and as luck would have it September produced a number of clear nights both during the dark side of the month and on moonlit nights so I was feeling pumped up for some long hours at the camera under starlight. It wasn't as if anything major was happening, it was just the desire to get out in the elements and bask under the stars and continue training with the camera so I could get my nature fix and stay sharp for the next big event. As it happens I have also been taking a big interest in time lapse photography and fully intended to emerge myself into this amazing world and see what my camera can do so this would be my main focus and motivation for two weeks of photography. I have done time lapse before however usually this was in the form of daytime weather footage sped up or actual still image time lapse with the Go Pro, however I wanted to take things to the next level and acquire time lapse images of the night sky so this became my main goal, I just needed stars and a cool foreground, immediately my thoughts turned to the north coast and for some reason I felt drawn to my old favourite Dunluce Castle.

With good fortune Dungannon photographer John Fagan also had been planning a number of night time photo shoots to the coast so we got chatting about the potential and decided we would meet up and shoot the sky together, John also has an interest in getting night time lapse material too so it seemed our paths were destined to meet so we decided we would shoot time lapse on September 16th. The forecast was very iffy for this night with just clear patches forecast however John and I were so eager to get shooting that we ignored this negative and decided to just shoot anyway and hope for the best. I had accidentally broke my large flask the week before and hadn't replaced it yet so I would be going without the luxury of tea or any hot beverage for that matter so I ate all I could at home for energy then filled my canteen with fresh water and hit the road north. There was a slight chance of aurora this night which provided extra motivation for the drive however before I left the oval was dead with a KP of 1 so it looked like that was out of the question, however you never know what might happen on the hours ahead so one has to remain optimistic. I arrived at Dunluce just as twilight was merging into astronomical darkness and the sky was 100% clear, in fact, it was stunning with brilliant transparency and no moonlight, excited by the prospect I didn't waste any time and simply grabbed all my gear and began the hike down the stone steps below the castle then made my way though the barrier and across the steep grassy slope below the cliff, this was a personal favourite angle of mine, Roisin and I had used it for comet Pan-STARRS a number of years ago and since then I fad fallen in love with the view of those two castle towers against a backdrop of stars.

I had set up two cameras, to my left was my Canon 600D tripod mounted with 50mm F/1.8 lens composed so the two castle towers filled the frame then in front of me I had my old faithful Canon 450D set up with Samyang 10mm F/2.8 lens to take in the entire castle, landscape, sky and cliff so my plan was to shoot time lapse for as long as I could with both cameras then merge the footage together showing the scene shot at these two different focal lengths, also since the sky was so clear I planned on using the same frames to make several star trail images. So there I was kneeling in the grass watching this amazing castle under the stars, this was exactly what I needed, it was heaven, I was now in the midst of my much needed nature fix, I love it when this happens because the past and future evaporate from your thoughts, its just here and now living in the moment and feeling truly alive. This kind of photography is very therapeutic because the cameras do their thing and for once the photographer gets a rare chance to relax and simply take in the view and scan the heavens, I had blended into the darkness and became one with my environment and the only thing that could be heard was the click of my two camera shutters working hard, the 10mm was taking continuous 25 sec exposures and the 50mm was taking 16 sec. I had worked up a sweat from the cross country hike so I had a well earned gulp of water from my canteen and rustled through my jacket pockets to eat a few liquorice allsorts which I had bought in the shop earlier, they were tasty and lifted my sugar levels however the heartburn had to be dowsed by water at regular intervals, despite this I was glad of the energy.

Half an hour later a figure appeared on the steps, it said ''Martin?', I replied ''John?'' and I got a positive response, it was John Fagan who had just arrived and within min's he was set-up beside me and together we shot time lapse of the castle for the next few hours. I really enjoyed the company and the chat was great, we talked at great length about photography, thunderstorms, night sky, aspirations, future plans, hopes and dreams and it wasn't long before I realised that John is extremely passionate about nature and photography, I really admired this trait as well as his remarkable dedication so it felt perfectly natural to talk photography for hours and just as natural to stand in quiet contemplation when needed without any discomfort so the ambience was superb. Above is a star trail from the 50mm F/1.8 lens stopped down to F/2.8, 180 exposures showing the twin haunted towers, I was happy with the way this one turned out and even more happy with the time lapse segment with this same lens, passing car headlights from the road near the cliff lit the stone work however there was little I could do about that when stacking the images together, sometimes it helps the scene and in this case I feel confident it worked. A satellite trail can be seen passing behind Maeve Roe's NE tower, at periodic intervals we watched satellites passing behind the towers and through the old window apertures. I then set up my video camera and recorded 15 min's of real time audio of the ocean and camera clicks which I would later use for the time lapse. I began a second sequence aimed at the towers this time using the 24-70mm F/2.8 and left the camera alone to do its thing.

As we waited patiently in the grass we developed a keen dark adaption and it soon became apparent that there was glow across the northern horizon, at first low mist over the sea made us unsure until the clarity improved and when it did so I was sure there was aurora, the glow seemed to wax and wane in magnitude and I could perceive a subtle green hue, we both studied it for a long time then John checked one of his patrol images on the LCD screen and sure enough there was a red glow, half an hour later it was green with red above, there was no question this was aurora, the Bz was fluctuating only slightly between +1 and -1 however the oval was small, weak and green and very far away to the north of the UK, it was shocking from just how far away we could see it which shows what a dark sky and clear northern horizon can do. After midnight that hazy glow seemed to sport a little more life and using averted vision and simple breathing to oxygenate my eyes and brain I could have swore I saw diffuse rays near the limit of vision, trusting my instincts I set up the Go Pro and began a night lapse, we continued on shooting and chatting until after 01.00 UT when suddenly the aurora got our attention and experienced two surprise outbursts, the first was the best, multiple vertical rays of high definition shot upward from the glow and slowly meandered across the northern stars from L to R through Canes Venatici, northern Lynx and into the paws of The Great Bear, the beams grew taller and at one point reached 30 degrees high into Ursa Major. John and I stood on the grass bank talking to the sky giving plenty of encouragement, we were in awe of this completely unexpected show, this is one of the 25 sec 10mm frames from the time lapse.

Another image with the castle lit by passing car headlights late in the night, we were roaring with delight, it was a beautiful little show and the fact that three cameras were trained in that direction doing time lapse made the outburst all the more sweet for now we had it on our time lapse, this was much more than any of us had expected this night. Click on the above image to see a larger version.

Star trail with 109 x 25 sec 10mm images stacked complete with aurora and trail from a passing ship crossing the horizon, this scene alone really made the night for me and the aurora itself made it for both of us. Eventually the aurora sank lower in the sky, threw up several more diffuse tall beams behind the castle then settled back down to a glow then the glow itself vanished like an apparition. We hiked back up the steps then took in the sky from the car park and chatted about what a night it was, it was completely clear - better than forecast, we got star trails, time lapse and a surprise aurora which made the long drive home all the more easy, I made it back for 03.30 UT.

I met John once again for another shoot on September 19th at Beaghmore Stone Circles in Co. Tyrone where we shot more time lapse and star trail images and even met a group of other photographers from Derry/Londonderry, one of them even had the new Sony mirrorless camera, the Milky Way was amazing this night however it was a cold wait standing in the dew-soaked grass and by 02.00 our heat was zapped from our cores. We arranged another shoot at the coast for two nights later on September 21st just before the Autumn solstice with the intention of getting more time lapse imagery of Dunluce Castle, this time we wanted to trek down to the very bottom and shoot from a new angle, I have been there before in daytime but never at night so I was excited by the photo potential. I packed a small lunch then hit the coast and met John once again at the cark park then we began our hike down the treacherous slope of the castle. It was tough going because of the terrain, the wet grass and the fact that I was carrying three tripods, two cameras spread out over two kit bags, my neck and upper back muscles were killing me as I had just recently got them treated by a chiropractor, but I had to put up with it to get to our destination. We made our way slowly and with care, the slope was steep, wet, filled with hidden stumps and deep holes and slippery rocks with pools of sea water and irregular sharp-edged rocks, then we made it and I was glad to set all the heavy gear down on the rocks and catch my breath and let my aching muscles relax.

The view was more than worth it, we were set-up on ancient basalt rocks in close proximity to the sea which stirred in front of us with Dunluce castle looking dramatic, eerie and beautiful high above us on the edge of this massive cliff overlooking the sea, from here the atmosphere was magical, it was if the years had vanished and you were feeling the energy of the castle as it was in its prime - raw, remote, stunning, dominating and full of history and haunts. Four cameras were set up, John had his doing time lapse and I had my 600D with 10mm doing a wide angle lapse with 450D and 24-70mm zoomed in for a tight shot of the castle almost filling the frame, behind those I set up the Go Pro and soon all the cameras were busy and we extinguished all our lights then John and I blended into the darkness and watched the skies. From here we shot 25 sec exposures for over two hours, the sky from this angle was very dramatic with long clear periods filled with blazing stars and as the night advanced the high Milky Way began to cross the meridian and descend until it began to appear within our frames adding to the scene and the distant lights from Portrush and beyond lit the ocean like gold.

The highlight was when convective clouds appeared from the NW moving in with mid level towers growing against the stars, one of these towers approached us and even when quite some distance away we could see a curtain of precip falling from it over the sea, further away to the W a very dense precip curtain was getting lit by the lights sporting great structure, it looked to be falling in curving sweeps of rain and hail which looked very dramatic, you can see it in both images near image centre as it approached from R to L, the manner in which the lights lit the clouds into a mad fiery storm scene made the shoot for us, we wondered should we stop the cameras before the rain hit?, we decided to just let them run, soon a light shower with gusty wind hit us and all the cameras then we were back to dark skies and stars, we left the cameras alone and with time the breeze swept clean all the rain drops from our lenses, this shower would end up making the time lapse for us. When tiredness and cold hit we decided to call it a night, packed up all the gear and hiked back up the slope stopping several times to rest and set down the gear then finally we made it to the top car park. I can't wait to shoot from this location again however one needs to be careful here and I would suggest to anyone else venturing down there to have a friend with them for health and safety reasons and to be careful about the state of the sea. I made it home after 04.00 UT and I was buzzing the entire time, no aurora, no lightning, however just the magic from this angle alone was enough to satisfy me, the time lapse from this night can be viewed at the bottom of this page - a great night's shoot.

September 24th presented us with another night of potential, the moon was now waxing bright until late in the night with convective showers forecast over the ocean so there was a remote chance of a flash of lightning, furthermore NOAA predicted a glancing blow from a CME so there was a chance of auroras and moonbows together, if it didn't happen we would shoot time lapse regardless, things were looking good in the evening with moderate strength oval so there was low to medium aurora activity due to enhanced solar wind speed levels and a Sly component to the Bz. The problem was a large area of cloud moving in from the W over the Atlantic, behind it was clear skies and showers so we would have to wait until this cloud passed first. I met John at Dunluce and together we waited and waited and waited, the cloud was flat, featureless and extremely slow moving and we began to wonder if it ever would clear, we sat in my van listening to music while scanning the skies for what seemed like forever until after 01.00 UT we saw clear skies approach from the W and soon we had a completely clear sky with a distant row of moonlit convective clouds across the horizon, the landscape was fresh, clean and invigorating.

John and I set-up the gear again, this time at the top of the castle over the railings and began a new time lapse, I was shooting 10mm and 24mm on the back up camera. The aurora had long gone and there were no clouds tall enough for sparks however the light was wonderful, we ended up doing another two hour time lapse starting in bright moonlight then half way through the moon set plunging the castle and ocean into darkness, it was nice to watch this entire transition take place. Above is a star trail from the 10mm images however I have only stacked those taken when the sky was dark after moonset, a distant fireball burnt up low in the N above the horizon, you can see it on the image as a bright streak, there was a glowing green ion train clearly visible to the naked eye left in it's wake for several seconds.

Before 03.00 UT we watched Orion rise into the E sky above the upper rail so I put on the 50mm F/1.8 and composed this shot and ran to the top of the hill and guided by John I got positioned in the shot to provide a sense of scale. Cloud arrived soon after this ending our shoot so we called it a night then made it home around 04.00 UT ending a great run of photo shoots at the coast with John.

Time lapse from the first night at Dunluce captured at 10mm, 50mm and 24-70mm using two different cameras as well as my Go Pro showing the stars moving past the towers and the sudden aurora outburst late in the night, real time audio was used from the location to capture the atmosphere as realistically as possible.

Dunluce castle time lapse from two other nights shooting with three cameras, the first is from the top of the castle capturing the transition in light from bright to dark during moonset. The second lapse is shot from below the castle on a very atmospheric dark night with stars, Milky Way and convective showers with real location audio included. Both these videos are best watched at 1080p HD. Thanks very much for viewing.


Martin McKenna

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